Saturday, January 09, 2010

The culture of inconsequence

I'm not a video game player myself (because I suck, not out of some misplaced snobbery) but I am astonished at the time, effort, and concerted study people put into mastering games. The combination of fast reactions, physical dexterity, and mental acuity demanded by the best games is really quite impressive.

And it struck me, what would happen if the people who devote so much effort to games were to redirect themselves to something less virtual and more, well, consequential? What if everybody who has mastered Gears of War instead, say, mastered a musical instrument?

And games are not the only difficult, demanding, challenging yet ultimately pointless activity with which we fill our time. Why do people choose to learn Klingon when for the same effort they could learn Spanish? Why do they memorize the fictional history and participants of the Clone Wars rather than the Hundred Years' War?

This willingness to work hard to acquire fictional skills and knowledge seems to me to be a quite different phenomenon than our willingness to passively absorb celebrity culture and "reality" TV. People actually devote real effort and study to memorizing the history of Middle Earth. It's not easy to catalog the continuity of sentient species across the Star Trek franchise, or to reconcile the continuity conflicts between Star Wars media, even though in the end none of this matters in any way at all and could be -- indeed, often is -- swept away at the whim of the next movie's director.

My suspicion is that we prefer these fictional bodies of knowledge for two reasons. One, they are finite. A game can be won; the history of the Federation can be definitively cataloged; everything that can conceivably be known about Middle Earth is written down in a handful of books. These universes are, unlike the messy, blurry, shifty, vague, real world, comfortingly definite. And two, nothing that happens in them has any lasting effect: unlike the real world, which sorely lacks an Undo command or a Rewind button, at the end of a game, you can always hit the reset button.

It seems that we've become people who prefer to lead lives without consequences.

1 comment:

Brian Barker said...

Klingon is difficult, but Esperanto is worldwide. And easy, of course :)

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