Video Games Vs. Rewilding
The other day Willem and I began to clear out two very large entertainment centers that fill most of his room (don’t ask). We will plan to use the space as a library/study/internet station as we learn more about how to hunt and gather and for posting blogs. While cleaning it out Willem found an old USB universal game controller. Basically, it looks and works like a Playstation controller, but plugs into your computer. He said it used to belong to his brothers and asked if I wanted it. God help me I said, “Yes.”
As a child I used to play video games quite often. I did other things too; I wouldn’t describe myself as your classic video game nerd or anything. Just a nerd who played video games. People have always known me to binge on things. When I drink, I can’t have just one; I’ll drink until I pass out, piss on someone’s couch or convince someone to punch me in the face (this describes why I no longer drink at all!). Video games have felt no different. I used to binge on one game and play it for hours and hours and hours. The list I think goes like this: Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers 3, Super Mario World, Zelda: A Link to the Past, Civilization, Kings Quest (one through five), Space Quest (one through five), Final Fantasy 2, The Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, Duke Nukem 3D, Diablo, Final Fantasy 7. That list looks grossly incomplete, but enough for you, the reader, to get it. I didn’t play a shit load of games, just a small amount very often. At some point I decided it would work best if I just didn’t play video games at all, just as I most recently decided that drinking and smoking don’t work for me either.
A few years back when I began to formulate my understanding of the power of mythology and story, I often conversed on the Joseph Campbell Foundation forum. One day someone brought up the discussion of video games as one of the newer mediums for mythology. A man argued heavily against this, saying that video games felt like nothing but pure escapism; something such as entertainment that allows one to escape from their ordinary or unpleasant reality for a time.
That the word escapism even exists shows another symptom that our culture feels fucked up. The concept of escapism, the need to escape, requires the perception that reality feels undesirable or unpleasant. No wonder civilized people came up with the term escapism; according to the mythos (or “memeplex” if you want to sound all smart) of civilization the world lies dead and we as farmers must suffer in this life to go to heaven in the next. Sounds really fucking great, right? Who wouldn’t want to escape abuse this culture teaches us to believe we must experience?
This brings to mind the great, lengthy stories of indigenous peoples from around the world that we know take up to several weeks to tell. Do these stories also represent escapism or something else? Does a difference exist between listening to a 9-day long indigenous myth and say, watching a 24-hour marathon of X-files episodes? I would say that they have a similar function: to spread and maintain a particular cultures myths (or memes). Yet differ in their opposing value systems: indigenous stories connect people to physical reality, enriching the physical world around them, while civilizaton’s stories continue to take people further away from the physical reality.
Originally I disagreed with the notion that video games work as pure escapism, but the more I think about all of civilization’s mythology the more I realize how the majority of it involves escaping our perceived reality. Whether you call yourself a scientist working to find another planet to live on after we trash this one, a Christian who follows the ten commandments and goes to church every Sunday in hopes to someday escape to heaven, or a World of Warcraft addict who spends their lives in a man-made virtual world, you spend your life trying to escape the physical reality that indigenous peoples and non-humans seem to love so much. Entertainment works as one of the big players of escapism (aside from drugs, science, religion) and video games look most certainly like a newer medium for civilization’s escapist mythology.
Of course some civilized people attempt to destroy the myth that this world hates us and that we must suffer in it. Old animist myths sometimes grow above the invasive blackberry thicket of civilization’s religions, reminding us the world has a life and cares and wants us back. Interestingly enough, much of the animist mythology that came to me as a child, came in the form of video games; animism still remaining a large percentage of Japanese culture through Shintoism and Japanese culture producing a large amount of gaming. While the physical act of playing video games may take us out of the physical reality and most of the myths in the games have smaller fragments of civilizations escapist mythology, some actually can and do teach us or inspire us to connect with the land and defend it against civilization. Therefore, while video games come from civilization, which aims to escape or dominate what it perceives a cruel and wild world, not all of the video games we jump into feed those lies.
Don’t call me a fan of video games. In fact I think that any form of technology other than stone tools does not have sustainability. Despite my current philosophical distaste when I looked back on my formative years I found that video games had a much deeper impact on the foundations of the choices I make and what I believe now, than I ever realized.
At the age of five I received a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) on the celebration of the Christ’s birth. But on this day in my own life there I also witnessed the birth of a newer, cooler spiritual leader who came with many faces: Super Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong. When I reached my eleventh year, I received another gift: the life changing myth they call Final Fantasy 2.
Final Fantasy 2 (American Release)
FF2 begins with you (or your character) getting exiled for questioning your king’s motives for invading a neighboring community. You thereby lose your rank as the leader of the army and given the task of delivering a small package to a nearby village of summoners (those with the ability to summon earthly creatures). Upon arrival the package, rigged with a spell, explodes in flame and destroys the entire village. During the fires you only have the ability to help one survivor, a little girl who has just witnessed her whole family and village destroyed by the demons in the package, brought by you as ordered by the king. At this timet you realize the king has gone mad and must die. Rydia, the young “caller” joins your newly formed resistance group for the next big chunk of the game. Just when you think everything has worked out, your boat sinks and everyone on your team drowns including the little girl. You wake up alone, stranded on a distant island.
Rydia. That was the girls name and she may have been the first girl I loved and mourned for. For some reason, I sympathized with her so much. Maybe it’s because I was partly responsible for killing all her people. Maybe it’s because I related to her feeling of being alone in the world. Maybe it’s because she had cool green hair. Maybe it’s because she could summon the gods; was friends with them. I was 10 years old and when I lost her, I cried. It’s just a game. No it’s not. Yes it is. But what is a game? What is a story? What is a myth but a vehicle for understanding spiritual archetypes? Rydia was alive and real. She is the innocence of the green flowering earth, who summons the elements and converses with gods, and whose people, the friends of gods, were killed by holocaust that you unknowingly brought upon them. Although not by intention but by my relation to a diseased and jealous king, I still understood it my moral obligation to look after her in an attempt to undue, at the very least, a fraction of the injustice that was done to her. When she died I cried for two reasons. The first is for the loss of her and all she is and represents in us all; that last part of ourselves that still knows the secret language of the gods. The second reason I cried was because the story doesn’t end there. There is always more story to be uncovered, more life to be lived, the world does not die with her but weepily keeps going. There is still time to save what little life we have left in the world from the greedy evil empire of civilization. I still remember that on my eleventh birthday I saved the world from those who wished to destroy it.
This game took me places no one else could. It took me beyond the bounds of this world, and one Sunday morning when it was time to go to my Christian church, I lied and told my mother I was too tired. Why would I go to church when I could be at home slaying dragons, casting spells, falling in love and saving the world? My mother was open minded enough to let me stay home. As soon as I had the house to my self I jumped out of bed and began to play the game. I repeated this scam for the next 4 or 5 Sunday’s. Then my sisters caught on and they stopped going too. Then my mom, being a single mother with three kids, none of whom went to church, stopped going. My whole family stopped going to church, because I wanted to save the world, not sit in a stuffy pew with a bunch of stiffs. Many people find this story ironic because the Nintendo, which I was given in celebration of the birth of Jesus, eventually led to my entire families abandonment of the church. Perhaps they never really believed in the idea of church to begin with. As far as I know they still believe in something, just not in the ritual of church (of course my oldest sister rejoined the catholic church when she moved to Mexico, but you get the point).
Sid Meier’s Civilization
The first time I played Civilization was over at my friend Josh’s house. Josh had one of those families whose house was always wonderfully cluttered with all kinds of interesting toys and gizmos and contained many distinct aromas that I have never smelled anywhere else. His father is a wood worker and up from the basement there was always the sweet smell of cedar filling up the kitchen where the computer sat. During summertime, no matter the time of day or day of the week, the computer was surrounded by six or seven of the neighborhood kids all engaged in feeding our young, curious intellects. Of course, what we were feeding our intellects is in question. Civilization was merely one of the many games played and played again at that house. But it was the one I remembered the most, for it’s educational elements have stayed with me over the years. This “educational” game gave me a fundamental understanding of how civilization works; the way to win the game is by either being the first civilization to colonize Alpha Centari, the closest solar system (as though all civilizations would have done what ours has done given the resources), or by destroying every other culture on the planet. You pick: colonization or genocide (which are really just two ends of the same pitchfork). I have often wondered what the intentions of the game creators were. Either they were fully ignorant to what they wrote, or they succeeded in releasing maybe the most subversive game ever created. While nothing is ever said in the game that goes against Civilization; words like “progress” in place of “genocide,” etc. the lessons I learned about the inherently flawed structure we call Civilization were too many to count, and were the perfect primer for the cultural perspectives I later found reading Daniel Quinn, Derrick Jensen, Martin Prechtel, and others.
At 14 I had no job and I had no money. I went to a local store and picked this game up off the shelf and walked out the front door. The buzzers even went off. I kept walking. I expected to be buried in a pig pile of fat middle aged rent-a-cops at any second. But they never came. I took the long, scenic way home in case I was being followed, a strange form of thievery paranoia I had never felt before, even though I had been stealing things for quite some time. I couldn’t tell if it was paranoia, or that I really felt that I was being followed. That someone or something had come with me from the store. I cradled the box to my chest and hurried on, winding this way and that through the neighborhood streets. When I got home I closed the blinds and watched out the window for hours, unable to shake the feeling that I was being watched. I sat down and installed the game.
6 months later I was sitting in front of my computer when I opened my eyes. I had sacrificed much for this game; what little social life I had, beautiful sunny afternoons spent inside, time that could have been spent learning something valuable. The sad thing was, I was an addict (or escapist). There is that old saying saying, “You don’t smoke cigarettes, cigarettes smoke you.” Well Diablo was definitely smoking me. At the time I wasn’t thinking about the mythic proportions of devils and such. I was weak from atrophied muscles. Pale from lack of sunlight. And depressed from not having real, physical friends. Then something just happened to me; maybe I’d had enough or maybe an angel came to rescue me from the devil. I was in the middle of a battle in the 15th level of hell when my left hand lifted from the keyboard and down to the eject button on the cd-rom. The CD tray slid out in slow motion much like the stone monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I lifted the CD from its shrine and bent the dense plastic until it began to grown and scream and finally snap into two pieces, one in each hand. I felt something warm trickle down my arm. In breaking the CD my hand had been sliced open and now fresh blood flowed not only down my left arm, but onto the CD shard that gave me the wound. I understood what had just happened immediately, “If I can’t have you, no one can.” The last bite from a dying beast. It was the ritual scarification that comes with sacrifice. I squeezed my hand and ceremonially bled on the now inanimate, unusable, transformed blades in my hands. “You have no power over me,” I thought. Just like in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. It was my first experience fighting back against one of my masters; albeit a mythological master.
Final Fantasy 7
After Diablo I swore off video games. But then Final Fantasy 7 was released, and maybe it was Rydia who told me it was okay to play this one. Just this one. One of my favorite authors, Derrick Jensen has mentioned a movie coming out where anarchists poison the worlds water supply and the government must stop them. He says it would be more realistic if the movie was about corporations poisoning the world’s water (which they do everyday) and a group of anarchists who stop them. This of course, would threaten the nature of civilization and media like that doesn’t seem to make it past the drawing board. Yet somehow Final Fantasy 7 slipped through the cracks. The quest begins with Cloud (the character you play) who is hired as a mercenary to help a terrorist group blow up a reactor. This reactor is of course stealing the earths life force, Mako, to power industrial civilization. After the corporations kill innocent people (and blame it on the terrorists) your character becomes morally involved with the terrorist group. The rest of the game is full of great bits, like courting and saving indigenous people and rescuing an endangered species from an animal testing lab. But the greatest part is simply the plot itself; a group of misfits and outcasts fighting to take down civilization. This game was made before the term eco-terrorist was on the lips of most Americans. Almost a decade before the Green Scare. I believe when I finished the game I had logged over 100 hours spent working to take down this make-believe civilization. At 15 I saved the world all over again, from another civilization. But when the game was over, this world, the one I live in, was still waiting for someone to rise up and save it, and after haven taken down several Civilizations, at least psychologically, perhaps that has made me ready to do it for real.
At 19, I swore off video games (again) after this racial incident created by playing the game called Hitman. My brother had it on his computer and I only played it once for about 3 hours. During the first three levels, which is as far as I went, you kill Asian mobsters. Of course when I say “Asian” they’re not really Asian, they are iconic representations (read: stereotypes) of “Asian” facial features. In the game you have to sneak up behind them too kill them. The computer has artificial intelligence that makes them look over their shoulders for you. I spent 3 adrenhilated hours killing computer generated Asians, while my character (the one doing the killing) is a white male with a shaved head. The next day I was walking in down town Portland. The crosswalk turned red before I got there. As I approached the corner there was a man standing waiting. He happened to look over his shoulder at me in a way very similar to the computer generated characters in the game. He was Asian. I felt my hand reflexively reaching for a gun to kill him with. How fucked up is that? There is no such thing as “just a game.”
Six months ago I downloaded Final Fantasy 2 and Chrono Trigger and played them all the way through on my laptop. I felt like I should revisit them and see what I could learn, if anything. Some people may consider it a waste of time, but I was so deeply moved as a child by these games and I couldn’t remember why. Not too surprisingly, playing them as an adult was rather boring. The graphics were terribly pixelated, the audio tinny-sounding, and the dialogue trite. But I was able to see how the superficial layers that I fixate on as a cynical, psychologically damaged adult were of no concern to me as a child. What I saw, felt, and experienced was something deeper. While back then I did not have the ability to articulate what it was I felt, there was also no need to articulate it. I simply felt and understood.
So when Willem gave me the video game controller, I thought it may be my end. But for the last several days I have played the Secret of Mana, a game similar in plotline to Final Fantasy 7, and have been disinterested. I asked myself why I didn’t enjoy playing the games so much anymore and I realized something; I no longer feel the need to escape reality. I love this reality, this planet. Nothing artificial or man-made could rival the beauty and depth of the real world. I’m part of a real story that’s happening right here, right now in this place.
I’m no longer playing a hero; I am one.