This post is both a reaction to the excellent essay “Discipline and Pleasure” by Willie Osterweil on The New Inquiry, and a follow-up to my own “On defending myself from videogames.” It’ll take a more personal approach than the average essay, so much so I’m still not sure it entirely fits this website as opposed to my personal blog. But while the details of my circumstances may be unique, I also believe that enough similarities can be found to draw connections and analogies between my life and other people’s.
1 – Introduction
I was actually surprised, re-reading my “On Defending Myself From Videogames” a year and a half later, by how lucid I already was on this subject. I remember it as something much more jumbled and confused. I appreciate it a lot more now than I did back when I wrote it.
But inherent to my surprise is the admission of how much has changed since I wrote it. My thoughts may sound similar at times, I still tend to agree with most of the things I wrote back then, but the nuances that have changed make a world of difference.
This post will be more practical than “On defending myself”. It will look more earnestly at my life as I lived it, and my relationship with games as it fits into the bigger picture, at this point in time.
2 – The Fall
What brought on these changes, then? Well, life happened. I stopped writing on this blog, I closed my Patreon. I developed a psychosomatic headache that prevented me from working any longer. And working is precisely the right word, because I had once again taken an activity I liked, sucked out all the joy from it and turned it into a mindless, heartless slog. People dream of writing about games and being paid for it. I was lucky enough to have a handful of people donating money for my words out of the kindness of their own hearts, and I threw it all away. But I had to, I still wasn’t ready for this.
Anything I touched would have turned out that way. I’ve grown up with parents who only ever valued my grades at school. They made me hate every subject, but they also convinced me that school (and in the future, work) was the most important thing in the world and I had to be the best at it. I could go do whatever I wanted when I was done with it, but what I wanted, what I enjoyed, had no value. I may have liked music, or videogames but they were all childish ways of wasting time. On the other side, school subjects like literature and philosophy weren’t things to be liked, even if I did like them. Other children reinforced this: if you liked anything about school you were a nerd, and you were going to be made fun of. If you wanted to be cool, you were supposed to hate school.
My creativity, my personality, my inner life, nothing mattered. Work was all that mattered, work was the only valuable thing in life – work as something completely separate from who I was and what I thought. Work was simply about doing what is expected of you and if I did it right people would have paid attention to me and liked me. Therefore, it required the best part of me: all my energies, all my time, all my concentration. And there was no enjoyment to be found there at all. Enjoyment was perhaps to be found in what came after work, in other activities, but they were to be looked down upon, and always sacrificed if work required it. That’s what being a grown-up was all about.
So, as a kid, I spent my days studying, thoroughly but quickly, and then I just played videogames for all of my free time. I’ve always been a straight-A student, so I deserved it, right? And videogames meant I didn’t have to be looked after. Nobody ever questioned it.
Opening this blog was one of my first honest attempts at marrying an activity I enjoyed with something I could define as work. My plan was to start writing, refine my critical skills and my craft as I went on, perhaps build up a small audience, and then somehow make a living out of it. I’d open a Patreon, or I’d pitch articles (never found the courage in the end) or somebody would pick me up. If I was good enough I’d find a way of making money with my words and my thoughts. Or maybe not, but it was worth trying.
That sudden headache stopped me just when I was starting to do well. I was growing more and more confident in my work, and it was time to get out of my comfort zone and get noticed by more people. And then it got much worse than the headache.
In retrospect, it was the last small crisis that had to happen before I could get over some issues once and for all (or at least so far). If there is anything I’ve learned, it’s that healing is not a linear process. Just when you think you’re feeling better, your fears strike back, your anxieties push you around, stronger than before. Your guilt hisses sweet, poisoned thoughts directly into your brain, like the serpent of Eden. They feel they’re losing control, and they don’t want that. Hopefully after you’ve taken the hit you still have enough energies to react. If you keep fighting back the right way, eventually, you win, but it always takes much longer than it should, they always strike back one more time.
In this crisis, healing required learning to listen to myself. And after that, I needed to forgive myself for my mistakes, and others for theirs. I needed to be nicer to myself. And considering I felt guilty for pretty much everything and anything, there was a lot of work to be done. First of all, I needed to forgive myself for being sick and needing time to heal. For that waste of time that was healing. For not being productive at all times. For not being perfect. Every second I was less and less perfect, I was helplessly falling behind.
So I put aside all my concerns about gaming and focused on just healing and not feeling guilty.
3 – Meaninglessness
I mentioned being addicted to League of Legends before. What I got out of it was exactly what Osterweil describes: I wanted to feel good enough. I wanted it to fix my self-esteem. Maybe if I’d just win another game, climb to the next division, I’d feel like I was good at something, even if it was something so meaningless. In my head, I never gave more value to League than it deserved. In fact I’ve always known it wasn’t what I wanted. I value(d) some things and not others, and being good at League was never on the list; but I craved just one more win, hoping it’d make me feel better. I wanted to be good at League only insofar as I believed it’d have made me feel not worthless, and being good at League seemed more reachable than being a good writer or musician. In a twisted way, I was trying to work on my own wellbeing.
Of course, wins didn’t make me feel better in any meaningful way. Sometimes I barely even enjoyed them; I was rather relieved to have avoided a loss. Losses were usually small but sharp cuts on my already tattered self-esteem, and they added up. Yet another confirmation that I was a failure, even in this virtual world.
The meaninglessness of the setting was important, though. It’s what drew me in, it’s what allowed me to try, and keep trying, and keep trying, getting me stuck in this mechanism of false hope. I kept sacrificing all I had – all my time and energies – to the game, hoping it’d finally dispense the peace of mind I was looking for.
Meaningful things were terrifying. Overwhelmingly so. I wasn’t ready, I could never be ready. The stakes for failure were too high. Finding out I was bad at League would have been bearable, but finding out I couldn’t compete in the fields I valued the most? (And it was nothing but a competition, for me) Finding out I was stupid and empty after all? That seemed crushing. The end. The unspeakable.
And then, the best part: you can always discard something if it doesn’t have value, just in case you happen to succeed. I could have turned out to be the best League player in the world, and I would have still felt depressed, because, after all, League didn’t matter to me. I didn’t even practice, because I knew I didn’t care enough. It was self-sabotaging from the start, and that probably contributed to why my depression so easilyallowed me to move in that direction. There was never any hope there to begin with.
Opening this blog was revolutionary for me. It brought together things I valued (philosophy, art, writing) and things I enjoyed (videogames, duh.) My “Musts” and “Wants.” The things I enjoyed, and the things I had to do to be a worthwhile person deserving of attention, together. And I didn’t put it off to a mythical time when I would have felt ready. I just started writing. It still wasn’t quite what I actually wanted to do, at least not exclusively, but it was close enough, and the average level of games criticism writing (with significant and ever-growing exceptions) was still so low that the field felt accessible to me as a beginner, even if I wasn’t “good enough”. Maybe I wasn’t quite ready to handle the pressure – I still had to tear apart the mental structure dividing the world into strict “Musts” and “Wants.” Maybe I really did need to go through something like this after all.
4 – From Competition to Collaboration
This was all before my small crisis, when I still wrote here regularly. After that, I occasionally picked up League again. I’d start craving it with a visceral and inexplicable desire that took over me and wouldn’t let me go for as long as I denied it to myself. I’d always give in, eventually, convincing myself that maybe I could find a proper way of relating to it this time. That’s possible, in theory: there are perfectly sane people – people I admire, even – who play LoL. But that obscenely strong crave could only mean that I still wanted it to solve all my problems: a balanced, healthy relationship with it could never be possible.
Nevertheless, I never got addicted to it in a strong sense again: I was able to stop every time I felt it was turning into a problem of its own. Then, a little before I started writing for Haywire, I picked up Final Fantasy XIV. It was one of those moments when I craved League, but I saw that the competitive side of it was the most pressing issue, the one that’d always come up, sooner or later, so I pushed myself to satisfy the crave in a slightly different way.
What I wanted was a game that would take just as much time and just as many energies, but that would focus on collaboration over competition. I figured that would have been good for me in the long run, not to feed my competitiveness and my perfectionism. The only enemy would be a static AI, with no endless skill climb against other humans. I wouldn’t be able to define myself in relation to how good or bad I was compared to others. (There is a PvP side in FF XIV, but it’s almost insignificant and can be disregarded, although they’re starting to push it a bit more, lately)
There is some truth in this insight, and it’s increasingly important for me as a weapon in my struggle with the low-self-esteem part of depression. Instead of judging myself for my skill at pushing buttons, I would put myself in a context where being nice and working with others was more important than anything else. I was hoping there’d be enough skill required to make playing the game interesting at least, but MMOs and (almost) any game in which the enemy is the AI have a much lower skill-cap than any decent PvP game, where the skill cap is infinite. In a broad sense, my worth would have been defined not by my skill but by how much love I would give others.
There were two things I hadn’t quite considered. Although I was enjoying my time with the game uncomplicated of all the stakes and self-loathing involved in LoL, I soon started spending way too many hours on it. Maybe I’m just particularly susceptible to addictions, but honestly, I think it’d have happened with any decent game, at that point in my life: the more I played FF, the more I wanted to play it. If I kept myself to one or two hours a day, I’d be fine. I’d feel like playing a bit more, but I could easily stick to that schedule. The moment I took an afternoon off and just played for 4-5 hours, I was doomed. I’d want to do the same and more on the next day, and then the next.
When I take a warm bath, it makes me feel great, relaxed and energized. I don’t want to take another bath on the next day. On the other hand, FF didn’t feel like something I could turn to for a relaxing afternoon and then move on. It’d take a hold of me and wouldn’t let me go unless I struggled.
At that point either I’d have to forcefully keep myself away from it, constantly rejecting the temptation (which takes a significant amount of mental energy) or commitments would have to do it for me. (Thankfully I’ve never been so addicted that I decided to play instead of doing something really important, like seeing a friend or going to university) Otherwise I’d just play, with no end in sight, and it’d monopolize all my available time. I wasn’t addicted, for sure, but I certainly felt compelled: I felt like I needed it and like I didn’t want anything else – and maybe it was true insofar as I wasn’t ready to try and enjoy activities I found more valuable. One thing I know, blaming myself for it and feeling guilty over it wouldn’t have helped – in fact every time I did that I just got stuck in the same old loop. More guilt, more escaping from guilt, even more guilt.
The other thing I wasn’t quite thinking of was that I would end up making friends – close, intimate friends. I’ve always been very isolated in real life, and even though I know all too well that internet friends can never make up for face-to-face relationships, I’d take what I could get. Besides, it’s always been easier for me to make friends on the internet: I can easily present as my chosen gender (and then reveal I am trans if and when I feel comfortable doing so) which also lets me be more open, honest and confident that I’ve ever been able to be out in the world. By taking up responsibilities in a guild, I discovered actual, real-life social skills I didn’t know I had. As Zizek says, the truth is in the mask, not in the stories we tell ourselves. My internet self is a constant reminder of all the work I still need to do to bring that “persona” (but I’m not acting) out in the real world, where it’s stifled by all kinds of fears, anxieties and a gender expression that is still not my own (here is where I’m really acting).
These two aspects predictably came clashing. I was an important leader in the guild, I had found people I loved and a community I valued, and yet it was all tied to a game that, as I kept growing and healing, felt like it was holding me back more and more. It was both or neither, and that made any decision immensely complex and painful, either way. I still enjoyed the game, to be clear, but I was at the point where I didn’t want to spend that much time playing something like that.
5 – Trapped Energies
Whenever you pick up a crafting class in Final Fantasy XIV, the overall theme of the narrative is always the same: “Keep practicing, pay attention, try hard enough, dedicate time and energy to this activity and you’ll be good at it.” And I think it’s true, in general. I don’t particularly believe in talent. Maybe it comes out at the highest levels, I’m not sure, but overall I think that anyone can achieve a respectable level of mastery over any activity, practical or theoretical, with enough time and effort and the right mindset.
The big question is: why am I willing to put thousands upon thousands of hours learning abstract rules and closed systems, practicing skills and combos within the context of games, and not in real life? What makes learning the interactions among champions in League more appealing than the interactions of melody and rhythm in music? Or the interactions of words and ideas in literature and philosophy? I may have felt depressed, without energies, without any will to do anything at all, but in fact I had tons of energies. Only they were trapped. I could only invest them in games and not make them come out into the real world. I could not bring them to bear on activities I actually cared about. If I had spent a tenth of my gaming time over the past few years on music, I’d be a hell of a musician by now. Or a better writer. I could have learned another foreign language, or I could have read interesting and challenging books full of exciting ideas. I value these things, and I enjoy them. I think my eudamonia is in that direction. And yet, I repeatedly chose videogames, day after day.
Like I tried to explain in the ending of “On Defending Myself From Videogames” with the Ghost in the Shell example, I value action in the real world. I don’t think art is meaningless or a waste of time at all. Quite the contrary in fact, I think it’s extremely valuable.But at the end of the day I think it has value only insofar as it affects the real world and points back to it, whether it be by recharging your batteries and then letting you go about your day energized and refreshed, or engaging you with an interesting story or idea, or the many other, subtler ways in which art affects people and changes the world. But for this to be possible, I realized, the attitude and mindset with which the art work is approached and experienced matter at least as much asthe qualities of the work itself.
The short circuit happens when art/entertainment – and the way it is approached – simply points back at itself in a closed loop. That’s when, I feel, it becomes meaningless and detrimental. Although other art forms are not exempt from this, videogames are particularly apt at creating this self-sustaining spiral in which you never come out. Videogames are good at being manipulative and addictive, even when the creators have the best intentions.
Their interactive nature makes it remarkably easy to create something profoundly dull and yet strangely compelling at the same time. It’s easy to go through the motions in a videogame without ever engaging with it, without anything interesting happening, and they have developed a whole bunch of techniques precisely to this effect. Not to mention that gameplay can make games infinite or near-infinite in length.There’s a reason why videogame addicts are overwhelmingly addicted to gameplay-focused games, and not narrative experiences.
(There’s a reason why I’ve stayed as far away as possible from any cookie clicker. I’m sure they’re compelling, I’m sure I’d want to keep playing them, fueling compulsive tendencies and anxieties around perfectionism. And that’d put me in a position to spend energies trying to stop playing them and stop wanting to play them.)
This is how I define addiction. This closed loop that perpetuates itself for its own sake, in which no deep engagement and no growth take place, only repetition as a form of paralysis. Obviously it’s closely related to escapism. Willie Osterweil’s essay takes issue with the concept of addiction because it’s usually defined in a way that perpetuates capitalist values, especially productivity. You’re considered an addict, he says, only insofar as your compulsion prevents you from being a working cog in the capitalist machine.
But the idea of addiction can easily be redefined in terms that lie outside the capitalist structure and even resist it. If addiction is a forced choice – or, that is to say the same, a lack of choice, an inability to choose – the end goal is not to restore productivity, but to restore choice; most importantly the choice of taking care of oneself. You can play the same amount of time and be or not be addicted, because the sheer amount of time is not what matters here. When one’s relationship with an object is based on genuine interest, including a willingness to push one’s boundaries, explore, grow, redefine oneself, heal if necessary, there is not going to be any addiction or forced choice.
That is not to say one’s identity isn’t at stake during addiction, or that there is no engagement whatsoever with the object, but that engagement is ultimately static, paralyzing. It may give the illusion of going somewhere but it’s ultimately a running around in circles. Only in this non-capitalist sense is addiction unproductive, and freedom from addiction productive.
If anything, my addiction to games has always been a form of twisted reproduction of the capitalist structure and its values, especially the value of productivity. When I’m addicted is precisely when I become an uncritical consumer of games as capitalist products. And whenever I felt guilty about games being a waste of time – unproductive in the capitalist sense, just as unproductive as the time I needed to heal – that’s when I got even more addicted to them. I’ve only ever managed to get over the addiction insofar as I’ve stepped out of that frame of mind entirely. Not to mention that capitalism itself often tries to engender addictions, or other related states of mind, like hype and a false sense of need.
Addiction just repeats and repeats, far past the point when you know you’re just not going to get what you’re trying to get.
6 – Dissatisfaction as a Form of Resistance
Happiness is an ambiguous word, and I try to avoid it if at all possible. It’s a vague concept. Usually we consider it a feeling, but it doesn’t even mean the same thing to everyone. I prefer to use the greek word eudaimonia, as I did above. In philosophy it’s usually translated as “the good life” or “the life worth living,” and it’s a much better setup for a clear discourse around ethics. It’s a word that is foreign enough to our sensibilities to require special attention and further definition, which is precisely what we want.
“The meaning of life is eudaimonia” is a tautology devoid of content: we then need to define eudaimonia, the type of life we should strive to live out. On the other hand, when we say that the meaning of life is to be happy, there are a lot of confused assumptions that blurry the discourse: if the meaning of life is to be happy, as most people take for granted, why are you reading this and not masturbating? After all, as Chuck Palahniuk has his sex-addict character say, “even the worst blow job is better than say, sniffing the best rose…watching the greatest sunset. Hearing children laugh.” (Choke, 2002) If we don’t accept this, we need to start defining happiness differently, and how this would relate to common-sense happiness, and so on. It becomes very messy very quickly.
If I have to use a word that is not eudaimonia, I like the word satisfaction. “The meaning of life is to be satisfied with one’s life” still leaves room for options, such as that sadness may be a normal, unavoidable part of a good life. One can be sad (maybe your pet died) and still overall satisfied with how they lived their life; whereas to say that one is both sad and happy sounds inherently contradictory.
I care about this distinction and this specific vocabulary because fun is often associated with videogames, and it’s semantically very close to happiness, but not necessarily with satisfaction or eudaimonia. This choice of words helps us recognise several implicit assumptions in our thinking. Since addictions are usually fun, or they feel good in some way, using happiness as a criterion we may fail to recognize the problem. If videogames make me happy, if they’re the only thing that makes me feel better during my otherwise miserable days, how can they be the problem? Instead, a life spent playing videogames can be fun and not satisfying. It certainly isn’t, for me.
Dissatisfaction, then, becomes a vitally important tool. If used properly (and that’s a big if), it can orient us and show us the way. That inner feeling that something is not right with my life as it is, acquires personal and political value. It can be used to guide us towards liberation. Unfortunately, it’s also unpleasant, and our minds don’t like dwelling on unpleasant things. With the promise of instant gratification, instant happiness, escapism turns us away from that all-important feeling of dissatisfaction, from the infinite hard work of deep, honest and often painful self-examination.
Dissatisfaction lingers and gnaws at us on the inside. If it is ignored it grows and shows itself in other ways.
7 – Awareness
In his Full Catastrophe Living (1991) Jon Kabat-Zinn presents a model of how people deal with and react to stress. He calls it “the cycle of reactivity.” We all receive a certain amount of stress, but most of the time, most of us can automatically react appropriately to it. Many people know their limits, know when to stop and take a break, they can say “no” when they’ve had enough. In short, they can take care of themselves without having to think about it, their reactions to stress are automatic and appropriate. Many others cannot quite do that, especially as the amount of stress keeps growing.
The problem then, becomes that the inappropriate, but equally automatic reaction to stress not only may not be effective as a response to the issue that was stressing you out in the first place: it becomes a source of stress of its own, for the mind and often for the body too. These poor coping mechanisms usually consist in a form of escape from the actual problem, and they often offer some sort of short-term gratification. From outright denial to workaholic tendencies, from nervous eating to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine. Small as it may be, and with limited side-effects, not being able to get through the day without a cup of coffee is still an addiction.
Kabat-Zinn argues that all ineffective coping mechanisms are addictive. Addictions can (and often do) go unrecognized or underestimated, especially when the behavior they produce is considered normal or socially acceptable or even desirable. But in the long term, inappropriate coping strategies increase our stress levels and do not help us face our lives’ problems effectively. “These addictions tend to cloud our vision and undermine our search for healthier lifestyles. In this sense they prevent us from growing and healing” [Apologies, I’m translating back to English from a translated version.] Not only that, but these automatic reactions grow into habits, and habits provide a sense of comfort and security which we’re all the more unwilling to let go of in a stressful time in life, even as we acknowledge how detrimental they are: that’s why they’re addictive. The comfort zone is addictive.
We may resist in incredibly stressful circumstances and in precarious balance for years. But eventually either there is going to be a breakdown or depression is going to kick in, fueled by a sense of desperation (dissatisfaction?) as we find ourselves unable to cope with the actual problems that started the whole cycle. Problems which may be relatively simple to deal with, if it wasn’t for all this structure, all these automatic reactions, that we built up over time.
His solution, then, is simple: awareness. It may not come as a surprise considering he’s the founder of the increasingly popular MBSR program. Awareness here doesn’t mean an abstract knowledge of what we should be doing; most depressed people know all too well what they should be doing. Awareness here is synonymous with mindfulness: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgementally.” (Wherever You Go, There You Are, 1994)
His solution, to simplify, is to learn to listen and pay attention. Enough awareness will give us all the tools we need to recognise our harmful habits and to stop them. The strength to stop them simply comes from seeing clearly and vividly that they’re harmful. Sustained awareness will help us say “no” every time the serpent comes back and whispers promises in our ears.
(It may be interesting to compare and contrast this idea with Socrates’ denial of akrasia and with Freud’s belief that recognizing the origin and “true meaning” of a psychological issue was enough to cure it)
8 – The Mask Is The Truth
One of the things I like the most about Osterweil’s piece is that it takes literally what a thin veil of humour may lead us to ignore. Those Steam reviews of DotA that sound like cries for help may be played for laughter, they may be an ironic way of saying that the game is good, but they are also, I think, a cry for help. They’re the culturally accepted way of saying that the game is actively making you miserable without “ruining the fun” for yourself and others. It’s the same concept as using the word “addictive” for marketing, but more exaggerated. It’s the unconscious slipping through the cracks (“This game is ruining my life”) obfuscated just enough by the community’s shared language (which translates the literal message to “This game is so good”) that you don’t have to be confronted by what you know is happening, by what you are saying.
And that it became a meme of its own speaks to how widespread the feeling is, in those communities.
Games in general are so often connected to mental health problems, to feelings of sickness, anxiety, escapism, compulsion. It happens to such an extent that it should make us question if they’re really helping. Or if they’re not, in their current form and in the way they’re currently approached, (contributing to) producing that same subject they’re supposedly helping.
9 – Leaving
I left Final Fantasy XIV and my guild. It was a hard and painful decision. It took me weeks to work up to it, I cried before, during and after, especially for the people I’d leave behind, and the moment I made it official it I started wondering if I hadn’t made the wrong choice after all.
I hadn’t. I haven’t. But I mustn’t oversimplify the matter. I may keep comparing my past to what an ideal, perfect me would have done – like, not “wasting all that time” on FF in the first place – but I couldn’t have got where I am now without going through that. I couldn’t have gone from “sick” to “ok” without any intermediate stages, though it’s a tempting thought. And that’s not to imply that now I’m just ok and it’s all behind me. I’m noticeably, incontrovertibly better, but I still have so much room for improvement.
As I mentioned above, Final Fantasy helped me heal and grow. My mental health improved while I played it, as a direct consequence of playing it. Why and how that happened, I’m not sure. It probably was the result of a combination of factors, including that for once I let myself play without feeling guilty about it, and that I genuinely cared about something even if it took place within a “meaningless” game. That a videogame helped me heal is not something I would have been willing to admit, even just six months ago. But, thanks to that same improvement, I ended up outgrowing it, and the time came when it started holding me back from further healing, further growing. All the time and energies I put into it wanted, needed to come out and be put to use towards achieving what I find truly valuable. I’m writing again, I’m playing music again, I’m reading books again, and I’m doing these things with newfound enthusiasm. Well, mostly.
I miss Final Fantasy, and I often think about going back to it. Part of me would certainly rather play it than write this. When that happens, I need to remind myself I’m better off as I am now. But that’s not enough. I need to reaffirm that the decision to leave didn’t come from my perfectionism or from my guilt. And it didn’t come from that voice I internalized from my parents. That voice that keeps repeating that what I like doesn’t matter, that there are things I must do and everything else has to be sacrificed. It’s not that that was “worthless” and this is “valuable”, that that was “useless”, and this is “useful.” Useful and useless, like productive and unproductive above, oscillate between a few different shades of meaning, many of them a direct expression of capitalist values, making their use in this context tricky and misleading.
There have been numerous times in my life when I tried to forcefully put an end to all my gaming. Because it was a waste of time. Not because I had anything better to do, I simply wasn’t supposed to be doing that. I never made it, of course. Not with that attitude. But for years I looked down on games and “gamers” (here I only mean “people who spend a lot of time playing games”) with a mix of envy and guilt. My guilt and my constant holding back created a complementary lust to just game more and more and more. An insatiable hunger that focused on videogames to the exclusion of all else: Pleasure with a capital P was to be found in gaming and gaming alone and if I could just game a bit more I’d be happy, except I couldn’t because I was supposed to be a better person than that.
Ultimately, that’s the worst belief. Not that games can be pleasurable, but that they somehow hold some unique, secret, pure, ultimate Pleasure and if I could only game enough, just a bit more, then I’d partake of it. I tried. Sometimes I need to try again, to remind myself of it. Take a weekend off everything and just game, and see – really see, be aware, pay attention – see how dull that is, with that mindset. Nothing is good enough, nothing quite scratches the itch, because nothing ever will. I’m not engaging with anything, just selfishly looking for the button-press that will dispense undiluted pleasure and satisfaction. Chasing ghosts and shadows created by my imagination and an unreliable memory.
More than anything, then, I need to remind myself that the decision of leaving Final Fantasy came from passion and enthusiasm. That same passion, that same enthusiasm I wasn’t allowed to feel as a kid.
The way I try to think about the decision to stop playing FF is not as a prohibition, but as a gift. It’s not forbidden to play FF, just as it’s not forbidden to play League; and maybe I’ll go back to them in the future. Hopefully, I’ll do so in a way that is enriching, and not to escape from something else. But right now, not playing FF is a gift I’m making to myself so I am free to redirect my time and energies towards more fulfilling pursuits and activities that mean more to me, and gradually get closer to eudaimonia. It’s not that I must do some things and must not do some other things; it’s a matter of gently reminding myself that some things lead me to authentic joy and growth, and others are just false promises and dead-end streets or, more simply, have nothing to offer me at the moment, given how I can approach them and relate to them.
Next time I crave League I should just say “no.” I’m going to have to be honest and listen to myself, to determine if I’m looking for a challenge, for something that gives me energies and enthusiasm, or if I’m still looking for an answer to my self-loathing in the next victory, and then the next, and then the next.
10 – The Fragile Present
I feel so stupid, at times, when discussing this subject. There are people who seem to be making decent life choices without having to think about it so hard and try so hard. And me, I haven’t got anywhere with my life quite yet, and I wonder if I ever will, but I’ve had to claim any semblance of wellbeing with tooth and nails and I just don’t want to fall again.
I can’t believe it’s just me having trouble with these thoughts, with finding a healthy balance for gaming within the rest of their lives. The picture may be complicated by the unique shape of my past, by my personality and by being so ambitious and demanding of myself, but it’s hard to believe there aren’t many others in analogous circumstances.
Looking at it now, I want to say that throughout my life games harmed me more than they helped me, though they did provide invaluable help at times. My perception may be skewed though. My perfectionism, steeped in capitalist values and my parents’ teachings, always leads me to imagine a better life, and then blame me for the one I actually lived. I could have always been better, more productive. I could have always healed up quicker, wasted less time on games. It’s the opposite trap, but equally alluring; and it’s not entirely wrong: I still regret so much of my adolescence. I just played and played and played. I did my homework, and then played, without actually engaging with any of those games, without opening myself to them. When playing the guitar became too challenging, I pushed it aside because games were more gratifying in the short term. Games weren’t a way to relax, a place to experiment, an outlet for play. They were an escape. Fun, in the form of the easiest, shallowest gratifications, was the end in itself – and maybe my attempt at rebelling to my parents while still secretly obeying them.
The analysis is not wrong, but, once again, the approach is. Feeling guilty about my past won’t help anything; in fact, it’ll only perpetuate the cycle. It’s true that I wasted a lot of time, but that guilt comes from that same, disgusting perfectionism, from those same harmful values that ultimately pushed me to act the way I did. Values I failed to truly rebel against.
On the other hand, it’s still hard for me to admit how much games helped me, in those moments when they actually did. I still tend to see them, without any nuance or care for context, as something that has always hold me back, that I should always expunge from my life. Even though Final Fantasy XIV and the guild it connected me to were a positive presence in my life for most of the 9 months I spent with them. Not without its drawbacks, such as the latent compulsion to play more and more, but still very positive overall.
It’s too easy for me to go to either extreme. Either I’m too nice and forgiving and I end up actually wasting time, or I’m too harsh and don’t allow myself to rest because resting, relaxing, enjoying myself is “a waste of time.” Either I get lost in these small things and lose sight of the bigger picture of my life, or I become too dismissive of new experiences that may surprise me and enrich me, or that don’t fit a definition of “valuable” which will always be imperfect and partial. This is especially true once you start being aware and critical of your surroundings: everything is flawed, everything is a waste of time, it feels like you should give up everything. But only flawed things need and deserve love.
At least I’m aware of it now. I meditate, I think about it hard, I try to listen to myself past whatever instinct first speaks up inside of me. And sometimes I improvise, I go with whatever gut feeling seems sane enough. I make a lot of mistakes, but I think I’m learning, even if I’m not at the stage where I can properly conceptualize what I’m learning, and can put it into words. All I know is that I should strive to engage fully with everything that surrounds me. That I should aim for a difficult balance between firmness and forgiveness, openness and determination. Without hard and fast rules, which are reductive and dismissive at best, and at worse perpetuate the same harmful structures. That I should always examine myself, with particular concern for my comfort zone.
The comfort zone is like sleep: it’s sweet when we get up again; otherwise it’s just death.
Inspirations and further reading, in no particular order:
All the links I put in my own “On Defending Myself” are still relevant. Here are just a few new ones.
More on the relationship between videogames and capitalism from Alfie Bown at The New Inquiry.
Alec Meer‘s five reasons why he plays games. I appreciate the honesty, and yet it scares me. I have friends who also have a hard time approaching “passive” media, and that’s sad and terrifying. There is escapism, there is compulsion, there is being bored of life; and only one of the five points actually praises games.
Brendan Vance on the emptiness at the core of the open-world design of games.
Dan Olson: This video interests me (especially past 3:30) because it’s a defense of an arguably stupid, worthless activity by someone I like, respect and look up to; someone with similar interests to mine but certainly much more accomplished and productive than me.
Matt Lees: This video touches directly on manipulative games, while this other one is about politics in games but it ends up on similar themes. Especially at the end, he highlights the importance of awareness. It’s a different perspective on what I think are very similar themes.
There is only a thin thread, but I want to link this wonderful piece about interactive media.
This piece on Ontological Geek appeared while I was already writing this. I wouldn’t simply go tell someone they shouldn’t enjoy their games if they give them a respite from their problems – I tried to give credit to FF for helping me grow myself – but I’m very skeptical of the praise of escapism that drives the piece.
And this one on First Person Scholar is also very recent. It gave me an ulterior push when my personal reflections had already made me revise my first draft significantly.
Top Image: Because Living is The Dark Souls Of Living.
I hope I’ll start to using this blog more often again. But I would like to write about art other than games, too. Maybe now I’ll write that piece on Madoka Magica I’ve been wanting to write for a while.
Thank you for reading. Meow ❤