The spawning

>> Monday, October 08, 2012

In Maine, a candidate for state senate is being attacked by her opponents for playing World Of Warcraft.  Which was a news item I found interesting and I've been pondering all weekend whether I had anything to say about it.

I don't mean the substance of the attacks, or lack thereof.  The response of Brother Steve at Storybones and the similar attitude over at Ars Technica.  Which I agree with, I should emphasize; the whole thing is a really stupid and silly thing to go after a candidate over.  (And for the record: liberals who mocked Newt Gingrich for writing clearly-labeled science fiction were being asses, though mocking the former Congressman for the more science-fictioney parts of his campaign platform--e.g. Gingrich's EMP obsession--is a whole 'nother slice o' cake.)  Some people read novels (some people write them), some people watch TV, some people play videogames.  Big deal.

No, what I found interesting about it was more of a generational thing.  I'm old enough to remember when Pong was the state-of-the-art in home videogaming experience.  I remember when Mario was only "Jumpman" and it wasn't clear what he did for a living (besides dodge barrels and rescue his girlfriend from apes); I remember when Pac-Man was single.  Actually, I could and maybe should go back between Pong and Kong: I remember the Space Invaders cabinet at the old Eastland Mall ice skating rink; the mall (I remember when it was built--my family lived just down the street at the time) is gone, but people still shoot digital alien invaders out of video skies.

What the Colleen Lachowicz story reminded me of was another recent intersection of politics and gamer culture, a much sadder one: the response of the EVE Online community to the news that one of the Americans murdered during the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Sean Smith, was a very active and well-regarded player known to them as "Vile Rat".  I don't know if it's obvious to anyone else that there's a relationship between the two items and maybe it's just me.  But it seemed to me, at least, that this was an example of how entrenched videogames and gaming culture have become in American society over the past thirty or forty years or so: of course there are hardcore gamers running for office and serving in the American diplomatic corps--we've grown up from kids shoving quarters into machines to relatively responsible adults, but we still have our hobby, whether its appreciated by an older generation or just seems like a silly and insane waste of time, something juvenile and alienated.

Sometimes I wonder--maybe I should go and try to research it--whether there were people in, oh, the 1910s, let's say, who wondered how a grown man could still be bouncing a rubber ball on a wooden floor and trying to throw it into a peach basket.  And whether anyone looked at a thirty-or-forty-something year old man and accused him of being childish, of clinging to a boys' game he played in high school or college.  Now, basketball is a national sport, of course, and plenty of fifty year olds will still pop on shorts and sneakers to try to shoot a few hoops.

I'm given to understand there was a time when bowling was largely considered an activity for old men and the unemployed; now it's a Tuesday night out.

I'm not surprised anyone would make a big deal out of a candidate for state office playing a game.  I think it's inevitable, even.  What's more interesting to me is that there's a candidate for state office playing a game in the first place.  Which might seem like it shouldn't be interesting, seeing as how I play videogames, myself (you can see what's preoccupying me these days in the sidebar).  But it is interesting to me, because I think it's part of an inevitable progression from videogames as a childish pastime for children to videogames being as much of a "childish" pastime as football or baseball.  Adults play: playing is something that humans do throughout their life, whether it's playing Bridge or Chess or soccer or darts; I think it's interesting that videogames, something invented in my lifetime, have arrived (or are arriving).

The Republicans in Maine made some kind of deal about Ms. Lachowicz playing a murderous orc.  I don't know that this ought to be dignified by a comment, except that this also called me back to Sean Smith's story: EVE Online is a game with a reputation for encouraging sociopathic behavior in-game--behaviors that would be considered griefing in most other games are considered part and parcel of virtual "life" and business in EVE's anarcho-libertarian universe, which is why EVE has long struck me as a game that is more interesting to read about than it would be to play (to me, personally: your mileage may vary); and yet, by all accounts I've seen, the real Mr. Smith was a nice guy who undeniably perished in service to something larger than himself, trying to advance his country's interests as best he could.  It isn't the least bit ironic that someone might be selfless in their personal life and enjoy spending time sparring wits and fast-motor-skills in a dog-eat-dog fantasy universe; indeed, part of the enjoyment of any kind of role-playing game is having the opportunity to see what it would be like to somebody who is completely not yourself, or who is some mirror-universe version of yourself as you might be if you had different (or no) scruples, filters or real-life consequences.  Or, for that matter, you can be more yourself than yourself: e.g. it's a lot easier to be as fearless and heroic as you'd like to think you are when the worst thing that can happen is you have to reload or you get bounced back to a spawn point.  But either way, it's still fantasy, you know.

As I look over this, it does seem obvious that Ms. Lachowicz's critics may be no older than she is, and that there are certainly dedicated gamers who are older than I am.  And I think I've framed this as a generational discussion to whatever extent I was able to frame it as anything at all (I may have just babbled), when it would be more apt to say that this is a cultural shift with generational overtones.  The generational thing is a part of it because how old you are determines whether videogames are something you remember the invention of or something that has always been a part of your mental background; the cultural thing is that, regardless of how the games fit into your chronological mindscape, you may or may not have been someone who ever played them or knew anyone who did.  And there's a sliding, transitional thing in there, the way that someone who has a public or civic life is increasingly likely to be someone who has an XBox at home or an online alter-ego in a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game.  Just as there was an inevitable slide between an era when Supreme Court Justices were oh-so-sober and "serious" and staid and an era when one might be a retired NFL player.  At some point, there's going to be a Presidential candidate who still sometimes finds the time to grind his level-80 alt; and sometime after that, there's going to be a Presidential candidate who still finds the time to grind his level-80 alt and no one will care.

That warms my heart for some reason.  Like we geeks are taking over or something.


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