metaphysics of MMOs 3/5 : you can (sometimes) come back

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Heya Feralas. It’s been a while.

I first played World of Warcraft in November 2005. It was getting cold, suggesting that in my efforts to woo the man who later became my husband, it would be best to take up indoor pursuits versus our long frigid walks in the predawn neighborhoods surrounding our college. My first attempt to induct him into the realms of MMOs had not gone well: FFXI had bored us both on multiple levels, and the free Guild Wars 2 disks slipped under all our doors as part of an advertising blitz hadn’t mesmerized us for long, either. Enter, then, WoW, which both of us had heard of but neither had played. Nor did we know anyone else who played.  We entered with fresh eyes, each other’s only known players, and we bought it right when it looked like I was about to leave for Germany for a year. We wanted to keep in contact.

I didn’t end up making it to Germany, but we didn’t end up dropping WoW just because we still lived down the street from one another. In 2007, we stood out in a blizzard for the midnight release of the Burning Crusade expansion, and logged in 3000 miles away from each other to play Wrath of the Lich King within hours of its release in 2008 (my mother opened the box she’d purchased on my instructions, and read me over Skype the codes I needed to start my download). We played both Alliance and Horde (though retained a private penchant for the latter), as various groups of friends and relatives entered the game on one side or the other, and between us have made alts of just about every class (though I’ve yet to play a mage or, bizarrely given my preference for hybrid classes, a shaman). We joined guilds and then left them as they fell apart or became too dramatic to stomach; we vegged out and chatted while grinding or fishing (which is, let’s be honest, just another form of grinding), in wildly different timezones and resultant levels of energy. We abandoned the game twice, once in 2006 when carpal tunnel syndrome rendered my wrists useless, and again in 2010 when my return from Japan and the cramming of a two-year grad school program into a single year made the time constraints untenable. We moved on to prettier games (like LotRO) with better PVP (like ESO), and steadfastly resisted the lure of more expansions like 2012’s Mists of Pandaria and 2014’s Warlords of Draenor. But recently, faced with cooling temperatures that in our AC-less house again allows for extended periods of time in the otherwise too-hot computer room, combined with glowing recommendations from friends, we picked up WoW again with Legion.

And…it’s good to be back.

It’s good, and it’s strange. Nowhere else are we able to return to things as they were when we were once so familiar with them. Our town has been rebuilt. Our college has been restructured. The various houses we used to live in — sold, repurposed, or (in one case, long after we’d left) burnt down. The cars we drove, rusted out and sold for scrap. The professors retired, the friends far away, the places we ate and drank and read closed, closed, closed: such was the way of things in one of the recession’s worst-hit areas.

Recession or no recession, though, this is normal. I get that. “You can’t go back,” as everyone from Higuchi Ichiyo to Thomas Wolfe tells readers time after time. Towns reinventing themselves after you’ve been away from them is normal. Shops and even schools closing is normal — regrettable, but normal. Everything passing away and on, hopefully to something better but inevitably to something different, is so utterly normal. But being able to return and see the same “people” you joked at or about, over a decade ago, occupying the same deserted outpost on the plains, entertaining the same bone-headed delusions of fantastical grandeur? That’s not normal. That’s the space people dream about, but never achieve.

But that is the strange space we find ourselves in. Maybe it shouldn’t feel so different than replaying a static, non-online game years after one’s first (or second, or third, or tenth) playthrough, but it does. People still populate the world. Gen chat still overflows with individuals winsome and less so, except that the references you see there now are topical. The political jokes, the memes, the slang — those have changed. So, too, have some game mechanics, mostly for the good it’s true. But the NPCs, [or most of them, given Cataclysm] the towns, the quests…the form and shape and even largely the content is the same. Trolls still warn you about the voodoo, orcs still go on and on about their precious war machine, and the undead just want to kill everyone, and none of their living, very-much-not-undead allies seem bothered by this.

Some things are markedly different. Communication is way, way down. No one talks in groups anymore. Usually at least you’d say hi when you showed up via the group finder in whatever dungeon, but no more: we might as well be talking to walls. They don’t even read our text, barrelling blindly on into mobs without listening to our (repeated) warnings about waiting for the freaking tank to make the pull. They don’t read, they don’t talk, they don’t listen. Groupmembers are largely on autopilot, and it makes us feel old. It makes me feel old. Back in the day, such behavior would be reported on the suspicion of the player being a bot, operated by a program to run around either gaining experience (in order for the character to be sold [illegally] online) or gathering resources, again to sell. Nowadays, that’s just how people are.

But still, we keep playing. We’ve made it to Outland by now and are so close to WotLK’s Northrend and its beloved musical accompaniment that I can taste it. The people I know who are all the way to Legion content sing its praises, to be sure, but while I’m looking forward to the newness of it I’m not really in a rush to get there. I’ve never been a great fan of WoW’s endgame, with its forced chores of dailies and raids with people I neither know nor, upon coming to know them, like much. Endgame, in the past, always boiled down to mindless repetition and stats and people yelling over voice chat in raids. Whereas what interested me was the exploration, the long journeys between point A and point B, the rare spawns causing sudden delighted detours on your errands. Hilarious quests, awesome drops, landscapes that remind me of this or that place I may never visit again for years.

Maybe though, given the way levels 1-60 have gone so far, I’ll miss the abrasive voices by the time endgame rolls around. Maybe we’ll sign ourselves up for another drama-ridden cesspool of a guild again and endure late nights and flippant asides on voice chat for a chance at that rare mount drop. Maybe we’ll feel like college kids once more, even though we’re tired and have to work eight hours in the morning. And the morning after that, and the morning after that…

Or maybe, as fans of Legion keep saying, it will be different.

Either way, we’ve been able to step back into a world preserved, for the most part, in the dubiously lasting amber of the pay-to-play MMO. And that ability to return has already been worth it.

 

collateral beauty 

So this is where we are now.

1.) Ad for this movie pops up on Twitter. I enable its sound because the dominoes remind me of A Beautiful Mind and I want it to be like that.

2.) Holy shit that cast.

3.) Holy shit it’s not even trying to be sassy — it’s trying to be earnest!

4.) I MUST TELL NO ONE I WANT TO SEE THIS.

What this looks like is a serious feel-good Christmastime movie (without actually being about Christmas per se). I am invested in serious feel-good movies. I am abundantly aware that that is a vulnerable state to be in. Response to your perceived enthusiasm will range along these lines:

1.) haha dumb bitch is sad and needs a story about dumb bitches to feel better

2.) oh my god how could you even watch that it’s so derivative/hackneyed/Oscar bait

3.) maybe it’s okay but it’s not [insert timeless classic here] so I don’t know why you’d waste your money

So I will tell no one. This movie deals with child death, which is in every other book I tend to pick up by accident, and quickly becoming my biggest fear. (It wrecks everything forever, it looks like.) It has, it seems, parable-level characters in it, which would annoy the hell out of me if done poorly (shut up, Old White Men Of Christmas Past, as well as American Gods) but which I appreciate when done well (I’m looking at you, What Dreams May Come). So I am so on board for this movie and so determined not to expose that.

Because honestly it looks the way you feel after the best books. After, say, Let the Great World Spin, or Lions of Al-Rassan, or Black Swan Green. (Or, *cough*, the Trespasser DLC, just saying.) And those feels are worth pursuing. In whatever format.

angela meerson is the best thing about arcadia 

Several times now I’ve tried to react to this book in a public way, and yesterday’s meandering was the only intelligible result. To cut it much, much, shorter then: Angela is the best thing about this book.


Her problem, at first, seems just that she’s Sherlock-level smart and Sherlock-level socially inept, working for a man whose belief in the great man theory of history is harming her research. But she’s better than that. Maybe there are some lame, scifi-meets-the-dubiously-mysterious-magic-of-estrogen reasons why that is, but still. 

I cringed at the characterization of Rosie, whose plucky 15-year-old self is cut from the too-familiar mold of Old Men Writing About Girls On the Cusp of Adulthood. It’s gross. It always is. But Angela is interesting. Angela picks up and discards her sexuality like a light jacket — sometimes necessary but really more of a personal choice as to whether you need it or not. She’s vicious. She’s tone-deaf, in some ways. In a book that was very much beginning to feel like an off-brand Cloud Atlas, Angela is refreshing.

the great man theory of history and what it does to how we create

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You know the great man theory of history. You just maybe didn’t know it was called that. The idea that individuals of great and noble character shaped the world as we know it, and that the world would not be as we know it without them — that’s what we’re talking about. You know. Book reports on presidents and war generals and inventors. I’ll save you the trouble of googling and paste Wikipedia’s description of it here:

“The Great Man theory is a 19th-century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, or heroes; highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact. The theory was popularized in the 1840s by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. But in 1860 Herbert Spencer formulated a counter-argument that has remained influential throughout the 20th century to the present: Spencer said that such great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes.”

You probably also knew that there had to be a counterargument. Maybe you didn’t know that it has been around since the 1860s, but still. It’s there. It’s everywhere, really: in the certain knowledge that no one person, no matter how great, exists in or was produced by a vacuum; in the countless thousands of unknown enablers of history to unfold; in the countless thousands of _known_ enablers, even, who go unwritten and then become unknown with the passing of time. We know individuals do not shape the world.

But still, the great man theory persists, in every medium imaginable. Novels, movies, political ads (advertisements of all kinds, really), games…linear narratives lean heavily on the great man (and yes, it tends to be men, which is of course part — but not all — of the problem) theory because it makes things easy. It provides a focal point. We are taught, by the stories we digest as we come to learn the value of story, that if we stick right behind this character or this set of very important characters, we will Know What Happens. We will reach a kind of truth, couched safely in the vee waves this important character makes as they move through the world. We don’t want to be caught up in the wake; we want to be right up there behind them, gliding along on the deceptively smooth plane of their passage, to see things as they see it. To understand.

Maybe that is a larger part of the problem — the idea that this understanding can be reached. Like an object that can be picked up, saved for and purchased, an understanding of the world, or a part of it, is something we are taught to expect from our stories. If the stories lack that, we balk. We assassinate the characters of everyone involved; we claim the writers didn’t do X or the devs didn’t do Z. We whine. Because we were told we should get to understand, and we don’t get to.

Haven’t you heard? We don’t get to.

You don’t get to “escape the uncomfortable messiness of life.” You don’t get to understand why gentle people die and terrible people live on and on; you don’t get to understand why this or that thing happens to you, and not someone else; or to someone else, but not to you. Not in life, so why in art? I love narrative linear stories as much as the next person; maybe more. My bookshelves groan with the weight of that love. But reading a novel feels the same as playing an RPG to me. The emotional lop-sided smile is always going to be there, because there is always going to be a reason things happen. Whole franchises; whole careers are spun out of more and more elaborate reasons for C to follow B to follow A. It is supposed to make sense, and you make the money walking the line between anticipation and the great reveal — as well as the fun you have while waiting. And, make no mistake, be it in DLC or in the much-lauded conclusion to a multi-decade book series, I anticipate the great reveal.

But it’s a sham. A delicate, endearing sham; one on which I and almost everyone else depend, in different ways, throughout our lives. I just wish our desire for such explanations were expressed as what it is — that desperate need to make sense of something; for something to be controllable — rather than these numerous petty little ad hominem jabs at individuals, or groups of individuals. You don’t hate the ending because “I guess the writer got married and just threw in the towel there at the end, huh?” You hate it because you wanted to make sense of this fictional person’s life in a way you cannot make sense of your own. Or because the character died alone and unsung, like you realistically fear you too might, one day.

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I guess that sounds ad hominem on my part, too, but I’ve done the same thing. Gnashed my teeth at plots that didn’t make sense; confused the elusive (and kind of nonexistent?) mark of “quality” with the question of whether or not I was personally satisfied with a given course of events. My younger self’s rant about Dianora, for example. Or my abiding dislike for shows about shitty people leading shitty lives — like Mad Men or Difficult People or any number of others. If we are looking at shitty people, we want either to see them thrive and not care about their own shittiness, thereby allowing us to do the same; or we want to see them transform, not only so we can project ourselves onto them but because we have been taught that that is what happens in stories. That that is what happens in life.

Except that sometimes — most of the time — it doesn’t.

People don’t transform. They don’t spin a chrysalis of misconceptions and good intentions and and come out new, better people. By and large, people don’t change. When they enter situations where they might thrive better by doing so, they usually flounder out of fear both of the unknown and of loss of self. That’s how people work. It sucks, but that’s pretty much how we roll.

So what, though?

I want to see this acknowledged in the stories we create. On a grand scale. “But if you ask people to spend hours and hours reading, playing, watching or otherwise taking in this thing,” you’ll say, “won’t they feel cheated?” If there is no good reason for the way things go down? If you don’t get to become the person you wanted to be, thereby enabling yourself to become the hero — the great man — of your own story? What if you’re not the hero or even the villain — what if you’re just filler?

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Even that perspective, though, depends on there being this concrete linear narrative marching into the future, and I understand why we need that for sanity and self-worth, but we should also be acknowledging the senselessness of things. Or, sure, the “uncomfortable messiness of life.” Give me an uncomfortably messy game. Or book. Throw illness around like it doesn’t care (because it doesn’t); drain the accounts of people who trusted in the wrong institution at the wrong time. Be like life. And, like life, sprinkle it with moments of beauty that make you weep. But don’t impose a sense of order on such things — don’t let the moments stack up and necessarily lead to some epiphany transformation of the character, or the player. Let them just sit there, as scattered as a tub of legos upended on the floor.

You’ll sit and find meaning in the patterns, probably. People used to do it with sticks and stones — hell, they still do. But let that meaning sift out organically from the myriad interpretations, rather than building, from the beginning, a forward-marching arc with carefully-constructed sideline material. Make people do the work of finding, and in many cases inventing, the meaning and the reasons on their own.

Make people work for it. In art as in life, make people work for it.

 

chapter 2 up

Chapter 2 is now up.

Somewhat relatedly, I got to see a friend a rarely do over the weekend and was thrown completely for a loop. Usually in a conversation I can arrange a list of answers that I’ve already honed in previous conversations* into set pieces: this is my work drama, this is how my mother is doing, this is how home ownership is coming along, etc. etc. And it’s true that I got to trot those out. But she also kept tripping me up by asking about things I’d forgotten I’d let it be known mattered to me. Had I read this author, had I heard about that book, and was I still writing?

I don’t anticipate these questions because in the past decade it has dawned on me that the price you pay for sharing such information amongst peers tends to be too high. As a result, when people forget that I do such things, I let it go. My in-laws remember my academic career, such as it was, rather than the awards I won for this or that story. My immediate friends remember the degree I just finished wading through, and the doors it would ideally have opened. (One day…) But I don’t usually field questions about my writing, and am so startled and sheepish and touched when asked that I stumble through the rest of the conversation, no set pieces to hand, trying madly to filter out what I do and don’t want to say about project A or B or C. But because this friend dated back the full decade, to when everyone, in either the arrogance or naiveté (probably both) of youth freely announced such pursuits without (too much) fear of repercussion, in the form of condescension or too-keen interest or otherwise, she knew. And, moreover, she remembered. And I was absurdly unprepared for it, and sat there mumbling to the cobbles about editing and deadlines and contests, all while blushing harder than my cherry tomatoes in their pots out back.

Which is ridiculous. I’m thirty years old. I have always done this thing. But to have that be remembered and respected, by someone I don’t see every day or even every  year — and to be asked, and to be met with delight when I replied in the surprised affirmative that yes, I still did such work — pleases me. So much more than I anticipated feeling on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

*How I used to chafe, as a kid, hearing my mother do this! I’d hear the same words come out of her mouth again and again, to stranger after stranger, and resent the prefabricated nature of it; how she had something ready for a whole host of situations and it just came to hand easily, rehearsed, perfected. It was years and years before I realized that such responses held off-stage and at the ready grease the many less-important daily interactions along, grind us past their necessary ordinariness, so that we can get to those that matter.