Sunday, May 11, 2008

Game Until Your Eyeballs Fall Out

One of my all-time favorite Calvin & Hobbes comics starts with Calvin reading from Karl Marx. "'Religion is the opiate of the masses,'" Calvin reads. "What does that mean?"

And over in the corner, the family TV is thinking to itself, "It means Karl Marx ain't seen nothin' yet!"

Over at the The Geek, John Birmingham asks the question nerds have been posing since the launch of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Is the creation of a fully-functioning holodeck which is cheap enough to be installed in every home the death-knell of civilization?

It can be hard enough dragging your head out of clunky old Second Life at times. But as someone here commented a few weeks back, the day they invent the technology to let some fat, middle aged dad imagine he's got pre-KFed Britney sitting on his lap in the study at home, is the day Dad never leaves the study. Or something like that.

We gamers see this a lot. We know the guy who lives for WoW. I knew a girl in college who dropped out because school was interfering with her far more important LARP ("It's bigger than the Roman Empire!"). In many respects, for us nerds, the future is now. Perhaps this is part of the problem for the guy we all dread at cons, the overweight fellow who smells like he hasn't bathed in days, whose clothes are stained and tattered, and who clearly has abandoned even the rudiments of personal hygiene.

Obviously, these folks are not responding to having some Britney-hologram wriggling in their laps, but what they do get is no less visceral. Within our games and our small communities, we receive the validation, the victory, the acceptance, and the human touch (even if it's only mind-to-mind through the words of a blog) that people are generally supposed to get from society at large. Most of us who embrace the label of nerd or geek or whatever experienced rejection from that society in our youth. Some of us turned our backs on that larger society, to a greater or lesser extent, and never come around to embracing it. Why jump through all the hoops required, all the social forms and niceties, the daily and yearly rituals, the genuflections to empty pomp and lesser minds, when you can find more personal struggles and victories, more heartfelt validation, and more sublime communion with our fellows through these smaller communities? This, I think, is why nerds have been so ready to embrace the internet, since it is the first community in human history where what you say is more important than what you wear.

However, we can never truly cut ourselves off from the rest of the world. In the small community of RPG enthusiasts, we produce books and games that go winging their way out into the world to bridge the distance between ourselves and society at large. Among tiny enclaves of programmers who have turned their back on the corporate world has sprung the open license communities that have proven so prolific and talented that industry has reversed itself to embrace them. Even if people desired to utterly cocoon themselves from the rest of the world (and the success of MMOs seems to conclusively prove that they don't), there would still be the need to strive against adversity and to triumph. There is no reason why those triumphs could not be victories for civilization. Society is already fracturing as we abandon our limited choice of a handful of TV channels to embrace our own, personal little niche among the now 500+ options available to us. But is that so terribly different from the way things were before the steam engine, the automobile, and the airplane, when we lived in tiny communities scattered across the landscape?

So no, I don't see the holodeck causing civilization to collapse, no matter how realistic the fake people inside them get to be, or how convincing the interactions are. We still feel a need to earn our way in whatever world we inhabit. We still want to win, even if the victories are small and personal. And we still want to feel that human touch, the random moment of connection that makes hearing your favorite song played on the radio more satisfying than pulling it up on your iPod. So long as these things remain true, we will continue to push back against adversity and expand our boundaries, both as individuals and as

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