I have a few rules for this blog in order to keep it manageable, and keep it fun for me. The main one is “nothing over 500 words.” I’m about to break that rule for the first time, because I have a lot to say and I can’t possibly do it in that kind of space. What I’m about to write is also probably more personal than anything you may have read from me before, and maybe also controversial.
Those of you have known me online for a while now, perhaps who read my old blog, know that I have had an ambivalent relationship with modern gaming culture. I’m 35 years old, which means that I started gaming before the internet was really established in Australia. Gaming for me at the beginning, as a kid, was always a pleasant activity involving painting miniatures, imagining silly heroic battles, and laughing with my friends. Well, not only have I changed, but gaming has changed, and if anyone tries to tell me otherwise, that there are people still gaming in that way out there, I’m going to say yeah, if you mean other old people completely outside the mainstream flow of gaming culture.
The Scottish writer Iain Banks once wrote a novel called The Player of Games. It’s one of his books set in the Culture – a utopian humanity in the far, far future. In the Culture books, no-one is violent or competitive. Wars ceased millenia ago, and the Culture cleverly and non-violently assimilates any species they encounter into their bloodless galactic empire using hyper-advanced social science and psychology. The only trace of violence left in human beings is found among gamers: people who compete with one another to win games. This means that in the Culture, the point of playing a game is to win it – games are an outlet for the barbaric vestiges of old humanity.
I feel as though we have come to a tacit understanding in our own culture that the point of playing a game, of painting a miniature, of any sort of leisure activity really, is to be good at it; to improve, as some sort of discipline or self-actualization.
The thing is, I can’t stomach leisure like this. This could be for any number of psychological reasons, but I’m leaning towards thinking that it’s because of my age. I’m lazy when it comes to leisure, funnily enough. To me the point of a game is to be something that I can do, and not have to worry about being good at. Or something I can be good at without trying…
I used to be good at games without trying. I have an analytical mind, I can think outside the box and I’m decisive. But now I’m not good at them. Gamers in general just put too much effort into being good at games that my lazy natural aptitudes are no longer enough. I have to practice and study if I want to be good. The same is true of miniature painting. Artistic talent runs in my family, and as a kid and a teenager I drew and painted a lot as a hobby. I have even worked professionally and sold art for CD covers, posters and T-shirts. So I was always one of the best in the room when it came to painting miniatures, without really having to try.
Now the internet has made the room much bigger, and people have learned that certain techniques and practice can improve you beyond your initial limits. Natural talent and amateur practice is now a strong start, but doesn’t stack up against someone who really wants to be a good painter.
And this makes me sad, because it takes away the things about wargaming and the miniature painting hobby that made me happy. I liked being good at gaming without having to put any effort in.
Now I can totally understand if you’re thinking “boo hoo, stop whining you self-congratulating bastard.” I must sound pretty unlikeable right now. But that’s OK, I’m here asking myself the hard questions, and the answers are bound to show me some things about myself that I don’t like. That’s how we grow after all, and if we don’t grow what’s the point?
So what I loved about gaming was the ego boost I got for free. Out in the real world as a grown up you have to work hard to get ahead. Life is competitive. It’s competitive to find a mate. It’s competitive to get a job, and to get higher in your career. Playing games were for me the thing that wasn’t competitve, the thing that I could be the best at without having to try. That’s why I kept playing them as an adult. They boosted my ego and it felt good.
All of this reminds me of a childhood friend of mine, who is a very intense person, and also loved gaming. I met him a few years ago and he told me that he didn’t play games any more, or paint miniatures or anything. When I asked him why, he quoted Ecclesiastes at me: “when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (This is probably the first and last bible reference you’ll ever see me write).
When he said this to me I went away and thought about it, and I decided what I think many of us who have continued (or taken up) gaming into adulthood have decided: gaming is not childish if you take it seriously. Time to up my game, literally. Time to start going in tournaments. Be the best I can be. What have I got to do to keep gaming, and still take myself seriously as a grown up?
A lot has happened to me recently. I’ve left my PhD. I did so for many reasons. Partly I’d become disillusioned with the culture and methodology of academic philosophy and academic life after experiencing it first hand. I came to think that all of my colleagues were barking up the wrong tree if they think that what they do reveals any sort of objective truth (and they do think that). And as for my project that I was working on, and the approach that I wanted to take to philosophy, well as one of them said to me (in a friendly way of course): “I think you’re a little bit crazy.”
So I left. And it was very hard. Extricating oneself from a PhD when you’re two and a half years in is not a simple matter, particularly socially. I have a lot of explaining to do to a lot of people. That’s OK, because I’ve taken stock of my life and, in consultation with my amazingly understanding partner, have made new resolutions. I am seeing everything a bit more clearly, including my hot and cold relationship with gaming. And now I understand what my old friend was saying, I think.
If the pleasure I got from gaming came from the ego boost of being good at it, and now I can only get that pleasure by putting in effort, is it worth it? The answer is quite obviously no. If I’m going to be putting effort into improving at something, it’s not going to be a game, a “childish thing.” Why wouldn’t I put my effort into being better at creative writing, or making more money, or spending quality time with my family? Things that will make me deeply happy, or at least more financially secure, rather than just a bit, I don’t know, chuffed with myself for a few hours. I’m not going to live forever after all. Do I want to be on my death bed thinking “hey, I never wrote that novel, or had my art in a gallery. But at least I worked for thirty five years in a boring job and was good at painting models and winning games.” Er . . . no.
The only solution for me I can see, if I want to keep wargaming and painting models and enjoying it, is to somehow uncouple the pleasure I get from improving at them or winning. I’m not sure how to achieve that psychologically at the moment, especially not when the entire mainstream culture of gaming is a cuture of constant improvement and competition.
I’m having a great time at the moment DM-ing a D&D game, as RPGs are not prey to these concerns, or at least it is easy to avoid them becoming so. They are about telling a story and I love that, and I think it’s worthwhile.
It’s funny, no matter what I do lately, I seem to end up standing in opposition to The Way Things Are Done. Just a born rebel I guess 😉
Until next time,