Videogames Are Awesome Because We're All Going To Die

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, September 2, 2011 at 9:00 am
Last weekend I got way too close to a wild rattlesnake. My wife was participating in a thing called a mud run -- which is when a bunch of crazy people get together and race through huge, dirty pits of murky water in what will eventually be 100-plus degree desert weather. I love and support my wife in all the nutty things she undertakes so that morning I found myself in the high desert of San Bernardino county traipsing through the rocks in the shadow of a hill called, and I shit you not, "Dead Man's Point."

Being a good husband I was worried for my wife and found myself thoughtlessly stumbling through the brush to intercept her and wish her well as she came running around a bend. That's when my friend Tyler yelled, "rattlesnake!" I turned to look and found him pointing in my direction. That's not cool. By then the deadly fucker, a good four or five feet long with tail a-twitch, was headed for the rocks. Of course I didn't come anywhere near dying. But that's about as close as I care to get. 

That's how I roll. I try to steer clear of deadly serpents. We're all going to die someday. And when that last electron in our brains dissipates that will be it. We'll be gone forever. Some people skydive, mud run or Fight Club to help remind themselves that they're alive. That's one way to deal with mortality. A lot of us chill on the Internet, listen to music, play videogames and smoke weed to help us forget that we're going to die. Whatever works, right?

In A Dance With Dragons, the latest book in George R.R. Martin's excellent A Song of Ice And Fire series a character says, "A reader lives a thousand lives. The man who never reads lives only one." The sentiment is a fairly good expression of the life of the mind. Now, I'm not going to suggest that gamers are deep thinkers. But I will say that there was a time (and that time is still now) that people would hassle you for keeping your nose buried in a book. Our gaming lives aren't that different. In fact, where the reader experiences a thousand lives across a lifetime of reading the gamer can easily burn that many trying to beat Demon's Souls.

Some would argue that living in fantasy worlds is avoidance -- that you should get out and see the world and experience it while you can. That works for some people. I'm pretty sure I'm among those people. I like travelling. I like meeting new people. Though I will say when I worked at Hustler and word went around that we were sending our features editor David Buchbinder to Afghanistan I felt a sick sensation deep in the pit of my stomach. I worried for David and I knew that moment that going into a war zone was nothing I could ever do. David lived. And afterwards he went to Chad to report on the way that conflicts in Darfur were spilling over into chad.  Me? I took the trip with Larry Flynt on his gold-plated private jet to the Cannes Film Festival. I'd like to think that I've lived too.

My house is only a minute's drive from a rocky, mountainous place where many rattlesnakes live, but  the direct environs around us is mostly scrub -- dry earth, sturdy but ugly foliage and small desert creatures. We're far enough away from the Mojave river that leafy trees need daily watering during the summer. So when I remember I drag the hose around my yard and fill the ruts beneath our trees with water. One morning after I'd watered one of the feebler saplings our dogs found the waterlogged corpses of dead bunnies at the base of the tree. I'd flooded their warren and killed them all. I sometimes wonder if I should stop watering those trees. But without the water the trees would die. And without the trees the rabbits would have nowhere to shelter. So I keep watering.

In an interview with Playboy magazine the director Stanley Kubrick said, "The most terrifying fact of the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent." I share his view of our existence. When I think of the statistical fluke of life in our solar system -- us, bunnies, E. Coli and all the rest of it -- I think of animals huddled in the dark, shivering and afraid like those rabbits beneath the ground that I'd unwittingly slaughtered. 

The worst thing you can do in life is to amplify that fear and add to the pain of our inevitable deaths. And conversely, the best thing you can do is to alleviate -- to bring joy, solace or make us, for the briefest moment, forget that we are all dust. 

That's the most frustrating thing about Alyssa Bereznak's recent dis of Magic: The Gathering world champion Jon Finkel. Her troll against our geekiest of brothers did only harm. And, I might add, it did nothing to enlighten us about the feelings, thoughts and fears of a shallow Park Slope lonely heart. But Alyssa, inadvertently, did us a huge favor. She reminded us not to judge our fellow bunnies so harshly. We're all guilty of it. I look down on sports fans. I question the taste of people who like what passes for country music these days. Furries. Juggalos. Angry Birds players. They're all easy to look down upon and say, "they're wasting their time with that shit." But other than their questionable taste they're just like us. Their days on this planet are numbered. And just like us they're scrambling to find a warm, dry place in a cold, uncaring universe. 

While channel surfing much too late this week I stumbled upon the movie Stevie by documentarian Steve James. If you're ever in the mood to witness a heart-wrenching expression of people in pain trying to steal a moment of happiness this is the flick for you. The movie follows the director as he reconnects with a troubled young man he once counselled as part of the Big Brother program. As a boy, unwanted by his mother, Stevie Fielding lived in every foster home in Southern Illinois. He was sexually abused and was, as an adult, arrested for the sexual abuse of a little girl. Fun stuff, right? But it's clear throughout the film that Stevie is a broken person -- shut off from the world, his family and his emotions long before he ever committed his terrible crime.

On Stevie's last day of freedom, and after a tense meeting with his cold, unloving grandmother, he takes the film crew to the backwoods around Pomona, Illinois. As a kid he'd always enjoyed fishing and he particularly liked traipsing through the brush in search of rattlesnakes. Stevie didn't catch a rattler that day, but he did catch ten-year prison sentence. I understand why Stevie went after the rattlesnake that day. It's the same reason I play videogames. I play games to live. And I play them to forget.

In the aforementioned interview with Stanley Kubrick the director of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining wasn't utterly hopeless. Sure, we live in a godless universe he seems to say, but there is hope. "However vast the darkness," he said, "we must supply our own light." 

That sounds like a commandment if I've ever heard one.

Pretension +1 is a weekly column about the culture of videogames by Gus Mastrapa. Sometimes it is actually about videogames.

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