The Life Vicarious

Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 9:19 am
Do I live too much of my life in imaginary worlds?

While games and game culture have become more and more prevalent in our society, the echoes of old mockeries still exist. Some of these are shallower than others, but I've realized over time that most of them come from a single source of contempt.

For instance, what are some of the meanest things that have been said to you over the course of your life as a gamer? Most of the usual insults center around the gamer's supposed inability to get laid, or the gamer's assumed permanent residence in their parents' basement. Depending on how these jokes are told and how much painful truth they uncover, these can range from annoying and hurtful to actually legitimately funny (after all, if you can't laugh at yourself, you're doomed).

But, when I think about it, these jokes are really about one thing: the amount of time a person spends in a world that is not our own.

Because what is the shared implication of these kinds of insults? That serious gamers are so involved in their in-game universes that they don't have the time or the real-world skill to do things like date or earn a living wage. All these littler jabs are smaller versions of a bigger idea, perhaps the bigger one directed at gamers by disapproving authority figures -- "You're wasting your life on those things."

As an actor, reader and avid gamer, I spend huge portions of my life in the creation or consumption of fiction. So this idea -- that I've forsaken the real world, the only world that matters, for a life of fantasies and make-believe -- has the potential to really bother me.

How far is too far through the portal to Pretend?  How can I justify the time I spend on the other side?

I talk about Game of Thrones more than anyone should talk about anything, including important family issues.

Now, let's be clear -- a good solution to this problem is always moderation. Of course. If you feel like video games, movies, TV shows and the like are wonderfully entertaining, occasionally enlightening, but ultimately steal time away that could be used toward living in the real world, then you just set a limit for yourself. You play a certain amount, and then you put the controller down.

But I'm past moderation. I find myself, at this point in my life, almost completely submerged in the lore of the imaginary. Check out just some of the ways that fiction is controlling my life:

  • I spend idle moments -- at my day job, on the train, at the laundromat -- reading the books of the A Song of Ice and Fire series (so many badasses!  It's kind of like The Wire in that literally every one of the many characters has at least one point where they become a total badass).
  • As often as possible, I act in plays or films. Acting is, for me, like playing an RPG on a console in the year 2146 AD. Sure, you have to stick to a script, but part of the thrill of it all is assuming the role of someone else as completely as possible, experiencing their triumphs and defeats as fully as you can.
  • And, of course, I love video games, and whenever I've got a few hours with no obligations, I fire up a title from my backlog and let myself sink into the game.

That's not even mentioning what TV or movies I can catch. It totals out to a quite considerable amount of time engaged in stories -- either telling them or having them told to me. And, wait, holy shit -- when I go to sleep, do my dreams count? Jesus!


I do worry that devoting so much of this life to leading these shadow lives is wrong somehow. I find myself wondering what I could've accomplished if I took all the time I've spent in illusion and used it to learn other languages or teach myself web design or something.

But my defense is that these experiences, the time I've spent in other worlds beyond the veil of the imagination, has lent colors to real life I'd never have discovered otherwise. I've touched bits of so many impossible lives, and they add up to an understanding of the world in terms that are wonderfully grand, sweeping, brooding and quirky.

And, in addition, fiction inspires us. It acts as a catalyst in ways that real events sometimes do not. It takes the emotions of our lives, often long, patchy, awkward things, and paints them brighter onto the canvas of the unreal. We react to it, and thus it is addictive.


For instance, I saw something on the NYC subway this morning. What I saw today was pretty tame on the spectrum of activities on display in the subway. It did not involve a face-rat or the Snack Man. But it was important to me.

It was a middle-aged man in the packed C train I ride to work every week. He was reading a comic book, though "reading" is not an adequate description of what he was doing. He was devouring it, really. He was absolutely immersed in it, softly speaking every line he read, taking the panels in with a kind of intense awe. He was entirely consumed by the world of the book, and turned to each new page with something beyond anticipation.

And when he was done, he closed the book, stared at the cover with this kind of sad smile for a long time, and then opened to the first page and began to read it all again.

I'm okay with having a life that's heavier on the stories than it is on the story-worthy.

Aaron Matteson writes Dangerous Physical Appliances 2000, a weekly column for Joystick Division.
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