Sunday, October 14, 2012

A better reality

I have lots of things to be thankful for, and this might not be the least of them: I’m not in any way addicted to digital games. Some people might say this and then be challenged on their assertion that (say) an hour a day doesn’t constitute an addiction, but I can speak confidently because I don’t play them at all. There was a time when I did, just some of the simple ones, when I was in an insufficiently challenging job and bored out of my mind, but as soon as I passed out of that situation, my interest died.


Reality is broken


A writer called Jane McGonigal, as cited in a recent New York Times article, might say I should be lamenting this rather than bragging about it: “In her book “Reality Is Broken,” (McGonigal) argues that play is possibly the best, healthiest, most productive activity a human can undertake — a gateway to our ideal psychological state. Games aren’t an escape from reality, McGonigal contends, they are an optimal form of engaging it. In fact, if we could just find a way to impose game mechanics on top of everyday life, humans would be infinitely better off.” Researching this a little further, I found a presentation by McGonigal in which she sets out the value of games in overcoming, for instance, “conditions of boredom, inertia, disinterest, and other serious afflictions of dealing with everyday life.” It seems clear McGonigal is a serious thinker whose interests go way beyond encouraging people to hole up in their rooms playing Angry Birds. Still, as the Times article points out, that’s frequently all that this amounts to in practice, and the fact (if it is such) that people might feel even worse if deprived of Angry Birds doesn’t seem to mean they’re actually better off for being able to succumb to it.


Among the many wrong turns we’ve collectively taken, it’s a bit of a doozy to have created a world that teems with distraction and opportunity and access, while at the same time allowing “boredom, inertia, disinterest” and so forth to flourish. McGonigal’s presentation quotes someone else as follows: “Life is crap, and the ONLY thing that makes it worth living is art – and play.” But it seems more and more that (statistically speaking) no one really believes the bit about “art.” The more readily and completely we have great literature and films and music at our fingertips, the harder it is to overlook how few people use their fingertips for that purpose. The central wrong turn, I think, is that those “serious afflictions” of life have usually been integral to the process of actually getting anywhere – no matter how much you like studying, or writing, or inventing, or whatever it may be, it entails major chunks of boredom and disinterest. I think some of the greatest people in human history probably spent huge chunks of their time in that state. If they’d had the choice of easing their misery with a Game Boy rather than pushing through to whatever ultimately defined them, I doubt we’d ever have heard of them again.


Filmmaking of the people


Most depressing to me is how embodying the crapness of life now seems to be a virtual prerequisite to attaining cultural prominence. No wonder people shook their heads at the most recent Oscars for instance. The Artist was a pleasant enough way to kill time, but essentially only turned our heads away from the modern crap for the sake of distracting us with a former brand of it. No one was fooled into viewing films like The Help and The Iron Lady as serious treatments of history – it’s all crap, just like you can’t believe what they tell you in school. And as for engaging with the modern world – films like Beginners and The Descendants are all about rich people problems, strongly conveying the inherent unworthiness of everyone else’s crap.


In some parallel socialist fantasy, cheap technology might have unleashed a new filmmaking of the people. But since the people know only that life is crap, they seldom get further than documenting that in the form of YouTube baubles (which the mainstream media seems increasingly, and to me bewilderingly, to regard as actual news). Even more ambitious projects often seem marked by futility. The most prominent current documentarian may be Morgan Spurlock, one of whose recent works was about selling out to marketers. An example I found oddly depressing was a British film from a couple of years ago, A Complete History of my Sexual Failures, in which a musician/director called Chris Waitt decides to visit the women who’ve dumped him in the past, and to try getting some insight into why he’s such a perpetual screw-up. The movie is interesting enough by its own low standards, and Waitt is self-aware enough to acknowledge the limitations of his project, and to goose it up by letting go of just about all vanity or dignity.


But it becomes increasingly clear that he has no idea why anyone else should care about his issues and experiences – the picture exists only because he views himself as a filmmaker, and this is the only film he could think of making. He tries to lend it some shape, to find something lasting or transcendent or transferrable, but there isn’t anything. He feels a bit better about himself at the end than he did at the beginning, but then that might have been just as true if he’d spent the budget on a fitness regime and an enhanced diet. The movie might have been designed to demonstrate how making “art” is just another boring letdown; better not to bother, succumb to the disappointment, and stave off the worst by playing games.


A Complete History…


Except that at the film’s very conclusion, Waitt finds himself in a new relationship, with a woman he met during the filming (in the course of a cringe-inducing sequence when he takes too much Viagara and runs round Central London asking random women if they’ll have sex with him). Out of understandable caution, the movie itself doesn’t make too much of it, but according to the web, they’re still together, over four years later. This may well be the best possible outcome, but it belongs totally to Waitt, and not at all to us – and is that how art should work?


How would we seriously know whether reality is broken or not, when by design or omission we never look in the right place, and we shirk the boredom of figuring it out? Absolutely, let’s all lose ourselves to games as a way of glossing over our miserable afflictions, but I don’t think the improvement to our reality will be as meaningful as for the people who came up with the stuff we’re losing ourselves to and thereby got seriously rich. I mean, if it’s all crap anyway, at least try to position yourself at the right end of it.

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