Pinning Butterflies

Somehow I missed an anniversary.

A little over two years ago I wrote my first article for Gamers With Jobs. I could sink into the wet-jello of maudlin, extolling the virtues of our community and its importance in my life. It would all be true. But my anniversary navel-gazing has revealed a more interesting gem: writing about games for the last two years has changed how I think about games. It's changed how I approach a game when I first fire it up. It's changed how I play it. It's changed how I feel about it.

My journey to Gamers With Jobs began with a Call for Writers. My wife and I were watching Season 2 of Lost – the highly underrated Rose and Bernard subplot. I was sitting on the floor, my laptop on the coffee table. I was leaning against our aging blue couch.

"I'm going to win this," I said. In my head, this was a competition. It was charged with Olympian energy.

"What?" Jessica was only paying tangential attention to me, just as I was paying tangential attention to the TV.

"Gamers With Jobs. It's a game website I read. They're looking for new writers."

"Oh."

I wrote an introspective navel-gazing piece (much like this one) on the role of gaming in my life. I agonized over it. I sat in my basement, bleeding into my keyboard for hours on end. If I could have outsourced it to a withered 54-year-old grandmother wasting her golden years in a Mumbai cubicle for $4 an hour, I would have.

Two years later I sit in the same basement. But the Reeses chocolate/peanut butter transmogrification of these two great loves of mine – words and games – has been unexpected. Two years later, after going back to the regular-column, writer-for-hire world, and working even more gaming into the same life, these two activities are now inextricably fused. When I play games, I no longer just play the game. I editorialize.

An example.

My memories of Half Life are shallow. I remember the train ride into Black Mesa. I remember the first headcrab that leapt from the wet darkness. I remember the end.

That was before I wrote about games.

My memories of Half Life 2, Episode 2 are as vivid as if I had lived through them in meatspace. I remember individual lines of Alyx Vance’s dialog. I remember the pattern of movements that lead me through the one-on-one, under-armed combat with the first strider. I remember the decaying garage, full of tractor-trailer containers and corrugated steel. I remember the frustration of the penultimate battle with that strider’s demon brethren. I remember these things because I wrote them down.

The act of writing something down – either literally, or into a microphone, or even just into the mental parchment of failing neurons – unfailingly alters my experience.

Last week, my daughter became obsessed with the SPORE creature creator. As I watched her make Martian after Martian (as she calls them) I found myself unintentionally and without forethought making mental notes for what will inevitably become a piece about SPORE. I have no idea when or where or for whom this piece might be written. It could be next week on this site. It could be 9 months from now for Paris Match.

Yesterday, I lounged in my hammock playing Space Invaders Extreme on my PSP. I stopped several times to make actual notes into a voice recorder about why such a simple game was so much fun – how the inclusion of power-ups has taken the world’s simplest gaming metaphor and extended it. How a game with only three binary inputs boils down gameplay so much that it removes all barriers to entry. I made a note to get my friend Rebecca – a forty-something novelist who claims an early ‘80s arcade addiction – to play it and get her thoughts.

This self-conscious focus on both the game and the gamer is an unadulterated good. Playing games now brings a joy of personal intellectual exploration, in addition to the joys of escapism, mastery and conquest. There is no doubt in my mind that my enjoyment of BioShock was substantially magnified because I went into the game thinking, not just passively waiting to experience. How it was made? Who made it? Where the threads were that I could pull on, and discover how much fabric was really there?

Writing about games has taken me from the role of dreamer into the world of the lucid dreamer. Where once I woke from moments of seeming glory, grasping at the fading fragrance of what was right there just a moment ago, now I emerge from a game startled and awake, reaching for the pad of paper, struggling to synthesize the experience in a new form – a form hardened by an edge of language.

So here's my anniversary advice: think about it while you play it.

When I’ve finished an evening playing Team Fortress 2, I take a few moments to process. I don’t write an essay about the importance of World War II propaganda art in the development of Team Fortress 2. But I do take just a moment to put it in context. Who made this game? What was it like to be sitting in the chair of the 20-something artist who worked on the textures for the Pyro’s mask? What did it feel like when I died for the 12th time without a kill? Why was that one sniper-shot so emotional, in such a casual game? Who was on the other side?

I don’t do this because I’m writing a review of a year-old game. I do it because it fixes the moment in time. Wrapping dreams in language brings color and shape and thick, Photoshopped edges to an experience that will otherwise disappear in a diaphanous vapor as soon as the monitor goes dead. It makes the experience more real, more important, and ultimately, more satisfying.

Comments

Me right good.

Nice article rabbit.

How very poignant.

I must confess that I've been wondering lately whether I was "growing up" or if I'm finally jaded enough to find less and less enjoyment in the games I play. Perhaps it's both. Or maybe the river of gaming is flowing by and my attempts to step in it for same experiences is less and less likely to happen.

Perhaps a new approach; a new perspective is needed. I do miss the wide-eyed reckless abandon of figuring out new and exciting games.

Same here, especially when I go back to older games. I can't just sit in a nostalgic haze; I have to check the credits and analyze the assumptions and devise the genealogy of the game. I read movie criticism and see how it relates to something I've just seen in Mass Effect. It's all one big analytic soup.

Happy anniversary.

rabbit wrote:

But my anniversary navel-gazing has revealed a more interesting gem:

Please be lint, please be lint.

rabbit wrote:

writing about games for the last two years has changed how I think about games.

Aw...

But more seriously though, do you find that you are more critical of a game now and have trouble just enjoying a game that you might otherwise have accepted more easily, flaws and all?

You know, not really. Sure, we all become jaded, but in some ways the act of verbalizing lets me gloss over the bad stuff. To be sure, now that I do so much more gaming on consoles, where I can rent games, my ability to say "oh well" and move on removes a lot of potential bitterness.

Good article. I can remember Half-Life because it was my first. You never forget your first.

Why was that one sniper-shot so emotional, in such a casual game?

That's why its still fun. I used to think the 'nemesis' where just cruel punishment, but when you hunt down your nemesis for a revenge, it feels as good if not better than winning.

Well, Thanks to you for winning and writing these great articles for us. Two years probably seems like it was just yesterday, hence why you missed the anniversary. Hopefully you do better with yours and Jessica's.

Not that I am an expert by any means, but as I recall from many talks on the subject of the brain, the act of writing or speaking actually moves the images from playing from one side of the brain to the other. In so doing (you are actually verbalizing even though you are writing) you move the experience from the pre-cognate area of the brain into the storage area.

That is a huge oversimplification of long ago remembered chats with my Grandfather who was deep into the study of the brain, but it makes the point. Seeing is one thing. verbalizing is remembering.

Great article Rabbit. When I finished up my English degree, I found I couldn't read a book without consciously analysing it, but in a bad way. It actually impinged on the sense of immersion that you get from a really good book. The instinct has faded over time and just become quite handy for questioning why a particular scene or image works so well.

I think the difference when you're actively writing about games is a positive one - games are fundamentally active, involved experiences, so writing about them is another layer to that experience, one which brings it into sharp focus, rather than an interruption into a passive form (like your drunk uncle loudly predicting plot twists in a movie from the armchair in the corner).

I think I just realized why you started using voice recognition software.

Thanks to computers, I no longer have an excuse to leave piles of old notes laying around my room.

Of course my mom still likes to tell me how messy my old room is, what with the laundry baskets full of random notes and assorted brick-a-brack.

Edit to add:

Happy Dave wrote:

Great article Rabbit. When I finished up my English degree, I found I couldn't read a book without consciously analysing it [...] The instinct has faded over time [...].

Tragedy!

cmitts wrote:

That is a huge oversimplification of long ago remembered chats with my Grandfather who was deep into the study of the brain, but it makes the point. Seeing is one thing. verbalizing is remembering.

Confucius wrote:

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

rabbit wrote:

So here's my anniversary advice: think about it while you play it.

After listening to the GWJ podcasts and frequenting our esteemed forums, this is one thing I seem to have started doing anyway. At least with games that possess enough content worthy of thinking about. I still enjoy the disconnect-your-brain gaming fluff as much as the next goodjer though!

I bet you only write about games because you can use phrases like....

..wet-jello of maudlin
....bleeding into my keyboard
....Olympian energy
.....as if I had lived through them in meatspace
.....mental parchment of failing neurons
....Wrapping dreams in language
....that will otherwise disappear in a diaphanous vapor

But my all time favorite ..
Reeses chocolate/peanut butter transmogrification

Well done sir!!! I am humbled by your verbiage and phraseology. Happy Anniversary!!
If only word skills could translate to an improvement in your Kill/Death ratio in TF2

Real life as meatspace!!! What a concept!

Well before I started writing for websites, my participation in forums was a revelation. Reading impressions in a magazine was one thing, but formulating my own and sharing them in an online community was a whole new level of appreciation.

These days, doing a podcast every week has completely altered the way I play games. I play way more, I'm less likely to replay anything and like rabbit says, when I'm playing I keep a section of my mind back in the bleachers so I can see the forest for the trees. Knowing you have to share a viewpoint with thousands of people really keeps you on your toes when you play. I don't even like playing games when I'm tired for that reason.

It may sound distancing or counter-productive to having fun, but I really do enjoy the process.

wordsmythe wrote:

I think I just realized why you started using voice recognition software.

I am so used to biting sarcasm at your hands, I am completely baffled by this comment!

PCman wrote:

I bet you only write about games because you can use phrases like....
... If only word skills could translate to an improvement in your Kill/Death ratio in TF2.

Ok ok, so I'm a self-indulgent word-prat who can't shoot my way out of a barn.

"It use to be about the music man, what happened to you?"

-Milhouse Van Houten

I was a reviewer during the Dot.Com boom of the turn of the century and after a while I felt that gaming had become a job.

Of course I was never in the comfortable position of reviewing games that were actually good because I was mostly in charge of hiring and keeping the staff happy, therefore giving them the good games because, really, the games were what you were paid with. If they had bad games to review, they wouldn't stay for very long.

I remember a game by Microsoft. A game with jetpacks. I don't recall its name for surely my brain must be trying to forget the memories of having to cope with such a buggy piece of crap. The scripting was coded so wrong it made it impossible to finish some missions.

Certainly my disdain of the last few years for PC games must come from this period of my life, where I had to play games in unfinished states to the end, which was nearly impossible. This is when games shipping unfinished and buggy really started.

At times, it was hell.

Fortunately after a short period of time I started to love gaming again, especially when the Dreamcast came out. It reconciliated me with consoles I think. I'm at peace with PC gaming as well now. I think developers have learned that you just can't opt to ''ship and patch later'' anymore.

Very good, and, of course, very true. Once you start writing about games frequently (or, godforbid, as your day job), it's hard to refrain from compartmentalizing as you play - removing yourself from the experience to mentally watch yourself experiencing the game. Very weird indeed.

In some ways, that distance adds to the experience: As you said, you appreciate the subtext and narrative construction more, and you can remember your playthroughs in more detail. But then again, some of the initial wonder is lost, too. For example, I'd hate to have been saddled with writing a review of Grim Fandango or Chrono Trigger, two of my favorite games of all time.

Plus, there's a downside you neglected to mention: Your truism about writing helping you remember games better applies to both good and bad games equally. I will never be able to forget the time I spent playing Crime Stories, and that knowledge makes me die a little on the inside.

boogle wrote:

Good article. I can remember Half-Life because it was my first. You never forget your first.

I'll always remember Half-Life. I finished it two times back to back the first time I played it. Another great article Rabbit!

Regardless of the article - or many others - regardless of the podcast and the forums/forumites: know that the reason i became hooked to this site was because of this article.

I couldn't imagine GWJ without the Rabbit. Congratulations on two years! Here's to many more!

As an aside (or more likely, on topic) I remember plots and such with relative ease whilst forgetting the more stolid forms used for regurgitating information (i.e. textbooks). Games, movies and books tend to be once-throughs for a couple of years...

Really, I am quite glad that I lost out in the whole competition...I would still like to write some things, but I also started getting the sense that writing about games somehow changes your enjoyment of it.

Besides, Rabbit and Momgamer are about 100x better writers than I am. Still not sure about that Zenke guy though.

I always wondered if game industry writers were able to separate the Work and Fun aspects of their jobs. It's nice to know that one can be "on" without it taxing all the enjoyment out of the hobby.

The competition should have had a cage-match component though.

Here's to 2 more years of great writing, rabbit!

Knowing you have to share a viewpoint with thousands of people really keeps you on your toes when you play.

Thousands, really? GWJ is that popular?

I might have to rethink some posts I've made...

Awesome.

Mex, for every one person who thinks to post there are hundreds who just read. Just imagine them all standing behind you and you'll do fine.

Great article. I have noticed that a lot of my gaming time has gone through the great gray mass and did not stuck there. The parts that did were those where I just stood still for a moment and actively noticed how great this certain event or situation played out, those are also my most fondest memory and the best reason to keep playing games. If you lose all the experience when playing, it's actually not worth the time, is it?

Holy kibble. I just realized that in two yearsish, you went from basement dwelling GameFAQS poster to basement dwelling interviewer of John Carmack, Tommy Tallarico, and other gaming notables.

FanTAStic!

Certis wrote:

Mex, for every one person who thinks to post there are hundreds who just read. Just imagine them all standing behind you and you'll do fine.

ALL the time...

Koning_Floris wrote:

If you lose all the experience when playing, it's actually not worth the time, is it?

True 'dat!!

It's kind of like dying as a high level character in Everquest 1 and not recovering your corpse.

Duoae wrote:
Certis wrote:

Mex, for every one person who thinks to post there are hundreds who just read. Just imagine them all standing behind you and you'll do fine.

ALL the time...

Aww, man! Now I won't be able to pee all day!

(Great article, rabbit. :))

rabbit wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

I think I just realized why you started using voice recognition software.

I am so used to biting sarcasm at your hands, I am completely baffled by this comment!

If it makes it any easier on you, I started reading GWJ two years ago because of Ian, Lara, and Sean's articles at least as much as yours. By the end of September 2006 I'd signed up and started posting long-winded intellectual rubbish in Malacola's article threads.

I ended the first thread I posted in. A couple months later, Malacola left the site.

Perhaps I should start referring to my posts as "filibusters" instead.

Just don't go work for any mags Lara and I write for - there'd be a singularity which would suck down an entire industry.