Written for Haywire Magazine.
Being a freelance writer isn’t something I’m particularly proud of. It’s not difficult work to get into, but it is hard to do well and to make a living from it. Like many freelancers, I can’t live on the income I make doing this. Further, in polite company, I often struggle to find the right vocabulary to describe what I do. “It’s like film criticism,” I’ll often say by way of explanation, “except I talk about videogames.” It’s often received with glazed-over disinterest.
I mention this because my lack of pride feels like concession, like I’m giving up on pretending like I’m a normal adult who does normal adult things. I’m breaking the illusion that I’m achieving my goals and able to take these very unserious things and treat them very seriously. That I’m not just an assemblage of the mistakes and missteps I’ve made over the years. The wisdom I have today was earned through those errors, but it’s a wisdom I’m sure I was supposed to have found sooner.
My grandfather died earlier this year, and I still think about him a lot.
He possessed the kind of wisdom that only a lifetime of mistakes can earn someone, and he took to his work with boundless enthusiasm despite working almost until the day of his death. For me, speaking with him was a sobering look into a possible future of my own. In another way, it was like encountering a version of me I’ve seen hundreds of times before in my life, the one I embody when I step into the shoes of a videogame’s protagonist. Like them, he was someone for whom wisdom was reflexive. Someone who made the right decisions almost immediately and gracefully.
Videogames are stories about people like my grandfather, in a way; people whose actions are the culmination of countless wise choices made quickly. It’s part of what makes these characters heroic. Their strength and competence feel almost superhuman, because they’re a concentrated sample of near-impossible perfection. No matter the obstacle, if this hero can overcome it, their best skills will come to the fore at the time of need, and those skills will translate into a long string of talent and luck, repeated until the hero becomes canonized for their amazing feats.
But these victories are never as reflexive as they seem. In practice, every Game Over is a sort of unmade reality, one that erases the mistakes from ever happening except in the player’s memory, and future efforts all benefit from the wisdom gleaned over a hundred now nonexistent failures. That means that the only runs that really happen, according to the mythology of that hero, is the final, successful one. But there are countless failures—perhaps tens, perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands. Failure after failure after failure.
In a way, games lie about their heroes. Heroes serve as analogs for the player, while remaining above the mistakes the player isn’t. Because the missteps are discarded into the empty void of forgotten memories and unmade occurrences, it can be easy to see the strings of successes and believe because they were felt, they were earned, but the reality is that we lose more often than win, even though that isn’t true for the heroes themselves. The wisdom our heroes embody owes more to the convenient structures of the games than our own hard-fought victories.
I think about this a lot because I often mentally return to the numerous conversations I’ve had in polite company. Those where I try failingly to explain what I do for a living, and why it’s at all worthwhile in a world where games are and have always been trivial entertainment. I think about it a lot because games have made it easy for me to feel like I should be more successful because I have so many memories of victories under my belt, each of them hard-fought successes. Each of them a convenient lie, built on the failures discarded after restoring the last save.
I think about it a lot because if I had the wisdom a few years ago that I do now, I would have relished the conversations with my late grandfather more. I would have leaned into the times we got to sit down and talk for a few hours on the aspects of our lives. I would have celebrated that I never felt the need to justify my profession to him, because he accepted that there was a wisdom there, just one he didn’t yet recognize. He’d ask questions, he’d engage with the aspects he didn’t understand, and ultimately he’d gain an appreciation for games that I don’t think he ever had to work to learn. Now, whatever wisdom I could have gleaned further from him is gone. No save to return to. No checkpoint. Just my memories, and a distant grave.
I love games, but I don’t often enough recognize the ways in which I let games lie to me.
There is a part of me that feels if I just had the right words, I could have polite dinner conversation about games without feeling like an overgrown child who’s old enough for adulthood, but still has one leg deeply entrenched in the realm of make-believe and electronic playthings. Another part suspects that there is no right answer to these conversations, and no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to make other people react to games the same way my grandfather would have. I feel like I should be wise enough now to already know which one of these is right.
I feel entitled to a lot of wisdom that was only partially earned. Failures that feel like weaker experiences than the victories, so I don’t dwell on them. In ways, I feel like I share more with heroes than I really do, in part because I leverage their skills, but also their uncanny ability to be a protagonist. I too often believe the bad things won’t happen to me because it wouldn’t be dramatic enough, or because I worked too hard and had too many successes to fail.
The hardest part is realizing that I still internalize these things even though I don’t feel that strongly about myself. I still have a lot of self-doubt, but in these ways, I also don’t. That because of some of my beliefs about myself, how good I can be at certain things, I get to coast on the lies I’ve let myself believe. The wisdom I only think I have.
Wise enough, perhaps, to know that recognizing my flaws could be the first step to getting just a bit wiser. Who knows?