Tuesday, March 31, 2009


I've spent this semester thinking and writing about playing a video game, and I think I've now come to the place where I want to stop the actual playing and focus more on reworking these blog posts into essays.  So I think most of my future blogs will focus on other issues that are engaging me right now, including, most recently, travel.  

Last night I attended the Marjane Satrapi talk in Pittsburgh and was moved and entertained by Marjane's presence: her sense of groundedness, her sense of humor, her pragmatism and honesty.  I saw in her some qualities that I sometimes find in myself when I'm at my best, and seeing her on the stage gave me a renewed sense of of self in an odd way.  Her discussion about comic books reminded me a bit of video games.  In the same way people want to call a comic book a "graphic novel" because they're embarrassed to be caught reading comic books, so are academic types often embarrassed to admit they play video games, although both comic books and video games are simply new forms to deliver both information and stories.

I was also interested in a stray comment she made about what she is writing about now.  She talked about working on a movie and said something like, "It's about Iran because that's what I know, it's what I am, what I know best."  She doesn't seem to feel like she has to move on to something else, that, for better or worse this is her subject.  I have felt that way about my family, about Louisiana, that this is what I know best, but have also felt the need to break away from that, and this experiment with writing about WoW is one attempt to do just that.  As much as I have enjoyed the freedom to think and write about playing this game, and as much as I do believe I'll generate some interesting essays about it, writing about the game feels a bit empty somehow not thick enough, not layered enough, because of course, no matter how much you bring to it, it's not reality.  There's no blood when you kill in WoW, and if there were I probably wouldn't play it.  I know lots of games where there's lot of fake blood when you kill, but it's fake and you know it.  There are no smells, no real animals, no real land, no real water, no real food, and even the colors and impressive landscapes seem one-dimensional.  What I've learned is that there are real relationships that can develop between people in these games, though, and perhaps that's one of the attractions of the online games.

I've recently had an awful thing happen, so awful I can't even write about it in this blog (although I will, in time).  It involved a betrayal on the part of a colleague and friend, a betrayal that also damaged someone for whom I have responsibility.  I've spent the weekend depressed and sad and knowing that I can never count on this person again, and that my own work for the next year will be in some sense doubled because of this betrayal. An ending.

Although I'm sad about the betrayal and a little sad that I'm moving into a new stage of the video game writing project, both are endings that imply a new start, the excitement of new essays possibly published in print form (I still get excited, after all these years, by the prospect of publication), and a new shape to my own work because of this betrayal.  I remember that when the winds of Katrina knocked down the huge oaks I loved in a forest in Algiers, the space in the forest canopy allowed some of the stunted oaks and other saplings that were hanging out in the dark, to shoot up into the light, double their size and girth in less than a year. Something lost, something gained, my mother used to say. 

A death, a birth.  A loss, a  rich soil for planting  new seeds whose hulls will break open in the dark, their green fingers clutch through  dirt, reaching for sun.  

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Haunted by the Past

I have now played through the transformative moment for the Death Knights (called DKs in the game) where they turn away from the dark side and embrace the light.  How this happens is not as interesting to me as how the past follows the DKs in the game.  Initially, when they enter any city the citizens throw things at them, spit on them, call them names, taunt them because of their shameful past.  Eventually this stops as the DK starts to work for the "good."   The game goes on just as it would for any other high level character, for the most part, except that the DK character has a very swift horse, exceptional (blue) armor and a very cool way to zoom back to her home no matter where she is in the world.   She could almost forget that she was ever working for the evil one.  And it seems as if the game wants you to forget.  But I can't.

I feel ashamed when I play the DK character.  I remember only too well what that character did. Although the character has a swifter mount and way cooler armor than any of my other characters, it feels to me that the armor and mount was not earned in an honorable way, so I have mixed feelings about it.  The DK is still profiting from her evil (she hasn't given away the mount or the armor),  just like those CEOs who in the recent news have received huge bonuses for plunging the stock market into the abyss, so she, like them, is still to be despised.  

I haven't deleted the DK character, but I haven't played it for while.  I've chosen to create another character, a Troll Priest, who has weak armor, a slow, lolling gait, and skills that focus on healing.  She's very slow, and has to use her skills at healing herself to survive in any fight. She has to be more resourceful than a DK and can avoid fights by screaming at attackers and scaring them away so that she can run away.  And I am leisurely playing that character for now.

I just returned (in real life) from southern Mexico  where I travelled for two weeks on a delayed honeymoon with my husband (more about this in a future post).  I rarely thought about WoW; the landscape of the Sierra Madres and the culture of Mexico was so compelling I didn't have much time or desire to think of anything else, especially a fantasy landscape.  But I picked it up again when I returned.  Television has become so boring to me; except for the news I could happily never watch another TV show, but my husband does like to watch TV for a couple hours each night before going to bed.  So while he's watching TV, I'll play this game for R&R, unless I have papers to grade or books to read for the classes I'm teaching.  

We had the poet Alicia Ostriker, someone I've known personally for about 20 years,  to visit at Chatham last week, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to catch up with her.  We had engough time talking that I began to tell her a little bit about my playing of this game and my desire to write a book or series of essays related to the playing of the game.  She seemed to agree that the experiences were interesting, but at one point asked  "So are you addicted to this game?"  

Of course I said no.  I play about an hour a day, I said.  But this reminds me of the alcoholic who says she isn't an alcoholic, only has two drinks a day (forgetting to mention the times she has three or four or sometimes passes out).  Sometimes I play more than an hour, especially on the weekends.  And I think about it a lot, although in all honesty I am obsessive about anything I plan to write about seriously, so this is no different.  But the real truth is that I have thought a lot about addiction;  I've written about drug and alcohol addiction extensively in my poetry and essays (both my brothers, my aunt and father died early of drugs or alcohol), and I have thought all along playing this game that it would be useful for me to explore why and how video game addiction occurs, and to try to write about it.  Since I came close myself to falling to the same addictions my father and brothers fell to, but survived to tell about it, I figured I might have the strength to survive this and write in a compassionate way about the desire to play these games such that those of use who don't play (and especially mothers and fathers) have a first-hand account from someone who's been there.  

But just as I'm haunted by the past actions of the DK figure, I'm haunted by my own past and the past of my brothers and father.  I feel that darkness in my fingers when I move my characters around the screen, when I furtively look at the clock to see how long I've been playing, when I rush upstairs to play after work or when Teake leaves to go to the store.  I'm playing with fire, and my fingers know it.