World of Theorycraft, or the Subjective Value of Digital Labor: Part One (Youth)

Reliving an essentially static experience as two entirely different people is a unique–and rare–opportunity. How often is it that we may revisit some moment in our lives that for all intents and purposes has remained the same? How can we? Any place or person is not the same after the passing of years, not really. Others have changed with you, the years have had their way with even the stone. This is especially true now, in the age of rampant climate change, where even a period of decades may have fundamentally changed the geography of your memory. Indeed, during the 21st century, we might say it is impossible to thoroughly make a return as a different person to a wholly stagnant realm–whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. Real, actual matter and substance obeys the rules of reality and proceeds and exists without us or our supervision or even our regard. This is object permanence. But this is only true in reality, something so vast and beyond our understanding that we exist at its whim and not the other way around. It is not true in realities we have constructed. The example I put forward–and hold your laughter–is World of Warcraft.

Within the past year or so, Blizzard has done something unheard of or at least so infrequently done as to be unheard of. Not in the sense of triumph or achievement–as has been said of other recent developments in electronic media, such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and the forthcoming release of Cyberpunk 2077–but rather the boldfaced recycling of old content. I am, of course, talking about World of Warcraft: Classic, the roots of which go back to Nostalrius a fanmade endeavor to retain the time-honored initial release of the popular MMORPG. This formerly little known passion project had been gaining more and more interest as interest conversely waned in the actual retail version of the game itself, and so the sharks at Blizzard, as they so often do, spotted the chance for a cash grab. Blizzard ordered a cease-and-desist and promptly “began development” of their own attempt at nostalgia which would become WoW: Classic as we know it today.

And what a shot of nostalgia it is. The rush of the drums at the login screen. The lofty stone of the Dark Portal, swirling with chaotic energies and ready to usher you into a world of magic and mystery and blood. At once you begin to settle into a strange sensation not felt in so long a time: familiarity. It is not unlike going home. It is not unlike waking up and realizing that these last years and all their troubles have merely been a dream. Indeed, for so many the roads and dungeons of Azeroth were home and dreamlike in their capacity to whisk one off into a world so engrossing the loading screen would caution them to be sure to not forget the world outside. Character creation is like visiting a motley of old friends, once so intrinsically familiar that their absence is only truly felt upon rediscovery. The origin point for each path glimmers like the light eking from a hardly cracked door. Bleak skies over the gloom and glades of Tirisfal, the arid red rock of Durotar, the rolling plains of Mulgore, the peaceful forests of Elwyn, and so on. Each one a microcosm of a time in the avid player’s youth. Then, with a name and a few clicks of the mouse, this world once again becomes your own–for a time.

This is a feeling many will know who had played and are now playing again what is now a cultural titan, but not so long ago was the marker for a total and complete dork. I was one of those dorks. Indeed, I was and am the ultimate dork. I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons since I was 8. I’ve created my own RPG rules set. I’ve written ten books and devoted tens of thousands of words to setting notes that other people will probably never see. This is not to brag, but to press home that despite appearances you will not find a bigger dork. So it is with some emphasis that I tell you how pumped I was as kid to throw together an Orc (my favorite race since playing Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness as a very wee lad), give him an Orc sounding name, and get rolling as a bloodthirsty Warrior ready to deal death and collect plunder.

And yet for all my cultic devotion to things nerdy, especially for anything pumped out by Blizzard up to and including circa 2004, I found my enthusiasm quickly begin to wane. Once I ventured outside the Valley of Trials, triumphed over the insanity of Barrens Chat and progressed into the grueling Thousand Needles, each rotation (Charge, Rend, Battle Shout if it wasn’t active, Heroic Strike, etc.) became a chore. Each quest became a task. The excitement bled away until all that was left was the incomprehensible drag that was leveling your character to 60 and your professions to 300 and playing the auction house to get enough gold for your mount and so on. Everything became what is known unaffectionately in all gaming circles as “The Grind”.

I simply could not tolerate it. My young brain was moving a mile a minute and required much noise, many flashing lights and moving objects. I quickly would retreat into Halo or Call of Duty or any of the many, many single-player RPG’s that sapped away hours and hours of my youth (Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, Planescape: Torment and Fallout). I was an aficionado, you see, a lover of many digital delights, and the time sink of killing the same mob over and over and over to get item after item after item or running the same dungeon a minimum of 10 times to get a much needed piece of equipment could simply not appeal to me. Instant gratification was my muse. I wanted to move at my own pace, to be rewarded specifically at the rate of the work I was putting into the game. Patience was unknown to me and the frustration very familiar that comes on when confronted with the absence of reciprocation. If you’re anything like me, Dear Reader, you’re beginning to know all too well what I’m talking about. Because of course, after all, what I’m talking about is that other “Grind”. The Real Grind. The Dark Tunnel At The End of Which We Hope Is A Light.

What I’m talking about is Life and the labor of Living.

As a child, you have no concept of what that truly means. What is life as a child? What is the labor of living as a child? I speak from the experience of being a habitually depressed child with a less than stellar childhood, so let’s dispense with any indictment of the argument predicated upon some childhoods entailing some labor. Ideally, and for many, childhood is the period of years that will come to form one’s peak personal and emotional freedom. To paraphrase an expert on the existential dread that waits at the other side of the field of youth, children do not yet have any concept of what “day-in, day-out” truly means. And the young do not yet have any concept of labor or labor as it will come to mean in adulthood. Labor to a child is a simple matter of arithmetic. If I add one stone to the pile, there will be one more stone on the pile; conversely, if I take one away, there will be one less. A simple system of reciprocity. The idea of random apportioning is anathema, as it inherently is senseless at best and unjust at worst. Children are mirrors for the world around them. They haven’t yet been chewed up. A child can tell the just from the unjust by mere instinct. And so by mere instinct a child, barring extenuating circumstances, can suss out an exploitative and unfair system when they encounter one.

Enter again World of Warcraft, inheritor of the social perils begun by Everquest. A lack of patience can render large swaths of the game a chore, but what truly deadens the experience for a child (or at least this former child) is the lack of fairness. “Life isn’t fair” is a common refrain among the playerbase in answer to any complaints regarding the game mechanics. Indeed, the game mechanics themselves are designed with that refrain in mind. How else do you continue shilling millions of people out of $15 a month? Surely not out of brand loyalty or legitimate entertainment, but by exploiting that reptilian desire to see numbers increase. Much has been written on the similarity between gambling and the mechanics of loot acquisition in gaming. World of Warcraft was perhaps the first significant example of this before the modern day boogeyman of Loot Boxes. So I won’t delve into that too much here.

Rather the point is more that this lack of fairness, which children who are able to afford gaming PC’s do not yet readily understand as an element of the real world, is repugnant to them. They can’t understand it. For the most part life has supplied them with what they needed and did not ask that they earn it first. If they earned anything, they earned it on the basis of reciprocity and not randomization. Many younger players will not go on to hit max level, to raid with prominent guilds, to make “World First’s” of this or that new boss. They will leave and return and leave and return until months or years they later reach something of an endgame. Only for another expansion to drop. Or another content patch. Or, god forbid, a sequel. One understands how a child could tire of this repetitive and sluggish pace, a repetitiveness and sluggishness not uncommon in adult life, which they have yet to experience. I might even suggest that World of Warcraft, in its purest and most original form, is quite the system of training wheels for how to survive in the capitalist and cutthroat nightmare into which we all one day age.

A nightmare we will explore afresh in Part Two: Maturity…

(Note: I am speaking under the assumption of a generally privileged childhood, as that was my experience at least in a monetary regard, which in many cases can be assumed of WoW’s playerbase.)

A Thing That May Only Fall

These are the darker nights of the soul.

All in which the wind is a slow rolling thing.

A zephyr ethereal

Empyrean and ephemeral

Coming from some farther off place

~

I will never reach that summit.

I will dance about its feet.

I will show the roots who I am.

I will know the crevice for the secret held.

~

What am I to do with all this oncoming?

Black hearts, blacker tongues of wave after wave

The water laps at a shore that never ends.

Rocky shoal

Whirling away into the night of the storm

~

I will pick the stones up from where I see them.

I will toss them all back from whence they came.

I will expect all that I will.

I will accept all that I will not.

~

There is a cadence to the end of time.

The dance of a whirlwind

All my thoughts obey the current.

Again and again, what remains?

The terrifying freedom of a thing that may only fall.

He Took An (Existential) Arrow To The Knee (Soul)

I’m not going to lead with my usual narrative build-up. The seed of this post is so well-known as to be a cultural artifact for anyone below the age of 40 and over the age of 10. Indeed, no sooner will someone within this demographic hear the words “I used to be an adventurer like you…” before automatically filling “…then I took an arrow to the knee.” It’s mnemonic in that way. But why? The reasons are many. The line’s meme potential defies calculation, which is obvious by the longevity and proliferation of same. It’s also very distinct and even when heard in passing remains an earworm as one continues to gallivant around Skyrim. Instantly the phrase recalls fond memories of Whiterun and Stormcloaks and Imperials and endless, endless Draugr. There is also the obvious color that hearing the line again and again undoubtedly adds to the game world. However, in my view, the value of the phrase is none of these, save perhaps a deeper aspect of the latter. What do I mean by this? Well, let’s consider a separate type of depth beyond physical and immediate exploration.

Many, many entertainment experiences–cinematic, literary or of the gaming variety–celebrate the sheer wealth and breadth of the work on offer. Brilliant, unique characters populate fantastic (or decidedly unfantastic) settings and contain endless narrative threads for the enjoyment of the enterprising consumer. The Open-World Game–emphasis intended–was once a novelty, especially on consoles, limited by the processing power of the then-current generation of technology. Each one to drop was an event, a herald of the coming sea-change in gaming. Fable, Spiderman 2, any Elder Scrolls game, and (of course) Ever(crack)quest and World of War(crack)craft. Iconic releases that defined an era in gaming and iconic specifically for the massive sandboxes to explore and manipulate. And there is much indeed to explore and manipulate. The experience feels expansive in each case. One may plunge deep into the content and wheresoever one chooses. Few of these games suffer from the adage “a mile wide and an inch deep”, if any. That’s their claim to fame after all: depth. Indeed, what they’re lacking has little to do with depth or lack thereof, but rather age. Which is the essence of having once been an adventurer until taking an arrow to the knee. Having once been. Until.

What I’m describing is more than a plenitude of spatial distance. Rather, what brings this phrase to the forefront of Skyrim like no other part of Skyrim is its suggestion that there is a before and consequently after to the narrative. That in itself suggests that you, the player, are merely a mote passing along the diode of time. In simpler terms, the guard saying for the umpteenth number of times that he used to be an adventurer like you before taking an arrow to the knee takes the vast three-dimensional world that Bethesda has become so expert at developing and stretches all its manifold components and narratives across a fourth dimension: time.

The implication that there exists a before to your journey in any narrative likewise suggests an after, both together suggesting linear time, and that implication performs an immense amount of labor in creating a living world. Indeed, there is a wide gulf that exists between a living world and an expansive world. An expansive world, if unalive, is simply static. You are the only moving object within the world. In a sense, time does not exist in that world or at least not in a linear sense, for events (and so time) only progress whensoever you choose. Living worlds operate like this too. We have not truly found a way (no marketable way at any rate) to create a persistent world in which the player is literally merely a factor (as opposed to the mere suggestion that they are a factor). Rather it is the dimension of time that helps to bring alive an expansive world, to engender a sense of progression and movement outside and notwithstanding the actions of the player. For there is no way that the player can stop that arrow from sinking into that guard’s knee. There is no way to prevent his hobbling and thus allow for the rise of his adventuring career. The player has no control over this scenario. This derailing of his life persists with or without them.

And of course all of this is to the benefit of the player.

The respect paid to time–as to the cultures, the locales and characters–crosses a threshold for the expansive open world game that would not be crossed otherwise. Ambient time–that is, suggestions of the before and after along a linear path that are come across in the course of things–seeps in around the player like a ghost. Whispers that there was a world here before and will be a world long after. A memento mori, if you will, that the struggle of the player is perhaps not in vain but certainly not singular. This is a staggering concept, with sobering implications. What are we but the shadows of dust thrown against the wall by the light of the fire of life, briefly present and hardly remembered? Who are we; where are we going; do the matters of our lives matter in the scheme of time? The answers to those questions have occupied some of the best minds of our species for millennia and continue to do so.

The great Human Experiment remains incomplete and won’t be solved here. But we continue to explore that concept. And, at its core, this exploration of ambient time poses an existential question that I need not explain. If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably a member of that self-selecting population who finds some twisted enjoyment in picking at the scab of their ennui. Rather the key thing is to understand how easily we might inject a little existential truth into the worlds we build for others to explore and inhabit, how easily we might deliver more than a vast material space filled with a plenitude of static entities.  Indeed, the point is no more or less complex than this: All that sobering truth, that world-shattering and world-deepening, was accomplished with this simple, little line: “I used to be an adventurer like you, then I took an arrow to the knee.”

Diminishing Returns at the End of the World

I finally figured it out, and it’s embarrassing that it took me so long. I’ve recently started playing Fallout 4 for what is probably the fourth time, the previous three unsuccessful attempts at finishing it. Which is a problem in its own right. It has probably the worst plot setup of any modern game, if only because of its quality in many other respects.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Your child is kidnapped and your wife shot, and yet the game allows you the opportunity for a gleeful romp through the wasteland until you decide to finally go figure it the fuck out. Yes, it’s a facet of nearly every RPG that you can kind of waylay the main quest for however long you want. But! The start of the main quest is not usually so imperative as chasing down the kidnappers of your son and last living connection to anything approaching normality. Think about it: You wake up after 200 years, watch your wife get blown away by some mercenary dude in armor made out of tires, and your son taken away by another guy in a hazmat suit. Then you stumble through the Vault you’ve been secreted in, fighting your way through giant mutated cockroaches, and out into the vast unknown of an irradiated wasteland. A bit of a trip, right? Wrong. You’re as cheerful as ever to meet the acquaintance of Preston Garvey, cosplayer of an era he surely would have been able to piece together by listening to the recordings scattered throughout a mysteriously electrified Museum of Freedom. Even talking to your old robot butler, Codsworth, the first NPC you meet in the game, the main character has the emotional depth of a sociopath’s approximation of an appropriate response to the situation.

Which I suppose was a long winded, ranting way of finally getting me to my point. Nearly every Fallout has followed the same formula, with a notable exception being Fallout 2, which turns the genesis of the story on its head by requiring that you delve into a Vault rather than emerging from one. The Vault, in this instance, is the frightening and unfamiliar thing. A suitable followup, not at all a carbon copy. Queue Bethesda’s remakes. Each one: emerging from a Vault in some feebly different way. Fallout: New Vegas, a product of some of the original Fallout team at Obsidian? No Vault. You’re just some fuck. But tired replication isn’t even Fallout 4’s most glaring error. It’s that you have no real instigator for the plot beyond the player’s own decision. And before anyone suggests “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature”, this can be implemented well and absolutely is not here.

Fallout 1–going way back, I know–had similarly dire circumstances that saw you leave your life as a Vault Dweller behind: The water purification chip on which the entirety of the Vault relies to, you guessed it, drink serviceably potable water, has malfunctioned. You, the Vault Dweller, must go out into the wasteland and find a new one before everyone fucking dies. And die they will. Take too long and run out the most gruesome “days until” counter of all? Dead. You can’t fuck around for too long. There are ways to push the counter back. You can arrange for a shipment of water to reach the Vault, although for a ton of currency. But you still need to get that chip, my boy. Does failing this quest end the game? Yes. It’s a game after all. But conceivably you’re still out there wandering the wasteland in the wake of your failure. Game logic aside, you don’t *need* to get the chip. It would just be very helpful and good-hearted of you to do so.

In Fallout 4, you do need, however, to get your fucking kid back. Unless you are indeed a total sociopath, as mentioned above. But herein lies another problem, Fallout 4 breaks from tradition in one of only two significant ways, and it’s a disaster for the plot. You are an Actual Guy With An Actual Life. Do you get to choose his name, his appearance, whether it’s a ‘he’ at all? Yes. But that’s it. You still operate within the certain parameters that you’re a decorated war hero with a nice family and warm, loving home. Which sets the stage for the next departure. All previous incarnations, especially those developed by the original team, pretty well convey that the era before the Day the Bombs Fell deeply rooted in 1950’s America on steroids. The cheery veneer of everyday life was played up to extravagant ends and the extravagance of everyday life was such that even your average car was nuclear powered. This last item is perhaps the only characteristic that Bethesda carried over with Fallout 4. The wrecked, junked cars are indeed nuclear powered and will explode in a bright, fiery display when shot enough. But beyond this bright enamel of normality, everything was a totalitarian nightmare. Constant war, summary executions, political persecutions. Not a *nice* atmosphere in which you’re only concern is prepping to give a speech at the local veterans’ club. It’s absurd! It drives me insane!

But it’s to be expected, isn’t it? Across all forms of media these days–whether video games, movies, TV, or music–we’re getting soulless resurrection after soulless resurrection. Endless repeats of franchises that should have stayed dead. The sequel to the remake of the prequel to the original. It never ends. What can Bethesda do, but serve up an experience for the player? And only an experience, its approximation of what a Fallout game is *supposed* to be. The aim is not to create art. Just to replicate it. And more than this, the end result is a defanged and peppy knockoff. Nothing is permitted to be grim or carry any reminder that there is a world outside which is less than bright and shiny. Which is to be expected when everything is turned into a commodity, nothing left sacred. All they can hope to do is create a vast amusement park ride with enough attractions to distract from the fact you’re paying $7 for a bottle of soda. And, to their credit, they have. Fallout 4 is pretty fun to play. For a while. Then, eventually, after you’ve ridden enough of the rides, you realize just how much the soda costs and how long the drive home will be after you’ve wasted probably your entire day on something that wasn’t near as fun as you imagined–all just to make up for how utterly meaningless it was to begin with.

Coffee in the End Times

(Illustration by Megan Tatem)

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I want to sound off on something that has only just occurred to me. It involves waking up and smelling the coffee, but literally this time.

When I was a kid–not a kid-kid, mind you, but old enough–the sight of coffee beans and the aroma of brewing caffeine juice inspired something akin to bliss. Maybe it was all those Folgers and Maxwell House commercials, showing all the maddeningly content and happy adults downing their first cup of coffee for the day. Little did I know that age would transmogrify this beverage into an absolute necessity that I would chug down every consecutive day of college and work after that. Even when I experienced the diminishing returns and the rare horrors of the times when another cup actually makes you more tired. As with so many things in childhood, coffee was stripped of its decadence and delectable enjoyment by the travails of wage slavery and assembly line living so common to Americans. You don’t go to the movies or sit down in front of the computer because you’re dying to see X or play Y more often than you’re just trying to evacuate this mortal plane for a while.

Drudgery, I would more aptly put it. Painful, fatiguing drudgery.

Why do I pen this paean to coffee? This ode to the joy of downing a cup of joe? See the above warning concerning pedantry before continuing.

For the first time since I left employment in June of this year, I found myself looking down at the subtly chocolate coffee beans I’d just poured into the grinder with something akin to that love I experienced as a kid. That promise of a contented, joyful morning. I did not have one, mind you. “Akin to” is the operative part of the phrase here. But the experience made me remind myself of all that I had just kind of lost in the intervening years leading up to this one. Made me really bring into a frame of reference all those years of chronic stress and chronic illness. And therein lay another discovery.

Not only was able to experience the morning ritual of a cup of coffee in the way that it used to make me feel, but I was able to consider all that stress and sickness from a point of view that did not make me hate myself or the world for it. I was able to look at it and, in a way, say to myself that I survived. I’m still here. And without the nascent promise that a time would immediately arrive to dispel this idea, as I’ve arrived at this state of being before and been quickly disabused of it by a new crisis.

In short, this morning helped me to understand that I was not going to process through many “bad years” in a few “good months”. That it would take time, so stop worrying over it and getting upset about it. The stop at the next station is still coming, you’re just still on the tracks for the foreseeable future.

But this comes at a cost, one that I may no longer bear, but that others still do in my stead. In all our steads. A painfully few people who are not provided for by trust funds and other means of generational wealth get to experience this thing I’m experiencing, this shedding of years. And it sickens and saddens me. My small bump of happiness that maybe I’ll be alright is subject to the fact that many more others will never get the opportunity to reset and restart, to look forward to tomorrow as anything but another in a long line of struggles. They will grow old, but they will not retire. They will work until their bodies or minds fail them and are cast off into the gutter, replaced by the next rank of obedient workers. I hope this is not our future. It will be a short one if so, ended before its time by the weakening supports beneath a colossal monument to avarice. But in this moment and time, projected forward without alteration, that’s what awaits us. So we better start acting like it.

Join the Democratic Socialists of America. Vote Sanders in the 2020 primary and general. Protest, march, knock on doors, make phone calls, scream, tweet, post, or punch a Nazi. Do whatever you can. Fight for someone you don’t know or someone you do. We’re all in this together, and it’s my hope that when all is said and done, we’ll be enjoying a nice cup of coffee together.