I knew I was supposed to change but changing’s hard and it was easier just to play video games

When it came out a few months ago, I had thought I would read Everything Bad is Good for You, and another friend, who often talks with me about movies and reality television, said that she enjoyed it, so I grabbed it from the shelf yesterday as I was leaving work.

The basic premise of the book is that the complexities of the media we face such as video games and television is actually much more complex than in past years, and that instead of making us dumber, it’s actually helping our brains. I’m about halfway through the book, and I have to say that I am enjoying both how he phrases things I know but haven’t been able to put in words and the arguments he’s put forth. The three sections I have read so far have dealt with video games, television (both scripted dramas and reality programming), and the internet. I admit that, when it comes to my own opinions about these things, he’s pretty much preaching to the choir, because I personally feel that all of those things have their merits, but it was interesting enough that I thought I’d talk about it here today.

Let’s start with video games. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t hate them just because I hate Halo 2. I don’t enjoy playing them by myself, but Joseph and I used to play them together (or against each other) and I have very fond memories of playing Nintendo games like Zelda with him, figuring that stuff out. On some of the computer games, I’d work out the maps and read the guidebooks and he would control the characters, and I always enjoyed doing that with him. He was much more likely than I was to play by himself, but I enjoyed watching the stories unfold and uncovering the different challenges. By myself, I was more likely to set up a town in SimCity and then attack it with a monster, but Joseph and I saved princesses and found hidden gold and learned magic spells and killed trolls together.

Where video games lost me was when they started getting so complex, with side quests and fewer and fewer directions (and a less linear story).

In the video game world . . . the rules are rarely established in their entirety before you sit down to play. You’re given a few basic instructions about how to manipulate objects or characters on the screen, and a sense of some kind of immediate objective. But many of the rules– the identity of your ultimate goal and the techniques available for reaching that goal–become apparent only through exploring the world. You literally learn by playing. This is one reason video games can be frustrating to the non-initiated. You sit down at the computer and say, “What am I supposed to do?” The regular gamers in the room have to explain: “You’re supposed to figure out what you’re supposed to do.”

Exactly. That’s exactly why I am hesitant to start a video game these days. How will I know what to do? Anyway, reading the book made me realize that’s my fear: “How will I know what to do?” and gave me a greater appreciation for those of you who play those kinds of complex games. Really, the only games I object to are the violent ones and the ones that objectify people. I don’t object to someone playing through the levels of Halo as much as I object to the killing sprees that the Halo parties always turn into. But that’s another complaint for another time.

(Speaking of video games, Mike’s nephew got his own Gameboy for his birthday, so now he and Mike’s niece each have one. When he opened it, someone who knows about those things said, “What color is it?” It turned out to be blue, and I turned to Mike and said, “Back in my day, our Gameboys were gray and we liked it!” I’m getting so old. I also never had a Gameboy.)

I have already confessed that I enjoy reality television quite a lot, so this is the area where he is preaching the most to the choir.

The role of audience participation is one of these properties that often ends up neglected when the critics assess these [reality] shows. If you take reality programming to be one long extended exercise in public humiliation, then the internal monologue of most viewers would sound something like this: “Look at this poor fool–what a jackass!” Instead, I suspect those inner monologues are more likely to project the viewer into the show’s world; they’re participatory, if only hypothetically so: “If I were choosing who to kick off the island, I’d have to go with Richard.” You assess the social geography and the current state of the rules, and you imagine how you would have played it . . . in the world of reality programming, that projection is a defining part of the audience’s engagement with the show.

Now, you can do that with scripted dramas, too, but I think it tends to be more, “I can’t believe Lorelai said that,” whereas with reality television, I am the one playing. At work and with friends and with Mike, we talk about who we would have voted off or which task we would have chosen. We discuss strategy and social interactions, admiring one contestant’s actions while bemoaning another’s. The point, though, is that we are thinking about it. And as so much of reality television focuses on social interaction, it’s interesting to see how I react differently to situations and characters than Mike does.

The thrill of [a dramatic moment such as someone getting voted off the island] is the thrill of something real and unplanned bursting out in the most staged and sterile of places, like a patch of wildflowers blooming in a parking lot. I find these moments cringe-inducing, because the emotions are so raw, but also bizarrely hypnotic: these are people who have spent the last six months dreaming of a life-changing event, only to find at the last minute that they’ve fallen short. The thrill of reality TV is seeing their face at the moment they get the news; the thrill of thinking, “This is actually happening.” Next to that kind of emotional intensity, it’s no wonder the sitcom–with its one-liners and canned laughter–has begun to wither.

Now, here I will admit that I would love to be in complete agreement with him, though I do agree that the unscripted nature of the programs and the real feelings involved make the show more compelling to me than Two and a Half Men. The voyeuristic component as he talks about it here does make me a like uncomfortable. I enjoy Survivor more when people don’t take it so personally (which is what I thought was wrong with the All-Star edition). I think The Amazing Race is at its best when the teams work through their problems together and learn to appreciate each other more. I find that kind of real emotion very compelling, and when people can keep the perspective of being disappointed about losing a game, it’s still enjoyable and relatable. But when people’s actual feelings get hurt, that’s not so much fun to watch. The last tribal council of the All-Star season comes to mind. It was just painful.

Anyway, I just started the film section of the book, and I’m enjoying it very much. I would recommend the book to anyone who enjoys thinking about or discussing popular culture. While I don’t agree with everything in the book, I appreciate the thoughtful analysis of our culture and how our responses to it have changed over time.

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