Hey - Two Brothers Talking

Change the System

June 6, 2019

Hey James,

In your note, you wrote about returning to memories of your childhood. I have been doing the same thing for the past few months. Pulling out the Nintendo 64, I’ve been playing games that our parents bought for us 20 years ago: completing missions in Goldeneye, racing levels I hadn’t seen before in Diddy Kong Racing, spending hours shooting computer simulants in Perfect Dark. These are games that I never fully beat as a kid, and perhaps that’s why I’ve returned to them.

I’m someone who enjoys crossing things off of a checklist. In fact, I create checklists for things that have no business being systematized. For 15 years, I maintained a process of listening to CDs that was so regimented that it took 2 years for a new album to be moved through the system. That’s unbelievable! But from there, it’s not a surprise that I gravitate to video games, which provide a clear line between victory and defeat. If you die, you didn’t do what you were supposed to. If you collect 100 coins, you’re rewarded with an extra star. It’s a mode of thinking and approaching life that I’m comfortable with, because it doesn’t require thorough analysis to determine if you’re on the right track.

I, like a lot of people, respond to the chaos of existence by attempting to create order through my own convoluted systems. Video games reinforce that desire by lying to me: there is a way to exist perpetually in an ordered universe. Just keep hitting buttons until you accomplish something. What video games spend so much time and processing power trying to obscure is the fact that those accomplishments don’t have much importance in the context of our society. When threatened by systemic inequality and a group of people who are comfortable with fascism’s rise in our country, it takes a lot of work to challenge the situations we are in – let along to vanquish it and create a more just world. I don’t know if anything I do will be enough; I don’t know if I’m spending my time in the right way. The anxiety that accompanies such uncertainty can be paralyzing. You know what isn’t uncertain? Whether or not I killed Jaws and beat Aztec on 00 Agent in Goldeneye. (Which I did. It took a while.)

That’s another thing I should spend more time reflecting on. Why am I drawn to games that require, or at least encourage, some element of destruction? You and I – along with our friends – have spent a lot of hours in these worlds of guns and blood. Now, I’m not trying to claim that video games have desensitized us or made us into more violent people. But it is important to be mindful of how we spend our time. You talked about the disappointment you had with Game of Thrones, a show noted for its brutal depictions of violence. But those images were always challenged and countered by the joy and love in our apartment. On those Sunday evenings, you made delicious meals for our friends. We broke bread together, discussing wedding plans or challenges at work, or any other topic that helped us feel less alone. The way we spend our time and the way we react to media matters.

I recently won a copy of Pilotwings 64 on eBay and have spent a few nights with it. I hadn’t played this game since the days of Video Frequency, that rental store that was consumed and converted by its neighboring Wawa. I didn’t remember all of the details before I turned on the system. But that music! It’s as beautiful as I could have hoped for, and I’m back in our house on a Saturday afternoon. We are boys, still just learning how to exist in a world that doesn’t always care much for anyone. The controls are easy to learn but the game doesn’t stay easy. We spend the afternoon gliding on the wind, lifted by thermal drafts, and soaring through rings before landing. We are in an airplane, popping balloons then returning to the runway. We are lifted by rocket fuel to the sky and see others in formation, passing buildings and clouds. The whole point of the game is to be above the earth.

But we must come back down at some point. And when we do, we’re judged. We missed some rings. We didn’t do it quickly enough. We had too rough of a landing. We receive a rating: 67 out of 100. Better luck next time. Part of me yearns to reach 100, to shave off extra seconds, to make sure I pass through every ring, to come back down lightly and in the correct location. Steady improvements in my scores mean that I’m getting better. I’m accomplishing something, and I can prove it.

But when I play this game tonight, I will be in the sky for hours, gliding, hoping that those notes that first brought me back to our carpeted childhood living room floor will never fade.

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