Downtime

Ready Critic One

In real life, I’m a middle-aged writer living in an apartment crammed with books. In my gaming life, I’m allowed to be someone else.

Illustration: Laura Miller plays a video game while real life stacks up behind her.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Over any given weekend, I get a lot done. I chop down scores of trees, mine dozens of boulders, and build fire pits and wooden chests with my bare hands. I construct townhouses and copper refineries and weaving mills. I visit taverns run by my many friends and save some of them from certain death.

Of course, none of these accomplishments are real. But in the throes of a video game, they nevertheless feel essential and deeply satisfying. My immaterial projects call to me whenever I finish a task that does actually matter: handing in a first draft, getting the weekly grocery shopping done, folding the laundry. As soon as I check something off my to-do list, I get the itch to launch a favorite game, the theme music sending a surge of Pavlovian pleasure hormones through my veins.

In my actual life, I’m a middle-aged literary critic living in an apartment lined with bookshelves and an extensive collection of Art Deco teaware. In my game life, I’m a plucky explorer wandering the leafy wilderness, or a merchant prince amassing heaps of riches. I turn to games when I’m feeling gloomy, stressed, or otherwise hankering to get away from myself. For many years, beginning in the 1980s, first-person adventure games were the only kind I played, starting with primitive text-based specimens like Colossal Cave Adventure. The first time as I saw the lines, “You are standing at the end of a road near a small brick building. Around you is a forest,” above a blinking cursor while poking around on CompuServe at work, I was hooked. Turn left, turn right, try to open the door in the brick building or venture into the forest: the possibilities seemed abundant, if not endless. Then Myst, with all its sequels and knockoffs, appeared to provide the sights, sounds, and movement I’d had to imagine before. I could exit my mundane apartment and glide alone through enigmatic and exotic places, search the drawers in deserted rooms, and solve arcane puzzles, all the while asking myself, “What happened here?” I had friends who found these games too solitary, but this was exactly what I liked about them: the way they immersed me in a serene world so different from the crowded one filled with roommates and co-workers that I actually inhabited back then.

As I’ve gotten older and my everyday life has gotten quieter, I’ve since branched out to a few multiplayer titles. I have no interest in the most popular games—Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the ones that sell tens of millions of units and require phenomenal hand-eye coordination. Anything that exclusively or primarily focuses on combat bores me. Lately, my interest has narrowed to two titles in particular: a complex, layered, witty survival game, and a glacially-paced strategy game I took up because I thought it might help me break my dependence on the survival game. (That didn’t work.) I’d rather not name either game because the people I’ve played with had no idea I’d be writing about them one day—even I didn’t know it—so I’ll just stick to the genres.

Limiting yourself to two games is an eccentric player profile, but I’ve become a creature of habit. The survival game drops the animated character of my choice into a menacing wilderness, and like a castaway you must set about gathering resources like food, tools, and firewood to fend off the dangers all around you. The terrain is randomly generated and different every time, but always composed of a few dozen basic elements: trees, grass, stone. Start up a new map and, while there will be variations in the environment from session to session, your condition, needs, and goals never really change much. Creatures, the elements and other components of the game will try to kill you, but they will do so in a reasonably predictable fashion.

I once came to gaming in search of adventure, but now I crave something more soothing. Like a toddler who requests the same bedtime reading over and over again, I find comfort in starting new worlds, comfort in the repetition that has become ritual and in the promise that what was once confusing or challenging can be tamed, its conquest becoming a kind of second nature, as long as you keep at it.

These games insinuate themselves into my consciousness, providing a low hum of distraction underlying whatever else I happen to be doing, a hum that only I can hear. An older writer friend, a mentor of sorts, arrived from out of town not long ago; I hadn’t seen her in a year or two, and I always look forward to her visits. She suggested we go to a museum, the kind of outing I rarely make time for on my own anymore. So we headed to the Natural History Museum, and I found myself meandering through one kind of simulated wilderness with half my mind preoccupied by another. I stood by her side, gazing at a kelp forest display while simultaneously planning the construction of a virtual underground hideout. “Pay attention,” I kept telling myself, as I have on an embarrassing number of other occasions—“listening” to a scholar deliver a talk about her work at a luncheon, nodding sympathetically while a colleague explains a thorny work dilemma over cocktails, standing around at publication parties for books I’ve been too busy mining imaginary minerals to read. The pastimes I once turned to as an invigorating break from the silent, cloistered work of reading and writing began to infect even what I think of as my real life.

My friends are mostly writers and artists, their lives buffeted by the unpredictability of subjective judgment. Our conversations chew over questions that ultimately can’t be answered: why his editor isn’t calling him back or why her book didn’t sell while some other inferior title went over like gangbusters. Because my work as a literary critic is a struggle to articulate the slippery permutations of the human, I love the fact that underlying the magic or mischief of every game is the elemental coherence of mathematics. You can feel its steady presence there, like the last god worth believing in.

In volatile times, I find the consistency of games addictive both as relief and as distraction.
Gaming can also work much the way booze does, blotting out big swaths of time that pass in a trance-like numbness. Afterward, I’m left with a headache or a cramped mouse hand and, too often, a profound sense of waste. When I am in the throes of a binge, the chaos I’m steadily subduing in my computer spills out into my domestic surroundings. Time telescopes like Alice munching on Wonderland mushrooms. My recycling and laundry pile up. Groceries rot uncooked and uneaten in the fridge while dust bunnies flourish in every corner. I may not have ever blown a deadline for a video game, but I have bailed on workouts and parties and for a while I stopped going to the movies entirely. I once failed to balance my checking account for an entire year—unprecedented behavior—and had to file for an extension with the IRS. On at least one occasion, playing the survival game, I stayed up all night, something I haven’t done since I was in college.

Here is a paradox. Gamers have a term, “grinding,” for repetitive time-consuming tasks required to advance to new levels or, in the case of my favorite titles, amass large amounts of resources. Some players hate grinding but many, like me, find it relaxing. Grinding is, essentially, chores, the sort of activity that, in other forms, people would prefer to avoid. Chopping wood, picking grass, gathering items scattered all over the ground: All of these virtual, in-game tasks have their real-life counterparts which are somehow so much less appealing than the point-and-click version.

When I’m deep in a game, I neglect real-world chores to perform pretend ones. I’ve lain awake at night wondering how I’d become so absurd and vowing, vainly, to reform. Do the dishes, take out the trash, hit the market to buy coffee filters and you’ll get clean dishes and a freed-up sink, a tidier home, caffeine first thing in the morning—all genuine benefits. Finishing each of these jobs makes your life better. Rack up the highest score in your guild, fill your virtual coffers with gold nuggets and rope, and you get—what? The rewards are imaginary, evaporating as soon as you click the quit button. Such achievements are spectacularly pointless which, I can only conclude, must be the point. People who would never deign to take a job managing a diner will divert themselves with the strategy game Diner Dash, in which they play a restaurateur named Flo juggling plates and patrons. What in the real world would be drudgery is transformed by the insubstantiality, the unreality, of the game into fun. All gaming, really, is grinding.

And yet it is fun, irresistibly so. Gaming also throws me into the virtual company of people who often have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the world, and that can be refreshing, if also sometimes appalling. “Macbeth. I think I’ve heard of that show,” I once heard a Canadian Twitch streamer remark to his chat. In addition to playing video games, I’ve developed the habit of logging onto Twitch to watch streamers: other, usually better players whose streams consist of the video feed from their screen, typically with a small image of the streamer inset in a corner so you can see his or her reactions to the evolving gameplay. Twitch also includes a chat feature enabling viewers to banter with the streamer and each other. These conversations range from tips on how to improve at the game to the kind of mundane updates about haircuts, late-night escapades, and upcoming tests that most people share with their real-life intimates. Regulars on a particular streamer’s feed develop running jokes and counsel each other through personal crises. More than one couple has gotten together through the chat of a Portuguese streamer I often watch. There’s a particular, delicate skill to streaming, to playing while also interacting with chatting viewers who often long for acknowledgement from the streamers they regard as an accessible species of celebrity. I’ve witnessed the same Canadian who thought he might have heard of Macbeth expertly handle a lovelorn fan drinking himself into a stupor in a hotel room on Valentine’s Day and deflect, without the slightest hint of sanctimony, a kid who’d logged on using a racist user name. “Hey man,” he said calmly, “it’s impossible for me to pay attention to what you’re saying when you pick a name like that.”

The streamers I watch have become that odd sort of acquaintance you find online, people I check in with regularly but don’t actually know. There’s the easygoing Swede whose wife and baby make frequent cameo appearances; a Latvian whose accent makes him sound like a schoolboy Dracula and who introduced me to electro swing; a black weightlifting neuropsychology Ph.D. from Connecticut who philosophizes hilariously while scarfing chips. They all know me under another name, my first true experience with creating an alternate identity online, after spending over 25 years on the internet. It’s a loose community where no one cares about the things—books, ideas, politics, the media—that take up so much of the conversation in my real life. I shrug off my real-world reputation, a complex entity that can be both wearisome and perilous to maintain in the age of social media, and adopt a persona that’s not much more than a sketch. Since my alias suggests no particular gender, the people who encounter this identity typically assume I’m male. I can’t say that inhabiting this guise has shown me anything much beyond the fact that a huge proportion of young men’s interactions with each other consist of insults you’re not supposed to take seriously. But it’s pleasant sometimes to be relieved of the burden of myself.

That’s not the only load I’ve been grateful to drop. Trump was everywhere I turned in 2017, except in chat feeds and forums for the games I play. Those who do voice real-world opinions learn to zip it fast. “Woot woot! It’s Mueller time!” crowed someone in the group chat of one of my guilds recently. “Mueller?” another member responded in confusion, before adding “Woot woot! Its wine-O time!” “I like you very much,” someone else piped up, “but please keep your politics off the boards. Disagreements over politics can ruin guilds.”

When, though, it comes to disagreements over arcane aspects of the game, over which strategy yields the best results with the least effort and yet doesn’t amount to “cheesing“ (a term for an exploit that requires very little skill)?: Well, bring it. Online forums where players meet to discuss games feature raging, venomous feuds and infinite bickering over trivia. They’ve also shown me that all internet arguments are essentially the same. When the stakes are so low, it’s easier to recognize the familiar postures and rhetorical moves employed in fights over issues that actually matter: the pontification, the chest-thumping, the hair-trigger offense-taking, the jibes directed at the opponent’s intelligence or manhood, the patronizing contempt, the invocation of objective facts, the cutting remark that isn’t as cutting as the remarker clearly believes it to be, the flagrant overreaction, the conspiracy theorizing, and last but not least, the flounce—when one of the combatants exits the scene in a huff, vowing never to return. On the internet, we argue about trifles in exactly the same way we argue about important things because so often what really matters to us is not the topic we’re arguing about but the argument itself. Gamers like to win for its own sake, and they are very far from alone in that.

I have friends outside of gaming whose online existence, like my hours of play, seems to feed, vampire-like, on their actual lives. They are often consumed by social media debates and insults, falling down rabbit holes of invective where they are scolded by preachy strangers and vie for the last word. At times, these squabbles seem to me to be as vaporous as a knock-down-drag-out clash in a gaming forum over whether or not a new strategy for defeating a boss monster constitutes cheesing. One thing gaming has taught me is to recognize the addictive, nearly irresistible allure of the unreal, and to know what wasting time feels like.

But who am I kidding? What insights I’ve eked out of my habit are hardly worth the price I’ve paid in hours. The truth is I wish I had spent all that time on other things. How many books might I have read instead? Which actual friends would I be closer to if I hadn’t been dithering around for the past few years with people who don’t really know me? My gaming habit is under much better control now, but I also know that I’m not capable of giving it up entirely. I wish I could say that I’d meaningfully bonded with the Costco gas station managers and Indian teenagers I’d never have had the chance to meet otherwise, but that would be recasting my gaming life into something I very much suspect it is not: a win. Gaming feels in the moment like pure, uncomplicated accomplishment because it’s designed to deliver that rush. But real life has a way of asserting itself in the end. For me, regret is baked into the gaming experience, right along with that sweet rush of anticipation I feel every single time I log on.

Laura Miller is a books and culture columnist for Slate and the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia.