Monday, October 3, 2011

Hurricane Heroism vs. Videogame Heroism

Wow, I am not a disaster fetishist. I loved Leigh Alexander’s article on the subject, which dropped just before Irene hit (or swung at and kind of missed New York City). Because I get my disaster updates along with all my other news from blithe, snarky old Twitter, that article might have been the thing that made me actually get disaster-ready serious. Like, “I’m not sure whether we should duct-tape the windows I guess we won’t but in case we’re wrong I’m going to buy bandage squares and gauze for our glass-serrated, wrong-ass faces” serious. I was moved and compelled by the latent human instincts that bubbled up in Leigh: the desire to rescue alley cats and help old ladies up stairs, to huddle together en-masse and bust through society-circumscribed personal space radii. Once I appreciated the potential gravity of the situation, the first impulse to bubble up in me was “BOLSTER THE BUNKER AND HUNKER THE FUCK DOWN, BITCHES!”

Hunkering down for an evening normally means videogames. Preparing for the worst, we bought a battery-powered radio and candles and planned readings of Nabokov—but we ended up having power throughout, which means throughout we played videogames. I couldn’t help but experience nagging feelings of cognitive dissonance—in part because of Leigh’s article, and in part because of the games I played. Videogames, as you enlightened people know, can be mirrors to our deeper selves. They highlight the disparity between who we are in reality and who we are—or wish to be—when the stakes are imagined. They are rehearsal, and rehearsal can have a crucial impact on how you respond during a “real event.” Granted, the type of rehearsal that proves effective in real life is more likely to be safety drills than videogames. Coincidentally...

The first game I played leading up to the hurricane was Pippin Barr’s Safety Instructions, a browser-based game that requires quick and accurate typing to follow conventional safety instructions during an in-flight emergency. (That is, you carry out instructions by literally typing them—going over the allotted time or making an error will get your blocky little avatar killed.) It’s a surprisingly effective marriage, producing an insane amount of adrenaline and panic while demanding you nonetheless retain enough composure to complete complex multi-step tasks. What frustrated me more than anything was the child seated next to me. You don’t have to tell me twice to put my oxygen mask on before his. But when the game continued despite my failure to secure his mask, I rebelled. Every other failure (except inflating your life jacket) blessedly results in a quick retry—but if you let the kid suffocate, his slackened face a stark, merciless shade of CMYK black, the game goes on. “Poor kid.” Unable to live with the knowledge that I let my child expire in my arms, I restarted the entire game again and again until I was able to rescue little Bobby. That’s the kind of player I am: If I can see you, I will save you. If the game had been like, ‘Oh, him? He belongs to the guy stuck in the bathroom,’ I’d have ultimately felt good about my persistence, and actually a tad resentful that the game suspected me of feeling otherwise.

But what about the child on the other side of me? Seeing my kin all settled in a safe place, would I go out in a storm just to find and help strangers, or wait till they banged on my door begging for sanctuary? I mean, I didn’t go out. Obviously. The mayor told me to stay in.

Different game, but content appropriate!
Thinking we ought to sharpen our reflexes and teamwork instincts, my boyfriend and I also played maybe the most enjoyable round of Left 4 Dead I’ve ever experienced. For ages I’d been wanting to get in a campaign with a couple of friends (Claire and Pete, hilarious people, gifted actors, and dedicated shooter fans). L4D moves a hell of a lot faster with good, live people, and we blazed through a campaign in about an hour despite several 5- to 10-minute breaks while Claire was fielding calls from her family. We bore the interruptions with saintlike patience. “Her parents don’t like the idea of Claire and hurricanes mixing,” explained Pete through Claire’s headset. (Claire was at Tulane during Katrina.) We only had one headset per couple, and the girls were in charge of communicating on behalf of everyone. Jokes and cries for help were passed secondhand.

While everyone largely watched each other’s back, we noticed that if it came down to waiting for someone to catch up, or backtracking to revive or rescue another player, the virtual lines were drawn between the real-life cohabitant groups. Lovers looked out for lovers (which made adorable sense with regard to Zoey and Francis, but implied a sort of Louis/Bill slash-fic I’d rather not picture).

I didn’t want to be that kind of player, and I don’t want to be that kind of person. Whether the terms of herodom—or good citizenry or decency—are objectively, ethically the same for real life as they are for games, they are for me. I can’t help but enact something very serious in my playthroughs—either idealized values or honesty, and where they diverge is what concerns me. I have never let a Sim drown in a pool. Never. If my little families are unfulfilled, it is my fault and not my whim. Yet I have three Commander Shepards—one Paragon, one Renegade, and one who takes everything on a “case-by-case” basis. All three are principled, but why is the self-sacrificing Paragon my canonical Shepard, while truer to my own private logic is the Shepard who believes that her life—with all her world-saving capabilities hello—is more important than the lives of others?

At any rate, I’ve learned that my disaster instincts suck. Or they’re not necessarily what I wished they’d be. The world shrinks and my vision narrows and I clutch at those in the innermost circles of my concern and everything else comes after.

At least I know. I can always decide how to behave; which “me” to present to the world. I can draw those circles wider and wider, by choice. Next time I’ll check in with everyone before we lose power. Even if we don’t. You’ll keep my secret, won’t you?
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