Go Read a Book

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by Robert de los Reyes, Esq.

On Tuesday, the New York Times ran an Op-Ed piece from a semi-regular contributor by the name of Verlyn Klinkenborg. Reading his past pieces, you get the sense he's an older fellow (I think he lives in the upstate New York countryside). This particular column is about his adventures with the Xbox and Blinx the Time Sweeper. The starting point for Klinkenborg's adventure was simple curiosity. He hadn't played a video game since Pong, but has been reading the news – he knows that video games are now big business. So, he ups and buys an Xbox, a handful of games, and settles in.

I'm of two minds about Klinkenborg's column. On the one hand, there's something admirable about a curious mind. That man wanted to learn, and he set about it with diligence. Also, while this isn't a big deal in a place as accepting of gaming as, say, Japan, there's something admirable about this fellow stepping up to announce to the world that he, an adult, found enjoyment in Blinx the Time Sweeper. Finally, I'm appreciative of the fact that he took the enterprise seriously. Oh sure, Klinkenborg seems to get a bit carried away when he writes, "If I closed my eyes I could feel the psycho-spatial dimensions of the world [Blinx] was navigating, as real in its own way as the world I navigate every day." But at least Klinkenborg isn't instantly dismissive or totally embarrassed by his own enjoyment such as many non-gaming writers seem to be.

On the other hand, Klinkenborg seems unable to reach escape velocity. Embarrassment and – let's say it – snobbery seem to overwhelm him in the end, dictating an utter rejection of a new hobby he had started to appreciate. Klinkenborg ultimately concludes that gaming takes too much time for too little life enrichment: "I would get more satisfaction out of cleaning the barn, or rereading Dickens, and have more to show for it." Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. It's the same sort of conclusion you get from NPR donors who, but of course, don't even own a TV. Movies and even theater are subjected to the same sort of snobbery ("I can't believe you paid money to see Phantom of the Opera.") There's no reason to think video games, the newest entertainment medium, should expect special treatment.

But it's galling nevertheless. Condescension oozes from the pronouncement "go read a book" submitted by Klinkenborg and his less diplomatic brethren. Part of the problem for video games in particular is that neither movies nor TV began life directed at children. They were mass entertainment from the start. Gaming still suffers from the notion that games are toys, and that adults don't play with toys. Video gaming is no different than playing poker or Trivial Pursuit, but there is a (rapidly diminishing) generational gap in terms of elective entertainment. That gap will close with time, but we're stuck with it for now.

The more troubling part is the elitism that substitutes for careful thought. In the first instance, video gaming and reading books are not, over the course of a lifetime, mutually exclusive pursuits. It is perplexing that Klinkenborg and others treat them as if they are. Of course you should read books and newspapers, whether child or adult. We process thought as language; you cannot master your thoughts without mastering language (note to W.). Reading is the single best way to develop a mastery of language. It's why the first bit of advice to give to any aspiring writer is to read, read and read some more. And I'll go a step further. There are particular books that every American ought to read, no matter what the loopy multi-culturalist fringe says. You cannot understand the tropes or themes that animate thought in the Western world without having read the Iliad, the Bible, and Shakespeare. Still further, I agree with Klinkenborg's suggestion that some of the best literature lends itself to a lifetime of rereading. The opening of Dante's Inferno continues to mean more upon rereading as I continue to experience more in life.

The worrisome part is the facile conclusion that "book > game; ergo: read, don't play." The worry is not merely theoretical. Although the tide seems to have turned in favor of First Amendment protection for video games, an adverse ruling by Judge Limbaugh in Missouri last year shows that the matter is far from settled. Such a ruling emerges in part from the formula above: books are innately "superior" to games, therefore games ought not be protected to the extent of books. Of course, one suspects that even Klinkenborg would concede that there's little to be "gained" by a lifetime study of Sweet Valley High novels. I would happily encourage a child to play another round of Hegemonia: Legions of Iron rather than read through a copy of Teen People. Hegemonia conveys a message about duty, honor, and the thin line between aggression and self-preservation. Teen People conveys the idea that boys named Cory are cute.

Blinx the Time Sweeper There is a certain fear that underlies the snobbery of Klinkenborg's sentence "I would get more satisfaction out of cleaning the barn, or rereading Dickens, and have more to show for it." It betrays a fear that every activity must have something "to show for it" lest a person irreversibly stray from some objectively maximizing path of worthy self-actualization. It's a weird combination of a Puritanical distrust of fun and an indulgent philosophical hedonism. Maybe it's a special sort of "smart people" fear of mortality – they have to know everything, but can't do it in a human lifetime without optimal life programming.

Commentators like Klinkenborg also tend to reject pop culture generally. There is a fear there, too. Part of what makes smart people smart is their ability to appreciate the complex. Pop culture is popular largely because it isn't complex; everyone can "get" it. By participating in pop culture, smart people sacrifice their edge. If you were a giant dork like me, it's hard to give up the only edge you ever fancied yourself as having. How else, other than fear, to explain the neurotic and absolutist unwillingness of the smart people to learn whether the local football team made the playoffs or just who the heck this "Shakira" person is? No rational person is suggesting that Shakira be taught in colleges alongside Mozart, or even that thinking people should own a Shakira album. But we live in a society. We do well to join it now and again.

Another curious aspect of the snobbery is that we unworthies always seem to get instructed to read Dickens or other fictional literature rather than, say, the Harvard Business Review. If pressed, I'm sure Klinkenborg would say the Business Review is better than video games, too, but that's beside the point. That propensity to point to literature reflects an aristocratic divide between the ornamental and the functional. Again, there seems to be a fear at work that somebody will discover that (shhhh) you could actually survive well into your retirement without reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. Which isn't to say that you oughtn't read One Hundred Years of Solitude, nor that doing so lacks rewards. But why do these cultural critics never demand the reading of books about accounting, economics or biology? The reason you don't hear it is that Western intellectual tradition has separated "useful" from "cultural." In order to avoid meaninglessness, however, "cultural" is infused with the usefulness of being "life enriching." That's what Klinkenborg means when he says he has something "to show for" reading Dickens. And he probably does. I feel as though I do. But the flippant rejoinder "go read a book" masks the question of whether you need to read Great Expectations one, two or eight times in order to develop as fully realized human – the definition of which is also glossed over by elitist derision.

In any event, I find that I have great many things "to show for" for my time playing video games, not the least of which is carving out a little raw fun in a sometimes dreary world. Klinkenborg missed another because he took his Xbox into the woods and played by himself. Namely, the joy of sharing time with friends – something satisfying, memorable and important. Even single-player games can be shared by taking turns at the helm, backseat driving and just engaging in the idle chatter of friendship. True, in those moments, there is a trade-off to be made: another game or another reading of A Tale of Two Cities. Such things are mutually exclusive in a given moment. Yet, over the course of a life, it possible to read books and play video games. And listen to classical music and talk politics and eat ice cream and play touch football. Any of those things, or any other activity in excess, is deforming. Just look at those mutant young women we send to Olympic gymnastics competitions. Or Harold Bloom.

One of the grand things about this country is that you get to decide for yourself whether to spend an hour with Blinx, the New York Times, your barn, James Bond or Bach. Careless commentary and the creation of false dichotomies like "games vs. books" do not advance the cause of personal development. They constrain it as surely as Vogue magazine constrains the length of skirts in a given year. If we maintain that life is a one-off, all-or-nothing choice between The Path of Joyce's Ulysses and The Path of The Simpsons, is it any wonder that Ulysses should remain the province of the few? And if even we gamers persist in such phony rigidities, is it any wonder that people like Rep. Joe Baca and Judge Steven Limbaugh feel not only comfortable but righteous in their blunderbuss attacks on the industry? You don't have to be one of the smart people to answer that question.

It's in the Game

The Super Bowl is over, but I'm still basking in the glow of what seems like one the best football seasons in memory, even though none of the teams I root for did anything special. If loving parity is wrong, I don't want to be right. It has me thinking, though, about EA's promise with respect to its football video games that "If it's in the game, it's in the game." EA lies. One of the best and most annoying things about football is the twenty or so platitudes, tautologies and non sequiturs that seem to form the exclusive vocabulary of players and coaches when interviewed. Where in the Madden game is Melissa Stark extracting keen insight from a linebacker like, "We've just got to go out there and play our game"? I would like – nay, I demand – that the next iteration of football games include this actual quotation from Houston Texans player Kailee Wong. I'm not making this up:

"We just always have to find a way to win games," Texans linebacker Kailee Wong said. "The key is you have to score more than your opponent. If your opponent doesn't score very much and you can score some, you're going to win. If your opponent scores a lot, you have to score even more. However you have to do it, you have to do enough to win."
Argue with that. Maybe Wong should have spent less time playing video games and more time reading Flaubert. Or something.

Ahh, Warcraft III. A Precocious Little Title

CognacMy co-editor here and his wife gave me a subscription to Wine & Spirits magazine for Christmas. They know I'm struggling at that point in my appreciation for wine where I can tell the difference between Chateau Phlegm and Moet & Chandon, but many subtleties are lost on me. I need to pay attention as I drink rather than just quaff and make yummy noises. I think this magazine will help me with the context. But to any of you who rail against game reviews as baseless opinion, meaningless relativism, obscuritanism or raw bias (for or against a certain developer), I suggest browsing wine reviews. Next to wine reviewing, game reviewing starts to look like laboratory empiricism. Here is the review of one cognac:

The Croizet XO Golden Collection, which comes in a blindingly Vegas-apropos gold bottle, is much lighter and less lugubrious than you might expect from the packaging. Its fruity, lightly raisiny aromas lead into a fairly delicate, spicy Cognac, not at all presumptuous but with a certain gravitas nonetheless.
Lugubrious? Presumptuous? Gravitas? Are we talking about cognac or Sen. Joe Lieberman? Apparently, by tacit acclamation, it's OK when reviewing wine to completely anthropomorphize it. Almost all wine reviews seem to read this way. "Give it a few months to calm down," reads another review, "or serve with calves' liver smothered with sautéed Vidalia onions." I mean, that could easily be written about your niece or nephew. Well, maybe not. But still. These are all great words, full of meaning ... until you apply them to wine. Then they just look like they have meaning, which is the whole point. Makes you a little – a very little – grateful for "This game rocks!"

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on January 27, 2003 8:52 AM.

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