A week ago Saturday, I was in Jamaica. It was wonderful. No, allow me to be more precise: It was absolutely, incredibly wonderful. Every evening a few clouds rolled in and we got a nice, warm rain shower, but the clouds didn’t last and by the next morning the sky was blue again, the weather warm, the ocean perfect and the drinks served with just the right amount of rum and obsequiousness. No computers, no deadlines and no videogames. It was like being in paradise on Earth.
So when I returned home to North Carolina (it’s been two years, and I still have trouble typing that with a straight face) and all of the mundane trappings of life and job, imagine the depth of my depression when I discovered it still wasn’t spring. Worse, it was raining. Still worse, there wasn’t anyone waiting outside my house to carry my bags and help me out of the bus. No bus either – I had to drive myself.
But all of that would have been forgivable if it wasn’t for the weather. Last year was a sunny year. By the end of March, temperatures were already well into the 70s, and the flora and fauna were entering that “we’re happy to be alive” phase, practically joining hand to leaf and singing “here comes the sun, doo doo doodoo.” Not this year. When I left, it was still cold and crappy. I was hoping by the time I got back things would be different, but no dice. I left Jamaica wearing a short sleeved silk shirt and a pair of linen trousers, and the short run from the tiny regional jet that brought me to North Carolina to the airport terminal practically froze me. Spring had not arrived.
The next day it rained. That cold, miserable, constant drizzle peculiar to winter months that seeps into your bones and makes it feel about 20 degrees cooler than it actually is. It was like June in San Francisco. I spent my first few days back in a blue funk, wondering why I hadn’t taken advantage of my month-long visa and built a little shack of my own under a mangrove tree. Wondering why I’d been so bold as to pack away my winter clothing. Wondering where I’d put the sangria.
Thankfully it didn’t last. By the end of last week, the weather had turned glorious. Eighty degrees, sunny, dry … spring had finally come. Cue rabbits singing the Beatles. I was convinced it was a sign. Convinced I should extend my week without games and computers. Convinced I’d rediscovered “what’s important,” and that I needed nothing more than to run rapidly away from everything that chained me to a desk or a couch. I started shopping for a sailboat, planned to take the dog to the park (every day if possible!) and enjoyed, for once, the thought of actually leaving the house. There was only one problem: I couldn’t drag my mind out of the entertainment tar pit that is Oblivion.
The solution? A mass of cool air preceded by a rapidly moving band of warmer air and the interaction between the two. Or, as my mother would call it, a cold front.
Starting early Saturday, the day I’d planned to put on shoes and pants bright and early and actually leave the house, reveling in my newfound will to live, the weather here in Russville turned from glorious to gross. I had to wear a coat and gloves to walk the dog, who, aside from a momentary curiosity about in the mockingbird hiding in a tree, seemed even less thrilled about the weather than I was.
But all of this was a momentary annoyance. The dismal weather and onset of my good old friend, Depression, created the perfect environment for continuing my obsession with Oblivion and rejecting, I thought, the harsh lessons of a vacation well spent. But, in an ironic sort of way, burying myself in Oblivion and wallowing in my depression-induced game-a-thon led me right back to happiness and contentment.
I played Oblivion for approximately 20 hours this weekend, and one of the few times I left the house was to go fetch bagels and another copy of the game to replace the disc I’d apparently worn out. Twenty hours. That’s half a working week. I know how much I accomplish in a typical week, what with writing articles like this one, vetting submissions and doing all the other various things that my employers pay me to do. After 20 hours of editing and producing at The Escapist, I often feel I’ve been spending time in a labor camp, and dread the thought of sitting in front of my work PC another hour, much less 20 more. Sitting in front of my own PC writing stories or blog entries doesn’t feel much better, and it was this exact feeling my mind rebelled against sitting on that sugar-white beach in Jamaica; these activities I believed I’d be swearing off. But even though I’ve so far spent just over 70 hours with Oblivion – about 20 of those just this weekend – I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, accomplished practically nothing, and can’t wait to subject myself to more.
Playing Oblivion, I’m reminded of walking my dog. She’s a puppy, and taking her outside to pee is rarely just about taking her outside to pee. First there’s the struggle to get her to the front door so I can put on her leash. She’s usually pretty excited to go out, but halfway to the door, remembers that she’d like to play with her rope toy. Then she decides to play with the rawhide bone. Then a ball. Then my shoe. Finally, after much coaxing and a few veiled threats, she’s sitting at the door, waiting. If she keeps her mind on sitting long enough for me to get the harness around her body and the leash attached, I consider it a minor victory. If she spots a rock, or a Twinkie, or a caterpillar, or a piece of paper, or a leaf, the walk turns into a trek, with every stray object requiring a thorough investigation and, on occasion, ingestion. I often have to remind her why we’re outside in the first place, and by that time we’re on to something else. Hours could pass in this way. If we take a walk of any significant length, they do.
Playing Oblivion is just like that. In the game, I have a journal full of half-completed quests, each imploring me to help some person or another, each of which I fully intend to complete. It’s just that on the way to completing them, I find more quests, which are then added to the stack, from which I then get distracted by accumulating more quests and chasing off into the hills looking for the source of that mysterious glow on the horizon …
It’s kind if like refurbishing an old house. You can spend weeks knocking down walls or rebuilding the porch; meanwhile the roof starts to leak and you’re on to a new project. You can do that in Oblivion, too. You can buy a house in each of the game’s large cities, and each house comes with upgrade options, which are all listed as quests in the journal. You can even download fantastical living quarters, like a subterranean pirate ship, which also comes with upgrade options, which are also listed as quests in the journal. All of this costs money, meaning, if you want to follow though on any of these quests, you have to go adventuring to accumulate loot, or make and sell stuff, or toil in the arena, or, or, or … There are plenty of ways to get loot, but to get bigger and better loot, you need better equipment and spells, which also cost money.
And this is where I talk about how complicated life can get, and how, as a money-earning adult, my life is so full of distracting crap that it’s hard to focus on the things I truly enjoy. Like sailing, geocaching, writing or, yes, even playing videogames. A couple of weeks ago I Got Away from It All, and sitting on the beach in Jamaica, staring at the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean, reading a book about pirates and drinking run mixed with coconut mixed with pineapple, I had one of those epiphanies you only really get when you’re in a situation like that. It was as if all the extraneous crap melted away and what was left was the realization that life is too damn short to not be happy. That I should just buy that damn sailboat I’ve wanted for years and actually write all those stories rattling around in my head. That waiting for things to happen is the same thing as not doing anything at all. That there is no fate, in other words, but what we make for ourselves. Easy to epiphanize about on the beach with a cocktail, hard to practice in real life, I know; but if there’s only one thing that’s important to take away from an experience like that, it’s that we really are at our best when we let the things that do not matter truly slide. And most things do not matter, no matter how much we want or need them to.
I was half expecting to walk away from my Jamaica vacation convinced videogames were a complete waste of time, and refusing to spend another minute playing or writing about them. The opposite has happened. It’s not that I feel games are any more or less important in the grand scheme of things. (Because, after all, they really aren’t all that important.) But they do speak to our cares and concerns in a visceral, tactile way, unlike anything else. And through them, hopefully, we learn enough about ourselves to deal better with the things that do matter. Like happiness, and, if you’ll allow me to be a bit trite, love. Games fill me with both. They are, therefore, important to me, and that’s quite enough.
I’m still buying the boat, though. Just because.
Russ Pitts would rather be sailing. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.