Wii U and the Anxiety of Newness

The last 48 hours have seen the press conferences to launch or preview two new and upcoming devices: Apple’s iPhone 5 and Nintendo’s WiiU console. Today, I watched Nintendo’s livestream of Reggie Fils-Aime’s talk in New York City. Of course, right beside the window I had my Twitter feed open and the consensus was decidedly mixed. As Nintendo discussed their new media integration platform, Nintendo TVii, Ben Kuchera of Penny Arcade tweeted, “Content is so broken in US. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are all scrambling to middle content we already pay for. Just another layer.” Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with Kuchera’s assessment of the digital media situation in the US, but his comments raise the question of newness in the 21st century. We’re obsessed with newness these days, and more and more it seems that product launches, press conferences, and commentary is shaded by a sense that new things aren’t new enough anymore.

Our memories betray us. I remember watching (online) Steve Jobs demo the first iPhone in 2007; no one had ever seen a touch screen as responsive as that. Then came Nintendo’s Wii, and while many were incredulous, my first game of Wii Bowling was wonderful. We love new things, but even more we love remembering new things. We love recalling how unique and incredible that new product was when we first laid eyes on it. The kind of nostalgia we have is hard to describe, because our recollections have a basis in a quantifiable reality. The iPhone was a remarkable product, and the Wii did bring motion controls to consoles in way that hadn’t been done before. As such, we don’t usually think of our longing for those feelings as purely nostalgic. Still, the longing for the return of the old feelings is wrapped up in our desire for the new.

Behind the longing for newness and our memories of the new is a fear. Fear that there is nothing new. Fear that maybe, just maybe, the writer of Ecclesiastes was right, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Are our feelings of joy and possibility at the advent of new technology just the bloated groans of culture obese with its own wealth and leisure? Even worse, is our disappointment with a lack of newness only evidence of our shallow obsession with a thing we’ll discard carelessly a few years hence?

I struggle with these questions. As someone who enjoys video games and believes that they have important contributions to make to our culture, I will probably end up purchasing a Wii U. At the same time, in the back of my mind there’s a nagging voice that chides my desire for something more than what the Wii U has to offer. In some ways, video game culture more than others has a potential to criticize the objects of its own obsession. We want our products to prove Ecclesiastes wrong; we run to the new consoles and games hoping beyond hope that we’ll find something new, something that will revive the stale memories of cradling some new device for the first time.

In many ways our behaviors speak louder than our tweets, our articles, our blog posts. By clutching at these new products we reveal that we seek greater meaning and purpose. Those feelings we remember and continually hope to replicate are evidence of our wealth and leisure, but they are also evidence of something more real than our lives can offer. In those moments of newness, we catch a glimpse of an ideal in which we can enjoy human creativity and ingenuity unimpeded by our expectations and disappointments. For me, Christian theology offers a wonderful narrative through which to understand and consider these moments. I recognize that I must repent of my greed and covetousness, but I also remember that one day all things will be made new.

The Death of Nintendo Power, or How the Internet Ruined the Rumor

Many have heard the news of Nintendo Power’s impending demise with great sadness and recollection. Like most of you, I remember a time when a copy of Nintendo Power was like an Indiana Jones style treasure; inside the thin, glossy pages of that magazine were untold secrets and powers. Of course, Nintendo Power isn’t the only print news outlet to wither and die in recent years. Across the entire spectrum of journalism, print media are suffering, and of course, the big, bad Internet is to blame. But I think that while the end of print media is unfortunate, what the Internet has really destroyed is something few have considered: the rumor.

“How can this be?,” you ask, “if anything, the Internet is responsible for perpetuating rumors constantly!” Allow me to illustrate by example from our soon-to-be dearly departed friend, Nintendo Power. All of the nostalgia pouring out for this publication is not simply the result of seeing the past through rose-colored glasses. In the days prior to the Internet’s ubiquity, information on games was limited to a few sources, and most of those sources required cash or credit–someone had to pay for that issue of Nintendo Power. Some were fortunate to have parents who would pony up for a subscription, but this certainly wasn’t the case in my household. In essence, the availability of information was far more limited.

Life was like the telephone game–the few kids who might have fortunate enough to have copies of Nintendo Power could disseminate news like international information brokers. As a publication title, Nintendo Power served as a moniker for those who possessed it–you were powerful, not only in the games you played, but also among your less fortunate peers. Each little tid-bit a reader deigned to share would spread slowly as one kid told another and another. Receiving information in this way made each detail seem that much more precious. Since there wasn’t much to be gleaned in the first place, those in the know held great sway over the rest of us. Just like in basic economics, because knowledge was a limited resource, it had substantial value.

As such, the art of rumor-mongering, in which hushed whispers might hold the key to a fascinating new gaming secret, was at an all-time high in those days. There was no way to hop online and corroborate your friend’s assertion that some button combination would result in an awesome new move–the only thing to do was run home and try it. If it didn’t work, assume you did it incorrectly and try it again and again and again.

Some kids would even flaunt their ascendancy by bringing their copy of Nintendo Power to school, but this was a dangerous move. By displaying your possession of the magazine, you confirmed your right to elevated status, but it also might lead to others grabbing your prized possession and taking the precious secrets for themselves. All in all, this kind of limited access helped to create the nostalgia through which we are now mourning.

Few would argue that the Internet is wicked for its plenitude of free information, but it certainly has deprived us all of the delight of uncertainty. Now it seems that while rumors abound, it’s the same rumor on every site, and we can all discover precisely where the rumor originated, and whether or not it’s likely to be true. The joy of rumors, as they used to be, was in the shroud of mystery. Their origins were uncertain and their truth was tenuous. Perhaps, when we mourn the death of print publications like Nintendo Power, what we’re really longing for is a time when we knew less but hungered more.

The Game that Changed My Life

In the mid 90s, my best friend’s family got a new computer–it was a Compaq, but what I remember most was how often I heard these three numbers: 486. I didn’t know much about computers then, but the way my friend, Sammy, said those numbers told me that there was something magical about this computer. This computer would be able to do things other computers could only hope to accomplish. This computer had something called a CD-ROM–you could play CDs right on your computer! I couldn’t wait to see what this magnificent machine was capable of. And while our parents may have emphasized that the computer was primarily meant to be used for school work and projects, all Sammy and I heard was “Blah blah blah COMPUTER=GAMES!”

There is one game whose very name, to this day, evokes a sense of wonder for me: Myst. What did it mean? In those days, games often came with an little booklet offering players a glimpse into the game world while they waited for installation to complete. I remember reading the insert from my friend’s copy of Myst and being immediately transported.

Image from GiantBomb.

For a kid who had spent a lot of time reading books on the bus to school, the idea of this brief introduction fascinated me. Books were already a portal for me; they were like windows to other worlds, and here was a game offering the opportunity for us to realize this experience in a whole new way. Myst’s opening cinematic didn’t disappoint, as the book’s centrality became even more clear, while also evoking a keen sense of curiosity. Who was this man, and what led him to lose his book in the first place? Why did he expect the book to be destroyed? And then we landed on the iconic island of Myst.

Unfortunately, Sammy failed Myst. This isn’t to say that he didn’t reach the endgame, because he did. For reasons I never quite understood, Sammy used the Prima Strategy Guide to play Myst, which allowed him to discover that the game’s ending could be reached on the first island, without visiting any of the other ages. He proudly demonstrated how quickly the game could be beaten and concluded that he had “finished” the game. For the next few months, whenever I would visit, I tried to surreptitiously re-install Myst just to get a glimpse of the game where books took you to strange and wonderful worlds. Sammy found my fascination with Myst exasperating; after all, once he had completed the game, why go back?

At the time, I was saddened and frustrated that Sammy didn’t share my enthusiasm for Myst, but now I think that his attitude was understandable. We were raised in an era of video games when, for the most part, the goal was to get to the end. Anything that aided that goal was good, even if it allowed you to skip large portions of the game (like the magic flute in Mario 3). In Sammy’s case, I think this logic contaminated his experience of Myst. But for me, Myst’s significance was about much more than simply completing the final puzzle. Unsurprisingly, the moment that my parents decided to (finally!) buy a computer, I immediately asked Sammy if I could borrow his copy of Myst. Along with the game, he offered me a journal that had come with the game, which remained blank after his speedy completion.

Image from Myst Journals.

When I think back on how a kid who loved video games and books ended up pursuing a graduate degree in English literature, part of the influence certainly came from that journal. Today, I’m often annoyed if a game requires me to pull out pen and paper to write down a code or record a quest detail, but at the time I saw the Myst journal as a creative opportunity. After all, Myst was about writers and writing–with the journal, I could be a part of that community. I filled that journal with details of my explorations, at times writing them out as if I really had traveled to this strange world. All the puzzle solutions and notes were there, meticulously mapped and explained. In the intervening years I lost track of that journal, but I would love to get a chance to read through it again. That lost journal is a part of who I am today. Myst’s influence in the gaming world may have waned, but its significance in my life continues to resonate through the years.

Trying Something New

In a commencement speech delivered at Belhaven University, Makoto Fujimura, the noted painter, discussed and developed an idea that he called “the aroma of the new.” The speech calls us to think of “the world that ought to be,” and to weave that vision into the messy world that is. Of course, as a commencement address, Fujimura’s rhetoric is quite grand, with an inspiring vision for the great things that the new graduates can (and probably will) accomplish. But the reality is that many things that can bring an aroma of the new are quite small, maybe even seemingly insignificant.

Thus it is with the project on which I’m embarking this fall. As a graduate student in English, I have had the opportunity to teach several undergraduate courses over the past seven years. Most of them have been the kind of thing you’d expect: British literature surveys, technical writing, poetry classes, and others. But now I’m doing something new, and for me, completely different. I’m going to teach a class on video games.

Video games are showing up in all kinds of unexpected places these days. Of course there are university programs where students are learning how to create video games, but I wanted to bring video games into the classroom for a freshman composition course. Several months ago I was sitting in a meeting with the director of our University Writing Programs in which he tasked us (teachers for the fall slate of freshman comp classes) to come up with a topic or theme that would unify the content of the class throughout the semester. During that meeting several standard topics like sustainability were brought up, but I wanted to try something different.

Not long after that meeting I began this blog and ventured into writing about video games, something for which I’d had an affinity for many years, and not long after that it occurred to me that video games could be the topic for my course. There was only one problem: I had no experience with academic writing about video games. Fortunately, a former graduate student at the University of Florida who has written for ProfHacker helped me by suggesting that I check out Ian Bogost’s work, and from there I was able to find more material to help me frame out the approach for the course.

My hope is that students will be able to identify with and expand their thinking through this framework. For most people, freshman composition was not a particularly rewarding experience–complaints include boring readings, boring assignments, and boring discussions. In no way do I think that education needs to exist at the beck and call of a nineteen-year-old’s notion of entertaining content, but by weaving lessons about developing arguments, using evidence effectively, and writing persuasive prose into the topic of video games, perhaps my students will find that the learning objectives are more palatable. If so, then I want the class to have the same academic rigour as a “standard” composition class, but with the benefit of appealing to students’ interests.

I also might like the idea of having a good reason to bring a PS3 to class and hook it up to a big projector.

Journey: Playstation’s Killer Sharer App

Having been out of town a lot over the past month, I arrived home from all my travels and did something I thought I would never do: I bought a Playstation 3. Nearly every bone in my “son-of-an-accounting-major” body was screaming that this was an absurd idea. “This product is at the end of its development cycle! You could save this money for the next generation! Your kids will never go to college because of your financial malfeasance!” These are the kinds of inner-thoughts with which I had to contend. Fortunately, I was able to quell these fears when an offer popped up on Craigslist for a used PS3 for $150.

My motivation was simple, while visiting with family over the 4th of July, I watched my brother playing Journey on his Playstation. Journey has already received a lot of critical acclaim, and while I share this enthusiasm, I see more in Journey than a beautiful game artfully rendered. Journey has more to say about the value of humanity than many lengthy books or essays ever manage to communicate. At the same time, its genre presents certain challenges in effectively communicating that message.

When my brother began playing the game, my dad snidely asked, “Who are you supposed to shoot?” Now, my dad cut his video game teeth with my brother and I on Goldeneye 007–we had great times blasting away at each other, but he hasn’t played much other than WiiSports since we all moved out of the house. I think the notion that video games are essentially conflict based still holds sway in his perceptions of the medium, and while his question was asked in jest, a grain of truth was buried inside.

Ultimately, the message of shooters is essentially one of individualism–you can kill all the bad guys. But Journey is different; as floating monsters soar overhead, blasting any who dare to venture from underneath their hiding places, you begin to see that cooperation is the key to surviving the harsh landscape.

Is it possible that a video game can speak to our spiritual lives? Running through many strands of Christian thought is an idea known as common grace. I’m no theologian, but as I understand it common grace refers to the fact that God’s presence and grace are seen throughout the world, in all kinds of human endeavours, regardless of whether the particular humans involved profess the Christian faith. In my case, Journey suggests the famous verses from Ecclesiastes: “And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

The ever lengthening scarves that don each character in Journey suggest the intertwining cords of human community, an image of the heights we can achieve when working together. Might we who find the value of Journey something worth sharing also urge our friends and family to attempt the experience? While Journey‘s wonderful imagery draws us into a feeling of human connection, perhaps its most significant impact is in entreating us to share this message with others.


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