I recently had a conversation with my ten year-old son that I had been longing to have since before he was born, since before I was even sure I really wanted to have kids. We were well into the eleventh hour of a game of Risk that had seen the empires of my wife and seven year-old come and go when my elder boy said the words that not only made me proud, but assured me that he would grow into a fine young man, that my work as a father was practically complete and a resounding success: “You know what I don’t like about RuneScape?”
I know. Brilliant. But further, dig this. He continued: “Actually, it’s something I don’t like about all of these games. EverQuest and World of Warcraft and Knights of the Old Republic… They don’t give you enough choices. Like, you only get to choose from a couple of things to say, and there are only a few ways to do anything. What if there was a game where you could, like, do anything?”
A tear slipped from my eye. I think I peed a little. “You know, Mads, there are games where you can do anything.” He gave me an incredulous look, the kind that says, My father wasn’t a Jedi Knight, he was a navigator on a spice freighter. “Come with me, my son.”
I lead my son into the depths of the Aladdin’s cave that is my garage, and there behind the old paint cans, in the dark corner where I keep The Things My Wife Thinks I Threw Away, I revealed to my son the kind of magical boon that wizened mentors are supposed to bestow on these occasions – my AD&D “Players Handbook” and a leather bag (or “leathern” if you work at the RenFaire where I bought the thing in 1986) filled with polyhedron dice.
Following those four paragraphs, my writing that I’m a geek would be tantamount to Hitler ending Mein Kampf by writing “…and by the way, I am a crazy douchebag”. I know I’m a geek and so do you. Fine. But I have lately been very troubled by depictions of “geeks” in the cultural gutter (the lower case, mainstream media kind). I’m not a geek of the Best Buy “Geek Squad” variety. You’d never confuse me with the geeks on Chuck, or that new show with the two geeky guys and the allegedly hot girl, or… the other one. Now that geeks have been “discovered” as a sitcom exploitable stereotype, I’m dismayed to find that I might not be one after all. According to all of these shows, geeks are also nerds – technophiles and early adopters of wares both hard and soft. But that ain’t me, babe. Did I write some kick-ass Basic language text adventures on my TI-99/4A? You bet your IF/THEN statement, bitch! But since those halcyon days I have regressed. I stopped buying videogames (for myself) ten years ago; I switched to Mac from PC because I frankly stopped giving a shit; and I work in the film industry but have resisted the ubiquitous Crackberry so vociferously that I am known in some circles as “Johnny Analog.” The absolute proof positive that I’m failing to meet the current geek specs, however, is my absolute loathing of videogames that have the temerity to call themselves “RPGs.” Exactly what the fuck kind of “role” are you playing when you take on a character who can only answer questions with one of three wildly divergent statement options? A fucking retarded role, that’s what.
Okay, a quick caveat: I admit that my attitude toward “RPG” videogames is not solely informed by their mediocre playability or shallow options. I suppose I am also feeling defensive (a nerd thing, more than a geek thing) about the fact that I grew up in a day when knowing what a mage or a cross-class skill or a hit point was could get your face punched and your book bag thrown out the bus window. Now that arcane knowledge has been shared with button-mashing “Madden Football” lovers, and – even worse – gamers who claim to love these fantasy RPGs but refuse to recognize that not one of these games could exist without the pioneering of old skool dice-and-paper games.
I gave my ten year-old my dice and my books and my miniatures. Hopefully, I gave him what I got when I first took them up: infinite possibilities. Photo-realistic graphics are cool and all, but what are they compared to unbounded imagination? How can a computer program compete with that “something from nothing” magic that happens when you put a group of human players around a table, face to face? The best RPG videogames can show you what a spell looks like, but only a ka tet of gamers – real human gamers – can actually cast a spell.
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