graphics by kevin ryan (kryan at dday dot com)
Mothers Against World of Warcraft
(Excerpted from Rapture For The Geeks, by Richard Dooling.)
Let’s say that the Singularity is really coming, and let’s say it’s powered by Moore’s Law and Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. Call the Technological Singularity a cardinal virtue or a fatal flaw: Our reach will always exceed our grasp, and we’ll keep inventing and experimenting, until we invent our way into doom and extinction, or paradise, whichever comes first. Suppose we really are a race of technology addicts on autopilot. Assume the Singularity has all of the going for it. Suppose it’s truly an irresistible force. Are there any immovable objects in its path? Answer: What happens if Moms don’t like the Singularity?
Your lovely wife (may I pretend her name is Wilma?) is your soul mate, mother of your children, keeper of the eternal family flame, sun at the center of the domestic solar system. God couldn’t be everywhere, so He made her. It is her name on the lips and in the hearts of your children. She is the holiest creature in God’s creation. She is the one who can take the place of all others, but whose place no one else can take. “All love begins and ends here,” said Thomas Jefferson, “the keystone in the arch of matrimonial happiness.”
Wilma has but a single flaw: She has no feeling for the Singularity, nor does she care to hear a single Singularitarian word about it. Technology for Wilma means e-mail two or three times a week, exchanging photos of family and friends, a little online shopping, and a little online banking. She has no taste for machine building, conquering World of Warcraft empires, or power programming.
You and Wilma have a 13-year-old son, Will, who deeply resents his mother’s failure to appreciate his vocation in life. To Wilma, son Will is an above average student at Middlebury Middle School, associate editor of the Middlebury Mail student newspaper and member of the chess club (because Wilma forced him to select at least two extracurricular activities other than playing Magic: The Gathering after school). Wilma does not want to hear about her son’s higher calling and how he leads a double life: At the tender age of 13, Will is also a Level 60 Shaman in a World of Warcraft guild named “The League of Pain.”
As Will’s loving father and Wilma’s devoted husband, you have tried to be a peacemaker. You can see Wilma’s point about how she cannot allow Will to spend 12 hours online with only two bathroom breaks and a bag of Cheetos for sustenance. When Wilma’s dad (Will’s grandpa and your father-in-law) was in high school, he was captain of the football team and took second in State in the high dive. Therefore, Wilma’s earliest childhood memories are of her dad playing one sport or another in the backyard with her brothers (steel-cup jocks, one and all). Wilma wants you to teach your son the same valuable life lessons she saw her father impart to her brothers by way of athletics: Competition, teamwork, and profound insights like, “Don’t wait for the ball to come to you, son, go after it!” “Learn from your mistakes!” “You’ve got to want that rebound more than the other guy!”
On the other hand, you also can see Will’s argument about how his mother doesn’t know the first thing about the Singularity and the important role gamers of all persuasions will play in it. Gaming is a higher calling demanding advanced programming skills and excellence in game mapping. Will isn’t saying that his Mom must buy into the Singularity, but she does need to understand the obvious, namely, that here in 2008 life happens online and not in the Boy Scouts, or on the Middlebury Middle School baseball diamond, or at some goofy party she wants him to attend so he can flesh-meet other kids his age who don’t play World of Warcraft or Magic Cards.
Another complication is even harder to explain to Wilma. You’ve tried several different times, but words always fail. You even wrote it on a piece of paper once and almost left it on her desk: “Wilma, I will always and forever be your devoted husband, but I am also a member of Will’s World of Warcraft guild. I confess that I am a Level 60 Rogue in The League of Pain.”
Hence the painful conflict of interest when you hear Wilma’s shrill cries coming from your son’s room: “Get off the computer!” Because at that very moment, you are in your study on your computer, and you and your son Will are both part of a 40-man raiding party laying siege to Blackwing Lair
Wilma has no way of knowing that your son Will is on the verge of killing the Scarshield Quartermaster, who is found near the Orb of Command, because Will needs to loot Blackhand’s Command from him and begin a quest that will take Will to the end of Upper Blackrock Spire, where he must touch a brand (found behind General Drakkisath), which will brand Will with the Mark of Drakkisath and allow him to use the Orb of Command to enter Blackwing Lair.
Thirty-nine other members of the guild (you included), who have been planning this three-day raid for weeks, are waiting for Will to get “keyed,” and now Wilma is interfering.
“Wilma, honey,” you cry, “let Will finish the game. He’ll be off in half an hour or so, then we’ll both go outside and knock a few balls around the backyard, okay?”
“Knock a few balls around?” Wilma laughs. “With what? A joystick? You don’t have a baseball, no bat, no gloves.”
“We have a glove,” you protest, “it’s on the top shelf over the workbench.”
“That’s my brother’s baseball glove. It’s a LEFT-HANDED glove! Remember?”
“Okay,” you offer, “never mind baseball then, we’ll borrow the neighbor’s soccer ball instead.”
No answer, which means Wilma is simmering. A door doesn’t quite slam; but let’s say that she shuts it . . . with authority.
Now, it’s bound to come up at dinner; it does, and it goes something like this:
Wilma says, “Jason’s dad is a hedge fund manager and Brian’s dad is a neurosurgeon and yet they both still find time to coach the soccer team. I really admire them for that. Those boys are true athletes. Their dads are ALWAYS playing sports with them in the yard. Jason’s mom said he was recruited by the Select Soccer Team.”
Neither you nor Will can say what you are both thinking, namely, that Brian may play a mean game of junior golf at Daddy’s country club, but in World of Warcraft he’s a Level 8 pink-haired gnome who likes to slap his ass and chat while dancing on the mailboxes. As for Jason, he may be a soccer goon, but he’s been kicked out of three guilds and would be about as much help in a raiding party as Leeroy Jenkins. The two of them are useless sub-N00bs with sticks for hands when it comes to gaming.
“I’ll be using computers for the rest of my life,” says Will. “I can promise you that I won’t be kicking soccer balls once you stop making me.”
Wilma sighs. “All of your friends are on the team. It’s good exercise. Fresh air. You learn to play with others as a team. Just give it one more try, that’s all we’re saying . . . ”
“We’re?” you interrupt. “We’re saying it? ”
Wilma gives you an ugly look.
“Okay,” she offers, “then how about baseball?”
Will shakes his head. “Left field? Waiting to be yelled at by Coach Bloat-belly because I wasn’t paying attention when the ball was hit to me for the first time in a month?”
“Alright,” says Wilma, “then soccer it is. Soccer tryouts are tomorrow at 11. Dad will take you. End of discussion.”
Wilma trembles with anger. You and Will can both see that she means what she says. She seems to be exerting her last vestige of Real World control over Will, before he is lost to the wastelands of Azeroth.
You and Will also share a look of visceral panic. Tomorrow at 11!? This is a true emergency! Tomorrow at 11:00 sharp, server time, you, Will and the rest of your forty man raiding party will be battling Razorgore the Untamed, Vaelastrasz the Corrupt, and Broodlord Lashlayer in a desperate attempt to clear Blackwing Lair. No way in Azeroth can you and your son leave the others without their number one Rogue and Shaman because of . . . soccer tryouts?
What does Wilma expect you to do? Notify the others that they will have to cancel the raid and allow Nefarian’s mad bid for dominance, the final stages of his plan to destroy Ragnaros once and for all and lead his army to undisputed supremacy over all the races of Azeroth to proceed? What if the rumors are true and Nefarian is experimenting with the blood of all the various Dragon Flights to produce unstoppable warriors? Let all of Azeroth fall? Because of soccer tryouts?
No time to panic. You need to do a little research and bring Wilma into the 21st century. Yes, Wilma, sports do teach kids about teamwork, long-range planning, prolonged effort, the agony of victory and the thrill of defeat, and all, but please have a look at what it takes to mount a raid on the upper reaches of Blackrock Spire. You want teamwork? Planning? Logistics? Effort? Delayed gratification? Try having forty guys from eight different states and three different countries meet on the server with all of their loot and mount an assault on one of the toughest dungeons in World of Warcraft.
Whence comes the idea that “sports” are good for the kids, whereas gaming is somehow bad? You go to your bookshelf and dig out Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. You leave it on Wilma’s pillow, open to the chapter entitled “Games.”
That night, when you come out of the bathroom after brushing your teeth, you see that Wilma has not read the chapter in Johnson’s book, and is instead reading Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction—and a Winning Strategy for Recovery, by Kimberly Young. This calls for drastic measures. You grab Johnson’s book and begin reading aloud to Wilma:
The intellectual benefits of gaming derive from . . . learning how to think . . . learning to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding. No other pop cultural form directly engages the brain’s decision-making apparatus in the same way.
You explain to Wilma how Steven Johnson identifies telescoping and probing as two valuable mental habits taught by computer games. He compares them to the mental exercise required to work through math word problems. Real Worldians criticize computer games for being shallow or mindless because the game narratives are simplistic or somehow disconnected from “reality,” but game critics don’t seem to have a problem with the inane content of most math word problems. For example, two trains leave the station at noon, one going forty miles an hour, one going sixty . . . and so on. Nobody cares about two trains or whether the narrative is simplistic or devoid of moral lessons or psychological depth. Math word problems are not meant to take the place of Tolstoy or Shakespeare. Word problems don’t teach moral lessons or social skills, they teach abstract reasoning. And Johnson argues that computer games also teach valuable mental habits, not just hand-eye coordination.
By telescoping, Johnson means that gamers learn to manage a hierarchy of shifting objectives in a changing environment: To get here, I must first go there, and obtain X, then I must proceed to Y and conquer Z. You urge Wilma to consider the complex strategizing and mental self-discipline evident in a walk-through strategy guide of how to take down Hungarfen, an oversized bog giant, found in Underbog, Colfang Reservoir, Zangarmarsh:
To get to Hungarfen, players will need to navigate through a huge cavern filled with various underbog wildlife. The toughest of these are the fungal giants, and care should be made to pull each separately. Provided players watch out for the fast moving patrols that circle of the cavern, this part won’t be too bad. Hug the right hand side of the cavern till you see a ramp leading upward. Take this ramp. The rest of the cavern, despite its size, is filled with trash mobs. A few more pulls and you will reach an elevated clearing with Hungarfen. The two fungal guards in front of him are not linked, and should be pulled separately.
She’s not impressed. Wilma is worried that Will has attention deficit disorder, a theory that leaves you speechless. You almost lose your temper. Has she ever watched Will working on customized game map, or outfitting one of his avatars for battle, or categorizing and inventorying his loot or armaments? These are not trivial undertakings. These tasks demand hours of deep concentration and complex planning. Rethink the ADHD diagnosis, Wilma, dear. The kid is on-task and riveted to the screen, as long as he is coordinating five players in a four-hour siege of Hellfire Citadel to take down the Fel Orcs of Outland. Misguided, perhaps. Attention deficit? Please.
In a sense, the closest analog to the way gamers are thinking is the way programmers think when they write code: a nested series of instructions with multiple layers, some focused on the basic tasks of getting information in and out of memory, some focused on higher level functions like how to represent the program’s activity to the user.
from Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good For You.
In other words, you urge Wilma to think of Will as an apprentice Bill Gates or prospective candidate for a position at Google or Blizzard Entertainment (the makers of World of Warcraft, 1.5 billion in revenues for 2006). Wilma should perhaps inquire how Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin spent their youths, probably not attending soccer tryouts or standing in left field.
Wilma shuts down the discussion by saying, “Is this some clever new diversion because you’re planning to go into the office tomorrow instead of being a father and taking your son to soccer tryouts?”
Oh. That’s harsh. The internal anguish is almost unbearable. No possible way to explain that instead of taking your son to soccer practice you are taking him to raid Blackwing Lair.
The next morning is Saturday. D-day. You wait until Wilma goes outside to water her flowers, and then you send Will a text message: “The hour is upon us. Boss in Backyard. Proceed with Diversion.”
You have trouble finding the deflated football and a wheezing bicycle pump, which you use to pump in just enough air for plausibility’s sake. You get Will out of his Goth black T-shirt and cargo pants. You hand him a white T-shirt and the reflected light nearly blinds his cave-dwelling gamer’s eyes. He even puts on sneakers and white socks which may be going too far, as you don’t recognize him any more, but there’s no time to waste. You hurry out the back door, stopping him, just before exiting into the environment.
“Act natural. Pretend we were sitting around reading the Sports page, and then suddenly we decided, ‘Hey, let’s go toss the football around the backyard, okay?'”
He blinks in the sunlight and nods. You’ve already coached him about how to engage in authentic sounding sports talk and make it plausible enough to fool the enemy, but you’re worried, because he knows even less than you do. Neither of you even knows how to find ESPN, and the Sports Page is tinder for the fireplace on winter mornings.
The trick is to keep the last names generic: Johnson, Malone, Jackson, Sullivan, Murphy . . . as in, “Did you see where the Braves traded Jenkins.” Unless, you’re desperate, don’t bother researching any particular sport, just make the kind of inane, air-time-filling observations at which commentators excel: “If the Cougars expect to win they’ve got to put points on the board.” Or, “Did you see the moves O’Malley put on Taylor?” Or, “The Pistols, I mean, Pistons need to move the ball more and get a man open down field, or up court, or something.”
You and Will head into the backyard and throw a few pathetic, wobbly passes. But you compensate with lots of hearty sports chatter.
Wilma looks up from watering her flowers and smiles. This is the way life was meant to be. This is home, family, a boy and his father bonding over sports, instead of Burning Crusade.
Will says, “Did you see where the Astros were offsides in the fourth inning?”
Oh, oh. That doesn’t sound right.
You throw a wobbly facsimile of a pass, which falls a yard short of Will’s feet. “Yep, and holding in right field.”
“Did you see where the Dolphins traded Wilson for McGill?” says Will.
After another fifteen minutes of PGST (Pretty Good Sports Talk) and tossing the football with joyful cries of, “Nice catch!” or “Great pass!” You add a few immortal sports bromides like Roger Staubach’s “There are no traffic jams along the extra mile,” or “There’s no elevator to success, son. You’ve got to take the stairs.”
At this point, Wilma is just beaming with pride. She turns off the hose and starts to go inside. You give the signal and Will makes his move.
“You know what, Mom? I’m really loving football. I’m thinking about skipping soccer tryouts and going out for football in the fall, instead.”
You hold your breath.
You cry, “Go long!”
Will heads out for a deep pass. You fire one and, by some miracle, Will catches it. Nice!
“Well,” says Wilma, “All right. I guess we’ll wait for football in the fall, then.”
Whew! You and Will both check your watches. It’s 10:35 Server time.
The raid starts in twenty-five minutes.
(Excerpted from Rapture For The Geeks, by Richard Dooling.)