Friday, June 23, 2006

If you read my game posts, you may recall that back when Aya first hit 60 I was kind of disillusioned with the prospect of running instance after instance, which is more or less all that the endgame of World of WarCraft offers. Sure, there are some endgame quests (many of which involve running instance after instance), but the truth is that the MMORPG is a lousy genre for storytelling because, almost uniquely among computer game genres, nothing ever changes. The world is static. Without a leveling mechanism to help ensure you don't go back to an area you've already quested through (which, at best, turns the game into a gigantic dark ride), your ability to tell a convincing story is severely curtailed as compared to other genres.

You will notice that these are basically story-based concerns. Which is probably why my opinion on instances has changed. I now actually enjoy running instance after instance (although the prospect of raid after raid is one I'm still chary of). Last week's Wailing Caverns run is a good example (there have been previous good examples, perhaps better examples; I just don't have blognames for all the key participants). There have been a few fundamental shifts in my outlook to make this possible. One is that I am looking at instances more as familiar and almost cozy places rather than attempts to wow me with grandeur and mystery. I suppose calling the Scholomance "familiar and cozy" may seem a bit strange, but think of it this way: Pirates of the Caribbean is not cheapened if I watch it a thousand times. It's familiar and cozy. The second, and most important shift, has been that I look at instances as chances to work as a team.

Team-based online gameplay has been a holy grail of game developers for close to a decade now, and by and large I'd say that the project has failed thus far. It's not precisely the developers' fault. The critical failing is not a lack of infrastructure - command maps, waypoints, voice over IP, all that jazz. It's that the players themselves don't know how to play as a team. For some reason, it seems to work better in World of WarCraft. Even when I'm playing in a pickup group; some of my most satisfying WoW moments have been taking (or wresting) command of a party of strangers and forging them into a fighting unit using nothing but communication. I mean, come on.

And when I'm playing with people I know ... well, that can be satisfying on a whole different level. When the party is firing on all cylinders and we really are fighting as a single unit, there's a thrill I experience beyond mere competence. It's the thrill of knowing that somebody has my back. Knowing that I can stand there and heal in the direst circumstances, because Alexander will rescue me. Tanking without even looking at my health bar because I know the priest will not let me die. Not giving up even when we're fighting eight mobs, because we trust each other to stay frosty and do our jobs - trust each other that because nobody's going to panic, we will come through alive.

Those instances of teamwork - and they are more frequent than I would ever have expected - are the really satisfying part of WoW for me these days. And the fact is that only instances are challenging enough to really encourage teamwork. So I no longer mind running instances over and over.

I read a number of Christian "men's" books a month or so back, and I noticed that there was a tendency across authors to worry about when a boy becomes a man. One of the things they tended to talk about in the communication of manhood from father to son was whether the father had passed on some manly skill to his son, like fishing or hunting or automobile maintenance. I read that and I thought to myself, "Gosh, what did my father pass on to me?" A few thoughts.

Thought the first. To the extent that we care about actual manly skills, I can name two. Dad taught me to shoot, and he taught me to command men in battle. Now, please understand that I am very well aware of how much I don't know about shooting, and especially how very much I don't know about command (i.e., nearly everything). But for present purposes, what I do know will serve. If command doesn't seem on the same macho par as hunting or fixing a car, I remind you that Geoffroi de Charny considered it the highest form of knightly prowess. That's good enough for me. I'd much rather know about command than about football or hunting, and here's why. To the extent that any of these activities have spiritual value, I think that value lies in training us to see spiritual realities by familiarizing us with visible analogies. Analogies of trust and community and stepping up to the challenge. Learning the joy of sharing adventures with other people. Learning how to encourage your fellow adventurers, and seeing the results that can bring. And above all, I think, learning the relationship between trust and love, and what it means to really lead. Just games, of course. But not devoid of value all the same. And I wonder if many of the most satisfying moments in hunting or sports aren't essentially analogous.

Thought the second. I agree that a man will have a very hard time of it coming of age without a father. But I think it is a mistake to ignore the role of the female in making a man. And I don't mean the role of the female in nurturing a boy to the threshold of manhood. I mean helping him cross it. As Heinlein says, "The last thing a trooper hears before a drop (maybe the last word he ever hears) is a woman's voice, wishing him luck. If you don't think this is important, you've probably resigned from the human race." In Pericles' Athens a boy became enrolled in the militia when his mother or sister passed him his shield over the altar. It was not a Spartan father who so famously exhorted his son. And I think there is a spiritual basis to this. If man is the head of woman, then at some point a woman is going to have to submit to him. Some woman is going to look him square in the eye and say, "I trust you." Aladdin starts to become a man the moment Jasmine steps on that carpet. Now, I know (and hopefully she will know) that even the best man can only be trusted as far as the grace of God can throw him. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm saying that a woman's trust and submission is just as important to establishing masculinity as a father's example and guidance.

Thought the third. Notwithstanding the foregoing, I think it is a mistake to focus too much on when or even whether a boy has become a man (or a girl has become a woman). Yes, there are thresholds in life to cross. They're real. They matter. But they aren't the most important thing. And it absolutely will not do to place your faith, when your masculinity is under assault, in the memory of that one moment when you think you became a man. No matter how much that moment may matter, it can't sustain your faith. No moment, no initiation, can do that. And the thing to do is in any case the same whether one has "become" a man or not: press on. Seek God more.

Thought the fourth. While I certainly agree that gender is part of one's identity as a Christian, it doesn't do to focus on it too much either. To be sure, a person is lacking something important and significant if they don't have ownership of their gender. But gender is not the most important thing we have. And ultimately, I wonder if it isn't like all the other aspects of life in this respect: When I was small, and asked my parents about the horoscope, they explained that whether I was a Taurus or not is insignificant compared to the fact that I am a Christian, because whatever power the stars (or, more precisely, the spiritual forces behind them) have over my life is surpassed by the power that Jesus has over my life. If you want to be provocative and silly about it, I am not a Taurus. I am a Christian. And that point - that the most important thing about your life is Jesus' lordship over it - I have noticed is true in many other areas of life. Even ones that are highly unlikely to be animated by demonic subterfuge. Am I smart? Sure. But the fact that I am Christian far surpasses the fact that I am smart. Or even the fact that I am kind (if I am) or I am loving (if I am). And, I suspect, the fact that I am a man (if I am). If I am not a man, or not much of one ... well, that matters. But not nearly so much as the fact that I am my Beloved's and He is mine. Nothing really matters much compared to that.

1 comment:

Justin said...

Spot on about the WoW, as well as the misguided emphasis on the point of becoming a man, I think. To the first: 5-man instances are truly unique, in my experience, for the teamwork and flexibility of roles. In any encounter gone slightly wrong, one must adapt on the fly, alert to pull mobs off the healer (if you're me), trapping adds, etc. A 10-man gets a bit more of the "oh crap here come 6 or 7 mobs, we'd better execute that plan we talked about." A 40-man (well, just MC since that's all I've done) gives a more "epic" feel to some battles, and can be very focused on execution, but by and large you have one job and you stick to it. There's little you can do if things do go wrong other than find a good, resurrectable corner to die. There is certainly a differences between a good player and a bad one in a raid, but I'll never be able to say that I saved one by quickly peeling an add, freezing it, offtanking another with my pet and kiting a third. I die in two hits without healing. That's not to say a well-oiled chain-pulling raid isn't a sight to behold, though, or that dealing with an add doesn't give me a thrill either; on the flip side, when classes are NOT doing their job, drama and bickering quickly ensue. (Don't get me started on warriors who can't find the taunt button when I'm pulling...gah.)

To the second thought, focusing on the moment you become a man strikes me as silly because it implies the job is done. As you point out, press on! I can clearly identify the moment I became a college graduate - definitely much more clearly than the point where I became a man, if I am a man - but it is simply a signficant milestone, an achievement of which I am somewhat proud, and a foundation upon which to build. It is certainly nothing to trumpet going forward. When crisis hits, I highly doubt I will be staving off certain doom by screaming into the pit of the abyss, "I GRADUATED FROM STANFORD IN 2005! WITH A MASTER'S, DAMN YOU!"