Homer and Ready Player One

Last fall, I was going through a mindfulness exercise. This app was teaching me about the negative effects of stress and anxiety on the body.

A soothing-voiced narrator explained that the body responds to thoughts of bad things nearly the same way as if the imagined bad thing were actually happening! Of course, his point was to learn to be present and appreciate the peace of the moment.

I just finished readying Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It was a stylized time warp. The 80’s weren’t really like that, but it was so much fun to remember the songs and the movies.

And the video games. I was really impressed with how the author used words to show the intensity and loneliness of intense gaming.  The premise of the book made the premise of nearly every video game transition into real life. Video games are played for points using a limited number of lives.

The story has the avatar Parzival playing video games inside of a video game for a real life fortune, and his real life is quickly in danger.

Of course it’s a book. Yet it’s all story. Video games are story and books are story. In the middle of the story, if it’s a good one, the imagined thing is actually happening.

I read Ready Player One later than I should have. I read it standing in lines on my phone Kindle. I was in it. It affected my mood for days, and still does. Is the writing stunning prose? No.

But it did the trick for me. I walked through the time gate and felt the loserish isolation of Wade, the protagonist, then channeled his game master Halliday, and my own loserish isolation as a hapless incompetent teenager.

Wade and Halliday turned to games. What else was there for them? Imagining a world where they had puzzles to solve, and powers to achieve was a fantastic option. An invented world to challenge the wits, reflexes and dogged determination–a world with a trustworthy promise that victory was possible? Here was a siren call past endurance.

I know that call. Not games for me, but books that consume me and flare all my senses in the story created for me. Isn’t that what my mindfulness narrator said? My body’s response almost as if the imagined experience were happening.

A few months ago I read the Iliad, one of the oldest stories ever. Discussing it with a friend, she said “Why do they have to fight it out? What is pushing them to war, really?”

It’s right there in the text. Homer says it: every Greek hero is there to do what he was born to do. To FIGHT. To put all his strength and courage and wits to bear against a worthy opponent. Life is short! What is life for, but to stretch ourselves to our limits, best others and then ourselves?

Of course, the immortal gods cannot risk their lives. The glory is only found in the risk of what costs.

And that is where the games break down. Because as exhilarating as the win, and the leveling up, can be, the only risk is the opportunity cost. The time spent in the virtual world is time that cannot be spent winning and losing in the real world.

At some point, a person has to pull their eyes away from the immersive story or game–whatever it is–and engage with life and real people.

The only way to win is to play.