For those of you who don’t know me well, I have a confession to make: I’ve played the same video game for the last two decades. And not even a great game, defunct Westwood Studio’s Dune 2000. This RTS (real-time strategy) game is a remake of Dune II, which, in video game history, is probably the first popular RTS (its producer Brett Sperry actually coined the term) and one that led to the huge popularity of Starcraft, et al. It’s loosely based on the universe of Frank Herbert’s Dune, with much of its imagery taken from David Lynch’s eponymous film.
One question I’ve often asked myself about my long-running obsession with the game: are there other players out there like me? Has someone been playing Starcraft for twenty years, not online at all, just against the computer, the same levels over and over again, totally without hope of professional money or stardom, simply for the mindless pleasure of it? Certainly, there must be. But playing against the built-in levels and AI multiplayer is insanely repetitive, and I’ve probably played each level of the game at least a dozen times, some, maybe even hundreds of times. Where does such an obsession come from?
Certainly, the game’s theme has played a part. I love the Dune series, and I’ve read all of the original books. Playing the game reminds me of the joys of exploring Herbert’s universe. It has all the human tribes from the series: Fremen, Sardaukar, Atreides, Harkonnen, and much of the technology; ornithopter, carryalls, spice harvesters, windtraps, as well as the landscape of Arrakis itself: a vast desert, roamed by sandworms, the wasteland a battleground because it is the only source of the magical spice.
Another reason may be my love of repetition. For example, I’ve probably read Dune a dozen time. Usually, I enjoy a book less the first time I read it, and there are many others I’ve read again and again (The Silmarillion, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Thin Red Line). Something about seeing my favorite scenes, appreciating the crafting of the words, and reliving the emotions a passage generates appeals to me.
But is this enough to account for twenty years of play? I don’t think so.
The deeper answer, is that Dune takes me to oblivion. When I play, it puts my conscious mind into a catatonic state, shutting down awareness of my eventual death. The stressors that come with relationships, my teaching career, my status as a writer, my inevitable death, all fade away. When I was in my teens and twenties, there was nothing I found more relaxing than getting high and playing a long bout of Dune. But I was unaware that this no-time (to borrow a Herbert phrase) had to do with the fear of my mortality.
This realization makes me assume there are two types of game players: those, like me, who sudoku, or cross-stitch, or Minecraft, to shut down their awareness of time. And the opposite: those who can only find enjoyment in games with other people, and more, with competition and connection to those values which bring meaning to our ephemeral lives. I’ve often thought what torture it would be (in a Nietzschean “eternal return” kind of way) for one of those active game players to be trapped inside of me (a la Being John Malkovich) replaying the same levels again and again, along in a room.
I hadn’t realized, either, that this explains why I enjoy drinking (or in the past smoking marijuana) while playing Dune (or a handful of other games). It augments the oblivion. Sometimes the high goes to the point where I’m too intoxicated to play the game successfully, ending the waking dream. Which is an irony, in that alcohol is a drug that both mirrors death via its soporific properties, or by eroding memory by blacking its user out.
This also explains why I could not, until recently, understand non-drinkers. More specifically, non-oblivion seekers, whether via Dune or other means.
For non-drinkers, the blurring or softening of reality that comes after more than one alcoholic beverage is unpleasant because it takes away precious moments of conscious life. It brings a reminder of one’s end, not release from it. The cutting of social ties, or responsibilities, only serves to add onto the ever-present fear. This is also why drinkers and non-drinkers often cannot understand each other’s actions. The non-drinker is appalled, disgusted, indignant, or sad to see someone drunk, or alcoholism negatively impacting someone’s life. Especially in that it often brings early death, even if one escapes damage to friends, loved ones, or careers. Inversely, the drinker cannot understand the non-drinker’s avoidance of alcohol at optimal times to forget death: at social events where drinking is condoned and encouraged, on vacations, or at the end of the workweek. What better way to pause the painful knowledge that all our entanglements must someday wither and mold away?
The personal has much to do with my perspective, as it does for everyone. My parents are alcoholics, but in a unique, damage-minimizing way. My father drinks whiskey every night and yet I can only think of a handful of occasions in the past thirty years when I saw him visibly drunk. He has been shocked anytime I’ve had a drink before 4:30pm. He does not drink when sick, or injured, or if the social occasion forbids it. And because he was a loving father, and because of the enjoyable and raucous parties my father’s family would throw on holidays, I’ve always had a positive association with alcohol.
My mother drinks similarly, though I doubt she would drink as much if she hadn’t married my father. I could easily see her not drinking if she’d married a teetotaler. And opposite from my father, I can vividly remember my mother drunk on many occasions—some humorous, others saddening—just like myself. In a sense, my father contradicts my thesis: each day after work, he imbibes into a lineal zone, which is neither full oblivion, or full engagement with reality. Somewhere between Sartre’s “authentic life” and one fleeing from reality. And though that may seem pointless from the perspective of those (like me) who enjoy fleeing when they can, or those who fear to fly, it may be the best compromise my father could make. The son of alcoholics himself, he could not fully stop drinking, but had to set up arbitrary rules (after 4:30pm, two drink max on weekdays) in order to have a functioning life.
It is no coincidence that this realization comes three months after the birth of my son. As I feel asleep last night—exhausted from work and childcare—I pondered my past video game love, and what it would look like as Liam grew up. I did not like the picture. You cannot have your child, or even teenage son, come home to find you zoned-out playing an ancient RPG. And the oblivion game is broken if another plays, or even shows up to ask what the game’s about. To play oblivion—just like death—one plays alone. There are many obvious other reasons to avoid such a flight from entanglements, but it may have occurred to me simply because, I can’t get away with it any more. The access to such oblivion necessitates privacy, a room of ones one, and so some privilege and freedom from responsibilities, of which I now have many more. And this is where nostalgia may intersect: not only does Dune occlude a fear of death, but of guilt. When playing, I fall into a time (1996) when I had little awareness of my place in society, nor how I am obligated to improve its injustices, and its future. It is both selfish towards my son, and my fellow beings on this planet, to not indulge in oblivion. At the very least, I could be here, on the page, hunting for the “no time” that comes with hours of writing.