One of my kids is in a youth soccer league. She…isn’t good. She doesn’t pay attention, she rarely bothers kicking the ball, and while she can run with the best of them, she doesn’t really have any plan regarding what she should do when she gets to where she’s running. She is six years old, though, so none of this should really be a surprise. Her “skills” put her on par with about two-thirds of her teammates, most of whom run around the field in a loose pack and look for an opportunity to kick the ball in a direction (any direction), but don’t really want to get to close to anybody else or do anything too aggressive. Because of course they don’t – they’re little children.
This season, her coach is a guy who takes all this a bit too seriously. I mean, he isn’t hurling abuse at his players or anything truly unsportsmanlike, but you can tell he is genuinely distressed at the “level of play” (and I use that term well aware of how absurd it is) he’s seeing out there on the field. The other day, he gave me advice for improving my daughter’s “skills” for “home practice.”
“She needs to talk less and hustle more,” he said to me. “She needs to pay better attention.”
My answer was something along the lines of “my daughter is a bit of a daydreamer, so she doesn’t always pay attention.” I said it with a shrug and a chuckle, trying to make clear that I was unconcerned with the fact my kid sucks at soccer and that my interest in arranging “home practice” was effectively zero. I mean, if my six year old expressed any interest in practicing soccer at home, sure, sure – but she does not. Honestly, my wife and I were mystified that she wanted to play at all this season.
Picking up on my implications, the soccer coach grimaced and said, “Yeah, well, it’s all just fun at this age.”
That has stuck with me the last few weeks. Particularly the last part: at this age. I wanted to ask him at what age does soccer cease to be fun. When does this game stop being about enjoying yourself with friends and rivals as you kick a ball around a field on a sunny day and start being about something else? And what else is that? Money? Prestige? Fame? And even supposing soccer begins being about those things at some point, why should it ever stop being fun?
There are things in this world that are not necessarily enjoyable but are worthwhile in and of themselves. Nobody likes much of the work they need to do on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean you should stop grocery shopping or going to the doctor or bathing your kids. I don’t think there’s anybody out there saying you absolutely have to enjoy working out or dieting, but those things have results that we find satisfactory regardless of what we had to do achieve them.
But games? Games aren’t like that. There is nothing (nothing) so important about any sport or game that would mean you should continue to pursue it despite hating every second of it. I’d even go so far as to include art in this category. If you don’t enjoy some kind of art? Don’t consume it. If you hate a particular kind of story? Don’t write it. Unlike eating and sleeping and earning your daily wage, you don’t have do this.
The arts and entertainment world (of which sports are part) are important to our lives, but we get to choose how and when and in what proportion we consume them. We also get to choose how and when and if we participate in or create them. The experience itself should be enriching, not some ancillary benefit that comes after the fact. The proportion of people who make a full living off of the arts is approximately the same as those who make a living playing sports: the merest fraction of those who do it. You shouldn’t write stories because you think you will be rich or respected one day. Nor should you attend grueling double basketball practices because you think someday you’ll be in the Hall of Fame and it will all be worth it then. No. It has to be worth it now.
If you hate playing baseball, you should quit. If you despise painting, stop. If you are bored by poetry, find something else to read. Don’t let somebody (anybody) brow-beat you into believing your skill at this particular form of art/entertainment is essential for your self-worth or identity, because it isn’t. And anyway, the annals of people who hate playing a sport who then go on to become champions of that sport is a vanishingly small list – even smaller than that sliver of a percentage that go pro. You can’t hate-write a novel (or at least not a good one) because writing requires a kind of self-authenticity that weeds out the posers. When someone says to you “do what you love,” it’s not some kind of aspirational mantra, it’s practical advice.
So, no, my kid isn’t any good at soccer, but as long as she says she has fun doing it, I’ll keep signing her up for this little no-try-out local league. Likewise, so long as I like writing stories and novels, I’ll keep doing that too, no matter how much I suck.
Because where we end up should matter less than how fulfilling we find the journey. It should never stop being something we fundamentally love. If it does, then we are truly lost.
Behold, it is I, Vrokthar, Scourge of the Northern Wastes! I have once more emerged from my winter feasting, the stores of my longhouse long since depleted, and the meatier of my servants devoured. I look upon thy lands with a hunger that may be sated only by the screams of the cowardly, and soon will my ravaging hordes ride forth in battle.
First, though, I caught up on thy many professional sporting events, wherein you weakling fools pretend to be warriors for a limited period of time while maneuvering various spheres past various posts and, for some reason, slaughter no one and leave their weapons behind. Of this I have proclaimed my displeasure before, and it is not Vrokthar’s mighty purpose to repeat himself. No. There are other things that must be declared the farce that they are.
What is going on with post-game “entertainment?”
At first, Vrokthar assumed this would be an hour-long victory celebration, where we would watch the victors divide the spoils of their conquests, make merry with one another, and heap insults upon vanquished foe all while boasting that still greater victories were to come. This would be a worthy use of time, as few enjoy a good boast more than Vrokthar the Unspeakably Mighty and Crusher of Mountains. Ask any of my thanes, and they will tell thee that my hall is thick with the smoke of roasted meat and the roars of drunken warriors, describing their feats.
But this…this “post-game” nonsense was nothing of the kind. It was merely prattling bards asking idiotic questions of blank eyed athletes: “How did you think you did today?” and “What are you going to do to win next time?”
And their answers? Drivel! Garbage! Useless swill! “We worked real hard” these imbeciles relate, as though a man sweating from physical exertion to the point where he seems to have been greased like a pig has just enjoyed a leisurely stroll. “We went out there and we gave it our all and it was close, but we won.” OBVIOUSLY, you half-drunk donkey! We just witnessed this thing! Is this all you have to give us? Is this the extent of your insight?
Mayhap we should make these faux-warriors excuses – they are not employed to be great speakers, but great workers of deeds. Leave it, then, to the bards of your indolent society to make them seem mighty. And yet, AND YET, these puttering, puerile sycophants add even less to the meager boasts of their pathetic champions! “Did you see the way he moved his feet,” says one, as though being in motion and moving one’s feet could be exclusive states. “I mean, the reason these guys keep winning is they keep putting it in the goal.” OBVIOUSLY, YOU INCOHERENT SWINE, AS SUCH IS THE OBJECTIVE OF THE GAME!
What has become of the vigor of your people, wetlanders? How can it be that here, even in the midst of what passes for glory among your kind, can you be such wretched wastes of time and space and energy? Were Vorkthar to win one of these so-called “playoffs,” you would not find him shyly mincing words in the room-of-small-closets. NO! Vrokthar would be drinking deeply from the helm of his defeated foe! He would steal from the vanquished their livery and cast it down before the fawning masses. “BEHOLD,” sayeth he, “THE FATE OF THOSE WHO FACE VROKTHAR IN BATTLE IS FORETOLD!” Then there would be urination and the speaking of mighty oaths. I would swear to those present that upon the next meeting, I should slay their captain in open combat in center ice and, when the referees came to detain me in the Box of Ignominy, they too would be slain. And then the goals I would score would mount unto the heavens, so numerous would they be! The Scorekeeper would expire from exhaustion, and him too I would skin and mount upon my wall, so that ever afterward, when Vrokthar stood upon the field of contest, the other teams would weep and gnash their teeth and Vrokthar would be given ten goals as an offering to sate his eternal, volcanic rage, lest it melt the ice itself and the whole game be for naught.
Even now, as I speak these words, there are those among you who grow angry. “This cannot be said,” you say. “It is wrong, it is impolite, it is inaccurate.” Fools, I say! This is the point of boasting! Laugh in the face of thy foes, weaklings! Scoff at their warriors, scorn their pride – drive them to madness with your mighty speech. And if you were to lose (which obviously would happen often, because you are as a whole are an impotent and incompetent species), what of it? You would be shamed, and rightfully so, for those who are vanquished should be ashamed of themselves. And then you may plot vengeance! See, wetlander imbeciles? The fun never ends!
Methinks your post-game sports foolishness would be greatly improved by Vrokthar’s reforms. Nay, it is certain to be so. Go and see that these changes are done, or face my inestimable wrath.
So I hath spoken!
For those of you who don’t speak Klingon (don’t worry, I don’t either), the above translates as “today is a good day to die”. It is a battle-cry, meant presumably to show the warrior’s willingness to die in the pursuit of victory. The funny thing about it, though, is that Star Trek isn’t where the phrase originates. Supposedly it was first spoken by Crazy Horse, the Sioux war leader. Under what circumstances he said it, I’m not sure. I’m betting it wasn’t just before taking a nap, though.
Along those same lines, I’m reading Beowulf again, in preparation of teaching it to my lit survey class over the next few weeks. I just recently gave them a rundown of Anglo-Saxon culture during the Dark Ages. It involves a lot of war, a heavy emphasis on a warrior’s code of honorable conduct, and a preoccupation with dying in battle. Chiefly, in accordance with most Norse and Germanic tribes, they needed to die in battle (eg: with a sword in their hand) or go to hell. If you’ve ever seen pictures of medieval knights being laid out in tombs with swords on their chests, that’s part of the cultural mythology that placed them there, even after the rise of Christianity. They, of course, had their own traditions of chivalrous conduct in war and so many battle-rituals that it boggles the mind.
Throw on top of this the warrior mystique of Japan’s samurai, the harsh martial customs of Sparta, the glitter and glory of the Roman Legions, and even the romantic and frightening popular image of modern special forces teams like the Navy SEALS and Green Berets, you gotta ask yourself a few questions:
- Who are the real Klingons, here?
- Why the love affair with a violent death?
- What’s this have to do with geeky things like video games and RPGs?
Who are the Real Klingons, Here?
Science Fiction and Fantasy is filled with ‘warrior cultures’ because we humans are, in the end, made up of a bunch of warrior cultures. Granted, many of us have sort of moved on from that idea (though by no means all of us), but the mystique of living as though death is waiting around every corner and we are ready for it is still powerful. What is important to remember about those old warrior cultures, though, is that the reason they believed those things isn’t because they were awesome, but rather it was because life sucked.
Do you know what the average life expectancy was during the Dark Ages? Around 35. It wasn’t a hell of a lot higher in medieval Japan and certainly not much higher in Sparta. War was commonplace. Strange, bearded men might stumble out of the dark, wolf-infested forest and slaughter your whole clan on any given day of the week. Disease, starvation, exposure and more made it rather unlikely for you to make it to your golden years unless, of course, you were one mean son of a bitch. So, what’s a successful culture to do? Train people to be mean sons of bitches. Next thing you know, you and your badass Zulu buddies are kicking butt all across South Africa. Do you keep it up? Hell yes. Does this make it a form of behavior we ought to emulate or admire? Well, not really.
Why the Love Affair with a Violent Death?
In the historical sense, this is pretty easy to manage. If you died violently in battle, you did a couple things:
- You have successfully evaded a long, agonizing, and demoralizing death from disease, age, starvation, or infection. Yay!
- You protected your way of life to the bitter end. Kudos to you.
- You earned a little piece of immortality for yourself in the form of one crazy story. (“Hey, remember when Hrothgar went up against those six Romans with nothing but an axe-handle? What a badass!”)
Some that stuff still holds its appeal for us today in certain circumstances. More generally, though, the idea of the heroic death against impossible odds appeals to something quite primordial in all of us: the Fight or Flight instinct. By choosing Fight, you are throwing your cards down on the table and calling the other guy’s bluff. You are drawing a line in the sand. You are making a gamble on the future–you win, and everything is yours; you lose, and you’re dead. In a culture as heavily based on competition and shooting for the stars as ours is, there’s a certain animal thrill in watching somebody take that risk that we never could. Even if they die, you can stand there and whistle under your breath and say ‘there was one brave guy/gal.’ In a sense, it’s that same ‘immortality’ that drove the Anglo-Saxons and Achilles–you will speak their name again.
(cue theme music to Fame)
What’s all This Have to Do With Geeks?
Well, in my experience, most geeks are also dreamers. They want to shoot for the stars. They aren’t settling for what’s readily available, they’re going for what might be. They’re pushing the envelope, whether it’s in art, science, medicine, academia, or what have you. How did they get that way? Hell if I know–it’s a unique road for all of us, and I think a little bit of every person understands the geek desire to change the world around them and, thereby, earn its respect. In a very simple way, the Battle or Thermopylae or Beowulf’s clash with Grendel is an ego boost, a rush–the metaphorical representation of their own battle against their High School (or their Job, or their Love Life, or whatever it is that has them down). In a video game or when you’re in an RPG, you want your character to look danger in the eye and spit. If you lose, well, you gave it a shot.
But if you win…
There are two instances in which I have witnessed grown men get up and jump around hugging each other. The first is a sporting event and the second was during a variety of RPGs I’ve run during my life. I’ve already explained the first one above. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out the circumstances of the other one.