Friday, July 13, 2012

Click for enlightenment

Computer games are not without value, as long as one isn't consumed by them; I enjoy online Scrabble, and if one wants to learn military strategy and tactics, it's better to play a war game than to go to war. Having said that, it's hard to know how some things can be usefully learned by gaming. I'm referring in particular to the "Walden" game I read about last night in the current issue of Harper's. Henry David Thoreau sought closeness to nature and emancipation from the conventional bonds of modern life, so he built a cottage, lived by a pond, took walks, and lived off the fruits of the land. Along the way, he had insights about the human condition.

How one could possibly impart anything useful about such an experience by designing a game around it is beyond me. If, as Samuel Johnson said, "Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment," that must be at least doubly true for a plan of enlightenment, especially in the form of a computer game. If one wants to do like Thoreau, why then, take a walk, spend a week in a rustic cottage, eat nothing but farm produce, and the like. I can hardly think of an activity less likely to achieve Thoreauvian results than to sit clicking a mouse or keyboard!

Still, this irony is apparently lost on some game developer, who forwarded a proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts requesting funds for this noble endeavor, explaining that playing the game might lead the user to "arrowhead moments" and enable progress for the gamer's "philosophical meanderings"—and some twit at NEA obliged the hapless techie with a $40K grant!

Now $40K isn't even a hiccup in today's galactically scaled federal budget, but it's the principle of the thing. Even granting the idea that the government must spend it on something, imagine how many meals for the homeless, textbooks for vocational training for dropouts, weeks at summer camp for poor kids—or, for that matter, copies of Walden (the original book, not the game!) might have been purchased for the same amount.

If anyone wants to grasp the existential roots of Tea Party rage, he could do worse than to consider this instance. There is an angry corps of voters that suspects, deep down, that large segments of government funds are at the disposal of clueless twits who can't change a tire, replace storm windows, or chop a load of firewood, who continually resort to precious and obscure circumlocutions that express no genuine feeling that any real person ever had--and who think it a fitting investment of National Endowment for the Arts funds to spend $40,000 on a computer game called "Walden."

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.

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