Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Divide, first 1000 words.

My gaze swept out over the sea of bored, oily, fuzz-lipped faces. They weren’t convinced.

 

‘You’re young. You have your whole lives ahead of you,’ I said, spreading my arms. There was a twinge in my shoulder I hadn’t noticed before.

 

‘But one day, maybe one day soon, those lives will end. You could get cancer. You could get hit by a bus. There’s no way of knowing.’

 

There was a murmur in the crowd. Going negative didn’t work wonders on the young ones, but it got them paying attention.

 

‘What if there was a way to be sure? What if you could know for certain that you would never die? That you, and your family, and your friends, were safe and sound. Forever.’

 

The murmur was louder this time. I saw a few of the kids sitting forward in their chairs, or turning to look at one another questioningly. They already knew this stuff, though. It’d been in the news for years, and the movement was growing exponentially. Which brought me to my next selling point.

 

‘With every person who upgrades, the experience is better for everyone. Imagine: you can’t die any more. You can do almost anything you want. Explore the net, sure. But you can get dangerous. Be a spy. Go skydiving. Shoot some bad guys. Upgrade to the Arc, and you can do all of these things, and more. With as much or as little danger as you want.’

 

It was vague, but it had to be. The laws the government had cobbled together over the last three years didn’t cover everything, but they were very specific when it came to minors. These kids would be old enough soon, though, and the company had decided that teenagers were the next target market. The Arc had plenty of the old and depressed by then. It needed new blood. Young blood.

 

There was a commotion at the back of the hall, a brief scuffle, muffled voices. A couple of men seemed to be grappling near the doors. The students were still watching me, though, so I continued.

 

‘Skyline Futuristics built the Arc as a key to the future. The world is changing, faster and faster, and you can be a part of that. You should be a part of it. Don’t get left behind,’ I said, leaning into the microphone a little, projecting over the increasing noise at the back of the hall. ‘Talk to your parents or guardians about upgrading to the Arc today.’

 

The display behind me lit up suddenly, a blaze of white, silhouetting me against the Arc Project logo. I raised my arms again, magnanimously, feeling a little silly. The guidelines were very specific about this part. As the lights faded, I saw a few kids in the crowd rubbing their eyes, and one in the front row was standing, glaring up at me.

 

‘I can’t talk to my parents!’ he shouted up at the stage, fists balled at his sides. He was a tall, gangly boy, his cheeks constellations of acne, his eyes glistening with rage. ‘You killed them. They went to you and you killed them!’

 

He looked around, hands clenching and unclenching. Other kids nearby leaned away, watching warily. I remembered that feeling from my own school days. Never associate with crazy. He was talking now, low and monotonous, cheeks shining with tears.

 

‘They left me and they died and you turned them into zombies. You killed their brains and kept their bodies,’ he said. He was shaking, looking at the ground. He slumped back and dropped his head into his hands.

 

I stared at him for a moment, lost for words. There was a shout from the back of the room. A man had broken away from the others, the teachers. He was walking up the central aisle of the hall, yelling something towards the stage. I couldn’t make out the words. I could see the shoulders of the boy in the front row, heaving with silent sobs. I closed my eyes for a half-second, then followed the guidelines.

 

‘The Arc Project does not kill anybody. We provide the means for people to transcend their bodies and achieve immortality. While donation of the body to the Project is an option, it is by no means mandatory.’

 

The scripted lines rolled off my tongue, but I couldn’t shake the guilt balled deep in my stomach. Optional body donation. Upgrading without donating cost a fortune. Most people couldn’t afford the procedure without that option. It was obvious, but it worked.

 

‘The Project provides counsellors for families electing to undergo the upgrade, and we work to define an upgrade package that suits all…’

 

I was interrupted by a second shout from the newcomer. A few kids turned away from their wracked classmate to watch him as he advanced down the central aisle. He drew level with the front row of seats, glanced over at the sobbing student, and then looked up at me on the low stage. The teachers at the back of the hall were huddled, conversing, pointing. One glanced wildly to the front of the hall as he brought a phone to his ear.

 

The man’s breath was a little ragged. I could see pale spots of colour high on his cheekbones, proof of his exertions. There was a rushing in my ears, though the crowd itself was eerily silent. My knees wobbled suddenly, and I grabbed the worn wooden podium for support. When he spoke, his voice was raised, but quite level.

 

‘You and your Project are an affront to the Lord,’ he said. He reached into his coat and produced a pistol. It was short, snub-nosed, and the same matte grey as his eyes. ‘Only the Lord has the right to sit in judgement of a human soul. The Arc has no right, no right to decide when humans die. No right to use human bodies in these perverse ways.’

 

I felt sweat prickle across my shoulders, a cold, burning sensation which spread up to my scalp and down my spine. The man calmly squared his shoulders, raised the pistol with both hands, and levelled it at my head.

 

‘Only by the Lord can we be one.’ he intoned. I saw the minute flex of his hand as his finger tightened on the trigger. I saw the dull metal of the pistol. I saw the bottomless black hole of the barrel. I saw it look me right in the eye.

 

(This is pretty much unedited, so please excuse any massive plot holes/spelling errors/general crappiness.)

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Changing the world one game at a time, or, a series of justifications for playing games and not taking life very seriously

Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world.

Jane McGonigal.

The Penguin Press.

Playing games makes you a better person.

That’s the message behind Jane McGonigal’s 2011 book, “Reality is Broken.” Don’t be mistaken, however—Dr. McGonigal isn’t implying that fifteen hours in front of World of Warcraft or Counter-Strike is going to solve all your problems. Rather, she asserts that lessons learned while playing games contribute to making you happier and more productive.

On the surface, “Reality is Broken” is a justification of obsessive gaming. But as Dr. McGonigal says in her introduction, “Why would we want to waste the power of games on escapist entertainment?” Combining her qualifications and years of experience as a game designer with recent research in the field of positive psychology, she shows how games could change the fundamental way in which our society functions. She argues that rather than adhering to the existing dichotomy of “real life” and “game life,” we should work to combine the two. “What if we started to love our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?” Good questions—but what’s so valuable about games?

Games are fun. They’re not mandatory. They’re a simple cycle of action and reward which keeps us playing. They teach collaboration. All welcome values in a dull job. Every day, millions of people spend hours working together towards in-game goals. We’re asked to imagine the sheer amount of game time being applied to real-world projects. In a game, everything the player does has some kind of immediate impact on the game space. “Reality is Broken” shows that direct rewards, such as points earned, are much more satisfying than more nebulous rewards, like praise from others.

The time for these ideas to take the public stage is fast approaching. The massive success of real life crossover games like Foursquare and Fitocracy is the tip of the iceberg. Dr. McGonigal’s research shows that mixing games and real life unlocks genuine and lasting happiness. A large chunk of one chapter focuses on the Quest system, a school curriculum alternative which uses ‘quests’ and ‘levelling up’ rather than traditional assignments and grading. It’s very effective at getting kids excited about learning. But in a crucial setting like education, is it a realistic alternative?

Many people see games as a pastime at best, a waste of time at worst. Readers who are avid gamers will disagree. Where “Reality is Broken” falls short is in convincing non-gamers that any of it is worthwhile at all. These ideas—that playing games is good for the mind (and soul), and that applying game theories to real life is beneficial across the board—aren’t intuitive or self-evident. Even those in the ‘full-time’ gamer group will find it difficult to believe that a school curriculum based on games is a legitimate option.

Dr. McGonigal makes strong arguments, however, and her research is sound. The book is engagingly written. Her sheer optimism throughout is evident—and exciting. Some of the fourteen ‘reality fixes’ are more believable than others, but the author’s training and experience as a game designer shines through with a utopian ideal for the future, with a realistic method of getting there. Avid gamers will be validated and inspired by “Reality is Broken.” Those who doubt the value of games may be persuaded otherwise. Regardless of which way you lean, as Dr. McGonigal writes, “we can play any games we want. We can create any future we can imagine. Let the games begin.”

(Originally written for university, theoretically as a submission to the New York Times. I got an okay mark)

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I will lock you in a room much like your own until it begins to fill with water, or, uncertainty as a method for making things interesting

Threats, a novel, by Amelia GrayThreats.

Amelia Gray.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Amelia Gray’s first novel-length work deals in loss, grief, shock… uncertainty. David’s wife, Franny, is dead. Maybe. Now he’s finding vaguely threatening messages around his house (carved into the side of an old television; on a scrap of paper in the sugar bowl). The police are questioning him. What happened? What’s happening? Good question.

The lack of certainty even with such a central plot point (Franny is dead) spreads throughout the narrative like ripples on a pond. David is not sure of this fact, or of much else, for that matter. The narrator’s voice is stolid and gentle, peacefully recounting the horrors, bizarre scenes and events, and above all, the massively fractured mind of David.

From the outset, it seems like we’re looking at a murder mystery. It quickly becomes an exploration of grief, of the shock and pain following a sudden loss. Maybe. The titular question, of course, is where the threats are coming from, and ironically, this is one of the few questions that gets a sort of answer. The threads of everything else, all the surreal sheds of wasps, surprise hypnotist boarders, and of course Franny’s death, are there, but they’re tangled, hazy. In true plotless, postmodern style, it may all be a symbol. Or a metaphor. Or maybe (likely?) it just went over my head.

I should say: it’s a great read. I finished it in a day, lying wide-eyed in a Melbourne hotel bed at 3.30am, and it stayed with me for days after. The language is evocative, and there’s a sense of crushing, inevitable dread; a creeping doom that began long before David met Franny, and has no end in sight. The uncertainty that pervades, though, eventually became more frustrating than tension-building. The thoroughly unreliable protagonist meant I was never sure what’s real. I’m all for ambiguity and uncertainty, but here there’s very few places to touch a toe and push yourself up. Perhaps this is one of those novels you need to be ‘in the mood for’; maybe it’s just not my style. Anyway.

The most frustrating for me was that occasionally, we are shown a glimpse of what David used to be like, glimpses that unfortunately make him seem like a much more interesting character. Inevitably, though, he descends back into bleary-eyed, memory-questioning wandering. I had to work quite hard, in the end, to care about him. Right from the start, he’s having out-of-body experiences, dissociation events… These are all unremarkable responses to trauma, but mixed with the surreal stuff (especially in the book’s last third) I felt like there wasn’t enough here to chew on, to worry at. No answers forthcoming. If you go into this novel with traditional genre expectations, you’ll likely be disappointed. Even after consciously restructuring my expectations, I felt that ambiguity (uncertainty, interest) lost out to vagueness here. I was gripped at first; at last, I just wanted to see how it would end.

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Childhood and a return, or, prose (week two)

A. A childhood place.

I think it’s called Scarborough Beach Park. Cottonwood trees, but grown (naturally or induced, I never learned) to twist together and form a solid webbing—a canopy. Trunks parallel to the ground. We could clamber from one side of the park to the other without touching the ground. We named junctions, bridges, nests; had spots to sit and watch the less brave kids down below. As I got older I became more fearful of heights and she, oh, she, would leave me behind, leaping from limb to limb. In the end, I always needed three points of contact.

The dappled light was always shifting (constant climbing children meant that few new shoots grew except at the upper expanse) and it always smelled of warm, damp bark chips, dirt, and the beach. The beach, only a short distance away, was invisible from the park until you climbed high enough to look out through a gap in the leafy dome. The sea was always right there for a cooling dip. Across the road were a few shops, good for chips or ice cream if a coin or two had been filched from home.

Climbing. I never fell, though I always expected to. The bark was rough and rutted under my fingers; plenty of hand and toe holds for an enterprising climber. Adults never climbed. It was purely a child’s kingdom, the freedom to travel where others couldn’t, the power to drop down to the warm earth at any point under that net of branches.

B. Return to a childhood place.

It’s changed, because of course it has. I walk past the new stuff. Shiny playground, even newer when I was little but used only by the really tiny kids. For us it was all about climbing trees.

I still have a fear of heights; it was never a problem when I was very young but got worse as I grew up. I wonder about that—usually it goes the other way. Says a lot about me, really. I used to hop from branch to branch, laughing as I dangled above a six meter drop. Now, standing on a chair to change a light bulb is a circus of deep breathing and shaky knees.

So I’m back, fifteen years later, back to where I first started feeling that fear, coiling in my gut and reaching up to close my throat. I feel my hands tremble, and ball them into fists. Start easy—we’d named the trees, of course, by how easily we could gain access to the canopy. Easy Tree, the Crow’s Nest, the Bridge. Start easy.

A step up onto a solid, horizontal bole. Handholds don’t even quiver—at this level, all the unstable branches have been bent, broken, stripped away by decades of climbers. I feel the weakness in my knees, the shudder. The full force of adult logic is useful now. I’d have to work very hard to injure myself in a fall from half a meter off the ground.

But it doesn’t help.

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