How Social Media Destroyed Itself

SelfDestructButton
To everyone who’s ever created something and shared it online, I’d like to say one thing:

I’m sorry.

See, those of us who’ve been doing this for awhile now — we’re the ones who invented blogging, and tweeting, and YouTubing, and social networking, and we’ve been preaching about “the digital revolution” for the past 10 or 20 years — we all got it wrong.

We thought the medium would change the media.

We thought the gatekeepers were dead.

We thought meaning mattered.

Nope. We all blew it.

And unfortunately there’s no going back.

How We Misread the Digital Tea Leaves

A funny thing happened around the turn of the millennium.

Those of us who were busy pioneering the digital formats we now all take for granted believed then that our newly “democratized” means of media production would change media as we know it. We presumed that audience tastes would change with the new formats, and that traditional media channels (TV, film, radio, publishing) would need to adapt to our way of life.

Why? Because we were ahead of the curve. We saw the potential of new forms, and we thought we’d be able to harness them faster than the “dinosaur” media conglomerates we derided.

We were right about our own speed, but that’s because most of us were young and childless then, so we had nothing but time to tinker with these new toys. We could afford to spend days and weeks and years perfecting our videoblogs and podcasts and other labors of love because we still felt like the underdogs who had something to prove to the dinosaurs we were outfoxing.

We claimed we wanted to plant our flag in their territory… but we were only being half honest.

Problem is, we also courted those same dinosaurs, because we wanted them to play in our sandbox. We wanted the validation of their attention and their money. We wanted them to acknowledge that we were right, and to reward us with seats at their table. We just thought we’d be the ones who’d be able to set the new rules, just because we were there first.

Boy, were we wrong.

What Happens When You Ask All the Wrong Questions?

I was at the first PodCamp, back in 2006, when “podcasting” was new enough that it was still called “podcasting,” and the people who did it were rare enough that we could pretty much all meet in a single auditorium. And the question we all asked ourselves then was, “When will brands realize this is the new way to communicate?”

Whoops. Be careful what you ask for.

I was at the first Video on the Net conference back in 2006, when such an idea was revolutionary enough to actually be termed “revolutionary.” We were the rebels in cargo shorts getting strange looks from the suits who thought we were a fad. And the question we all asked ourselves then was, “When is old media going to wake up and catch up?”

Whoops again.

Instead of trying to find our own ways to succeed, we were trying to make our new media fit the old paradigm. And when you do that, the old paradigm will gladly eat you alive.

In 2007 or 2008, I was invited to a focus group at Turner Broadcasting. A roomful of us who were social media creators spent a day giving Turner our thoughts on the future of media. We were thrilled; we thought we were being taken seriously.

None of us were self-aware enough to realize we were actually volunteering our own demise.

(I think they paid each of us $3000 for the privilege. I could be wrong; it may have been $1000.)

What we were too inexperienced and deluded to realize was this: as soon as we proved that these new formats could work, the dinosaurs who stood to make actual money with them would co-opt these channels and fill them with the same media (and the same business models) they’ve always followed. They didn’t need us, and we didn’t really need them… but we thought we did. So we started playing their game, hoping we’d win. But we lost.

And as these new systems got rolled into the old processes, what changed wasn’t the processes; it was us.

When In Rome…

Some of us sold our “social” skills to brands as a means to make ourselves seem newly relevant. Big business knew there was money to be made by advertising to hordes of eyeballs, and if we knew how to attract those eyeballs, weren’t we useful?

We figured out pretty early on that we could make money teaching old dogs new tricks. It took us longer to realize that these old dogs would eventually master our tricks and we’d need to find a new way to remain relevant (and employable) to them.

So we started becoming social media marketers… then social marketers… and eventually just marketers. What mattered wasn’t the media, it was the reach. What mattered wasn’t the community, it was the degree to which they could be monetized.

Those of us who used to dream of a new digital future never thought that future would just end up being us using the tools we once loved to convince strangers to buy someone else’s products, for which we’d be rewarded with book deals about the value of trust and influence.

It took us even longer to admit that nobody on YouTube was getting a TV series anytime soon.

Nothing to See Here, Move Along…

Now we live in a world where Facebook and Twitter have gone IPO, which means they exist to please shareholders and advertisers, not users.

Now we live in an age when Yahoo! makes headlines for announcing they’re getting into the TV business… by seeking series deals from established TV professionals, not Internet creators.

Now we live in a reality where some of us are apologizing to brands for misleading them into a social economy, because once we opened those gates, the brands and the social networkers both suffered from a pollution of white noise and an atrophying ability to care.

And now I feel it’s worth apologizing to everyone else who isn’t a corporation. I feel it’s worth acknowledging that our old dream of self-created digital media “rock stars” who would change the way the world works was, at best, naive and, at worst, dangerous.

Because while we early adopters were patting ourselves on the back for “getting it,” we were unwittingly painting a target on the back of the whole digital revolution.

And I, for one, would like to start making up for it.

Image by hryckowian via Flickr

8 Things You Can Stop Doing Right Now

This post might be hard for some of you to read, but I’m writing it for your own good. And mine.

Please stop telling the world how much you’re “crushing it.”

Yes, I’m talking to you. If you’re tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming power quotes and humblebrags about how relentless you are, or how grateful you are that your life is so incredible, or how much you hope everyone else will someday be as awesome as you are, you’re not fooling anyone. Well, maybe except yourself.

See, most self-help blogging — and, by extension, most social media — is just people yelling at themselves to get out of their own way. What others see as “inspiring,” I see as “terrified people convincing themselves it’s all going to be okay if they just keep pretending.”

Look, I’m glad you feel motivated to improve your life. And if you enjoy inspiring others, rock on. But every time you tell me how much you won’t back down, I suspect it’s because you’ve realized your life is empty and you’re stapling public meaning on top of it as a parlor game to distract you from your own night terrors.

I’d like to suggest a different tactic: admit you’re unhappy, or frustrated, or afraid of being exposed as a know-nothing or a slacker or a deviant or a failure. Admit it to yourself, at least. And then take action to fix it. Not the public action you can build a personal brand from, but the private action that leads to successful habits and self-confidence in small doses. The kind that erodes your worry until you can at least leave the house, literally and metaphorically speaking, and do the actual work that inspires people, rather than the documenting of a process that confuses activity for accomplishment.

And while we’re being honest about how we see ourselves, I’ll be honest about something else:

I’ve been thinking about taking some risks for awhile, but I keep talking myself out of them. Not changing is easy. Telling myself the odds will be better later is very tempting. And while I’m waiting, I’m comfortable in my familiar habits. Well, maybe “comfortable” isn’t the right word for it… maybe “safe,” or “not inconvenienced,” or “acquiescent.”

Truth is, I’m lying to myself.

If I’m not happy, or if I feel unfulfilled, no one else is going to fix it for me. It’s not their job; they’re trying to make themselves happy and fulfilled, not me.

I get why we all publicly proclaim that we’re on the path to something amazing. It’s the same reason I tell myself I’m “writing” when I’m usually just “surfing the Internet and thinking about writing”: because I’m afraid of admitting to myself (much less to others) just how hard I’m not working at succeeding.

So, in the spirit of yelling at myself to get out of my own way, I offer myself this advice. Feel free to yell at yourself with this same advice, if it helps you.

Insomnia

Stop waiting for “the right time” to do something.

Unless you’re a hostage negotiator or a paratrooper, timing isn’t everything. Sure, some times are easier or harder than others are for accomplishing whatever it is you want to do. But there’s no such thing as a “right” (or “wrong”) time to get married, start a business, have a baby, switch careers, break up, move, quit, or take a vacation. People have succeeded and failed at those adventures for centuries, regardless of when they started or what odds were against them or in their favor. What matters is how you go about it in terms of resolve and tenacity, not whether or not the stars are properly aligned to make your job easier.

Stop waiting until you have “enough money.”

You’ll never have enough money. If you get more, you’ll spend it. If you save some, an opportunity or an emergency will come along and then you’ll be back to zero. Money is a resource. Don’t expect to reach a point where you’ll have “enough” money to accomplish X. Find ways to multiply your revenue streams en route to accomplishing X regardless of how much money you started with. What matters is accomplishing X, not reaching a magic dollar amount that will let you believe it’s “okay” to get started.

Stop waiting for permission.

Nobody else is paying attention. And if they are, and they tell you “no,” do it anyway, because you’re not going to be satisfied unless you experience your accomplishment. And if it costs you someone else’s good graces, it’ll gain you something more important: the knowledge that comes with success or failure, rather than the caged feeling having been allowed to act. If your path to success includes a step where someone else can stop you in your tracks, reroute your path. (Unless you’re the kind of person for whom permission is more important than accomplishment — in which case, acquiring the permission IS your accomplishment. And if that’s who you are, then the rest of this won’t make any sense.)

Stop thinking you’re the one who has to get it right the first time.

Failure teaches us what not to do. Sometimes we need to fail more than once at something in order to understand why we’re not getting it done right. Over the past 20 years I created a comic book, a freelance business, and two different web series that achieved varying levels of success, but they all ultimately ended before I wanted them to. And yet, what do I lay awake at night dreaming of doing? Making TV shows and movies and web series and novels and stage plays and comic books and video games. “But I already failed at them more than once,” I tell myself. And then I remind myself, “no; you started them more than once. Maybe it’ll take ten starts, or twenty, to find one idea — and one process — that sustains itself.” What matters isn’t being a prodigy who never makes mistakes; it’s continually surviving your mistakes until you either succeed or you find something else to pursue.

Stop thinking other people are succeeding because they’re special, or because the world is out to get you.

Networking helps. Talent helps. Perseverance helps. Luck helps, but no one is perpetually lucky or unlucky. You’re not failing because “this person doesn’t like me,” or because “everybody just promotes their friends,” or because “I’m just not good enough,” or any of the other excuses you’ve invented for not working hard and habitually enough to earn your own toehold on success. And yes, some people may continually get breaks because of who they know. That’s how life works: people prefer to work with other people they’ll get along with, and knowing someone is the first step to peacefully coexisting with them. But even if a person is well-connected, s/he still has to be likable and competent. So maybe start there?

Stop making the same mistakes the exact same way.

If you try something once and it doesn’t work, try again, but change something in the process. You may have the right idea but the wrong execution, or the wrong framing, or the wrong support, or the wrong price. Don’t change everything all at once, but do change at least one variable. If your idea is sound and you keep hammering at it from different angles, it’ll push through eventually. And if it never does, then either the idea isn’t useful enough to people you’re not being honest with yourself about why it isn’t working.

Stop expecting tomorrows.

You’re going to wake up again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after, until one day you don’t. And you never know when that day is going to be. So if you’re waiting for the stars to align, or until you have enough money, or until the marketplace catches up with your obvious genius, how ironic will it be if the day that happens is the day you didn’t wake up? Not that you’ll appreciate that irony, because you’ll be dust. And while you may have a pleasant eulogy, it’ll be shorter and less dynamic than it would have been if you’d started that next thing today.

“Insomnia” image by Carlos Martz on Flickr.

What I Learned by Quitting Social Media for 100 Days

I struggled with whether I should even write this post.

On Twitter, I joked that blogging about a social media cleanse would be like getting fat to protest diabetes. But that “purpose vs. action” conflict is one of the big reasons why I walked away in the first place, and it’s also why I bothered coming back.

That’s a purposeful word: “bother”

It means I took time out of what I’d prefer to be doing in order to do something else due to a perceived sense of obligation. But why, and to whom?

I’ll try to explain.

The Shutdown

Every year, I take a break from social media around Christmas and New Year’s. Sometimes that break lasts a few days, or a few weeks. It makes travel easier, and it also gives me time to reflect and recalibrate.

This year I decided to take a purposely long break because I was finding the daily manufactured outrage on Twitter and Facebook to be emotionally exhausting. Every statement anyone made seemed like an excuse to chastise or polarize. The habitual daily interaction with people I know and “know,” which I used to enjoy, I was now dreading.

So, on December 11th, I announced I was taking a leave of absence from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and blogging. (Yes, that’s a self-aggrandizing “personal branding” thing to do, but I interact with a lot of people in these channels and I’ve learned that they come to expect a consistent level of interaction from me. Also, I once walked away from Twitter for several weeks without warning and I started getting concerned emails and phone calls from people, so this time I thought I’d provide some context.)

I figured I’d be back in May, on my birthday. Instead I came back a month earlier than expected, on March 31, for a few reasons — some personal, some professional. However, I should stress something here: I didn’t come back because I missed it.

On the contrary, I loved being away from social media. I may have missed the interaction, but I absolutely did not miss the form that interaction takes.

Was It Hard?

No.

Admittedly, I was pretty burned out when I walked away, so I needed the break. If I had been loving social media and I suddenly decided to give it up at random, I’m sure it would have been much harder. But no, aside from two or three urges in those first two weeks, I found it extremely easy to not take part.

Privately, several people told me they weren’t sure how I could do it. They didn’t think they would ever be able to walk away from these channels that didn’t exist 10 years ago but which we now take for granted.

Me, I’ve always been a bit of a Luddite. Despite working in the digital realm, I’m amazingly slow on the uptake when it comes to new technology. Seeing people in their 20s sitting together but individually glued to their phones makes me feel like the old man in the room, wondering when we all stopped having actual conversations. I like what technology can do for us, but I’m more interested in the ends than the means.

[I should clarify something here: my day job still requires me to login to Twitter and Facebook every weekday, so it wasn't like those channels ceased to exist to me for three months. I could still look at what was happening, but what I was preventing myself from doing was replying, liking, favoriting, commenting, sharing, or otherwise generating new content myself. And I only paid attention to things in the most minimal of ways. For example, I'd see that day's top Facebook post in my feed, but that was all I had to see en route to managing my employer's brand page.]

What Did I Miss?

Surprisingly little, and yet what little I did miss was equally surprising.

Having used Twitter and Facebook daily for years meant I’d developed a reflexive attitude toward them. I’d often tweet or share dozens of observations in a single day, because I was used to forming on opinion about something and immediately projecting it out into the world. Or I’d read something I felt would be useful to the people I consider “my audience,” and I would share it because I felt like they would benefit from my curatorial action.

At first during my social media sabbatical I had to consciously stop myself from sharing, because not sharing felt unnatural.

I still had all the same observations that I would normally have tweeted or shared, but which I now had to enjoy privately or share with my girlfriend through a text. My public sharing reflex died after a couple weeks, and it was replaced by a new reflex: to actively suppress my desire to share.

I became conscious of my habits in a way I wasn’t when I was doing them.

After awhile I started asking myself why I would have bothered sharing this or that in the first place.

Who really benefits if I share this?

Why would I take up someone’s time with that?

And that thinking ultimately got me to ask myself two formative questions: when it comes to social participation, what do I want (and why), and what do others want from me (and why)?

Actions as Self

Sometimes I wonder what life would be like if I’d joined Twitter under a pseudonym, rather than as myself. Because who I am publicly on these channels is who people expect me to be, and partly who I expect myself to be. My actions there establish my persona in their minds, and in my own.

The act of sharing something, or stating on opinion or observation, is as defining as not doing those things. And yet, no one knows what we didn’t do, so our public identities are disproportionately constructed by our actions, not our restraint.

Did I cease to exist for my 100 day sabbatical? No. But @JustinKownacki did, within the context of the daily real-time conversation about life. Also during that time, my ability to define myself internally by my actions (and by others’ response to them) went on hiatus, so the only person who could tell me who I was was me. And I’m not always the most reliable self-narrator.

What’s It Like to Be Back?

Confusing, because I’m not sure why I do this.

My old habits came back quickly. By the end of my first day back I was endlessly refreshing my feeds, hoping for that dopamine hit of a like or a comment on something I’d said. Recognizing that this was a waste of time, I deleted my Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram icons from my phone’s home screen. If I’m going to check those feeds, I want to ask myself, “Is it really worth hunting for that app?”

I’m reluctant to post things. Every time I share something, I feel like I’m creating unnecessary distractions in the streams of the people who follow me. Not that everything else isn’t equally distracting — if there’s one thing I didn’t miss, it’s the low quality of the content or the reptilian nature of the dialog — but just because I might feel that some of my own “creations” deserve more attention than some other people’s, that doesn’t ultimately mean that mine have more of a right to exist.

This has me thinking a lot about voice, and purpose, and why we all bother talking to each other in the first place. I don’t have the answers, but I do have new instincts and urges — some of which I’m fighting against, and others which I’m glad I’ve developed, and which I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t given myself the mental space to create them.

What Now?

I’m not sure.

I really have to think about what I want from existing online.

If I actually were a brand, it would be easy, because my purpose would be to sell. But I’m not currently freelancing, so anything I do online is just an extension of my own humanity. And that’s a strange thing to have to manage.

9 Annoying Plot Holes in Thor: The Dark World

Clearly Tom Hiddleston feels the same way about this script as I do.

Clearly Tom Hiddleston feels the same way about this script as I do.

I enjoy the Marvel movies, but I don’t always like them — mostly because their stories are a bit lazy. They have excellent actors, talented directors, exemplary lighting and sound, decent FX, and a crowd-pleasing mix of action and humor… but they also have some of the most frustrating, illogical, and convenient scripts imaginable, which drags the entire viewing experience down a notch for me.

Here are 9 things I couldn’t get past while otherwise enjoying Thor: The Dark World.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

1. It’s basically just the first Thor movie all over again

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

After opening with an Odin-narrated flashback that establishes the film’s external threat, we then introduce the film’s interpersonal conflict during an expository scene on Odin’s throne, followed by a CGI-heavy off-world battle where Thor beats up some creatures with a hammer.

After a post-battle dining hall celebration where everyone is having fun except Thor — who leaves all pouty while ignoring Sif’s lovelorn advances — we spend a lot of time on Earth with some bumbling scientists as they stumble upon the MacGuffin around which this movie will revolve. Then Thor shows up, and he and Jane fall in lo– er, they resume their love, which consists mostly of pining looks and a single kiss.

But their love is threatened (as is the existence of the entire universe) by an ancient evil that will be conveniently expunged by the end of this film — but not before Thor disobeys his father, Heimdall fails to see a cloaked enemy that invades Asgard, Odin tells Thor he can’t do what he wants to do, Heimdall is forced to commit treason so Thor can do what he wants to do anyway, Sif and The Warriors Three are forced to… um… also commit treason, Loki is allowed to scheme his way onto the throne, and Thor once again earns the right to the throne, only to turn it down.

(If this sounds really familiar, it’s because Iron Man 2 was basically Iron Man all over again too, so you’re probably trained to expect this from Marvel by now.)

2. Who’s paying Jane to live in London?

In Thor, all of Jane’s scientific machinery was confiscated by SHIELD. Yet for some reason she’s in London when this movie opens, still trying to find Thor (even though he already came and went in New York during the Avengers movie and never bothered to call her). Her intern Darcy complains that she’s not getting paid, yet Darcy herself somehow has an intern. Why do they need another intern? What are they even studying? And who’s paying them? Speaking of…

3. Why is Darcy still working for Jane, anyway?

In the first movie, Darcy is revealed as a political science major, not an actual scientist. (“She was the only applicant.”) She’s clearly not good at her job, and she drives Jane crazy… yet, somehow, she’s still working (for free?) for Jane in London a full two years after the whole New Mexico incident, during which time Darcy at least had the excuse of earning college credits. What’s she doing now, and why?

4. Do these scientists not use the Internet?

Erik Selvig is arrested at Stonehenge for public insanity, which you’d think would be major news. Yet our intrepid scientists repeatedly call Erik’s cell phone because they have no idea where he is. And when they do finally hear about the incident, how do they find out? On television. (Of course they do; because finding out on Twitter wouldn’t be very cinematic.)

5. The geographic odds of the climax happening in London are astounding.

When the Convergence happens, the universe will be destroyed. It takes both Thor and Jane’s team to stop it. So how convenient is it that the epicenter of the Convergence just happens to be a few blocks away from where Jane is living in London? If the epicenter had been anywhere else — hell, if it had been in Manchester — there’s no way Jane would have gotten there in time to use her… whatever the hell those crutches with the AM/FM radios glued to them are.

6. How unreliable are the nurses on Asgard, anyway?

Okay, so they couldn’t get the Aether out of Jane Foster. Fine. The Aether is older than they are; I’ll accept that they can’t cure it.

But remember in the first movie, when Thor and his friends first go to fight the frost giants on Jotunheim? They retreat in part because Fandral gets stabbed through the entire chest by a stalagmite. Yet while they don’t get him back to Asgard for at least fifteen minutes, the next time we see him he’s fine, like it never happened. “Nice health care they must have on Asgard,” you’re thinking, right?

So why is it that Frigga gets stabbed by a sword just once in this movie and she dies?

You mean to tell me the Asgardian healers can reconstruct Fandral’s entire torso, but they can’t patch a stab wound? Or did that giant stalagmite conveniently miss every organ in Fandral’s body while that thin sword skewered each of Frigga’s?

Mm hmm.

7. “Oh, you’re a host for the Aether? You’ll be fine.”

When the Aether is in Jane, Odin explains that it will kill her if it isn’t removed because it’s feeding on her life force to sustain itself. Yet when Malekith forcibly removes the Aether, Jane collapses… and then she’s fine. Considering the Aether had been sapping her very existence like a soul tapeworm, shouldn’t Jane have been near-death, or completely dead, without it? And yet she’s up and running a few minutes later, like it was no big thing.

Mm hmm.

Just so we’re all on the same page, the hierarchy of “Serious Injuries in Thor Movies” is:

impaled by a stalagmite < having soul eaten by Aether < stabbed with a sword

Right. Got it.

8. Odin is the least perceptive king (or dad) ever.

Let’s skip the logic problem from the first movie, in which Odin rescues Loki as an infant even though he just slaughtered every other frost giant on the planet, and then proceeds to raise this frost giant as his own son, just in case that would come in handy sometime.

If both of your sons have a history of disobeying you, how do you not have someone tailing each of them at all times so they don’t start another war or, you know, try to kill you and take the throne? Especially when you just kidnapped your son’s girlfriend and told him he can never see her again. Yes, because now he’ll listen.

“Sire? I couldn’t help but notice Thor and Heimdall — whom you just fired — were conspiring in a public grog house. Would you like me to follow them?”

“No, I’m sure it’s fine.”

“I could station someone outside Fandral’s house. Or Volstagg’s. Or Sif’s.”

“No, don’t worry about it.”

“Do you at least want to have one of your crows follo–”

“What part of ‘I don’t think my son who always disobeys me is going to try and save his girlfriend this time’ do you not understand, nameless guard?”

9. Did the guy who played Hogun piss someone off during pre-production?

Thor has twelve supporting cast members that you know by name — eight on Asgard (Odin, Frigga, Loki, Heimdall, Sif, Hogun, Fandral, Volstagg), and four on Earth (Jane, Erik, Darcy, Ian). That’s a lot of glorified extras to stand around and ask questions that advance the plot. And yet I find it hard to believe that a producer somewhere took a look at an early draft of this script and decided to make a hard choice.

“Hey, yeah, that is waaaay too many characters. Reduce it by one.”

“Uh… just one?”

“Yeah. That should clear everything up.”

“Okay… which one?”

“Doesn’t matter. They’re all kind of the same. Maybe one of those three guys that no one else can tell apart, but whom we still kind of hope to spin off into their own Netflix series someday?”

“I heard the Asian guy joking that he’d be cool with sitting this one out as long as we still make him an action figure.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever. Do it. Rest of the script looks pretty bulletproof, though.”

8 Lessons I Learned from Playing Video Games

Arcade I was born in 1977, so I’ve been playing video games since they became part of the American mainstream. I grew up in video arcades, and I’ve had a video game console in my home since I was 7. From Pac-Man to Mario to Mega Man, my childhood memories — and my outlook on life — have been shaped by what I learned from video games; both from the games themselves and the act of playing them.

Here are eight lessons that pixels and joysticks taught me about life and love.

We Are All Playing Someone Else’s Game

ms-pacman-cabinetWhen I was 5 or 6, my parents used to go to Perkins every day for breakfast. (Perkins is like Denny’s, only green.) This particular Perkins had a Ms. Pac-Man machine next to the restrooms, and I would play it every day.

Even though I played it all the time, I wasn’t very good at it. I’d rarely get past the first few levels. My parents would give me a few quarters every morning, and I’d usually be back at the table asking them for more after just a few minutes.

That winter, my parents bought me a book of level-by-level maps and strategies for beating Ms. Pac-Man. As I learned from the diagrams, there were patterns you could follow to safely complete every maze. All you had to do was memorize them.

I was shocked.

Because in my little kindergarten brain, I realized that someone — a human being — had to have programmed those ghosts to move in a certain way. And that meant I was playing a game created by a person. Which means I wasn’t just trying to beat the game; I was trying to outwit a person.

And that’s really what each of us does with every social system we encounter, all life long.

Everybody Thinks the Game Is Fixed

One day, we took my grandfather to breakfast. When I asked my parents for a few quarters so I could play Ms. Pac-Man, my grandfather told me it was a waste of money.

“You can’t win. Those games are rigged. You can’t beat ‘em. They just take your money.”

I tried explaining that there were patterns you could follow and you could win, but he remained convinced that these games were just money-making schemes for their creators.

Technically, we were both right. But just because a game is fixed, that doesn’t mean you can’t win. You just have to understand how the game works. Beyond that, I realized that my grandfather only saw games as something to be won, whereas I saw them as an experience to enjoy. And for that, I was willing to play (and pay) whether I won or not.

Everything Has a Price, Which Is Different from Its Value

That Christmas, after all the other gifts had been opened, my parents had saved one gift for last. My dad brought it up from the basement. It was huge, probably as large as I was.

I unwrapped it. Inside, there was another gift.

And another.

And another.

I probably spent ten minutes unwrapping a multitude of nested boxes, each one getting smaller and smaller, until I finally got to the last one. And when I opened it, I found the real gift:

Four quarters.

“What’s that for?” my grandmother asked.

“So he can play Ms. Pac-Man.”

My mom called it a booby prize. My grandmother thought we were nuts. I was just excited because it meant I could play four more games of Ms. Pac-Man the next time we went to Perkins.

Sometimes life is all about perspective.

Every Hero Is Just a Villain in Someone Else’s Story

Dig-DugDig-Dug is a classic arcade game. In it, you control a space helmeted dude who digs tunnels underground and destroys the monsters he finds there by blowing them up before they can reach the surface.

Dig-Dug is also a sociopath.

The game gives you no context about why Dig-Dug is tunneling underground and killing these creatures. Like any game, you play it because it’s there. You don’t ask questions… until you’re old enough to step back and realize that these creatures were probably just minding their own business underground when all of a sudden some terrorist jackass invades their homes and blows them up in front of their friends and families.

In life, the truth depends on the teller.

Learn by Doing

Growing up, my dad and I used to go to Putt Putt Golf & Games at least once a week. It was a mini golf course that had a video arcade, and we’d play all the latest games as they came out. That was where I first played the original Mario Bros., and Food Fight, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and perhaps the trippiest game ever created, Journey (in which you… uh… played as the band Journey).

dragons_lair_largeOne game that fascinated me was Dragon’s Lair. It was larger than most arcade games, and it was animated (by Don Bluth’s studio, which also produced The Secret of NIMH and An American Tale) to play like a movie that you could control. It was also the first game to cost fifty cents in an era when other games only cost a quarter. And, to me, it was hard as hell. The game flashes directional hints of what you’re supposed to do next at all times, but if you miss them, you make the wrong choice and Dirk the Dragon Slayer dies a horrible (but amusing) death.

One day, an older kid saw me playing the game. When I lost, he said that if my dad gave him fifty cents, he’d show us how to beat the game. So my dad did. And this kid proceeded to play, and win, the whole game. He lost a few times along the way, but he’d gotten much farther than we ever had — and we were so interested in seeing the ending — that my dad kept paying his way.

When it was over, we were both really impressed. I think the kid hustled my dad for a few more bucks — which was basically a tip — and then he left to go play a different game. But then a funny thing happened: I stopped playing Dragon’s Lair.

Having seen the ending meant I’d seen the whole thing, so what reason did I still have to play it? And yet, all these years later, what do I remember of that ending? Almost nothing. Watching someone else win the game was nowhere near as fulfilling as winning the game myself would have been, plus it robbed me of my appetite for exploring the experience myself.

Anything worth doing is worth doing firsthand. The rest is just a fee.

Teamwork and Tenacity Pay Off in the Long Run

By the time I was in high school, I had graduated from having a Colecovision to an NES to the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. And yet, despite having state-of-the-art home video games at my fingertips, I still spent most Saturdays playing video games with my friends at the Millcreek Mall’s two (!) arcades. Tilt was the seedy, maize-colored arcade located in the mall wing that no one ever walked down, while Red Baron was located next to the movie theater, the McDonald’s, and the coolest of the mall’s three (!) record stores. The Red Baron was obviously the “winner” of the two, and it was where we spent most of our time (and money).

Then Tilt got a new game called NBA Jam, and everything changed.

NBAJam1993Keep in mind that until 1993 it was extremely rare to see professional athletes portrayed in video games. They may have lent their name or likeness to a title or package, but you almost never got to play as them. And then along came this amazing game where you could play as two NBA stars at the same time, with sick dunks and clutch three pointers from anywhere on the court.

In the golden age of SportsCenter (and the NBA itself), my best friend Tom and I were quickly addicted.

One problem with an addictive game is that everybody else wants to play it too, and that means you have to get good if you want to stay on. So Tom and I played against the computer a lot, just in case two other guys came along to challenge us. We got good, and we won more than we lost, against both the computer and other players. We also learned each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and we learned how to pep talk each other and pick up the slack when the other was off his game.

One day, two assholes challenged us.

We knew they were assholes because they chose to play as the Knicks (because who else chooses to play as the Knicks except a couple of assholes?), and because they were just absolute dicks. These guys were cocky, and they kept trying to intimidate us by mocking us out loud and by constantly knocking us down in the game so we could never get into a rhythm.

Because these guys were loud, they attracted a crowd.

And because Tom and I were good, we forced overtime.

And then came “the three.”

In my mind, this happened at the end of the first overtime, but I may be remembering it wrong. What I do remember is this: Tom and I were playing as the Orlando Magic, which was our usual team. He loved Shaq’s unparalleled ability to dunk and I loved Scott Skiles’s range. In the game, Skiles could hit a three from almost anywhere on the court.

I don’t know how we ended up in this situation, but with the clock running out, I (Skiles) had to attempt a three from well beyond half court or we were going to lose.

And I hit it.

And these guys LOST THEIR MINDS.

They were convinced we were only surviving against them out of dumb luck, but what they didn’t know was Tom and I had played the game so many times before that we each knew I could hit that shot. Were we relieved? Hell yes. Did we think it was just dumb luck? Hell no.

And that’s when these guys started to sweat.

No matter what they threw at us, we stayed with them. When we realized what their game was, we started trash-talking them back. And when they realized we wouldn’t fade, they started to get frustrated.

Eventually we knew they were getting rattled and desperate because they started complaining about the game and yelling at each other. One of them would try to knock us down, but he’d miss and we’d score, and then his teammate would bitch him out. Or we’d get a goaltending call in our favor, and they would complain that the game was conspiring against them.

I don’t remember how much we won by. All I remember is that we won, and these two assholes stormed off while a few people in the crowd stuck around to congratulate us and tell us they were glad that we shut those other guys up.

Now, you could say this is a lesson about practice. Or about keeping your mouth shut and getting the job done. Or about respecting your teammates and keeping your cool, rather than panicking or blaming someone else for your own mistakes.

Regardless, the reality is this: when the trolls find you — and they always do — don’t back down. It’s your game, too. Know how to play it.

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Everyone’s Window of Mastery Has a Shelf Life

When the NES got popular, video games started getting more complicated. My dad’s interest, and his ability to stay competitive with me in these games, declined. The turning point for him was probably Super Mario Bros., which doesn’t seem complicated to anyone born after 1980 but which was just enough of a departure from games like Burgertime and Frogger that my dad voluntarily checked out of trying to keep up with the advances in arcade games.

But there was still one game that he and I could play at home: R.B.I. Baseball.

We’d first seen it in a hotel arcade in Orlando in 1987, before I even owned an NES, and we bonded over it partly because I’d just started collecting baseball cards and partly because it was one of the few games that let users play as real athletes. When my parents eventually got me an NES and I saw R.B.I. Baseball for sale at K B Toy & Hobby (!), it was a must-buy.

rbi_baseball1My dad didn’t have much time to play games at home, but we played that one whenever we could. The problem was, I had a lot more time to play it than he did. And I played it obsessively.

I got so good at it that I couldn’t lose to the computer anymore. I would win most games by the 10 run mercy rule before the fifth inning. The computer no longer presented a challenge, but I loved the game so much that I still played it anyway, because it was one of the only games that my dad could still play.

The first time I beat him, it felt great.

The second time I beat him, it felt a little less great.

The tenth time I beat him, it didn’t feel very good at all.

Eventually, he stopped being able to win against me, and we stopped playing R.B.I. Baseball… which meant we stopped playing video games together, because there were no other games left for him to play.

With video games being such a huge part of my childhood, it was sad to realize this was no longer an activity that my dad and I could enjoy together. It was also frustrating for me to think that a game as relatively simple as R.B.I. Baseball had too many nuances for my dad to keep up with. Maybe if he had as much time to play it as I did, we’d have still been even. But he didn’t, so we weren’t. And somewhere deep down I also realized this meant that someday there would be technological advances that I would have trouble keeping up with myself, even though they’d probably seem intuitive to the rest of the world.

Ironically, that day was only a few years away.

The good news is, my dad and I would find a different way to bond a few years later, when I would spend more than a year traveling the country with him.

The bad news (in this context, anyway) is that a new kind of game became incredibly popular in that year when I wasn’t gaming: DOOM, the first-person shooter that revolutionized the entire video game industry. By the time I finally sat down to play it, I was so hopelessly out of touch with its interface that I was terrible… and I didn’t feel like getting better at it. Either I’d moved on from games, or games had moved on from me.

Every Ending Is a Lie

As anyone who’s ever finished Super Mario Bros. knows, the endings of most video games suck. And if you feel compelled to win the games you play, very few of them reward you in such a way that seems worth your time and effort.

But that’s only if you’re judging the experience by its final moments, rather than appreciating all the fun you had in getting there.

The truth is, the endings of most films suck too. And most books, and most stories in general. That’s because it’s hard to end a narrative in a satisfying way. The best stories make us want more of what we just experienced, so even their earned ending feels bittersweet, while the worst stories leave us with unanswered questions and empty hearts.

Only after you finish Super Mario Bros. do you realize that it was never about rescuing the princess; it was about exploring and improving, and the thrill of new challenges and discoveries. The princess, like most goals, was just the excuse to attempt the adventure.

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I haven’t played video games much since 1993.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Maybe what I should say is, I haven’t played most kinds of video games since 1993.

My love of sports games persists. I’ve lost years of my life to Madden and NBA Live, among others. And I’ve always liked simulation and strategy games. Every few years, I dust off my old CD of Heroes of Might & Magic III and I binge on it for a month, until the rush wears off.

But I’ve never once played Grand Theft Auto, Halo, Call of Duty, or Warcraft. I have zero experience with the whole post-DOOM evolution of combat games. I’ve played enough Resident Evil to know I don’t enjoy it, and I’ve never even seen Braid, though I’m told I’d love it.

Now I’m the one who doesn’t have time for video games.

But that’s okay, because I have video game memories. I’ve spent countless hours exploring someone else’s puzzles, and trying to outwit them at their own games.

And I don’t regret that experience for a minute, regardless of the ending.