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Dementia, video games, and the end of the beginning

“You know, if you’re working full-time,” my boss/friend said, “Infinite Lives is probably going to turn into a toy blog! Ha, ha!”

She wasn’t very wrong. Since I started my new job (and unpacking! And assembling furniture!) last month,

  • I can tell you each of the Kidrobot toy releases, in order
  • I am daily asked, “What does it do” (to which I invariably, gaily answer, “Nothing!”)
  • I’ve started walking to work
  • I’ve started watching TV
  • I’ve started waking up at 9am
  • I’ve been playing a shit ton of Soul Calibur
  • which you’d never know, because my Xbox Live Gold account expired
  • I was booted from two Second Life groups (that I really liked!) because I haven’t logged in
  • I picked up Street Fighter IV and, frankly, could not understand the appeal (sorry)
  • I sleuthed out which PC game Bart was describing—it was Ultima VII
  • I reread a book
  • I stopped reading the Internet
  • Also, I realized that, if I saw it first on Apartment Therapy, I probably definitely missed it on Offworld two weeks prior
  • I reorganized my board games
  • I moved my 2600, RetroDuo, PS2, and Dreamcast to the “nightmare room”

Well, no: I’m not sure what I’m getting at, either. Last night, in my stupor, I named this very file as “tryagain.txt”—I think because it needed a rewrite—but now it feels different, like maybe I meant something else when I called it that.

Here are the un-re-written histrionics:

It isn’t that my gaming-life is dead, exactly. That isn’t what I’m trying to say. I think it’s this: games, for me, have returned to being something blissfully extracurricular. In some ways, that’s sad. It’s regrettable that I haven’t maintained much of a schedule or presence here—and I’d apologize if that weren’t such a relief. Why had I worked so hard to read industry news each day, or to play games on their launch dates? Who, exactly, am I competing with?

In short, this blog will no longer receive regular updates.

Then, of course, there’s the long of it.

Out here, in the real world, games are not my career. Family and friends are. I have discovered that it is very different to play games like they are for work, as opposed to playing games for work.

I sat down with an old friend for the first time since I’d left Chicago. “Did you do any writing?” he asked me. “Could I just sit down and read something and sort of catch up on three years of your life?”

I said to him, “Oh, sure. You could catch up on a couple years of what I think about video games.” And he just balked. And I think maybe he meant that look on his face to be funny, but it was horrible. I wished I had something meaningful to tell him, but if I did, I couldn’t think of it or, possibly, it had long since become impossible for me to express. The thought of only trying made me feel tired, so I changed the subject.

The reality was, I hadn’t really documented any other parts of my life, and I couldn’t remember them, because there really wasn’t anything left to document. Except, maybe probably of course, the abrupt, ongoing, and tremendous decay of my adoptive father’s zombie brain.

And—probably this is for my friend, so he can find something meaningful here—yes, that has affected work, money, love, and geography. And my reputation! Like if you were to google my name (don’t), Google invariably, inexplicably presents a recommended search in the drop-down: my name plus the word “fired,” which is just, Jesus, is there no way to fix that? No? Because my dead real-dad’s brother is going to see that, and that has only come about because the weird thing about games and trying to talk about them is, if all you are is what you’ve been assigned to review and what you’ve played and what you are pretending to talk about, you’re not a person anymore. And you’re therefore not permitted to walk out one day to tend to real-person things like zombie brain. And zombie brain is a total threadkiller, forcing you to wonder, at 25, where your life is supposed to go after, and whether you might have developed a zombie brain and heart yourself.

At this point, I don’t understand how people are able to reasonably talk about games at least once a day, every day. Maybe the occupation itself can lend a perpetual respite, a getaway from awful, real-life things. But you have to acknowledge those things eventually. So: I’ve sort of stopped talking about games at least once a day, and I’m only sort of sorry.

I am not maligning games or the people who play them daily, or make them. There’s nothing more important than art, no doubt. You have only a handful of chances in this life to make a real and lasting impression on another human brain and heart, and video games are no different (they can be better!) than paintings and music and the Joffrey Ballet. Video games have the capacity to urge the heart forward in a way no other medium has or can.

But I recently relearned, in the course of observing my father’s real and seemingly untreatable dementia, what it is like to have a zombie brain. A zombie brain is a perfectly exhausted organ, upon which nothing else can be impressed. It can realize nothing new, and eventually, it realizes nothing old. It stops recognizing you. It is crippled because nothing new happens: it can only revert. So, guiltily, you pray for death.

Dementia can be delayed. One way to delay dementia’s onset, as neuroscientists have proven, is by playing video games. It is difficult for neurons to die when they are lighting up with electricity.

But when the brain becomes exhausted—whether chemically or by repetition—what I’m saying is, when nothing more can be impressed upon your brain, you might as well carve it out. If the procedural of your daily zombie routine has come to define you, you need to try something new, if you can. And if you can’t, well, this is where some people, like my biological dad, give up.

Now. I’ve always insisted that Play is a Creative Act. What, please, is a Creative Act? Creative acts are defined, literally—and I read this somewhere, so I am not making this up—as moving from “intention” to “realization.” Realization of intention is invoked repeatedly in cognitive neuroscience research documents. My friend Tim, whose father died following a long bout with Alzheimer’s, moved to NYC to begin work on his doctorate in neuroscience at Columbia University.

“Is this about your dad?” I asked him.

“It’s about everything,” he said simply. And it is.

Caregiving, or caretaking, is a creative act, because it begins with intention and, if it goes well, is filled with realizations, as I learned somewhere within the eight months I did it. Actively caring about anything is a creative act. Or, this one: “Play” encompasses all of the steps between intent and realization, so it, too, is a creative act. Painting, drawing, and building with LEGOs are creative acts. Hammering nails, that’s a creative act. Moving a sofa from one end of the apartment to another, that is a creative act, too. With enough artfulness and intention, doing the dishes can be a marvelously creative act. Sitting and thinking, and drawing conclusions, is a creative act.

My father, adoptive, spends the entire day wondering how to tie his shoes. His zombie brain is full of intent, but it is unfairly shortchanged of realization. There is, for his brain, no real crackle of electricity. On very good days, perhaps, he will realize how much he loves my adoptive mom, his wife, for helping him tie his shoes. On the bad days, observers might learn the difference between creation and destruction. On the worst days, he hates us: we are, according to his flitting brain, out to kill him, and worse. What other possible reason could we have for following, hovering, and advising? Why would we try to teach him how to tie his shoes? He punches the wall, narrowly missing our faces.

If you’ve stopped loving games—that is, if you are exhausted and you are filled with fantastic intentions but realizing nothing new—it’s time to start over. It’s time to take a breath.

One day, I told exactly one person that I’d worn out my usefulness, and that I was going to go somewhere to be useful. I was zombie tired, and visibly careless by then, and the problem with visible carelessness is that it comes long after the heart and brain’s dying, because even any dementia patient can fake it, for awhile. But once it becomes noticeable, it is nearly impossible to repair or cure it.

This sounds crazy. I apologize. This is not a meltdown—I am simply revisiting an old one.

Play is a creative act, and so is Work. But there’s something in the middle—or maybe there’s nothing in the middle, a gap—where both stop, or where nothing connects, and that’s carelessness, mindlessness, and heartlessness.

Video games will not rot your brain, no. But—if your intentions are wrong, and no realizations come of them—they will wear you out. They will wear you out. They will wear you out. They will wear you out.

13 responses to “Dementia, video games, and the end of the beginning” »

  1. I was hoping to hear from you soon. Nice surprise on a Sunday morning.

    I get the “burn out” several times a month now, with most things in life, so I can follow what you’re saying here. I tend to stop and ask myself if this is all I can do, and if I’ve seen everything. When that happens, I’ll see something cool, or hear something funny, or play something genuinely new, or tacitly work our a martial arts technique, and I’ll laugh for about ten minutes.

    People think I’m insane. I liken it to the kind of relief someone with a bomb strapped to his chest experiences when the red wire gets cut at the single digits and the display goes dark. “I’m saved for another day,” I think to myself.

    Would you say that writing about games professionally was a dream for you? If so, what was it like to achieve one of your professional dreams? If not, do you think that’s what made it sour after awhile?

    On a final note, I need boardgame recommendations, since you brought it up. I’m trying to organize a game night at work. I need something really geeky but amusing that people with a few beers in them can still play coherently. Any ideas?

    Welcome back, even if it’s not regular.

    • Jenn Frank says:

      Oh, no. You used the word “sour.”

      I got up and down three or four times in the night, each time about to delete this whole thing. I kept thinking, this whole thing sounds pretty sour-grapes, and I don’t think I’m hitting the points I wanted to. I kept thinking, What’s the worst that can happen if this stays? What’s the worst if I take it down? But I’m glad it stayed, because I’ve heard from three of my favorite people, and the worst that could’ve happened would have been not hearing from you!

      But you asked me a direct question, or three of them. First: Of course it was a dream of mine! Most readers would like to be writers, probably. The job, if that’s what you are really asking about, is complicated to talk about because it’s so conflated with geography. SF is seven square miles; many of its occupants work in technology or in print; it’s far from Chicago and Texas and two hours behind both (and three hours behind EST, aka “Real-World Time”). It’s hard to connect with people or check on your parents there, and I don’t completely understand why. But it gets worse: for me, SF was full of old friends and—because it’s so close to my birthplace—tons of family. I never saw those people, ever (it didn’t help that my car was stolen soon after I moved to Chinatown). When I was about to move to SF, though, things felt so right, not good but like they were falling into place and making some sense, and even though I didn’t really want to go out there, I hoped I would learn to not be so fearful. I decided that I couldn’t live life not knowing what my dream contained, so I packed up, albeit reluctantly. It seemed, to some friends, like I’d moved abruptly: I didn’t tell anyone I was moving away for fear I’d change my mind and then look stupid. And for the first few months, I continued to rent my apartment in Chicago in case I changed my mind. (Not telling people things really pisses them off, I’ve learned, so I signed up for Facebook and, this time, made a real racket about moving.)

      Next you asked, “What was it like to achieve that?” I didn’t achieve it, actually. If anything I wrote more in Chicago—and about a lot of different things—and I was extremely satisfied because I was doing other things, too. Later, a lot of people wondered, “What do you do?” and I had a lot of trouble answering that. Maybe worst of all, I realized I wanted to be an essayist, not a critic (well, or worst-er still, I was neither, and I think I’m really starting to sound like a total douchebag). Because there is such a difference between “What did you think?” and “But was it any good?” And that problem isn’t limited to me: it’s something our little hobbyist industry still needs to sort out for itself.

      Lastly, you wondered what made games “sour” after awhile, and here it’s difficult to separate feelings and reasons, and I also wonder whether you mean “video games” or “writing/not writing.” Which do you mean? No, I can’t tell the difference either, anymore; they’ve so stupidly seeped into each other. I’m going to reply to Luana next, or in a little while anyway, because even though it’s all the sort of thing best left to email, I think I’ll be able to answer your question better if I am helped along by her observations.

      • Ahh, I would like to email you the answer to your re-question, and ask about some other stuff. Or Facebook. Whichever you prefer. Either way: mrcrousseau at gmail dot com, or www dot facebook dot com slash michael.rousseau if you like. I seem to have lost your email address.

  2. Luana says:

    I think I know how you feel, but in a very different way (if that even makes sense).

    I have six almost-finished posts in .txt format, just needing some closure and for me to log in and throw them up, but the thought of actually doing it makes me want to throw up. I knew why of course, but I didn’t want to verbalize it for fear of accepting it. At some point, three or four years ago, I stopped defining myself as a gamer and began to explore those other parts of me I was afraid to confront.

    I’m sure many feminists would shudder at the thought—a young woman marking the turning point in her life with the discovery of “the right man”—but it’s true. For me, games were an escape, writing about them even more so. I needed a way to stop thinking about the life I was locked into, and the only way I could find people that understood was online, in this electronic subculture. The more I had someone with me to actually converse with that understood me at the basest of levels, the less I needed that affirmation from the outside. It’s not a completely healthy thing (I’m pretty much a hermit now), but I own myself more than I ever had.

    I play more games now than I have since 2005. However, it’s a family experience—we have one game that we all play together and we talk about it. We don’t do it to keep up with the Joneses, or gorge ourselves on games that we may never touch. This digital consumption was killing me. I guess that, like the 24-hour-news situation on television, the constant barrage of information about games wears on me. It takes its toll. I turn off my phone for weeks and put down the computer. Full stop. It feels nice. It is nice. (See hermit statement above.)

    ... so yes.

  3. Alex says:

    Thanks for writing this. Now I don’t feel so guilty about not really wanting to write another thing about games*.

    I didn’t understand the appeal of Street Fighter IV, either. Hell, I can’t understand the appeal of most of these fighting games, or most role-playing games or shooters.

    *Okay, there’s one exception to this – I discovered there’s a Home Improvement (yes, the 90s sitcom) game the other day, and I don’t feel that I will be sated until I write something about it, primarily because no one else will.

  4. Noe V. says:

    I’ve written spades on Street Fighter so I’ll spare you, but IV fails to move the franchise forward. It’s the gaming equivalent of the Transformers films. A once celebrated animated series has been turned to 3D eye candy. Both are profitable but they have also been dumbed down and made accessible to the masses.

    As for the toy thing, if people don’t know then too bad for them. In September Michael Lau comes to LA and I might finally get a chance to meet my art hero. You should make the trip.

    • I agree with the overall philosophy of dumbing down SFIV, but the execution isn’t quite there. Most good combination’s are still single-frame links.

      I’m taking us doubly off-topic, but what do you think of BlazBlue?

  5. marksquires78(1up.com) says:

    Wow. Thank you for writing this and sharing a piece of your life with us all. ๐Ÿ™‚ It sounds like you are really going through a time of personal transformation, for the better I’m sure. I’m sorry to hear about your fathers dementia. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your close ones. Be strong. Realize that caring and bearing with one anothers weakness does not go unrewarded.
    In terms of gaming, I have been going through the same kind of thing as well. I wrote a brief blog on 1up just over a year ago describing how I felt, how I routinely turn off my games now after only half an hour or so because it’s starting to make me feel a little claustrophobic these days….cut off from the real world. There is so much that needs to be done in this world at this time, and I feel there is so much wasted potential in us all. Have you noticed these days when you walk around town how everyone has there head down texting or on some chat site on their phone? This deeply saddens me. What started out as a cool new technology is quickly becoming a mass addiction. I’ve been caught up in the racket too. Its like people can’t talk to each other anymore unless its over a stupid cell phone. Sigh….how I long for simpler times. Oh, and by the way Jenn, you are not sounding gloomy to me. Its refreshing to hear someone open up and be real for a change. Especially in a forum such as this. You know whats funny? I just stopped typing to go outside for a second and I saw a beautiful shooting star. ๐Ÿ™‚ This world can be so wonderful at times, when you take a moment to stop and look around. Keep your eyes and ears open though, my friends. I believe this country will be undergoing massive changes soon, and we need to realize that the media does not paint the full picture, leaving most uninformed. Take care Jenn and God bless. Good luck to you. Mark.

  6. “Out here, in the real world, games are not my career. Family and friends are.”

    Can you see the inverse of that? It’s the the closest thing I can think of for where I’m currently at right now. I’ve not yet reached a specific phase in life where games have exhausted me or worn me down (in fact it just keeps increasing in obsessive drive), I just begin to perceive them in entirely different ways for myself. Actually, my universal screename can be the representation of that, I’ve just not had a “fourth phase” yet. I don’t really know if that will happen or if it ever will (or even if I’m in it now), but I don’t see much use staring that far down the road.

    I remember you telling me about your dad’s dementia. I find things like that interesting for a lot of reasons, but for the sake of what you spoke of in this post I like that you kind of positioned it next to your own hollowed-out love. It actually kind of reminds me of Leigh’s post [http://sexyvideogameland.blogspot.com/2009/07/come-out-and-play.html]
    and how people need to have other outlets or clearly defined passions to offset what they really need games (or any medium for that matter) to be for them.

    It is nice to systematically desert the net for nights and weekends, as it refuels my own desire to quench other passions. That definitely has a lot to do with this kind of thing in my own world view. It’s why I refuse to buy things like a phone and such. I’ve even learned that my laptop can be a truly fascinating thing when I yank the damn Ethernet cable out of it. For all my weekly updates on a gaming blog, I’ve yet to buy a new title since Metal Gear Solid 4 and I don’t see that changing in the near future.

    Though it’s probably hardest on you and your family, I’m honestly kind of jealous of your dad’s state of mind.

    P.S. I’d love to read Alex’s HI game blog. He’s right, nobody else is going to write a blog about a sitcom game, and I’d love to see it.


  7. Kevin says:

    I think this is one of the best things of yours I’ve read. So very heartfelt.

    I understand your burnout, and have seen it in others. Time was I played games a lot, and would buy up more games to play at some point. But really, nowadays about all my video gaming is done when I’m socializing with friends – fighting games, wii sports, mario kart, or stuff at the arcade – with the periodic title I actually want to play by myself, at home. Those almost always tend to be short gaming bursts, arcade style games I can play for a bit and then do other things. For someone who enjoys games as much as I do, I don’t play a whole lot of them anymore; I think I spend more time keeping up with gaming culture than actually doing it. And if I move out of the immediate area in search of work, how much gaming will I end up doing period?

    Do I feel burned out? Not really. There’s just other things I want to do more, other things to write about, to watch, to read, to experience. People to meet and hang around with. If gaming as a hobby rather than something that feels like work fits you, then that’s a setup worth going for.

    As for SF4, I thought it was a fun game, and I like the attention it’s brought to the fighting game scene as a whole. That said it’s kind of slow paced, and I prefer SF2 or King of Fighters to it (to say nothing of Tatsunoko vs Capcom, one of the most fun games to play or watch I’ve tried).

  8. Jamie T says:

    This is a real shame – I only started reading infinite lives a couple of months ago, but it quickly became one of my favourite game-related websites. I know from experience how difficult it is to muster enthusiasm for games writing on a regular basis, but don’t let that stop you from waxing lyrical whenever the moment takes you.

    Thanks for the articles (particularly the Dungeons and Dragons piece – quite the eye opener for a Brit such as myself) and all the best for the future.

  9. dannygutters says:

    I’ve felt this way before and I’ve never decided if I was just getting older and games were occupying a smaller space in my consious or that the industry is so uninspiring now that I just am not going to get excited about yet another nintendo rehash, new madden, or ‘casual’ board game on xbl. There was a time when I went to eb every week to see when the new space quest was coming out, printed on a line in the pre-release book.

  10. I’m so glad you wrote this. I know it’s a vague sentiment, but it’s a true one. Your authenticity is and will always be far more appreciated than the cavalcade of games journalism out there. Not that there is anything wrong with what they’re doing, but this is clearly the good stuff.

    Cheers to you, sailor.

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