Spending time with people is work. There’s no way around that. Whether it’s a stranger or the person you know better than anyone else, it takes more than a smile and small talk to get through life in a way that makes all parties feel valued. These are the experiences that gave us pause and made us consider our own relationships.
Relationship with Yourself
I spent the evening traversing the mountain path and the ruined city at the foot of the Mt. Celeste. Only now, exhausted by what now seemed like foothills compared to the mountain looming overhead, I arrived before the challenge you came to face. There was a warning etched in stone: “This memorial dedicated to those who perished on the climb.” I started towards the mountain, but my pack feels heavier now than it did only a moment ago. I looked back at the memorial, then reluctantly began to set up camp. “This might have been a mistake,” I said to no one. Tired and alone, I drifted to sleep in the shadow of the memorial, knowing that it may soon show to have been dedicated to me.
When you play Celeste, you learn to adjust your expectations accordingly. Death comes easy for Madeline, the game’s protagonist, and success rides on the back of failure. In this way, the game reframes what it means to fail: you’re either winning, or you’re learning. And Celeste encourages you to “learn” as much as you can. But Celeste also knows that framing failure, especially the devastating kind, in a positive light will be a challenge for many people. And nothing breeds self-doubt quite like a novel challenge. At the same time, however, self-doubt is the thing we, like Madeline, often hope to eradicate through the challenge. There is a Part of Us that drags us down and makes us fail at life, at love, and at becoming an authentic self. It’s only natural to refuse to participate with that Part of Ourselves.
The thing about negative emotions, though, is that they don’t disappear by our refusing to engage with them. They are Part of Us, after all. When we neglect them, we only neglect ourselves. Madeline seeks freedom through self-mastery, and the freedom she seeks is a freedom from self-doubt. But by ignoring that Part of Herself, it is left to fester and have its way. What Celeste the mountain teaches Madeline, and what Celeste the game taught me, is that we never arrive at self-mastery without blazing a trail of self-acceptance. That freedom from self-doubt can come only through freedom with the self that doubts.
Relationship with Your Family
I don’t know if people who play The Sims are all control freaks, but after spending 1,000 hours tinkering with my perfect family unit, I have learned that maybe there is a little control neurosis in all of us. The Sims is amazingly fun and silly and fulfilling but it has this little dark side which can reveal something fundamentally broken in our hearts. As a simulated life, you can essentially spend hours in wish-fulfillment forming the perfect home. You can craft a spouse who finds utter joy in cleaning, children who are built-in geniuses, in-laws whom you can trap in a swimming pool with no ladder to get out. (I told you it gets dark. Don’t act like you’ve never done it.) When I am sad or lonely or not getting along with my wife or when parenting is tough, I can sit and make a perfect family who is perfectly compliant. (Unless they really have to pee, then all bets are off.)
I think that is the big danger with any nerd stuff—the ability to so lose your self in what could be that you can lose your picture of what is. It hit me one night playing that instead of spending two hours forcing my Sims to read “Handiness Vol 2: Sparks are Nature’s Kisses” 18 times while spamming the infinite money code over and over again, I should instead pick-up a devotional series with my real wife or actually push my actual kid on an actual swing. I am a huge fan of video games, I play a ton of them, and I know that you can play The Sims for the game itself. But it hit me like a ton of bricks that there is a danger in there of missing too much of real life because I find some temporary satisfaction in my simulated one. I am grateful The Sims taught me that.
Relationship with Your Significant Other
The game said that everything should remain fictional—a fantasy. Amber insisted we stick to the rules. I wanted to see what would happen if we tried to create ourselves in Fog of Love. Would the game predict that we would end up together? Might we find some unspoken areas of tension only illuminated through these story/prisoner’s dilemma cards? Amber is the wiser half, so she probably made the right call.
The opening moments of a game of Fog of Love accomplish a number of objectives. As you choose and reveal a number of attributes about your partner, you’re supposed to tell them why you like those attributes about them. It introduces the feeling of the game, it eases the participants into the weird RPG/board game hybrid experience, and most importantly it establishes a sense of intimacy.
Fog of Love constantly toes the line between brilliant game and awkward group therapy activity. With Amber and me, it almost felt flirtatious. One game I might be a bespectacled bookish philanthropist, another a loud, attractive motivational speaker. After the introduction, we’re given our secret personality goals. These gently nudge us towards our own individual interests as we go through each scenario. These often put us at odds with each other—my character doesn’t want children because I’m cynical, but hers craves a large family. Mutual success in Fog of Love is about learning about your partner and navigating their interests as well as your own. Sometimes your characters’ personalities will make that impossible, but if you listen to what they really want you can achieve a kind of in-game synchronicity.
That’s what makes Fog of Love one of the most innovative games in recent years, but it’s not what makes it special for me. I couldn’t easily separate the game from my actual relationship. When Amber reveals a completely unexpected decision, we laugh, and I look into her eyes. Is she fully committed to the persona of her character, or did I just learn something new about my wife? Perhaps I should learn to listen more, appreciate more, give more.
Relationship with Your Friends
In the 20 or more years that I’ve been a fan of Sailor Moon, nearly all of the Sailor Scouts have been my favorite at one point or another. For years it was Ami, the quiet, brainy girl who transforms into Sailor Mercury and is the steady voice of reason of the Inner Senshi—basically the role I saw myself playing in my own social circles. Then it was Rei, aka Sailor Mars, the mysterious shrine maiden with a fiery temper that my angsty 23-year-old self wished she knew how to release. Lately it has been Usagi herself, who eats and sleeps too much, studies too little, is constantly running late, has crushes on no fewer than two boys at any given moment—can barely get it together on a daily basis, and yet still manages to transform into Sailor Moon and save the world from evil week after week.
Regardless of which girl is my favorite at any given moment, it’s always in the context of her friendship with the others. None of the five ever stand on their own for long. As friends, their personalities balance each others’ out: Ami’s patience serves as a steadying influence on Rei’s and Usagi’s quick tempers; Rei’s and Ami’s intellect balance Minako’s and Usagi’s ditziness; Usagi’s frequently-lacking courage is bolstered by an abundance of it from the other four. When they struggle—with school, with boys, with insecurity, with the latest monster-of-the-week—they always know they have a friend who’s got their back. When they argue (and they argue a lot), they always find a way to come back together by the end of each episode. Even the sum of their powers is greater than the individual parts (see: Sailor Planet Power). It’s rare that any of the scouts defeat evil without the help of at least one of the others, and whenever they try, bad things usually happen.
Recently, one of my best friends commented in reply to a screenshot I shared, “My only real exposure to this show is your out-of-context memes, and I kind of want to keep it that way lol.” I took that as a challenge, though, and we’ve started watching the show together with plans to watch more soon. I’m excited to share one of my favorite shows with one of my favorite people! But what I want to share with him is more than just one of my most beloved fandoms—it’s the chance to point at the screen and say: ”This. This is what my friendships mean to me.”
Relationship with Your Co-workers
I am a bit of a loner at work. Unless I need help, I don’t usually going to seek out my co-workers to shoot the breeze or see how they’re doing. I’m there to help my patients. Some of my co-workers seek me out to ask me about my day, about my life, and about the nerdy stuff I’ve been doing. Sometimes bitterness rears its head and I’m afraid to engage. They’re just poking the nerd, a tiny voice says. But their consistent interest in me has proved me wrong.
The Grizzled is a game about supporting your co-workers in one of the worst work environments in modern history: the trenches of World War I. You and fellow soldiers face the hazards of weather, war, and traumatic memories. In order to survive these horrors, you play Support Tokens to help your fellow soldiers. Support Tokens are played facedown, so a player may not know if they’re going to make it to the next round until the token is revealed. It is also usually up to the players to keep a mental tally of which player will need support. The communication rules for this game are strict. A player may not even be able to speak, due to trauma. Constant attention to your fellow players and the cards they are playing is vital if your band of soldiers is to survive.
Less obviously deadly than trench warfare, modern hospitals are full of people that make life or death (and license or no) decisions several times a day. If we are so deeply in our own worlds that we’re not paying attention to those around us, a patient may not get to go home to their family. I shouldn’t just help a co-worker when they’re having a bad day at work. I should care about what’s happening in their lives. Because the next hard shift is right around the corner, and no one should be holding their breath to see if they’ll come out okay.
Relationship with Strangers
I am a massive introvert. A lot of nerds are. And I’m in a career that requires I make a ton of small talk, all the time. I’m a pastor. For me, the hardest part is where I have to just walk up to a perfect stranger and strike up a conversation. It is crippling. How do people know what to say? Am I supposed to talk about the weather? What do I do with my hands? It is all sweaty-palmed anxiety, stammering nonsense, and me walking down hallways pretending to be on my phone so I can escape a few awkward interactions.
Then I played Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s a cowboy game but it is so much more than that. It is a love letter to humanity, facing all of our worst qualities straight-on while the best shine through.
Red Dead Redemption 2 has a pretty typical “Play a good-guy or a bad-guy” system. But one of the more interesting features of the system is the “Greet” button. As you walk through towns in the game, you are given the option to press a button to Greet passers-by. Doing so nets you a tiny amount of “good” points (they are referred to as Honor in the game). So an easy way to gain honor quickly is to spam X and greet everyone that passes by.
I did this, the spamming. But after 100 or so greetings I began to actually listen to Arthur. He isn’t particularly charming or intelligent. He is not really all that affable. But he greets people. And even though there are only maybe 20 responses Arthur can say when he greets—and they repeat—they don’t sound canned, even if they are prepared.
“Hey, Buddy!” “There she is!” “What a day.” These greetings were not revolutionary but they were achievable. I could talk like Arthur. When I didn’t know what to say to strangers to make small talk, I didn’t have to be awkward, I could be a cowboy. Okay, maybe I can’t start with, “Howdy, Partner,” but at least now my interactions with strangers can go a little bit smoother.