Here are some captures of the woods and wilds of Walden Pond in Walden, a Game.
One thesis of my exploration of video game spaces here is that they are a sort of architecture, like any other, which shapes our potential to become fully human (or somewhat less so) as we inhabit them. Exploring the natural world in this game as Henry David Thoreau may have done in Concord in 1845 inspired me to take up the pen, to invest the minute with spiritual significance and record its impact upon me. To that extent I think this game succeeds as a work of architecture.
A sublime experience at the end of a long day. I am three days into July of 1845 in the game. So am I worlds removed from the weekday cares here.
This is part of a series of posts exploring video games as spaces players inhabit. If you’re wondering what this is all about, I tried to explain myself here.
“Any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.” — Julia Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue and Novel”
Super Dodge Ball is an NES game in which the player takes control of an American dodgeball team and competes against other national teams on a journey around the world.* There is an English team–replace New York and the Statue of Liberty in the screenshot with London and the Tower Bridge–an Indian team, an Icelandic team, a Kenyan team, Team Japan, and, finally, a boss battle with Team USSR. You should watch the playthrough here if you want to see the game in action. Nintendo thought highly enough of the game to include it with the NES games on Nintendo Switch Online, which is where the screenshot comes from.
Odds are, if you played this game in 1989, you were familiar with Rocky IV, which debuted in 1985, and Top Gun, which came out a couple years later. You might have watched the 1988 Olympics, which were relatively drama-free following the political scrimmages surrounding the 1980 and 1984 games, but still drew huge audiences to a spectacle of nationalist competition. Maybe, inspired by the World Cup in 1990, you pulled the game down from the shelf to play through it again. That is something I would have done, substituting dodgeball for soccer to reenact the thrill of the television event. Maybe the looming Kremlin in the game’s final showdown flashed across your mind when the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR along with it. Super Dodge Ball probably sat on your shelf when the United States invaded Iraq for the first time in 1991.
Rocky IV, Top Gun, the Olympics, the World Cup, Super Dodge Ball (and other games like it), the fall of the Soviet Union, Operation Desert Storm. These things appear disconnected, but they were woven together in an intricate pattern, disparate phenomena contributing to a noumenon of nationalist triumph in the eye of the American beholder.
Set against world-historical events like wars and political collapse, cultural products like films and video games seem to speak with an infinitesimally small voice in the historical record. We should reconsider this point of view. Because these events take place out there in real time and space, the vast majority of people experience them passively. Movies, games, recorded music, and other cultural products occupy personal time and space. We experience them actively and use them to think through events.
For most Americans, the Soviet Union collapsed on the news. Americans who played Super Dodge Ball contributed to this collapse in their minds when they played the game. Along the way, they internalized certain ideas about difference, about strength, agility, and development. Many of these ideas were expressed spatially. Players have inhabited these spaces for more than thirty years.
Across the driveway opposite my bedroom window there is a little field. The little field is more of a yard than a field. It is less than a hundred feet wide, maybe two hundred feet long. It drops a few feet down from the entrance driveway and parking lot, like a little emerald bowl carved out of the earth to compensate for the concrete piled up next to it. Still, the field rises above the busy road on the other side. It is an engineered space.
It is also, I have found, a magical space.
The little field is shaded almost completely by stately pine trees emerging from the bowl. I like to take my dog, Penny, over there for walks. She finds little things in the grass to chase and smell. Sometimes she is overwhelmed by some aroma there, driven to flop over and roll around, covering herself in its wonder. There are patches of grass she enjoys eating. I call this “salad time” and we do it almost every day.
At the back side of the field, right up against the fence separating us from the high school next door, there is a tree unlike the others. Where the pines tower, telegraphing their power to absorb the sun’s energy by shading the ground far below, this tree huddles. Its branches swirl and cascade, creating a sort of greencast temple underneath the spreading boughs. I like to pause there on our walks and bask in this little space. This tree, a mulberry in a pine field, is the wellspring of the field’s magic.
There is magic everywhere you go. I don’t mean abracadabra magic, rabbits from hats, wand-waving, magical beasts. I mean magic as an expression of the mysterious power that certain spaces can exercise over us. You know it when you see it. We are drawn to these spaces. Perhaps it is an echo of the space’s past. Our neighborhood used to be a dairy, for example, and the little field calls out to this past in stark contrast with the lumber, concrete, and steel of the parking lots and buildings surrounding it. Or perhaps the magical space is a zone of quiet in an otherwise hectic environment. It could be a nook, a void, a hiding place, a lively spot in a drab surround. It could be anything, but it must be powerful to pull us so.
As often as not, the magic that a space works on us has as much to do with what’s happening in our own minds while we’re there as it does with the power the space possesses of itself. Behind my workplace, for example, there was once a little picnic area cleared out of the squat hardwood margin between the interstate and the parking lot. They ruined it some time ago by dropping a big wooden gazebo back there, but it was a nice place for awhile to read a book and eat a sandwich while the cars and trucks roared by on the other side of trees. This was a magical space for me, but now that it is gone the magic persists in my memory as an enchantment of time and place rather than harmonic space. It was magical because I lived with significant feelings there.
I started my job at the end of my graduate coursework. It was a time when most of my colleagues began turning their attention from seminars to teaching and conferences in preparation for the workforce. I will spare you the “quit lit” picaresque–which is an insufferably self-absorbed genre that exists out there on the wild internet–but in order to explain the magic of the lunch clearing I need to explain that I felt like there wasn’t much future in academia. Living here was as good as living anywhere else, I thought, and if I got a job instead of starting to teach I would still be free to write and do all of the big thinking that I went to grad school to do in the first place. But it still felt like giving up on the dream. I remember making my way to the clearing some time in my second week on the job and thinking, this isn’t so bad. I remember the autumn afternoon, watching the long shadows playing across the building through the trees while completely re-imagining who I was and who I could be. Sitting at one of the picnic tables there I got a text message from my friend which read, “Is it soul-crushing?”
“No, actually,” I replied, “it’s not bad at all.”
I would return to the clearing again and again, day after day. I read books there: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was one. I wrote there: poetry, essays, emails. I wrote about a Water Oak tree living next to the bench where I sat to read and think. I wrote an ode to my wife sitting beneath the tree’s branches. Occupying this magical space helped me escape the workday. It charged my creativity and gave me peace. It helped me adapt to a period of profound change.
Think of a magical space like a power-up in a video game. Being there may recharge your batteries or allow you to focus. It may give you a moment of peace or an hour. What it is and what it means will vary as widely as the people who occupy the space and the feelings shaping their experience from moment to moment. On this blog I intend to share examples. Perhaps, by doing so, I can better explain myself.