Thursday, October 23, 2014

Achievement Unlocked

by Annabeth Leong

I've been a gamer all my life, and so I'm trained to think of quests in very specific ways.

The way it works these days in video games, I run my character around and explore every nook and cranny of the world that's been designed. Quests are marked on the map with little arrows, or with exclamation points over characters' heads.

I want to think about the character I'm playing and whether he or she would be interested in doing the things that are offered. For example, would my goody-two-shoes mage, who turned his own best friend in during the prologue for breaking the Circle of Magi's prohibitions against forbidden magic, actually agree to help hide bodies for a shady organization based in the capital city? I'm guessing no, but I'm not incentivized to have that much integrity.

If I refuse the quest, I'll miss out on experience points, which I need in order to make my character more powerful. I'll also fail to get the achievement the game offers for helping out these shady people. (It's amazing how much motivation an animated plaque can provide). Besides, I won't get to discover that part of the game. The statistics that mark what percentage of the world I explore will wind up flawed. There will be conversations I didn't have, people I didn't kill.

There's also a great coldness to the way quests work in video games. Your character is assigned to save, say, five slaves from a dungeon. You run in, and the game has provided you with an abundance of slaves. No need to wait around or search too hard—there are plenty to choose from. You save your five, and then you get out, because anything else would be a waste of time. Never mind how weird and inhuman that behavior is if you think about it from a different perspective. (The web comic Penny Arcade famously lampooned this mechanic in the controversial strip, "The Sixth Slave." The core criticism in the comic is spot on, though I do see why there was trouble over the callousness of the humor employed to make the point).

All this, however, represents a twisted version of the true concept of a quest. According to my dictionary, a quest is "a long and arduous search for something." According to what I recall from Arthurian legend, that search may not lead where it was supposed to, it may not end when it's supposed to, and it may not be summed up neatly by progress bars, percentage points, and achievements.

Maybe we're not all heroes, but I think we're all on a long and arduous search to figure out what the hell to do with our lives, or if what we're doing with our lives is meaningful or satisfying or useful or positive in any measurable way. I've played enough video games that I think of this life quest in video game terms, even when that's destructive for me.

Let's talk about grabbing quests, for example. In real life, indiscriminately accepting every opportunity that comes one's way is a great way to waste a lot of time and obliterate one's sense of self. There is a part of me that wants to write for every anthology call I see, but what about the times when that's not right for me? Sometimes, that's because of personal reasons or because of my interest or lack thereof or because of my need to protect my own time. Other times, it's because of my beliefs.

A while ago, a publisher put out a call for an anthology that would sport a cover image of a woman with very serious thigh gap. I've read fairly extensively about body image, including a lot of really disturbing stuff about the current obsession with thigh gap. I was interested in the concept of the anthology and even started a story for it, but I kept feeling uncomfortable about that cover image. I imagined posting it on my blog and talking about how beautiful it was (because I do like cover art a lot, and usually make a habit of doing that). I couldn't stomach the thought. I imagined critiquing the thigh gap issue when I posted the cover, then worried I would be seen as unprofessional. In the end, I decided not to grab that quest. Maybe I gave up some gold (heh) or experience points as a result, but in real life I'm not going to get the 100 percent exploration achievement, and I care more about defining my character and values than I do about reaching arbitrary statistical markers.

It disturbs me how often the desire to grab a quest tempts to me to violate my own values for what is likely to be a very small reward.

I've got to think about who I am, what I really want, and what purpose I've got. I'm not a character in someone else's world. In a game, I'm missing out on opportunities for fun by refusing to do things. In real life, there are plenty of great reasons to refuse things all the time.

Achievements are another twisted thing. In video games, I'm wild for those progress bars and percentage points and little shield icons. I want to level up. I want a high GamerScore. I thrill to the sight of the words, "Achievement unlocked," and when my numbers reach X/X, I feel a real sense of, well, achievement.

As a writer, I've unlocked some achievements, too: Story publication. E-book released. Novel out in print. Story singled out on an anthology's back cover. Invited to contribute. As in games, some of the achievements are negative: Bad contract. Deep disappointment. Cruel review. Laughable sales.

I think, though, that this idea of achievements is what saps a lot of the soul from my writing. If I've achieved this thing, then I should feel this thing. If you've achieved this thing and I haven't, then you're beating me. If you've been struck by a negative achievement that I've managed thus far to avoid, that means I'm somehow cleverer than you.

That's not the person I want to be. I don't want to think that way at all. I don't believe in measuring my life in sound bites and neat, pat phrases. I don't really believe in simplicity, either.

What's been even more poisonous for me than the idea of achievements is the idea of measuring progress the way a video game does. Some writers put progress bars for their novels up on their websites, as if a novel is a file downloading at a speed of, say, 1,667 words per day. (With NaNoWriMo approaching, that example speed seems apt). I've learned from writing to daily word count goals, but at a certain point I learned I needed to let them go. I'm not saying it's okay to fool around and pretend to be working when I'm not. Writing is a lot of hard work, and I believe in putting in the time. I'm not a machine or a program, though, and I've done myself a lot of harm by expecting myself to work as if I am. I've done myself grievous harm by expecting my quests—especially the quests as personal as digging a novel out of the collective unconscious and seasoning it with pieces of my soul—to proceed in neat, measured ways.

So many of my expectations for myself and my quests amount to techno-babble. They're not true to what we really know of story, if we stop to think. They're not true to what our fairy tales tell us.

Writing is a tough act of balance. Me versus you. Fulfilling reader expectations versus delighting and surprising. Listening versus speaking (or reading versus writing). White space covered by black words, which need the space or they won't sing. Working toward goals versus allowing room for exploration and discovery.

I don't want to write for maximum efficiency, because there's no joy in that. I need forward motion, yes, but I don't want to see it as a waste of time if I stop for the sixth slave. A real quest involves a lot of time logged in the wilderness. There are many hours when the compass seems broken and the map seems to have been drawn for another land altogether.

Lately, my writing is changing, and I'm not sure how. I am trying to balance the need to keep working and fulfilling my obligations with the equally important need to let myself develop and search. The only way I know to survive is to keep the older, mythical concept of a quest in mind. The video game concept of a quest can be fun, but it provides so much false comfort, and all too often it reveals how hard it still is for us to simulate the deep truths of the world in which we live.


  1. Annabeth:
    There is so much powerful stuff in here its hard to pick just one. The last game I was serious about was Space Invaders. My older son plays one of those multiplayer interactive games. Its fun to listen to him. I can tell he's the guy in charge. Someone has to lead the quest.

    The commonality is finding was to judge our success that don't drive us insane.

    What's been even more poisonous for me than the idea of achievements is the idea of measuring progress the way a video game does. Some writers put progress bars for their novels up on their websites, as if a novel is a file downloading at a speed of, say, 1,667 words per day. (With NaNoWriMo approaching, that example speed seems apt).

    I shudder at the thought of NaNoWriMo. I realize some people need that outside stimulus. Ditto for the progress chart. I think they are both methods for soliciting outside validation-an invitation to addiction.

    In my day job. I am a handyman. It's the first employment scheme I've ever had where the work is internally validating. I spent years failing at white collar jobs where measurable achievement was the only source of validation. If the bosses didn't recognize it, it was useless and "it' changed with their whims. Now I have the luxury of knowing my work is good even if it isn't appreciated. I have very solid boundaries. I know what I can't do and won't do and therefore don't do. I've tried to take the same approach with writing. It's not so easy.

    Best wishes on your quest.

    1. Hi Spencer! Glad the post makes sense even to someone who isn't playing the latest MMOs. :)

      Judging success without driving myself insane—that's a perfect summation of the challenge, as I see it.

      I did NaNoWriMo for five years or so, and I'm glad I did. It helped me to learn how to set a writing schedule for myself. That said, nothing I ever produced for NaNoWriMo was remotely publishable, and I ultimately discovered that dashing through a first draft does not support my writing process. I edit as I go, which means I have to slow down, and I have to realize that I'm not going to produce the same amount of words each day. I've got a nice "fractal draft" method going at this point, but it really doesn't lend itself to progress bars.

      You're dead on about the outside validation, though. The hardest thing about letting go of word counts has been that reporting an impressive word count for the day has always made me feel good about myself, as if I really accomplished something. Your attitude toward handyman work sounds like the right idea. I'd like to get in a similar place with my writing.

      Good luck on your quest as well!

  2. I've never been involved with world-building games, so it's difficult for me to identify with some of what you say here. Also, I realized in reading that although from the outside my life looks full of "achievement", I've never really looked at it that way, or at least, not after I graduated from college and stopped obsessing over getting good grades. I have a sense of satisfaction at what I've accomplished, but honestly, that's not what my life is about.

    My life has been rich, complicated and often surprising. I never dreamed I'd end up living overseas. I never thought I'd get married. And I certainly never imagined being a published author, or writing blog posts potentially read by hundreds or even thousands for strangers.

    I think you sometimes lose yourself in your introspections, Annabeth. You return bearing jewels to share with the rest of us, but I get the feeling those inward journeys can be quite distressing, even painful.

    1. I worried that I'd be losing people by talking too much about games, but it sounds like enough is coming through. I don't think I'm naturally inclined toward worries about achievement—I had a pretty healthy attitude about grades through school, I think. I really think that my participation in Internet stuff and video games has trained me into being more achievement-conscious, which I'm not so happy about.

      The way you're describing looking at your life makes a lot of sense to me. I think it's the only sane way to do it.

      And you're right—I get tangled in knots all the time. OGG has become a vital part of my untangling process, and I'm glad you like the things I come up with. :)

  3. So much wisdom, as always.

    I've never done much in the way of "gamifying" my goals, but I know people who find that helpful—and yet, I can totally understand how such strategies can become problematic in the ways you describe.

    "In real life, there are plenty of great reasons to refuse things all the time": Yes. I'm lucky in having been comfortable with that in my own life for most of my life; but, holy cow, it can be a constant chore explaining one's conscientious, well-considered, and self-aware refusals to all the "helpful" people who don't get why one doesn't want to "just do it."

    1. Hi Jeremy! Gamification has been a double edged sword for me. I used to write about it professionally, and I'm really interested in the psychology of it. At the same time, I have a lot of questions about whether the behaviors it encourages are wise or sustainable.

      I am not as good at refusing things as I wish, and I'm full of admiring envy for those like yourself who can. Keep it up!

  4. I've never been a competitive person and computer games don't float my boat, but the metaphors you delve into describe your process quite well. When I put abstract goals in front of me, the carrot doesn't tend to attract me any more. I tend to do creative stuff first for myself, then see who else it may fit in with. The game of life is challenge enough than to create drama for drama's sake. Ummm except for writing. There, creating drama is what it's about. :>)

    1. Spoken like the inspiring rebel I've come to know from your posts! I wish you plenty of great drama for the page, Daddy! :)

    2. Thanks, Annabeth-

      I just don't understand gauging success or satisfaction with oneself by way of someone else's achievements. We all have something unique to offer.

    3. Agreed. I actually have much less of an issue with measuring myself by others, and much more of an issue with measuring in and of itself. One thing I like about your approach is that it sounds like you're in it for the creative joy rather than the abstract goal.

  5. And please describe 'thigh gap'. Is it negative space between a woman's thighs? How far apart they are at the apex? Sometimes I find a wide gap there intriguing. Sometimes no gap. Then again, two dogs fucking in the street can do it too. :>)

    1. Yeah, "thigh gap" means having a visible gap between one's thighs, such that each leg appears entirely separate and they don't brush together when one walks. Some people are built that way, and it can certainly look pretty. The issue is that many people aren't built that way, and for those who aren't, getting that look is not really possible. Achieving thigh gap is a common goal for "thinspiration" sites (read pro-anorexia), and there's a ton of unhealthy imagery and advice around it.

      My personal belief is that one should respect one's body type. I also believe in muscles, and am really offended by workout advice aimed at women that's about achieving a thin and fragile look without allowing muscles to bulk up at all. Thigh gap certainly involves that a lot of the time. I've seen articles advising women against, say, biking, because building muscle in the thighs will increase their diameter. That's so completely wrong-headed from my perspective.

      I happen to have a body that's inclined to build muscle, and I'm really proud of the feeling of strength I get when I'm healthy. I get that some people are naturally willowy, but I have major issues with pretending that's the only way to look pretty or be healthy. In general, as I think I've said before here, I wish that workout advice for women were more aimed toward developing abilities—strength, endurance, etc—rather than appearance.

      The thigh gap cover image I talked about above had too much of an unnatural look to me, and I was uncomfortable with the way it was being sexualized in the context of the societal body image issues I just explained.

  6. Another 'never' for me. Apart from pacman I have never played a video game - even the Big Bang Theory characters can't get me interested. I'm probably missing something but oh well...

    1. And I can't get interested in the Big Bang Theory, despite loving video games... I guess we're even! :)

  7. I never played story-type video games, although I did take some interest in the ones like Civilization when my younger son used to play them (he still plays computer games, but I have no idea which ones.) But I read voraciously when I was a kid, and teenager, and as time allowed since then, and it occurred to me numerous times that the orderly structure of fiction tended to give me unrealistic expectations or assumptions about life. It's not necessarily a bad thing to assume that things will almost always turn out well, or have some pre-planned meaning, but it can be dangerous to base your actions on that assumption.

    Of course what we read as adults isn't as likely to be all happy endings and smoothed -out angles, and may even go too far in the other direction to extrapolate to real life, but it's hard to shake the earlier influences. I do remember the first book that really shocked me into a different view of reality. I read Andersonville, by MacKinley Cantor, when I was twelve, largely because I'd liked his dog stories such as The Voice of Bugle Ann. I was not prepared for this huge historical book about the notorious Confederate prison camp, which began with rape (although I didn't realize for a while what was going on) and described the unimaginably terrible conditions of the prison camp. That was the first time I encountered an appealing central character who did not survive. I was a bit more careful for a while after that about what books I chose from the local library, where I had free rein, but it was probably a useful experience in the long run.

    1. This is a really great parallel experience, Sacchi. My best friend and I talk all the time about the dangers of applying narrative sensibilities to one's own life. There are so many stories, though, that it's almost impossible to avoid falling into one narrative or another—whether tragic or happy.

    2. In fiction, we have to make the plot tie up in a neat package at the end to make sense of the story. Life doesn't work that way, and those who expect a smooth, unbroken trajectory will be severely disappointed.

  8. Your post is thought-provoking as always, Annabeth. I wonder what you think of Oprah Winfrey's claim that everyone's life has lessons to teach if we can see them. This doesn't necessarily imply the existence of Fate as some huge impersonal force -- this could just mean that we all follow certain patterns that we might not be consciously aware of. This can also apply to characters.

    1. Thanks, Jean! The Jungian in me kind of likes this description (I'm not familiar with Winfrey's claim directly). I think there's plenty to be learned from life, for sure. I am pretty committed, though, to resisting the idea that everything is a teaching moment. I want to let some things simply be tragedies or moments of joy, with the learning part optional. That's probably because I spent too much time getting over compulsive studiousness, though—if I don't make a point of seeing things otherwise, I work too hard at getting the elusive A at life, whatever that is (or unlocking the video game achievement, to stay on theme).

    2. Despite my ostensible focus on enjoying what I'm doing, there's a knee-jerk mindset I have on some level that's oriented toward "accomplishing" the enjoyable "task." For example, I'll be in the middle of reading a book that's delighting me, a book that in one sense I'd love to never end, and yet part of me will automatically be thinking, "only 80 pages to go," as though finishing the book were the goal. (:v>


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