[21 February 2012]
Bubble Man explodes into pulsing incandescent globes of light, deep underwater, and Mega Man stands there, implacable, blinking calmly. What happens next is pretty clear to him—his whole story has a satisfying arc, discernable goals, hazards that can be dispatched and forgotten. So it goes that, after destroying another bad robot in the classic 8-bit Nintendo game Mega Man II, the hero pauses—unmoved and unmoving—before being beamed out. And there I was, sitting in rapt and reverent silence.
After a particularly overloaded semester of teaching and campus service, juggling secondary writing projects and my own neglected real life, I retreated (regressed, maybe) from everything for a few weeks of recuperation. Because my mind felt wrung out, my insides empty, confused, blotto, I had given over to indulging all of my nostalgic adolescent impulses in hopes of a recharge—comics, ‘80s cartoon shows, YouTube walkthroughs of classic video games—slightly aware that I was spinning out of control.
Mega Man blipped back to his control center and I blipped too. I got pulled out of myself, out of my kitchen, and was thrust back into something wholly new yet remarkably the same. This is not the story of my decline. This is the story of how to make it through life without taking any damage.
This is how I avoided cognitive burnout and gave shape to my life.
All of us face an onslaught of immense amounts of raw data every single day and so it’s important that we pause, turn away, take a break. This information pile up is seductive—because of its bulk, its sheer proliferation—but before we know it, we’re drowning. That was certainly what happened to me. My capacity for creative thought was deadened by the limitless options I had to sift through before making any choice, the online and real life data that assaulted me.
But creativity doesn’t just mean the ability to write a poem or paint a picture. It’s crucial to how we construct our identity, shaping our very selves out of all the information and experience that surrounds us. My cognitive fatigue led to a deadening of higher brain functions (which includes creativity and things such as compassion) which help form the blueprint of our lives; this is where we process memories in such a way that we can benefit from them. But instead of powerfully and dynamically rebuilding ourselves as the sum of our knowledge, we become flat, forgetful and uninspired. There I was, normally a pretty high functioning adult, cycling mindlessly through YouTube playlists and watching other people play videogames for no reason I could explain to myself or anyone else.
But therein lies the benefit. Let the record show I was reborn while watching a playthrough of Mega Man II on FormerKingofGames’ YouTube channel, a run in which he takes no damage at all in pursuit of his goal. At first, I was blissfully wallowing in the depths of nostalgia—having mildly visceral reactions to HAVING SEEN IT ALL BEFORE, to HAVING PLAYED THIS GAME ALREADY. But suddenly I realized that something else was happening. I was healing.
Amidst a flurry of pixellated laser pellets that I knew WOULD NOT HURT ME, against a background of acrobatic jumps that I knew WOULD BE EXECUTED PERFECTLY, all while hurling toward an encounter with an evil superboss that I knew I WOULD WIN, I found cognitive solace.
What we all need is time to reflect—the ability to turn off productively and allow our inner mechanisms work their magic on the mass (mess?) of intake we’ve provided it. Ray Kurzweil, who must surely love Mega Man for his Singularity-influenced Pinocchio syndrome, says that “the purposeful destruction of information is the essence of intelligent work.” Because we are all constantly thinking, our brains running at a kind of low-level hum as we race to sort through all the inputs, weighing and evaluating, just to keep pace with the difficult balance of determining what is of value and what isn’t.
It was clear to me that I hadn’t had time to destroy some of the stuff—personal encounters, professional accomplishments, the detritus of daily life, all of it was buzzing through my head. But in these YouTube playthroughs I was able to turn off, almost completely, relish in an incredibly safe environment and let my weary mind process and reinvigorate itself.
Type the name of any video game you can think of into the YouTube search bar and you’re bound to find uploaded videos (usually a series of them) of a playthough demonstration. Like so many other outposts on the internet, there’s a rich and embedded subculture to this realm. I don’t pretend to know all about it, and certainly can’t present a directory or FAQ of best practices.
When I asked YouTube user UsaSatsui why he records these walkthroughs, his response was refreshing devoid of heavy philosophy. “Truthfully, I don’t know” he said, though he clarified that partly it’s because he knows tricks that not everyone knows. That sense of playful fun is pretty clear; I was drawn to his channel because of non-traditional playthrough choices like DuckTales (an old favorite of mine) though I was won over by his Strider demo (not quite as difficult a game as Bionic Commando, but close!). But most of all I was glad to hear that he didn’t think of these ironically, or with some evangelical high-minded purpose.
It’s clear from talking with him that I’m not the only one to become interested in these, and that there’s a rich and supportive culture around this. It seems clear that nostalgia plays a big part in this. “Tons of people played these games growing up,” UsaSatsui says and he gets comments on his videos that indicate the memory of the games is a joy in itself. “Dying is funny sometimes,” he says, sagely, “I don’t […] try to be perfect when I play.” And while he’s referring to the fact the he doesn’t care to produce the perfect skill runs that some other users are known for (check out NotEntirelySure’s channel for some dazzling feats), it’s hard not to see the earnest self-help message imbedded here.
I guess none of us are perfect when we play. We get hit from all sides with impressions, perceptions, necessary knowledge and useless factoids. It’s clear that we need to take our head out of the game in order to really process all the information generated in our normal human existences. Ironically, for me, putting my head back in the game helped me out! By turning off the part of my brain that is actively engaged in processing new information (the various hazards and puzzles that are the heart of many games), my capacity for dealing with the existing pile of information increased tremendously.
The playthroughs served, then, as a backdrop that forces me out of time. I’m temporarily static, not in control. The safe and predetermined environment speaks to memory but serves as a kind of white noise, a low track in the background that allows the mental apparatus to focus on the important and complex work of organizing and bolstering those links of interdependence that help create not only a rich and robust series of memories but our very identity and thus our feelings of satisfaction & fulfillment. I’m finally able to catch my breath.
The YouTube playthrough works as a kind of trigger for coherence. It’s that moment when everything seems to settle down and we feel integrated, maybe even happy. The novelist Marcel Proust describes the moment when “all anxiety about the future, all intellectual doubts had disappeared.” It’s like that, as if after searching for a long time we’ve finally arrived… or stopped. We can find the means by which to integrate our past experiences and our memories with a healthy mind function that allows us to move forward with vigor and power. We can become whole.