The Sunday edition of the New York Times usually has rather ho-hum articles on the front page, because they are probably prepared ahead of time so that the staff gets some break in their lives. Predictably yesterday’s edition had an article about Congress, one about ISIS, one about gambling, and one about medicine. But the main article definitely got me thinking. The title was “Virtual Games Draw Real Crowds and Big Money”, by Nick Winfield. I must admit I was oblivious to this major movement. Turns out huge crowds are turning out to watch champion gamers compete on big screens—11,000 people filling Seattle’s basketball arena, 40,000 expected at a championship to be held in Korea. And there is the TV audience—apparently more than 70 million people in the world watch “e-sports”, as gaming competitions are called. A championship tournament last year attracted 8.5 million simultaneous viewers. As the article pointed out, this was the same number of viewers that watched the deciding game of the Stanley cup finals in hockey. Prizes are large and celebrity awaits the champions. Businesses are climbing on these events for advertising and sniffing profits. If you haven’t been following this development, the article is here.
I am familiar with the draw of computer games, since I have a step son who has spent years at Electronic Arts and grand kids who indeed love them. But strangely enough, I don’t seem to be attracted to them. I like reality rather than virtuality. I guess I am an extreme do-it-yourselfer. I would rather do things poorly than watch others do them extremely well. I liked to play sports, even though I was never that good, more than watching the “pros”. I would rather make and repair things adequately rather than hire people who would do such things more rapidly, and perhaps better. And as a further complication, I prefer the outdoors to the indoors—odd for a professor.
The N.Y.Times article discusses a champion gamer named Peter Dager and his environment as follows: “When not competing in front of thousands of people, Mr. Drager works from his childhood bedroom in Fort Wayne, Indiana. At the small desk in the corner sit the tools of his trade, a computer with two displays, a webcam, a keyboard, and a mouse” That is definitely not me. My hobby of rescuing unloved heavy machinery requires much of my yard at home, a bit of a friend’s farm (barn and open space), piles of swell tools and materials, loud cursing, forklifts, and such things as sunburn lotion, mosquito repellant, and occasional bandages. I am starting to realize that my friends and I who do similar things are perhaps a vanishing species, but I like us.
I have always wanted a full life of various experiences, good friends, and accomplishments I could look back on with pride. Oddly enough, although competitive, I have never wanted to be the best in the world at anything. I look back happily at the way I have spent my time. Dilletante? Perhaps. But the Times article has a short quote from Mr. Drager on how he reached the pinnacle of gaming: “What most people lack, he said, is a singular focus on games, a willingness to clear away all other distractions”. Later—“I, and many players like me, sacrificed everything. We gave up on sports and friends and school just so that we can play more”. Mr. Drager is apparently headed toward an income of $200,000 a year, but like most parents, his father wishes he would finish college.
But selfishly, I have never wanted to sacrifice everything—especially sports, friends, and school— in order to play games. And I sometimes worry about we homo sapiens spending more and more of our time “watching” instead of “doing”, I believe that as media becomes more powerful, and people in various parts of the world grow more affluent, there will be more and more powerful opportunities to experience life vicariously—television, travel tours, the internet, following the lives of celebrities. But is this consistent with the way we evolved? We continue to do damage to ourselves (wars, violence) and nature still speaks out (earthquakes, tornados). Are we going to lose our ability to recover from such things? Are we going to follow Rome and add lions and tridents to professional football? If we are going to have gladiators, it is probably better to have them computer generated and presented over big screens. But are we going to up the ante on professional performers as a result?
Enough of this. The day is dawning and I will get busy on my mundane tasks. In order to prevent nagging, when my wife wants me to do something, she puts my assignment on a post-it note and sticks it on the mirror I use while shaving. When I can no longer see my reflection, the rules require I complete the task. Today they read “put Formica on kitchen shelves over stove, fix fire-escape ladder, paint front and back porches, repair drain pipes in front, find a better home for TV and computer wires, fix screen door so it doesn’t bang, water orchids” Straight forward common acts, but promising a feeling of accomplishment when achieved. Perhaps not as seductive as League of Legends, but the weather is nice, and I am capable of doing a high quality job on such things, and I should shave. And since my wife is walking around the lake country in England with a few of her friends, I can sneak away, work on my vintage orchard sprayer restoration, and cover myself with sweat, grease, and perhaps glory in the eyes of some beholders.