Playing Attention

Last night I read that Trump’s position in the polls is slowly rising. As I read the news my stomach lurched and a feeling of dread spread through my body like vinegar in milk.

The GOP presidential candidate has generated an absurdly long list of lies, fraud, and promises that curdles the blood of anyone who believes that the rights and freedoms of the United States are for all Americans regardless of creed or colour. It chills the blood of those who fear for the most vulnerable among us. And yet his polls rise.

Again, we have been reminded that the mass media – especially television news – is hegemonic. The companies that produce television cleave to power. The news can be bought. It will back foreign invasion without credible evidence. It will act with extreme negligence during natural disasters and in doing so, bring about needless death. It does not believe that Black Lives Matter.

Perhaps you are like myself and unsure how much consternation should be thrown at the feet of cable news and how much should be hurled at the men and women who find it easier to bring themselves to vote for a leader supported by Putin and neo-Nazis than for a woman and/or a Democrat.

It makes me wonder, has it always been about identity politics?

How much of the racism and misogyny – now shamelessly out of the open and now somehow – absurdly – beyond public rebuke – was already there, quiet, just waiting for a cue to express itself?

On the other hand, how much of what we see is just the loud and virulent audience participation of a few – not unlike the crowd that boos the bad guy in wrestling or MMA – who have no real power outside of the arena when the audience no longer has an audience?

How many conscientious objectors are among the GOP, silent but resolute in their belief that what is seen on television is not the America they live in nor the America they want.

2016 earned its title of annus horribilis many months ago when David Bowie and then Prince, passed on and left us with their music. Bowie and Prince did not transcend the societal boundaries placed around them but they did extend the boundaries of music, style, sexuality and identity for themselves and for all of us.

One answer to 2016 is more Prince. One answer to 2016 is more David Bowie.

I believe another answer is to hold your nose and get involved in every level of politics you can.

And I’ve been thinking still of a whole other coping mechanism to fight against the fear and rage shown to us on television and our social media feeds at every hour of the day that can mirror itself in our own nervous systems if not checked.

And that answer is – paradoxically – to let go of want.

And there is another, subtler reason you might find yourself convinced that things are getting worse and worse, which is that our expectations outpace reality. That is, things do improve — but we raise our expectations for how much better they ought to be at a faster rate, creating the illusion that progress has gone into reverse.

Perhaps my anxious feelings are because I’m wishing for a world that is different than the one that I am in. The world is not a wish-granting factory.

Perhaps my expectations for a world that forms to my will is a problem unto itself. Perhaps it a fundamental problem of how most of us understand ourselves in our world.

 What if we treated everything the way we treat soccer and Tetris – as valuable and virtuous for being exactly what they are, rather than for what would be convenient, or for what we wish they were instead, or for what we fear they are not? Walks and meadows, aunts and grandfathers, zoning board of appeals meetings and business trips. Everything. Our lives would be better, bigger, more meaningful, and less selfish.

The above is from the preface to the recently published, Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games by game designer and scholar Ian Bogost. It’s a book that has given me much comfort during this past bad weekPlay Anything starts with an exploration of boredom – not unlike the late David Foster Wallace in his unfinished work, The Pale King.  But Bogost, unlike Wallace, doesn’t believe the cure for boredom is within ourselves but outside of ourselves once we pay a different kind of attention to the world around us.


Bogost then moves on to his real target – the ever present layer of irony that smothers our day and age. Play Anything is a difficult book to summarize. Between trips to Walmart and other excursions in pursuit of a greener lawn, Bogost slowly builds his case that it is working within materials and systems of constraint that brings us a sense of freedom and that fun is the opposite of happiness.

(Speaking of games, while I did not play The Witness – the 2016 game about exploring an abandoned island and solving puzzles, I did watch a ridiculous number of videos watching other people playing the game. Here’s a slight spoiler: in one part of the island of The Witness, you can watch a small series of videos from within the game and this particular video is strangely fitting).

I want to be clear – while I am considering giving up wishing for a better world, I am not giving up working towards a better one.

Between the rise of Donald Trump and our rising sea levels – the time to fight for our future is now.