Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Guy Who Loved Video Games

A student in one of my first-year writing classes wrote an essay on the debate between PC and console gaming, and a damned good essay it was.  It wasn’t a typical essay, though: he cited the advantages and disadvantages of each argument before explaining how ridiculous it was to argue these differences at all, and ended with a page full of happy gaming memories playing Call of Duty on couches with friends and trying to beat the original Super Mario Bros. on his grandmother’s old tube TV.  It’s not about asserting one platform’s superiority, these anecdotes implied, but about the fun you have playing the game.

“So, I didn’t really get which side you were on,” a girl in our peer conference admitted.  “Do you prefer PCs, or consoles?”

There were four of us in the classroom, the student who’d written the essay, his two groupmates, and me, the teacher running the show.  The other girl in the group admitted to knowing nothing about video games and also being confused about what the writer’s opinion was, having completely missed the significance of the happy gaming memories.  This placed me in an awkward position as the authority figure: if I felt the original ending forged a moment of great significance, but others had missed its meaning entirely, could the ending be considered effective?

I slouched in my plastic chairdesk and looked at the ending again: it was poignant, well-written, and evocative, while never quite spelling out in an obvious manner what the writer wanted to say—he was more subtle than that.  Still, two out of three readers had weighed in with their confusion. 

“As a writer,” I began when it came my moment to speak, “you have to consider your audience.  Every reader reads differently, and every reader will pick up different aspects of a piece depending on their experiences.  If something you’re trying to say isn’t coming across to two-thirds of the group [and here I let hang the unspoken implication that this was a very large percentage] then you might want to think about stating your point more clearly.”

And that was all—we then moved on to an essay about Christian stereotypes.

All day I thought about what I’d said, how I’d encouraged this young writer who’d written a damned good essay to compromise his vision because two classmates who’d never played a video game and had probably skimmed the essay the night before didn’t understand it.  The ending was valuable for its subtlety—it had made readers realize for themselves how ridiculous the PC-console debate was—and here I was, an authority figure who held the power to grant this student a letter grade telling him to bow to the whims of a few readers he wasn’t even reaching out to.  I hadn’t said this directly, but I’d pressured him to follow the mainstream—to do what everyone else wanted.

So I wrote the student an e-mail.  It was a medium-length e-mail, sent late at night, with a sincerity I hadn’t shown in the classroom fourteen hours before.  It said that he’d received some opinions from his readers, but that only he, the writer, could decide how valuable these opinions were.  Did he want to write an essay that spelled things out in simple terms, or did he want his readers to think for themselves?  It was a choice he had to make.

I felt a lot better after writing that, and the student did too—he replied saying he was glad to hear I’d liked his original ending, and that now that he had my approval he planned on keeping it.  It was a victory for artists and independent thinkers everywhere.

I wonder now, though, what kind of path I’d set him on, and whether he was prepared to face the challenges of arguing for what you know is right despite the put-downs of the majority.  I think about this path and how difficult it is, how many nagging voices come at us from groupmates and authority figures, how often these people tell us what we’re doing isn’t working or is just plain wrong.  I think about how sticking to an unpopular vision is one of the most difficult choices in the world to make, but it’s where great art comes from, because the ideas that get remembered are always the ones that break free from the mainstream.

Fuck if it isn’t a difficult struggle, though.


Danicus said...
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Danicus said...

"I remember the first time I really understood what it was to be an American...What it was to be a patriot."

"I was just a kid...A million years ago, it seems sometimes. Maybe twelve. I was reading Mark Twain. And he wrote something that struck me right down to my core...something so powerful, so true, that it changed my life. I memorized it so I could repeat it to myself, over and over across the years. He wrote --

'In a republic, who is the country?

Is it the government which is for the moment in the saddle? Why, the government is merely a temporary servant: it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn't. It's function is to obey orders, not originate them.

Who, then is the country? Is it the newspaper? Is it the pulpit? Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it, they have not command, they have only their little share in the command.

In a monarchy, the king and his family are the country: In a republic it is the common voice of the people each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak.

It is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of pulpit, press, government, or the empty catchphrases of politicians.
Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot shirk this and be a man.

To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may.

If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have your duty by yourself and by your country. Hold up your head. You have nothing to be ashamed of'."

"Doesn't matter what the press says. Doesn't matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn't matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.

This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world--
--No,you move."

Captain America, from Amazing Spider-Man #537 by J. Michael Straczynski

Mark Twain quote from "Glances at History (suppressed.) Date, 9th century"