by Breon Guarino
I’ve spent a lot of time walking through the Barrow-Downs recently in Lord of the Rings Online, slowly but surely working through the quests related to that area. Naturally, I don’t feel as though I’ve done anything to provoke such hostile responses from the taint and denizens native to the region, but without any sort of provocation besides their mechanical nature, they assail me to no avail. Lo, I have journeyed from afar, that with my strong heart and my fell blade, I might be considered more than a match for such paltry foes, that I might scalp them and claim their long-hidden treasures for my own! Surely these are no match for me, surely!
I know they aren’t a match for me; minutes, if not hours, of click-based combat have proven this to me. I’ve come to find myself not disillusioned, but removed from the comfort of immersion in the game environment. The same thrill of risk isn’t there anymore. I’ve started to fall into the trap of checking how many inventory slots I have open at any given moment, started knowing what loot I can drop without regard in favor of minerals, items, or simply more valuable loot. The rewards have started to become numbers in a shopkeeper’s ledger and silver pieces in my pocket. There is repetition now as I fall into the process of grinding out more experience.
In reading Snow Crash, however, I’ve been spared this. In a sense, as the seemingly more thorough immersion of the game decreases slowly due to lack of challenge, the book remains at the same enjoyable level of performance. It is engaging to me on a different level, a level that may need a workout after an hour of grinding through Barrow-wights like I was part of the Gutbuster Brigade. As I’m watching Hiro duel with the “Nipponese” businessman in The Black Sun, as I watch him running through evaluations of tactics in his mind, I empathize with the violence of his bloodless dismemberment of his opponent. He is victorious; he has competed with passion in his competition. In my mind, I can see the action, and though I am removed to the position of spectator, I am somehow engaged by it. After all, there is safety in the crowd of observers, because an observer has no need to react beyond their own enjoyment of a quality piece of street theater. There exists some massive difference on a level I can only begin to grasp; as I read, I am rewarded with rewarding work, but in the game, I’ve become a worker towards a reward.