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Digital dolls, creative crutches, what we really crave, and unlocking imagination…

I was lamenting to Cameron in the passenger’s side of his car, the day my computer broke. “I know! I’ll just play Skyrim in my head,” I said. I made a scrunched-up face, closing my eyes like I was concentrating very hard, or holding my breath.

He mocked the suggestion by making a crazed, zoned-out look, which was I guess his version of what I’d look like “imagining”; then I made a person-having-a-seizure look… And then we laughed, and we’re horrible people, but anyway —

I put on my best Irileth impression. ” ‘What is the meaning of this interruption?! Jarl Balgruuf is not receiving visitors!'” [Switched back to my voice] “I have news from the dragon attack!” [Back to Irileth’s voice] ‘Well, that explains why the guards let you in! Come on then, the Jarl will want to speak to you personally.'”

Of course, he understood that I’d just broken into Skyrim quoting all non-sequitur, and humored me a little by watching the spectacle (instead of — you know, having me committed).

” ‘Off to Bleak Falls Barrow with you! The Jarl is not a patient man. Neither am I, come to think of it…’  ‘City’s closed with the dragons about. Official business only!’ ‘…I spend a lot of time at the market stalls so I can learn the merchant’s trade…'”

I was just mumbling random lines for a while, with my knees drawn up and my arms about them — sort of like a crazy person, comforting herself with something well-learned from a time of happiness. Of course I wasn’t actually having a breakdown: more like half-pretending I was to entertain Cameron, and half-curious to see how much I could play in my own head, from memory. It occurred to me that I’d memorized quite a bit, because I’d been playing the same quests over and over again.

I’m not so simple as to be captivated for long periods (long after most players have gotten bored, and moved on to something else) by a single story or world, I thought to myself. So why did I keep compulsively starting over new characters, playing over the same quests with only slight variations? Wasn’t I actually bored, while playing? And now that my computer was broken, what was I experiencing withdrawal from?

I decided that something happens in my brain, above the level of playing a video game, once I start playing it past its “I just got this game” period. I wanted to make a story in my head, and I kept starting over because I wanted to revise it; I even became bored when the medium became insufficient to do what I wanted… It became almost work — deciding the perfect way I would go through each quest, the perfect skills to have, the perfect characters to interact with. Wtf?

I wondered… Instead of playing Skyrim, could I just sit one day, invent a world in my head, and then walk around in it and talk to characters and pick plants that I’ve made up myself? It’s… Kind of possible. Why am I not just… Thinking?

An open-ended video game can be your imaginative assistant. It’s doing your grunt work. By providing the visual processing, giving you audio input and all sorts of generic fantasy-world filler, it cuts down on the concentration level you’d have to put in yourself if you were coming up with a world from scratch. Perhaps if you regularly practiced visualization, the tasks the computer completes for you wouldn’t be such a chore — and you wouldn’t get so bored and confined going over the same old dialogue, the same old caves and villains.

I think it’s funny that sitting at a computer for hours on end is considered normal (if somewhat pathetic), but it’s quite rare for someone to just sit and imagine. If someone asked me “What are you doing this afternoon?”, and I said “I’m going to play pretend,” I imagine that they’d think me to be some kind of infantile social defective. The reality is that just because we have these activities that are more acceptably “adult,” that doesn’t make them more mature. We don’t stop needing the indulgence of our imagination that we got regularly as children.  And really, your Xbox is kind of a poor substitute for going outside and making witches’ brew out of your neighbors’ rhodedendrons. …Depending on the game, I don’t know.

Anyway. I’m probably always going to have some video game that I play a lot. I’m totally going to waste hours and hours of my future, I’ve accepted it. However, being self aware about why it’s happening to me is helpful. I’ll get less down on myself about “wasting time.” It will occur to me more easily what I’m craving in that moment, and I’ll look for more varied outlets.

That day I ended up going to my journal and writing down a series of characters, interactions I could have with them, places… I don’t think it will ever get to the level of being its own game, but I said to myself: “If there were absolutely no limits to what your computer could present you visually, where would you be? What would you be doing, and what themes would you explore?” It was kind of cool. I think I’ll do it again.