There’s a story that’s always stuck with me, relayed by the now-vanished blog Websnark back in the day, so forgive me if I get the details wrong. But the meat of the story is what’s important, and frankly, none of the details matters. With me so far? This is about the Stan Lee created reality series Who Wants To Be A Superhero? from back in 2006.
The idea of the series was pretty simple: Participants would create their own superhero identity, and Lee (who was also host and judge) would put them through a number of tests to determine if they were worthy of being a superhero, based not on powers they didn’t have but on the character they displayed. For one particular challenge, the goal was to change into costume quickly and rush to a very specific point because the whole point was that superheroes rise to the occasion.
Except that the challenge wasn’t actually that at all. Because along the way to their destination, there was a lost little girl who was crying.
Nothing was pointing to the little girl. None of the participants had been informed that there was a little girl there. By all accounts, she wasn’t part of the show at all; she was just a little girl crying and seemingly alone. And a lot of the participants just moved on past her and focused on getting to the goal, which was what they had been told to do… at which point Stan Lee got to dress them down for missing the fact that a little girl is crying and alone.
Because being a superhero isn’t about having cool powers or fighting bad guys or existing in a world where law enforcement is either incapable or unwilling to protect people so that being a costumed vigilante is a net positive for the world instead of horrifying. It’s about deciding that you are going to use the powers you have to make the world a better place. And if you decide that winning a foot race is more important than making sure a little girl is all right and safe, you don’t have what it takes to be a superhero.
Now, ask yourself this: Are you going to learn that from playing City of Heroes? Because I think the answer is kind of “yes,” if you’re paying attention… but that’s sort of the whole issue.
Needless to say, I was not a part of that competition. But I do think that is an important lesson, and I managed to write nearly four hundred words just about that anecdote and what it means to be a superhero. I wrote a whole eulogy about what it means to be a superhero when CoH shut down, one that people still occasionally reach out to thank me for. I talked about what the community meant and how it felt when it looked like that community was shattered forever.
And none of those things involved knowing anything about Enhancement Diversification.
If you need to be told that I love video games, well, nice to meet you! You haven’t been here before, I guess. And you may remember that about a year and a half ago I wrote about how hating a game isn’t the same as developing a personality. But there’s a flip side to that, and it’s pretty self-explanatory. Just because you love a game doesn’t mean that you have a personality, either, because… games are, on a thematic level, about more than mechanical interactions.
No, I’m not talking about story alone. That has an influence, sure, but mechanics and developer behavior tell a story and weave together a set of themes and values just as surely. Final Fantasy XIV shares its themes through story but also through mechanics, through what is encouraged and what is forbidden, through what the developers and GMs choose to permit and what they choose to disallow.
And yet I meet people there all the time who have not gotten any of that meaning. People who I know love the game, who play as much as I do, who know as much as I do about mechanics… and opt to be closed-off, resentful, cruel, capricious, arrogant, and dismissive of others. People who take pride in elitism instead of inclusion, who wonder why in the heck I would just hand out gil to players with no concern of service or recompense.
Oh, I have no doubt they saw the story. I know they understood the words. I know that these are people who fought back the Endsinger and won. But they didn’t understand a word of what happened, and playing FFXIV does not somehow make them the warm, welcoming, gooey center of the pan-MMO community. I don’t doubt they love the game. But it doesn’t make them better people.
Entertainment is a good thing. We all need entertainment because fiction gives us things to hope for and aspire to. But it’s also possible to love something perhaps not wisely, to cherish the most surface elements and forget what it’s actually saying, to willfully blind yourself to flaws in a mistaken effort to assume that if you shut your eyes and sing loudly enough they aren’t real and they can’t hurt you.
I’ve talked before about how criticizing what you love isn’t the same as not loving things. Criticizing things you love and pointing out flaws is a step in making those things become the best versions of themselves. My favorite games are still subject to criticism, sometimes harsh criticism, because I want them to be better. Not just all right, but improving.
Loving something without recognizing its flaws is just ignorance.
Do I love superhero stories? Of course I do. Do I recognize that the idea of being a singular point of righteousness against a tide of evil speaks to as many negative and harmful ideas as it does positive ones? Of course I do. And that love is only really relevant insofar as I use it as a foundation to push me to be a better person to others, to be the kind of person who stops and helps kids who look scared or lost because I may never have developed electrokinesis – because electrokinesis is not what makes you good or kind or decent.
If you grew up loving World of Warcraft but now live your life believing that the establishment is inherently good? That the most important thing is to divide the world between the people who you agree with and those who you don’t, and the second group is actively malicious? That tradition and inheritance is what matters most, that you should evaluate everything through what you used to believe, and that pushing others down is how to elevate yourself?
Then maybe you didn’t actually get the point. And if you regard anything negative said about the game as something negative being said about you personally… well, maybe it’s time to step away from games and do some of the really hard work involved in growing yourself. Because at the end of the day, if the video games you love do inform your personality to the point that they’re inseparable… like, seriously, there’s a big beautiful world out there full of other stuff.
Just a thought for heading into 2023, folks. Here, let’s listen to some music.