Over time I’ve started moderating my consumption of media the same way one might moderate their consumption of food or of drugs – by closely monitoring how I feel and react afterwards, what the short and long term effects are, what I get out of it and how it fits into my life, not just while I’m actively consuming it, but before and after. It’s a kind of nutritional plan for art: I try to strip out things that seem like junk food, and then I quickly end up reinstating them when I find out that I need that junk somewhere because otherwise I go crazy. Very much like a diet. A short one.
To an extent we always consume media in ways that were more or less therapeutic, but the largely narrative forms that dominated before games tend to notably degrade upon repeat consumption: No matter what personal needs a novel or film serves on a first viewing, it rarely can provide for them on the tenth or twentieth. While it still may have some residual effect, the overwhelming effect of a repeatedly experienced narrative piece is usually one of familiarity, comfort – which, of course, has its own appeal, but may not be what originally drew the audience to the piece in question. Conversely, many of the challenges that a game can offer stay fresh, if not indefinitely then for much longer than purely narrative forms, which rely on their narrative content to create their tone, and must be constantly fed with new such content if they wish to maintain it.
Quitting TF2 has really put a focus on the role that media plays in shaping my daily life. With it gone, I started noticing needs I had that weren’t really being met any more: The need to think quickly and sharply about an immediate problem, the need to feel like I was good at something, and, pathetically enough, a need for the social contact made through the game. As time passes and I get more used to not playing the same game every day, I get to see more which of those were things I actually need day-to-day and which were needs manufactured by habitually playing a game that feeds them.
It’s strange, though, that such a big part of what we consume media for, its immediate and lasting emotional effect, is something that generally goes entirely un-commented-upon. Playing Super Hexagon leaves me highly reflective and slightly depressed, as the spatial part of my brain is overloaded leaving the rest in sort of an existential void. Playing Dark Souls leaves me tired but keen, a kind of athletic fatigue of the mind. Playing Prison Architect leaves me dull, exhausted by minute detail and causal flow, I have no energy left then but wake up the next day with a wave of new ideas to try implementing.
It’s not just games though, this is just an extension of the awareness of how every activity makes us feel. The afternoon walk that makes us feel more physically tired but gives ideas a chance to gestate and raises our future energy, the decadent meal that leaves us sleepy and mildly disgusted with ourselves in the moment but which we still anticipate eagerly and somehow fail to regret afterwards, the deep breath which lets us release our anger and frustration, the quick nap which rebounds from exhaustion into a kind of momentum to do more and better… games and other art take their place amongst all the other Things We Can Do, each with a unique impact on our short term and long term emotional state, not always predictable but generally traceable.
It’s useful to think about, sometimes. What is it that I get from this thing that I do that makes me keep doing it? What is my emotional flow, moment to moment, that leads me from waking to consuming art, from consuming art to making decisions, and from each decision to either regret or satisfaction? If I watch a video every day while I drink my coffee, are the video and coffee together part of what allows me to function the way I do? Do I want to continue to function that way, and if not what’s the best thing to change up to try to operate differently? Almost like playing a whole different game, a game of my life, a game of expression and self-recognition rather than victory or loss.