Of Fantasy and Fitness

IMG_0015Tolkien’s hobbits, with their mills and postal service and gardeners, are “historically” anachronistic, and as such even the hobbit heroes prefer their adventures tucked safely away in books where they belong while the hobbits themselves stay snug in their holes with their pipes and their beer and their warming fires. I’m going to use this as a model of modernity, and yet the hobbits’ culture is not entirely our own. It can be assumed that their prodigious amounts of comfort food are grown by themselves, organically, which requires hard work; their children roam the fields and forests in search of physical entertainments, and, again, their more specifically “escapist” entertainments are in books, not in video screens and headsets and speakers as they are for so many in our current generation.

There is much psychological ore to be mined out of this need — even for those of us lucky enough to be living in periods and places of relative safety and prosperity — to yearn for and fantasize for difficult, violent, even horrific times and situations. This little essay makes no attempt to address such a difficult dichotomy. Instead I want to address the apparent disparity between what so many moderns appear to value in their fantasies vs their behaviors in “reality.”

With what I’m about to say, I do not intend to perpetuate the stereotype that gamers are sugar-addicted, fat and lazy (or thin and hyperactive, for that matter). Indeed, I’m not sure if the health problems and lifestyle choices that assail the gamer community are significantly larger in proportion than those within any sub-community within the developed western and westernized nations. What I’m addressing is the disparity between the health of many gamers vs what I’m assuming must be their idealized selves.

A close friend has shared with me that, in his 20s, he struck upon a profound and transformative insight. He had been spending hours of his “real” life exercising his Grand Theft Auto character to improve that character’s abilities. And then he thought, “I can do this to myself. For real.” And he did. He became a lean and muscular man.

I didn’t pay much attention to my own health during high school and in my 20s. Perhaps it had something to do with that legendary sense of invulnerability or that belief that one has all the time in the world (or too little of it, conversely, for the apocalyptically minded who believe they are fated to die like a rockstar at 27). Or perhaps it has something to do with the stereotypical apathy of youth. But I had been raised by a mother who had put good stuff into me — she had been ahead of the curve from everything from healthy, organic eating to avoiding all things artificial such as synthetic clothes and carpeting and perfumes. I had a genetic reserve from which, during my coming-of-age, I made extensive withdrawals. However, as it says in the Bible, raise a child in the ways of the Lord and, when he is older, he will not depart from it: as an adult, I returned to my mother’s “faith.”

Still, though I try to follow a correct diet now, though I get plenty of exercise by walking, whenever possible, to my destinations, and though I get even more exercise through gardening and added benefits from eating organic fruits grown by my own hands, I still don’t exercise enough to reach my fantasy ideal. This is because exercise–real exercise–is just so boring. In a very real way modernity has turned much of humanity into caged hamsters. No longer do humans grow to heroic statures by adhering to the evolutionary tradition of farming by hand, by hunting and tracking and fishing and yes, I suppose, by warring, but instead they run, indoors, on a moving track, or they pull on weighted pulleys, all the while surrounded by glowing screens and inspirational rock or metal music.

So, as I’ve said, I get it. Modern difficulty with diet is one thing, because of addictions to sugars and fats and even more nefarious substances such as artificial colors and sweeteners, but the sheer act of physical activity, without any apparent purpose outside of the act itself, is boring. We try to make this second more entertaining by, as I said, listening to music (I myself listen to Wardruna while on the rowing machine) or watching something on a screen, but, for many of us, this is not enough.

For awhile there I thought our fantasy entertainment itself might save us from our sedentary disasters. It’s no secret that many of us seek greater and greater immersion in our fantasy entertainment. Hence the Oculus Rift. But before I gave up playing video games, after completing the beautiful Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I would have thought gamers would want more than mere 3D surround. I was waiting for full interaction. You know what I’m talking about, right? If a player desires to swing a sword, she would have to actually swing a virtual weapon, not press a button. If he wants to run to or from enemies, he would have to actually run, not toggle a joystick. In this way, I had dreamed, one would be able to fully immerse oneself in the fantasy. As a fortunate side effect, one could get physically fit, getting all that closer to being the actual ideal rather than just dreaming about it.

Innovations slightly like this, I understand, have been attempted. But I hear that they haven’t worked so well. First, shortcuts around the fully intended effect have been found (flicking the wrist, for example, rather than fully swinging the arm). Second, anecdotally I have heard that many gamers have pushed back at the notion of true physicality in their games. In other words, they would rather that the experience remain wholly in the realm of idealized fantasy in the mind rather than it actually intrude onto their physical bodies in the form of sweating pores and racing hearts.

One reader of the current Dark Horse run of Conan comics, in criticizing a leaner representation of a youthful Conan, said he read and looked at Conan for workout inspiration. I can relate. When I read Conan, and feel his savage heart burning inside my own, and look at all those beautiful bodies that Conan gets to enjoy, I am motivated to do the same. So I’m surprised that this doesn’t happen more often. It seems like the marriage of the ideal forms to real action in a video game should be the answer.

But I suppose that some people — perhaps even most of us — just don’t like physical activity. Moreover, maybe people aren’t motivated by fantasy because the nature of their favorite fantasies themselves might be different from what I’ve been talking about. Both Tolkien’s and Howard’s fantasies, after all, were more grounded in reality than not. Off hand, I can think of no better articulation of this than what is described in ACKS’s recent Kickstarter. These days, however, our heroes don’t need to work for it. They receive or are born with these “powers” and bam wammo! (In fact, many characters receive their powers through victimization of some sort — what might this say about our psychological zeitgeist?) No need to work out, no need to eat right, no need to do much at all unless one is drawn into a situation or happens to have a sense of moral uprightness or social responsibility. Even properties that are allegedly backward-looking towards premodernity, such as the furthest iterations of D&D and Pathfinder and World of Warcraft and (possibly?) League of Legends, have lightning blasting out of people’s fingers and atomic-blast magic swords so large no figure that slight possibly should be able to lift them and spells that give the powers of speed and flight and even teleportation. When these figures are the ideals it’s clear why actual physical activity is, at least in the popular imagination, so devalued.

To reiterate, I’m not sure what all of this means for our psychological zeitgeist, but I hope to use my gaming to inform my active life and, conversely, my active life (through endorphins and actual experience and inspiration — exercise has been proven to increase creativity and intelligence, after all!) to inform my gaming life. Skol!

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