I’ve heard rumors that certain things in the world are so powerful, they can reconfigure the way your mind works, even your genetic code. The musings of Timothy Leary on the way LSD can supposedly be used to reprogram your personality, all the way down to your DNA, come to mind first, then the more obvious suspects: hardcore pornography, narcotics, trauma.
Lately, what is swarming my mind constantly, reconfiguring the way I analyze and function, is the video game StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, from the rather ominously named Blizzard Entertainment Company. (Just think about it: What does it mean to be blizzarded by entertainment?) StarCraft is a real time online strategy game, in which you play against other real humans, building up your own military in order to wipe out your opponents’ army and base. For the uninitiated, it might be difficult to comprehend why this is such a big deal. I used to watch my friends play the game and wonder how the hell grown men could get so caught up in an inconsequential virtual world. I thought they were nuts. Yet, as I played the game more and more, I began to see what what they saw.
StarCraft is critically considered one of the best games in the world, and it’s certainty one of the best selling games of all time. Within the first 24 hours of its release, StarCraft sold more than one million copies. All rightfully earned; the game beams with intrigue and complexity, so much so, many of its fans call the game the “chess of the digital age.” In South Korea, fans will fill whole stadiums to watch on the big screen the country’s best players compete essentially though StarCraft was a national sport. (This happens in the United States too, but not with as much fervor.)
Blizzard’s official “Gameplay Overview” almost does the basic premise of StarCraft justice:
Like a drug or even a real physical sport, playing StarCraft pushes your mind into a new zone of consciousness, activating ostensibly all aspects of your brain. Again, the chess analogy is the best way to explain it. In chess, on average, you make maybe one move per minute. In StarCraft, because it’s played in real time, you make about one hundred moves per minute. So, take the intellectual and cognitive experience of chess and intensify it beyond belief. Then, add to this, that the game requires impeccable hand/eye coordination and puts a remarkable strain on your memory. Coordination, because every second counts, and you need to make sure that every stroke on your keyboard is made swiftly, accurately and with purpose. Memory, because you can build up to 200 military units and thousands of structures and you must always be aware of where they are and what they are doing. Finally, to top it all off: this is all taking place in a beautiful virtual world.
If chess is stimulating, StarCraft is transcendental in comparison.
I recall after my first few games lying in my bed, the circuits of my mind blown, thinking I’ve never used my mind in this way before. I was thrilled, euphoric. That night when I slept I dreamt in the visual language of the game. I rendered the people in my life as units in the game, the landscape of my life as the map upon which the battles in this digital world take place. This hasn’t stopped. StarCraft continues to creep into my dreams and my day-to-day life. I find it almost impossible to keep the game from entering my mind, to resist the urge I have to play it.
But more than the game, I think about cultural implications of technological entertainment. We have already seen how chemical innovations (Oxycontin, for example) can destroy life and reality. We have already seen how mechanical innovations can wipe out entire countries (the atom bomb). We haven’t yet seen an “innovation” in the entertainment industry with such far-reaching consequences. But after having played StarCraft for six months now, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. StarCraft is so good, so powerful, it makes it easy for me to picture in the near future a video game so terminally compelling, so fatally entertaining that it ushers in an unprecedented epidemic of video game addiction, a new kind of slavery tied to a digital fix.