Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Shiny Happy People (The Great Waldo Search, Where's Waldo?)

The idea of doing two entries on Where's Waldo games did not make me happy. So I decided to only do one, pulling the W-starting game forward. Also, just as a note, between now and June 15th, I am banking posts and writing ahead so that I can take a week off in June without disrupting the posting schedule. This, for instance, was written back on Saturday. 

This shouldn't affect you in any way, but if for some reason a blog entry posts that seems like it should be responding to some world event and isn't, it's probably because I wrote it days or weeks before you saw it. 

Here's a question for you. Did you spend a lot of your childhood staring at a souped up television screen feeling bad about yourself?


Me neither. Which begs the question of why Facebook has now become the most visited site on the Internet. Not that it's not possible to have a good time on Facebook. Just that so few of us seem to actually get around to the step where we do it. I'm as guilty as the rest of you here, using it primarily to refashion my own sense of self-loathing and political anger into bon mots to see if I can bum a few precious "likes" from my friends.

How the fuck did we get here? What diseased aspect of our childhood left us confusing clicking on a few pixels arranged in the shape of a human thumb with meaningful social contact? Where did we, the Nintendo generation, go wrong? How did we learn this absurd excuse for behavior? And what else did we learn?

In school, of course, the answer is a bleak truism: we learned obedience. Regardless of the quality of one's teachers - and let's face it, most of us had a mixture of good and bad - this is the content of much of our instruction. My public education is littered with monuments to this process. A fourth grade teacher who advised me that I'd be more popular if I stopped acting so smart. A high school math teacher who treated "if" and "only if" as equivalent statements, marking me wrong on a logic problem that I was right on, and who, upon my producing a college textbook from my parents' library establishing that I was unequivocally correct, told me that since I didn't learn it in her class it didn't count. A substitute who openly admitted his educational philosophy was "the nail that sticks out should be hammered."

These lessons are unambiguous. Truth is determined by the people with power. You are not a person with power. So you should just shut up and obey.

Perhaps the best example of these perverse structures of authority comes in the form of the age-old punishment of having your name written on the blackboard. Let's look at this punishment for a moment. What, exactly, is the disincentive? Why is having your name written on a blackboard a bad thing? Some argument about social stigma might be made, but public shaming hardly requires the mythical totem of the blackboard scrawl. No. The blackboard scrawl is far simple. Its lesson is this - here is an authority. Obey.

With obedience comes the other lesson: the acceptance of tedium. Public education, especially on the primary school level, is based on a curricular structure called the spiral curriculum, in which each lesson is approximately 80% reiteration of past lessons and only 20% new material - if that. Accordingly, each lesson is designed to be boring, designed to teach you things you already know, designed expressly not to challenge you or enliven your life in any way, shape, or form.

Happiness is a reward that must be earned. A commodity. The default state is misery, and you must strive to get out of it. This psychological abuse is codified in America's founding documents. "The pursuit of happiness," as though having a good time is some obscure thing that requires an elaborate quest instead of, say, grabbing a book and kicking up your feet in a patch of sunlight.

Our freedom from this rat race was video games. Which is what makes Where's Waldo so galling. Widely recognized as one of the worst NES games ever, Where's Waldo consists of moving a cursor around some indistinct 8-bit graphics attempting to find Waldo. The seeming problem is jarringly obvious. As a concept, the "I Spy" game depends on a level of visual clarity and on an object with a reasonably well-defined color scheme and silhouette so that a prospective searcher can find it. In the books, this is accomplished by giving Waldo a distinct color scheme (red and white stripes) and body type (lanky, and with accessories such as a hat and cane) that make him recognizable. When the game, instead of detailed cartoons, consists of a bunch of pixelated smudges, the game loses more or less its entire point. And I'm really not exaggerating. This game is less about "finding" Waldo than it is about clicking to see if the thing you are looking at is Waldo or not. Generally, when one finds Waldo, it is a mild surprise. "Oh! That was Waldo! Who knew?" (Seriously, look at the picture. Can you find Waldo?)

In other words, the game is a mind-wrenching exercise in abusive tedium ostensibly masquerading as "fun." Needless to say, of course, there was a sequel.

It's arguably the case that nothing more horrific than the title screen of The Great Waldo Search, a memorable entry into the canon of "the terrible things that happen when white people attempt to insert rap into things." Bad chipset music with a bad synthesized voice shouting "Where's Waldo" at frequent intervals. In that exact tone that evokes "Oh God, white people hired a black guy to add a brief moment of rap to this in order to make it cool." For other examples, try R.E.M.'s "Radio Song" or, of course, Don't Copy That Floppy.

Past that... see, you'd think that by making Waldo actually in any meaningfully sense visually recognizable they'd be improving on the original Where's Waldo game. You'd think that, but, astonishingly, you'd be wrong. It turns out that the complete lack of fun has nothing to do with the game being impossible, and everything to do with the fact that staring at a screen trying to find where the magic pixel is is just bloody stupid.

But here we should perhaps stop and look at the entire idea of Where's Waldo. I mean, yes, the first game is legendarily bad on its own merits and in its own special ways, but if we're being honest, the entire concept is a bit dodgy. The books offer nothing but displaced pleasure. We are encouraged by them to stare for hours at a single picture that tells no story and offers no pleasure in an effort to find Waldo. Our reward for doing so is the sense that we have earned the right to turn to the next page.

To be clear, my objection here is not to the idea that a book should require patience and extended study. Far from it. My objection here is that a book should not be long stretches of nothing happening punctuated by a brief and token rush of accomplishment which earns only the moral right to go on to the next boring stretch, or, if one reaches the end of the book, make your parents buy you another one. I will happily celebrate anything that gets children to spend hours with a book just so long as they're actually doing something with the book for most of that time. But Where's Waldo falls afoul of this. It just teaches us, once again, that fun is about earning it.

Simply put, this is a lesson we must unlearn.

Have you seen every Academy Award nominee for Best Picture? Read all the books on the Modern Library list? Played all the games on any of the best games of all time lists? Of course not. Hardly anyone has.

This begs the question of why we tolerate boredom in the first place. It is something that nobody ought endure without being well compensated for it. In a world where a cheap netbook can readily be picked up, either for actual retail value or just from someone getting rid of one to replace it with a newer model, there is literally no excuse for boredom. Stock up on media at a Starbucks and knock yourself out. Not a books and movie kind of person? Perhaps walks outside are more your speed. Or some creative pursuit? It hardly matters. Not much in the way of things that make people happy is actually very expensive. Hardly anyone has as their hobby "sitting naked in a ten bedroom mansion." Most of us can get by for much cheaper.

So how do we even manage boredom? How is it, in a world where there is more good free or nearly free entertainment than can actually be consumed in a lifetime, that we are ever bored? Other, of course, than that we are so inured to boredom by thirteen years of public education that we forget to avoid it. We have, in other words, a horrific case of Stockholm Syndrome in relation to our own happiness.

This is not to trivialize the very real phenomenon of depression. But with the rate of depression among the adult population of the country being somewhere terrifyingly close to 100%, one starts to wonder why we are so depressed. Is it really the case that every past culture just suffered in abject misery for most of the day because nobody had yet developed the SSRI? Or is our depression a consequence of something very obvious like the fact that we endure thirteen years of education that have as their primary lesson the fact that we should shut up, listen to our elders, and be miserable?

Not that the SSRI isn't a tremendously effective device in dealing with depression. I've loved my SSRIs when I've been on them, and I only stopped because I hit the end of my prescription and, having no health insurance, found the logistical hurdles of forming a relationship with a primary care physician or psychiatrist in order to get a new prescription to be daunting. They're great stuff. So is therapy. But in the end, nothing quite beats actually doing things that make you happy and avoiding things that make you unhappy.

And we should stress that this is a revolutionary act. What makes you happy? How much does it actually cost to make you happy? What are the actual minimum material conditions necessary to achieve happiness in a regular basis?

What would happen to your life if you started making yourself happy? The answer is surprisingly larger than you might think - much more than just "well you'd be happy." Think of how much of our economic system is based on people accepting misery as a fact of life and treating happiness as something that has to be earned. Why is it minimum wage jobs are all particularly miserable ones? Surely if we're actually expecting people to sit in toll booths taking quarters from irritable commuters for eight hours a day we ought reimburse them more for the abject misery involved than we reimburse people who, say, get to play with computer code all day.

What if the people with power couldn't lord our own happiness over us? What if we were in control of whether we were happy?

For most of us, I suspect, it would be downright... revolutionary.


  1. This so perfectly explains my beliefs on high school education, why I dropped out of high school after a year and a half, and why I am now going for an English M.A./M.A.T (my undergrad degree was actually Linguistics) in order to go back and try to do my small part in breaking this cycle. That I had to go share this on facebook.

  2. Or as one of my Facebook (and real life) friends put it, "How did anything as lame as Facebook become so popular.

  3. I tried to read the whole article but I got boooored ... and, plus, I need to regurgitate stuff I read for my online class in the form of two three-page essays in proper MLA format.

  4. Where's Waldo wasn't that bad (the books). At least, not the ones I had. I-Spy, definitely, was an exercise in not causing trouble, but the Waldos actually had stuff happening in them, and humor, etc. They were still fairly lame, but I wouldn't say they're essentially about boredom and submission.

    However, I agree with being happy. Think I'll go do some of that now, in fact.