Small Talk, TED Talks, and the Art of Watching Video Games

In one day, legions of nerds from around the world will descend upon San Francisco for the annual Game Developers Conference. One of those nerds is my brother, who will be displaying his extensive professional knowledge on graphics to a room full of even more extensive professional nerds. This is a story of letting your nerd shine early and shine often, of practicing your nerd talk as a nerd kid, in your mom’s nerdy basement.

I never liked playing video games. With the exception of a few adventure games released in the early 90s from the now defunct LucasArts (think Monkey Island, etc.), I wasn’t all that interested in playing as a kid. That’s not to say I preferred to fill my time with stimulating activities. I hated reading, and rarely watched educational programs such as Sesame Street. Instead, I watched my brother play video games. And I loved it.

To me, it was no different than watching a TV show, except that my brother was the director, and I knew he had no choice but to listen to feedback from the audience (of me). It would often go something like this:

Me: “Shoot him! Oh no, there’s another! Now shoot him!”

Brother: “No, I have to get to that end, so I should instead shoo-”

M: “Wait! Shoot this one!”

B: “Dude, stop-”

M: “Oh no, shoot him!”

B: “Dammit! I’m dead.”

M: “You shouldn’t say ‘dammit’…”

We spent half our time laughing out loud, yelling at each other, or watching in nervous silence during a particularly tricky level that required intense concentration (from both of us). I repeated kid prayers in my head, promising to clean my room or not be a total nightmare to my mom, if he could just please get passed this one little level (and shamelessly repeated this request every time he advanced). I was sidekick extraordinaire, seeing someone I loved make decisions, recover from frustration and setbacks, all while watching monsters explode with a bowl of Pop Secret on my lap. Life was perfect.

These days, our collectively waning attention span makes it difficult to imagine doing such an activity. Which is at odds with the fact that we live in an age where people can showcase their strange talents on a much larger scale. Idiot savants become overnight heroes, posting videos of themselves coining humorous phrases or parodying various music styles from their mother’s basement. Recently, I was the last person on earth to hear about PewDiePie, the 26-year-old Swedish gamer extraordinaire who not only makes a living uploading hours of himself playing video games, but has now become a multimillionaire as a result. He currently has almost 43 million subscribers with over 10 billion views, making him the most popular YouTube user, ever, in history.

When I first heard about PewDiePie (from South Park, no less), I felt exonerated for my bizarre childhood hobby. That is, until I realized that most of his fans were other gamers looking for tips on honing their craft, and were essentially sharing in the joys and frustrations with a master of their mutual domain. So it wasn’t really about spending hours quietly admiring someone’s unique, unfamiliar skills just for the sake of it. This was looking more and more like a lost art.

I never liked watching TED Talks. Not all TED Talks, I suppose. There are some neat ones about advances in medicine, glowing sharks, or cats acting like humans (that last one may not have been a TED Talk, in hindsight). Specifically the ones targeted toward making yourself more effective in life, overcoming demons, becoming the you that you want to be. The ones that everyone shares, that will most likely have a direct, actionable, positive impact on my daily life. Those are the ones I hate.

The answer to why I don’t like most TED Talks is directly related to why I do like watching video games. There is a pureness to video games. No one plays them because it’s cool, or will make you successful (unless you’re a Swedish wunderbro), or because your mom is completely fine with you needing a bedpan due to your inability to leave your console (unless you’re Eric Cartman). They play them because they genuinely love to play them, even if it prevents them from doing something more productive. Like watching a TED Talk.

When I see someone get up on a stage in front of thousands to deliver a quick-witted, engaging speech about mindfulness, or the power of now, or the power of “no”, or the power of “yes”, part of me wants to go up to the presenter and say “but tell us what you really think” (marking the first time anyone has said that not in terribly cliche sarcasm). I can’t help but think that no presenter really cares that much about improving communication, or about embracing vulnerability — without at least considering how lucrative espousing such knowledge could be. They found something they’re fairly interested in, that is relatable and appeals to a wider audience. Unlike the talks on glowing sharks, they target something many people have experienced, and often haven’t been successful in handling (though for those who have experienced glowing sharks, I imagine they too would be, unfortunately, unsuccessful at handling them).

In many ways, these talks are benign and pleasant, but give little insight on what someone really cares about at the core of their being. They’re bereft of quirk. They’re the conversation we’re ok with having recorded on camera, in front of thousands, broadcast to millions. They’re the spectacle equivalent of small talk. How personal could they really be?

I never liked engaging in small talk. Part of me hates writing that because it sounds like something out of an edgy TED Talk. I actually rely heavily on small talk, and love the camaraderie it facilitates — at the water cooler, in line at the grocery store, at the urinals.

What I don’t like about small talk is how much it has crept into our most intimate relationships. Many people talk to their parents like they’re strangers, or at best like a new friend they perhaps just made at the urinal. In return, modern parents have shown blanket pride in anything their kids do, without fully knowing what it even is that their kids do (or more importantly, what they really want to do).

It’s similar with romantic relationships. My friend Lea recently sent me a text after coming home from a date:

“It felt fake. So we got real. Might be one of the best and hardest dates I’ve ever been on.”

It’s true that it’s extremely hard to “get real” with someone, even after years of knowing them, but it often pays off one way or another. You either get closer as a result of such disclosure, or discover something unsettling enough to turn you off from continuing your relationship. It’s part of the reason many people never want to spend time getting real — fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, fear of Real Time with Bill Maher.

Getting real.

In fact, talking about anything of substance is often avoided on first dates. Many suggest doing a benign activity to alleviate anxiety. Entire dating sites such as “How About We…” imply the need to do something — anything — even right in their names. To me, the thought of rock climbing on a first date* strikes horror in my heart more for the fear of having to make small talk and miss out on actually getting to know someone, than the worry of what my rear end will look like in a harness. And yet to this day, I’ve never felt like going beyond a handful of dates with anyone in the last few years, maybe because I dive into the real talk, the Real Time with Bill Maher, a bit too prematurely.

And yet all of this exists in a time when earlier last year, a piece was published in the NYTimes about the profound importance of real talk in forming a bond with someone. The article posited that exchanging answers to a series of 36 intimate questions with anyone would make you fall in love with them. So why exactly are we avoiding this?

When I told Romy, my beloved ex-roomie and occasional co-writer, about such people who preferred cutting the tension of an honest social encounter with an activity, she replied, “oh god! We talked for 4 hours this morning. Do we need a safe word?” The two of us are notorious for talking ad nauseam about anything and everything, and still somehow never feeling like our conversation is finished. We’ve preferred one-on-one time to group hangouts, and have especially found it weird when someone in the group suggests we collectively play a board game (“why are we even friends?!”) Similarly, many are perplexed when they enter my parents’ living room for the first time to see two chairs facing each other by the window. At around 6pm every day, when they’re both finally home, my mom and dad each pour themselves a glass of wine and a bowl of nuts, and sit across from each other and just talk. Every single night. Anything else would just be weird.

On the surface, having a deep conversation may seem like it has nothing to do with watching video games. And you’re right. [end of essay]

But actually, what deep conversations and watching video games have in common (and what TED Talks about the bright side of failure don’t) is that they both offer a light into who a person really is without any pretension. There’s such pleasure in hearing a person talk about something they love, even if I cannot identify with it and know nothing of the subject. One step further is seeing them in action, doing the things that make life worth living. Hearing my friend Berry’s mother talk emphatically about 18th century Polish folk music and then sing it operatically in her New Jersey kitchen, was enough to make me instantly drawn to her with such warmth, despite her insistence on blaring Fox News at all other times. She had passion, for better or for worse.

For many of us, what we truly love to do is not often on direct display for others. Even with something as universally appealing as reading a questionably entertaining story, I’m amazed at how few people can be bothered to give me that extra “view” upon which my internet livelihood (i.e., entire self-worth) rests. It was the same story when I hosted a radio show, which could be easily accessed by a click of a button or switch of a dial. And yet I heard the unimaginable excuse of “well, I’m just not that into music” even from loved ones who refrained from becoming listeners**. So I can’t even imagine what it must be like for those whose passions are pretty out there on the spectrum of “shit people can relate to”. And yet it is in those moments — when we are watching people’s eyes light up as they talk about their bizarre fixations, or invite you to share a bowl of Pop Secret while they show off their useless, sometimes embarrassing talents — it is in these moments when we fall in love.

When I was about 25, I dated someone who loved video games. Once again, I found myself curled up next to him on the couch, genuinely entertained, as I watched him navigate stages, offering terrible but amused advice along the way.

In what was not so strange a twist, he broke up with me because he said we didn’t have shared interests. More specifically, he thought that my interests — playing piano, going to museums, being judgmental — were more “refined” than his. To anyone’s Jewish mother, this makes perfect sense. But to me, it was hard to see a distinction between the two — just that we both had interests and wasn’t that great enough?

A few years later, I began seeing someone else, another gamer. But for whatever reason — maybe the setup of our apartment, or maybe just the fact that I was now almost 30 and thought perhaps it was time to stop this weird habit — I didn’t watch him play. To this day, when I reflect back on that relationship, I remember him as someone who lacked quirks, or serious passions, and so it makes perfect sense why I wasn’t that into him. But then again, we didn’t spend our nights sitting across from each other and talking. He never read my stories. I never watched him play video games.

*Of course, it’s entirely possible that my date’s passion is rock climbing, in which case watching him do it would be similarly fun. Or more likely, I’d hate him from the start for being a show off (mostly because it’s cool and athletic, unlike playing video games).

**Never once did I think “be better at these things” was the answer to getting more attention.

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