Thursday, May 16, 2019

Killing Desire?

Scene from Assassin's Creed, Unity
On Christmas Eve, I was wrapping presents (probably my least favorite activity in a life full of far too many unpleasant activities) and I was watching the classic film It's a Wonderful Life. In one scene, George, as a boy, is talking to Mary (his future wife) across the counter in Mr. Gower's drug store. George is telling Mary about all of the places he is going to see when he gets old enough, and he pulls out a copy of National Geographic Magazine so he can show her some pictures. I know how he felt. Do my kids feel the same?

I remember (I grew up in the 70s and 80s) seeing a picture that fired my imagination. I remember watching nature programs on old, grainy and square TVs and wishing I could visit jungles and deserts. I remember seeing places in movies -- whether shot on-location or whether they were studio recreations -- and feeling a pull of curiosity.

Once, I worked with a principal who told the faculty: "You have to remember. This is no longer the one-room schoolhouse. We, as teachers, are no-longer able to dazzle our students with stories of far-away lands. Teachers are no-longer 'the sages on the stage'."

Her point was that, with modern technology, the kids have seen more in their early years than we could have have dreamt of seeing. They live in a world that offers so much virtual experience that, I fear, it might really be blunting their cravings for reality. We don't impress them by pulling back the curtains on the wonders of the world. (Well...we literature teachers kind of do... We just have to make kids understand that we are.)

Both of my sons have walked through very realistic depictions of medieval villages; both of them have fought in historical wars. They have wandered the streets of Paris and London and New York City while wearing their pajamas. They have sailed pirate ships and flown planes.

Of course, none of this is as good as the real thing. [Or, is it? Consider the idea that the people who created the Notre Dame cathedral for Assassin's Creed might be consulted in the reconstruction of the cathedral.] But, it is pretty darned good. I've seen depictions of water in video games that make me swear I can smell salt. And, now, we have VR gaming with 360 degree headsets...

Still, VR is not as good, let's face it. But is it blunting our kids' desire to get to the places they no longer have to dream about? -- the places they can now see while wide-awake?

A year ago, I discovered that a large system of wooded trails exists in the town I grew up in. (It is quite well-hidden.) All my life, I had no idea it was there. I found it online, believe it or not, listed as the best trail walk in New Jersey. I think that a video of my face as I walked into it the first time might have been embarrassing. I think I was doing what they call "beaming." Every corner turned; every trail found made me a little goofy with the joy of discovery. With every step, I cannot help thinking that it must have been a meeting place for the Lenni Lenape Indians -- it's a huge hill from which one can see Philadelphia in the distance, almost twenty miles away.

I think it may be the result of a young life of wishing I could really experience things I saw in pictures and films. Unlike my boys, I never got to walk through haunted medieval forests until later in life... With our desire to make better and better experiences in education and gaming, are we extinguishing dreams?

Consider this: teen pregnancy is down. One possible cause, according to some, is "sexting." If the next-best-thing can quell that desire, what can it do to the urge to explore our world?


  1. Hi Chris. Love this post. Just discovered your blog via a search for the Bull Durham story about LaLoosh etc. and came upon your post on it.

    I especially noticed your account in this post about the "trails" and wonder where that is. When you first mentioned it, a remembrance of a similar type spot I had discovered, though not so much walking trails as wide riding trails with secluded forest on either side and virtually no one around.

    I was even more excited after reading on and discovering that your "trails" were in NJ, which is where mine were. At first I thought maybe they were the same and though mine were in Mercer County (I think Lawrenceville but maybe, technically, just outside) until you said "20 miles" outside of Philly. I'm pretty sure mine were further away...but maybe connected in some way.

    Anyway, glad I discovered your site and your great posts. Keep up the good work. You do it well.

    1. Hi, Carl. I'm glad you found my blog! I'm just kind of bringing it back to life -- been pretty irregular with posting for awhile. The trails I walk are in South Jersey. (At least for my daily walk.) Probably not connected to yours because they are pretty self-contained. In the middle of a town and situated around sand quarry. One of two really good systems in SJ, the other being in the Medford area. Only a few miles of trails, but good quality walking! Glad you like the site. I look forward to your perspectives on my posts.

  2. I think we're only in danger of extinguishing dreams if we wrongly tell young people that the things they manipulate pixels to do in video games are actual life experiences

    I've probably mentioned this before, but: when I was 20, I naively met up with my best friend in Europe, where he had been studying. I had maybe $900 in my pocket, meant to last a month. We wandered around with no real goals, but along the way we had run-ins with law enforcement, hitchhiked, scrounged for food, slept on ferry-terminal floors, got robbed, talked our way out of getting robbed again, hiked in the rain through spooky medieval churchyards, met a weird old ship captain, drank beer with a dude from the Swiss army, dropped in on stunned acquaintances who had said "drop in anytime you're in the area," located some of my friend's long-lost family, sang songs about witch-burnings at a midsummer bonfire feast, ate beans from a can on the cliffside overlooking King Arthur's legendary birthplace, and got lost, a lot.

    ...and so help me, I came home a very particular sort of snob, because try as I might, I could no longer find video games or role-playing games appealing anymore. It's not that I thought my experiences were superior to other people's experiences; rather, it was clear to me that any real experience is superior to the illusion of an experience. Your delightful discovery of that hiking trail is more real than the best virtual-reality tour of Notre-Dame Cathedral, and your kids are luckier than many others for having a dad who knows that to be true.

    1. I sure hope I can convince them. I do see, at least in my older sun, a sort of apathy for experience, sometimes. I often wonder if video games are part of the problem. BUT, there are a ton of other factors, too; even how their teachers teach them; the tech in schools; the realism of documentaries... In the end, if you are going to be a snob, an experience snob is the best kind, for sure!

    2. Well, at his age, I was probably in more or less the same place...and I turned out okay! (Well, I turned out. How "okay" I turned out is still a subject of considerable debate.)

    3. Well, from what I know of you, it leaves me at least a little hopeful!