Monday, October 1, 2012

COH, Anger, and Art

This is probably not going to be my last post on this topic; however, it's a perfect (cool, windows open, green grass candle flickering) time to start becaue that juxtaposition--real breeze, peri-autumn mood swings, and fake outdoor scent hints at the place NCSoft's City of Heroes game made for itself in my life. City of Heroes (COH) is an MMO in which you can play either a hero or a villian in the bustling metropolis of Paragon City, a beautiful municipality that attracts aliens, mobsters, gang members, soulless magical practioners, evil corporate henchpeople, scary carnies, psychic robots, and megalomaniacs like one of those sticky rollers picks up dog hair.

COH takes place in "the present" and is a fairly bloodless game with simple game mechanics and a plethora of costume options. As a former Barbie clothing addict, the costumes proved quite the distraction (and quite the PITA when it came to capturing images of my characters...more about that later). There are holiday events (rogue snowmen! wicked trick-or-treaters!), a relatively convivial team atmosphere, secret bases, and while the game is far from perfect, it is the closest equivalent I've found to spending some time living in a Saturday morning cartoon. It was also "safe" for the nephew during the time when that was a concern.

Then, NCSoft decided that it wasn't cool enough or profitable enough and announced they would be "sunsetting" the game, otherwise known as shutting it down and wiping the servers, at the end of November 2012.

It's just a game, right?

Since that time, I've spent days trying to pull character images off the various servers, take in-game shots of familiar landmarks, and pull down game history and storylines for the scrapbooks that I'm making for myself and my husband. He won't talk about the game, except to request the scrapbooks. Why go to all that effort for a game (let's just ignore sports and related nuttiness, merchandising, and devotion for the time being)?

COH became part of the rituals of our year. Just as the Pumpkin King and I drive around every December searching out neighborhoods with great Christmas lights, we look forward to blowing off steam each year in Holiday Chalet, trying to beat each other's times on the ski slopes and coming up with outrageous holiday outfits. We've long since aged out of trick-or-treating and yet October brings with it in-game trick-or-treating.

The PK isn't big on socializing, but COH allowed us to get together with coworkers and friends in a manner he enjoyed.

During this long stretch of unemployment, I've been fortunate to be able to get online every now and again and blow of steam or team up with others.

Just like a familiar drive, COH has become a good way to occupy my hands and the upper level of my awareness while allowing the creative bits to thunk around and shake loose story ideas, plot solutions, and general realizations that helped me move forward as a writer. On days when I couldn't face going to the arboretum or when I didn't want to waste the gas, COH was an escape hatch.

These are just my personal reasons why I'm sorry NCSoft is taking the game away from us.

Beyond that, I'm struck by the amount of effort and hours that have gone into designing the game and developing the storylines. Nothing could really take the place of the dynamic experience of playing the game; however, it saddens me that the craft that went into the game could just be tossed out.

This triggered an ongoing major reevaluation for me. Was the effort worth it? Does it deserve to be preserved because it existed? What should we do when commerce pulls the plug on a game like this? When will there be a kind of Internet museum for pieces like this? (This thought, in part, was sparked by some of the fascinating scenes from Ready Player One, which I will finish, eventually.) Why would I even consider COH art?

When I was making my simple scrapbooks of characters and costumes, I was in a single-minded panic to save the character creation stories I'd worked on from disappearing. I had only written them for the game and I hadn't bothered to preserve them elsewhere. When I was working on the PK's scrapbook, I found myself wanting to capture landmarks, the familiar images of a city that I know probably better than the one I live in (because who is able to fly over one's city just above the rooftops IRL?).

What I discovered was that COH provides one of those limbic backdoors to Saturday morning. To being able to lay on my stomach in front of the TV and then bike for hours around the neighborhood. To feeling a lift in my stomach when the cool air arrived. To believing that something really cool was possible.

COH provided, in addition to all the other things mentioned above, a gateway to a physical remembrance of myself. It provided a way to zone into an experience deeply enough to transcend and overlay the experience I was having of sitting in my chair, WASZing my character around buildings.

If COH provided both an everyday transcendence and worked itself into the social celebrations of our lives, I think I can call it art. Why then should it be thrown away?

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