I really enjoy the Skylanders video game. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s a game with a gimmick. By using a device called a “Portal of Power” you can summon characters into the game via little plastic figures. The figures have a memory too, so if you level up that character and then take it to another person’s house, you have all the powers and abilities unlocked. Skylanders is a video game that asks you to buy figures to unlock all its features. You don’t need to buy all the figures to play the game, but this is obviously the intent. As a fan, I have all the figs except the legendary and dark figs, because those are just recolored versions of the standard characters and I’m not interested in those.
A common complaint about the concept of Skylanders is that they’re asking you to pay a few hundred dollars for a video game. It’s hard to refute that claim. But I enjoy the game so much, find it has such great personality, and is just the right level of casual challenge to keep me coming back to it, that I don’t feel cheated.
Why is that? What is it about human nature that makes us feel cheated sometime and satisfied the next? And why is it we so often disagree?
In my own profession, I create stories. I’m good at it, sure, but it’s not like I have an exclusive superpower that only enables me to do it. I am not one of a handful of gifted folks who can tell stories. There are literally millions of professional storytellers if you consider all the formats available. So what makes my stories valuable? Why are people willing to pay me to write them?
Heck, there’s no reason people can’t tell their own stories for free. Those stories might not be as good as the ones I create, but it doesn’t change the fact that, aside from a certain level of skill, anyone can make up a story. Yet I am one of those folks who earns money doing so. I don’t say that it’s a mystery out of some misguided attempt at humility, but as an honest question.
What’s especially interesting is that, for a long time, a great deal of the value of stories, be it in book, movie, play, etc., was in production. Even if we can tell stories to each other, we can’t mount plays or film movies. A reader used to pay for the book itself, the creation of a physical object, not just the story. And it was understood that writing the story was fairly simple in comparison to the work involved in making a book.
Perhaps this is why I excuse Skylanders. I really like the figures, and am happy to own them. I wouldn’t buy them without the game, but I also enjoy them outside of the game.
As we move toward e-books, I often wonder what the future holds for novelology. I’m not against e-books and self-publishing, but as it has become easier and easier for regular people to get their books published by these routes, I’ve noticed a shift in the perceptions of what makes one a writer. The simplest definition (and one I enjoy) is that writers write. But there used to be something unique about being a published writer. Now, it’s something anyone can do, if they have the money / time and are so inclined. That’s not a bad thing, but it does muddy the waters to some degree.
Perception of value is strange and ethereal. I’m assuming if you’re reading this you’ve bought at least one of my books. Maybe more. Or maybe you’re just thinking about it. The only reason this blog exists is because I am lucky enough to earn a living writing and so, by virtue of a random universe, am deemed interesting enough to warrant having a blog.
But I am not interesting. I haven’t scaled any mountains, explored any deserts, discovered any fantastic scientific breakthroughs. I’m not a celebrity in any true sense, and I’m a guy who spends his time writing space squid stories and playing video games. Yet when I write some random thoughts on the collective consciousness that is the internet, I can be reasonably assured someone is reading it and glad to be doing so. What makes these thoughts valuable enough that someone doesn’t view this time as wasted?
Granted, we waste a lot of time in our lives, so it’s not as if we can (or should) act as if every moment is precious. Many of them are, but then there’s those hours you waste going to the bathroom, sleeping, doing drudge work, and other unsatisfying stuff. Yet even that can seem rewarding and valuable occasionally.
I’m reminded of The Sims games. One of the reasons I think those games are so successful is that they’re like real life, but with clear cut, obvious rewards. In real life, if I slightly bigger TV, it might make me happy. Or it must just be a bigger TV. But in The Sims, if you pay more for your TV it will provide more fun and satisfaction for your sim. No gray area. No confusion.
In comparison, real life is all gray area, and satisfaction and value are difficult to suss out. We so often don’t know why we value something and why we don’t. We just take it for granted that we like some things enough to pay the price, and we accept that this is an individual decision. All I know is that in the next Skylanders game, I get to play as a giant suit of armor with a flying eyeball for a head, and that is definitely an experience I’m willing to pay for.
But I never forget that what I do isn’t special. It’s not something magical. It’s something anyone can do. Perhaps not with as much skill and wit, but to a lot of folks, skill and wit are overrated. To those who find what I do valuable enough to pay me to do it, I can only say thanks. There’s a lot of cool stuff out there, and I’m just happy you find my stories of space squids and moon monsters to be worth your time and money.
Although, I think we all can agree, the world is a better place with more stories of space squids.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,