Games

Rock Band might not save a marriage, but it will certainly turn the eventual divorce up to 11

In the Friday Open thread, Kelly linked this Salon Article by Rachel Shukert about how Rock Band saved a troubled marriage (awwww).

The article is a hyperbolic little tale of love, marriage, boredom, frustration, and redemption at the hands of a video game. And while there is a granule of truth to Shurkert’s assertion that the daily grind of living together can lead to “fake-hate” which, if not properly exorcised can devolve into actual hate, which leads to divorce — the article totters on a bad premise. Shukert describes the precarious moment in which fake-hate threatened to lead to real hate.

Ten years later, I am slumped at my computer, reading an Internet recap of a 2-year-old episode of “Top Chef” that I have seen six times. I have not put on hard pants — that is, pants with a zipper or pockets — for four days. The man I married is on the couch in the living room, his eyes glassy as he diddles the control on the Xbox, blowing to smithereens shadowy figures lurching across the screen. We haven’t spoken in several hours.

“Ben?” I say. No answer. “Ben? Ben?” I repeat his name over and over again, with increasing desperation, finally culminating in a single, furious shriek. “BEEEEEENNN!”

We live in a two-room apartment. Next door, the neighbor bangs on the shared kitchen wall, the pounding muffled by drywall. “Quiet!”

Finally, Ben looks up. “Sorry, baby. It’s the noise-canceling headphones.”

Ah yes, the noise-canceling headphones. You could lock Rush Limbaugh, Phyllis Schlafly and Mullah Omar in a room together with a stack of Hustlers and 10 ounces of meth, and they couldn’t come up with anything more misogynist. I storm back to my desk and type the phrases “my husband” “addicted” “video games” “HELP” into the search engine. Hundreds of links appear.

I’ve decided to feel bad for Shukert — not because she’s obviously looking to her husband to fulfill all of her social needs and doesn’t know how to call up a girlfriend when she’s feeling lonely and certainly not because her husband’s attempt to keep the apartment from booming with constant gunfire sounds from Call of Duty 3 could be so willfully twisted into a bad thing — but because she’s obviously trying to build a career for herself as a professional writer and she’s been charged with writing a stereotype-laden “life interest” piece about how video games are oh-so-infuriating in a marriage, but with a twist! I can hear her editor now: “Make it kooky and snappy!”

Then, over Christmas, her husband lugs home a copy of Rock Band for the two of them to play “together.” From her description, it was very much a last-ditch effort on his part.

“I thought we should have something to do, while we’re stuck at home with no one else around,” he said.

“Together?”

“Yeah.” He forced a tight smile. “You’ll like it.”

The problem is “togetherness.” She wants more of it, he wants to be able to play video games. So he buys a game that they can hopefully play “together.” Wonder of wonder, she likes it! The marriage is saved!

… Except, probably not. Hopefully, when things go south again (and they will), we will be spared the precious metaphores and narrative overstatements describing the inevitable divorce.

There are a lot of problems with the article: first and most glaringly, they feed into the belief that videogames are monolithic: that a husband who plays XBox is going to be just as happy playing Rock Band as he is playing Call of Duty. This isn’t necessarily the case–videogames lend themselves to individualized tastes just like any other form of entertainment. As a slow and deliberate reader who will sometimes take months to complete a book (even one I like–we won’t get into another Ayn Rand discussion here), I always chafe when a well-meaning friend or family member thrusts a book into my hands with the demands that I read it (particularly if it’s genre fiction). While close friendships or family harmony will compell me to make a good-faith effort to read whatever historical bodice-ripper monstrosity of plot holes and bad metaphores I’ve been commissioned to read–it would become very difficult as a long-term plan and would necessitate a careful talk about personal predilections and available time. Even though Shukert loves Rock Band to death and is happy to play it forever and ever for the rest of her life (like Tetris!), that doesn’t mean her husband is ready to give up Call of Duty or Gears of War, and that promises to be a harsh wake-up call to her.

Another problem with the premise of this article is the unsettling object lesson that it was up to Shukert to take an interest in what her husband was doing in order to save the marriage. Admittedly, this comes with a serious mitigation as the fake-hate devolution into real hate appeared to be happening entirely in the brain of the wife; but then, there’s only so much you can learn about the nuances of marital dynamic within a 1,000 word essay. Nonetheless, it’s a frustrating theme that I see in all of these “video games and the troubled marriage” lifestyle articles: That if only the wife could learn to love the video games like the husband loves the video games, then the marriage would be saved (yeah, I’ve written about this before). And here’s the thing: video games can be as much of a symptom of a bad marriage as staying out all night with friends at the bar. If one partner (man or woman) finds themselves being stifled by a bad union, they will look for a means of escape. It might be working long hours at the office, it might be playing Silent Hill 3. The point of the isolating activity is that it is time away from the spouse. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although obviously it could easily become one when it becomes self-destructive, or in the event that the other spouse does not want to be “gotten away from.” In any event, the problem of a spouse sequestering themselves with videogames is not necessarily solved by the other spouse plonking down and trying to co-op. It might make things a lot worse.

Ultimately, this is what bothers me about articles about relationships and ____ (where, in this case, the blank is filled in with “video games”), in attempting to create concise little essays about something as complex and nuanced as a long-term monogamous relationship, the writer will invariably write some little bit of Cosmo-worthy pablum in which the complexity and nuance is replaced by something quirky and quote-worthy, like video games. It bothers me more in this case because it’s hitting so many popular stereotypes about gaming in a household — where the husband or boyfriend is an obsessed man-child neglecting his wife and household duties — and the wife is a shrill luddite nag who believes that the solution to a rocky relationship is to spend more time together — and the problem is some third-party that can be easily “othered” to avoid actually examining one’s own failings. But ultimately, I imagine that blaming your marital woes on Rainbow 6 is about as fulfilling as screaming at a spouse wearing noise-cancelling headphones… there isn’t much to be accomplished by yelling at something that can’t hear you and won’t respond.