Memento Mori 02: Chocolate or Vanilla, Choose

Posted on: October 11th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

“Who wants a library full of books you’ve already read?”

– Harlan Ellison (Paladin of the Lost Hour)

“A Man Chooses”

If you’re a PC gamer with an adequate rig and a modicum of disposable income, you’re probably familiar with what I’ve termed the “Steam Daze.” With all the sales, and the deals, and the special offers, it doesn’t take long to amass something of a collection, a neat and ever expanding line of cheaply acquired titles just waiting for you in that lovely sidebar to the left. There are so many games to play, so many worlds to adventure in, so many virtual experience to sample. It’s nice, at first. It’s exciting.

Then it comes time to actually sit down and play something. You’ve been waiting for this moment for hours, perhaps at school, perhaps at work, perhaps at your cousin’s wedding: finally, it’s “you-time.” You settle in. You boot up. You crack your fingers. You open up Steam. And suddenly you become aware of your own mortality, more than you ever have been before. In stark white on gray are etched the lines of a dire prophesy. Never before have you known finitude so completely. Never before have you felt so utterly limited, so utterly dazzled and confused by the terrifying specter of Cronos, with his scythe, with his uncaring stare.


It’s true what they say about choice: having too much of it can often feel like having none at all. Unlike the kid in a candy store, who, we would presume, will gorge himself until he is hopelessly sick, you are more akin to the scholar standing in the midst of a vast library. It could take you days, sometimes months, to consume just one of the items on offering. And the very act of your having bought a game, even at eighty percent off an already reduced price, serves, by default, as an implied contract, stipulating that you do intend to play it…at some point.

But how much time do you really have? Even if you live to a ripe old age, and the world doesn’t end in catastrophe, and your income remains steady, and your leisure time is plentiful, will you ever be able to get through everything you’ve ever wanted to get through. Will you even be able try out everything you’ve wanted to try out?

“And that has made all the difference”

I realize that the philosophical problem at hand is a great deal bigger than games, and that this is an extremely privileged manifestation of said problem. It comes down, much more universally, to the sometimes terrifying question of how to best spend one’s extremely finite allotment of moments among the living. The issue is a great deal more profound than whether you’re feeling like a first person shooter or a point and click adventure game on any given evening. Nevertheless, one’s solitary leisure time (which is something that even extroverts benefit from, and introverts absolutely require), one’s time away from work (both meaningful and meaningless) and from social obligations (both happy and unhappy), is a significant part of life, and should, in my opinion, be factored fully into any discussion of said question.

On your death bed, in your death throes, will you regret those five hours you’d spent farming gold in your favorite MMO, or those ten hours it took you to finally defeat Ornstein and Smough in Dark Souls, or the twenty hours you’d spent on Assassin’s Creed 2, or the eighty hours you’d spent on Assassin’s Creed 4? I should probably avoid dwelling on games like Skyrim, lest I suffer a full on existential meltdown. Could you have spent that time better? Could you have spent it more wisely? Might you have had more fun playing something else?

Note that this isn’t a matter of “games” versus real life. I have firmly established elsewhere that I believe engagement with interactive art to be as valid and potentially meaningful as engagement with any other medium. It’s not a question of whether or not you’d regret having a virtual experience when you could have been merrily skipping through a dewy meadow with your significant other (while giggling ecstatically, of course), or working hard on finding the cure for cancer, or making your way through Ulysses. It is assumed, for the purposes of this discussion, that you already do those things, or something along those lines, in their own assigned time, and that you’ve already carved out a part of your day, or your week, for recreation anyway. This is a simple matter of choice. We know that one experience can easily be more enjoyable and more meaningful than another, simply because we, as human beings, have tastes and preferences. But, just as someone browsing in the aisles of a book store or a record shop, just like someone surfing the channels or compulsively reading the summaries on Netflix, we don’t always know what is what.

As a result, it’s easy to simply seize up, to freeze, to gloss over. You stare at the screen, at all the treasures you’ve accrued in your vault, and you fail to choose, to enjoy, a single one of them. Paradoxically, you find yourself procrastinating. You watch a video, or read an article, or (god forbid!) do some work. Before you know it, your coveted alone time has melted away, and you haven’t played anything at all.

“I Choose Vanilla”

In college, my roommates and I used to go to this meditation class on Wednesday evenings. It was held in one of the dorm buildings, in the fitness center down in the basement. The building used to be a small women’s hospital, and the basement was rumored to have served as the morgue. You wouldn’t really know it to look at it, though. The room was brightly lit, with exposed brick walls, lacquered wooden floors, and mirrors everywhere.

One Wednesday night, seemingly out of the blue, our instructor turned to the student at the far end of the room, made fists with her hands, and held them up as though she were presenting the student with two ice cream cones.

“Chocolate or vanilla, choose,” she said.

“Umm…chocolate?” said the student.

“Why?” she said.

“Because I like chocolate?” said the student.

“Wrong!” she said. The teacher focused her attention on the next person in line, and asked her the very same question. She chose vanilla, and claimed that she chose it because vanilla tasted better to her, as an individual. “Wrong!” said the teacher, and focused on the next student. And every student, in turn, was wrong, whether he or she chose chocolate or vanilla.

“Do you want to know the answer?” asked the teacher, after every single one of her pupils, including myself, had apparently failed the cryptic test. We nodded in assent. She paused meaningfully and surveyed the room with something like triumph.

“I choose vanilla,” she said, and paused again, “because I choose vanilla.” She grinned excitedly.

“Isn’t that a mindfuck?” she continued.

We agreed. It was, indeed, a mindfuck.


Choosing to Choose

Most people overcome the “Steam Daze”, or whatever other gaming or non-gaming equivalent they might be most familiar with. It’s intermittent. We can’t keep falling victim to it night after night, even if we can’t hope to become completely immune. We understand that the daze is unproductive, that it ultimately prevents us from living. It becomes difficult to enjoy anything if you’re constantly second guessing yourself, constantly wondering if you might not have been better off having chosen something else. The grass is always greener and so forth. The ability to choose, and to stand by your choice, is a skill, and a very powerful one. In the end, that which you didn’t choose, for whatever reason, you simply didn’t choose. There is no inherent value to any such choices. All value is perceived.

But I’ve no right to wax philosophical. There is actually no great lesson here and I can’t claim to know the true answer to my meditation teacher’s koan, nor do I have the definitive solution to the problem of indecision. I suppose what tends to work for me is either picking up something short and sweet (or something that can be played for a short period of time) and going from there, or committing myself to something sweeping and epic, something I can play from one evening to another for a while, without having to think too hard about it. Sometimes I concede, and do something conventionally perceived as productive. Ultimately, the meaning we make, and take, from both our lives and our hobbies needs to be determined on an individual level.

I’m only publishing this because it’s been a rough couple of months, on oh so many fronts, and because my other articles are still in the shop and because, wracked with fear and dread, I can’t seem to decide which one of them to finish.