I dropped Twitter a couple of weeks ago. I’ll still have to use it for work, I know, and very soon, I’ll be very back on my bullshit. But it’s nice to take a break, to slip free of the muscle-memory wake-up scroll and the internalized shibboleths of the medium. I’m less angry all the time, now, and I’m more detached from various internet squalls. I feel disconnected, too—and ignorant, which is less ideal. I’ve missed a lot in my absence—very little of it anything but ephemeral drama, but things still worth discussing.

For example: @PixelatedBoat, the Twitter personality who gave the “milkshake duck” phenomenon its name, was recently attacked by a series of Twitter users for statements he made on the platform. Essentially, he took the firm stance that guns are bad and shouldn’t have a place in society, to which some people pointed out that he wasn’t thinking about how guns could be used as a deterrent or protective device for marginalized people. So far so good: that’s a thorny issue, but it’s one that can be discussed by people with different views in a way that’s responsible and reasonable, even if it gets heated. Issues of public safety, after all, need to get intersectional and take into account how public safety should apply to all of the public, not just the public majorities.

Here’s the issue, though: that discussion wouldn’t be #onbrand for his style of irony-veined, retweetable leftism and lunatic cartoons. So instead, it resulted in a weirdly earnest and seemingly unhinged series of Tweets and exculpations, to which some of his followers reacted with glee. There was a rumble that the Milkshake Duck guy was getting Milkshake Ducked. “What’s going on,” my fiancee texted me that week. “Nothing, except the Milkshake Duck guy’s corncob game is strong and fast.” I texted back. He sounded, in the moment, like nothing so much as @dril in their more “apologetic” Tweets, like someone trying on a different character. Things snowballed from there, as they tend to, until some users with less-than-pure intent started signal-boosting across the platform that he was a TERF who wanted trans* people and people of color to die in the streets. Some people started passing around ‘shopped Tweets and edited images. A blogger began a campaign to get him branded as scum.

I want to be clear here: the vast, vast majority of people involved in this imbroglio were convinced that they were in the right, that they were fighting on the side of the angels. Eventually, a shaky detente was reached, apologies were made, and things quieted down—for now. But I wonder if PixelatedBoat logs in with the same cheer that he used to, if he doesn’t feel a twinge of stress each time he sees that blue notification bubble pop up. I wonder if his index finger has long-tapped his screen until the icons dance and the (X) appears and he shakes off the reverie, hits the home button, and logs on again. I wonder how helpless he felt as numerous people ignored the bulk of his argument and distorted his message.

We don’t talk much about being helpless, because it’s one of the worst feelings in the world. I feel it on a minor scale frequently, when my anxiety flares up or when I’m trapped in a social situation that feels extremely out of my control. I feel it right now, wondering if these words will be misinterpreted—wondering if, as a writer, I’m not doing enough to convey my feelings. We feel it when we realize how badly—and how quickly—things can get out of hand when interacting with the police. We feel it when we get the text that not everything went well in the hospital and do we have a minute to talk. We feel it when journalists we’ve just discovered turn out to be predatory and assaultive. We feel it when we realize that people in our communities are consuming great gulps of misinformation and making decisions based on the malicious suggestions of external groups. We don’t talk much about being helpless—but we need to.

Magic, as we’ve said, is a game about empowerment. Magic, in theory, is also a game of egalitarianism. With that accepted as true, we can point out that egalitarianism is the ultimate expression of empowerment—or, if you’re an Objectivist, the ultimate reduction of empowerment. You and your opponent both start with seven cards in hand and no lands in play. You have more or less the same number of cards in your decks and the same access to a card pool (obviously, this isn’t true at anything more than a basic level, but that’s where we’re starting). So it’s fair to say that Magic at a shared level is a meritocracy, where success is based on knowledge and effective play. Great, as far as that goes, but it breaks down at anything but the theoretical level. For example, I was playing in my local League the other night, and my opponent and I busted our packs. I got a Vraska; my opponent did not. From the start of the game, he felt diminished. He felt anxious, fatalistically waiting for me to hit six mana. The stakes, obviously, were super low: two minutes of reshuffling and the minor psychic ping of “well, I wasn’t even in that one.” But it’s a power imbalance, and to live your life with unbalanced empowerment ratios will take an enormous toll on you.

So much of life is a experiment in power-sharing—or power-stealing. The #metoo movement in the last few weeks has underlined how many women function—and excel—in an environment that siphons power from them. So many people with unimagined wealth and privilege still have to struggle to have their personal identity and most basic needs respected. I was talking with a coworker the other week, and she asked me if I understood how difficult it is to have to take a moment sometimes to prepare to leave your house, to shoulder the weight of societal pressures—the vague omnipresent possibility that today is the day the other shoe drops. “Honestly,” I said. “I don’t.”

This is why we seek out games. This is why Wolfenstein 2 doesn’t cast us as an emaciated, weaponless refugee in the shtetl of New Orleans but an indestructible super soldier. This is why the latest South Park game received pushback from gamers of color who seek out games to role-play as someone who can forget that the deck can be stacked against them, not to be reminded of the knife’s edge they walk. I’m always struck by the folks who adhere to the “git gud” philosophy of gaming—the concept that, through rote repetition and sheer force of will, you can summit a challenge entirely through dedication. They’re not wrong: you can, definitely. But failure, for many people, doesn’t just mean you don’t succeed in your goals; it also means that something is directly taken from you, something you got used to. That’s the central principle of roguelike games—that failure isn’t just a lack of success, but an active punishment—basically operant conditioning that makes the player dread failure. To feel powerless is monstrous—each decision feels futile, each opportunity carries a hidden, savage cost—but what’s worse is to feel powerless after feeling powerful. That’s what gaming offers us: a chance to feel the sting of failure in a laboratory environment, like kids watching scary movies on Halloween. Some part of us knows we can eject; we don’t have that privilege outside of media.

In other words, roguelikes teach us to find power in the scant few times we actually succeed—something we can’t do in our day-to-day lives, where failure lingers and can disrupt everything you’ve worked for during months or decades. That Binding of Isaac perfect run is all the sweeter for the three dozen times we failed at the cusp of victory. That threading the needle when you double-Simian Spirit Guide-into-Manamorphose-into-Mana Leak is a legitimate physiological and psychological rush. That moment when someone says to you “We’ve got this. I’m with you, and I’ve got your back, and we’re going to get through this” is the moment when you think—perhaps mistakenly—that the world is ordered and just. Those are moment of empowerment, and they’re moments that are worth prioritizing.

This is a world where perspective matters—where “gun control” can also mean “further violence against the marginalized,” depending on your perspective; and “a difficult game” can be “another stressor,” depending on your outlook and the day/week/life you’ve had. That’s not to be reductive, so much as to point out that games are a system, and systems have an outcome that favors one of the participants in that system. Someone will always benefit—which means someone will always be the on the other side. Someone will always lose. It’s up to us to ensure that “losing” stays within game systems and doesn’t branch out to the outside world—that the system of competition doesn’t get perverted into the system of exploitation that it often does.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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