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When I first started playing Hearthstone I’m sure that it was more than just a reflex—that my strategies were considered, thoughtful, that I cared more intensely than I do now whether I won or lost. I remember being frustrated, as someone who had then spent no money in the game, at my opponents’ deeper card pools, at the cards themselves which I imagined I would never own. But I still enjoyed the game, and something kept me playing. I carefully considered each move before I made it, and if I made mistakes, it was as a neophyte, someone negotiating the transition from other card games I had played to a new ruleset (and entirely new system or method of delivery which made the change necessary).

Though I go long periods without playing (that is by design), now it is little more than a feeling, an exercise in stimulation—I don’t care as much whether I win or lose, though I’d like to win; I know the game well enough that I don’t have to think very deeply about my moves, even when they’re wrong (I realized recently that I have been playing much too cautiously, especially when I have the upper hand). But moving up the rankings is no longer my goal—instead it is the persuit of the reward chain, the quest for gold, and more than that a feeling of completeness that I never experience while playing but imagine that I will, in the seconds before each game has begun. Paradoxically, because sometimes I win, I am occupying a position of permanent loss.

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That anticipation empties me out, if I am not careful trapping me a loop which is difficult to escape. It is the loss of will, a surrender of the self, and it is only with a heroic effort afterwards that I am able to recover myself at all. I reflected on this yesterday while sitting through an Old English class that I had barely prepared for, though I had all of the time in the world to get myself in order. Feeling like there was nothing behind me or ahead, terrified by that feeling. I want to succeed in that class, I hate to feel unprepared, I like wading through archaic sentences and language, seeing the connections to modern words or alighting on alien syntax. But that day I had been trapped in a position of permanent escape, as if I could live in frozen time forever waiting for a moment of action. As if in that space I am accomplishing something that I don’t understand.

Where do I think I am running off to? I remember watching a series of YouTube videos about the video game Downwell and marvelling at the amount of time that the host had seemed to put in, maxing out the score categories and still infatuated with the world. In one of the videos he constructs a chain of time-vortexes, places where his character could exist free from downward pressure, free from harm (action is frozen while inside, but if an enemy touches a time vortex they explode). Wouldn’t it be nice? asked the voice, speaking of his construction.

In the medieval period, depictions of courtly love were both a model for behaviour and a cautionary tale. Being carried away by one’s physical desire, letting the imagination delude, was rightfully portrayed by some authors as dangerous. But the imagination had consequences outside of becoming too infatuated with one’s object—in mid-fourteenth century England it was made illegal to imagine the death of the king. Putting an imaginative act into law would seem to engender that act of imagination, but by criminalizing the imagination they were making clear a distinction that might otherwise feel too commonplace to note: not everyone imagines the death of the king. 

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Something that I am struggling with is recognizing that not everyone feels the same draw for escape that I do, not everyone is able to imagine themselves so perfectly without. Without thought, without desire, without self. For them the imagination is not as dangerous. I can speculate why that is: perhaps they grew up in a persistent world whose contours or limits they never had any reason to doubt. Perhaps their actions had consequences, in both the positive and negative sense. Perhaps they feel deeply connected to their own sense of merit. Perhaps they have never felt the terror of feeling broken, not even once, let alone in a circuit, as if they were running laps.

Perhaps they never had to imagine a different life, even without realizing that’s what they were doing. I don’t think it is laudable to exist in this way, though I once did. Heroes who thought this way end up dead. I am reminded of something that Borges said about being shy as a young man, that he had thought of it as a distinction until he realized it was actually a handicap. I wish that escape did not have such a hold over me, but I haven’t yet figured out how it can be overcome.