The Problem With Finding Feathers
I’m particular about the things I collect. Of all the games I have owned in physical disc form, I have saved only 25 of them. I limit myself to keeping only the most valuable – the ones that mean something significant to me. I keep Red Dead Redemption because of it’s unflinching picture of true, self-destructive sacrifice. I keep Bioshock 2 because of the stunningly personal Minerva’s Den add-on content. I keep El Shaddai because it speaks to my faith in a relatable way.
What I don’t collect is games known for their “replay value.” I don’t keep the games you could play for years. I don’t hold on to games in hopes that I might one day attain every possible goal, achievement and collectible. I’ve been down that road.
There are things we feel, the things we experience, the things we receive from others, the things we love. And then, there are the things we have. Collectively, we call it stuff, but individually, when we focus in on these possessions, we convince ourselves that they matter. Especially when we’re focused on the act of attaining them, we convince ourselves that they will significantly enrich our lives.
What is it we’re thankful for? Not the stuff. The times, the people, the feelings. But almost never stuff.
The Assassin’s Creed series has a strange set of contrasting goals. The series can feel genuinely weighty, full of historical, emotional, and even philosophical depth. The game’s mechanics are used to create some stunning moments of sightseeing that breathe life into history and its implications.
But sometimes, you look up and see a feather or a flag. And impulsively, you go after it. Soon you have so many feathers or flags that you think, wouldn’t it be nice to have all of them? From that point on, Assassin’s Creed becomes a search for stuff. We try so hard to tell ourselves that this search is meaningful – but the feathers and flags lead to little more than a pat on the back from some in-game character and maybe some more digital ‘stuff’. If I’m lucky, I’ll get an achievement. They lead to a search. They encourage impulsiveness and indulgence. This stuff is there because the system demands it: the player must be entertained, not for the mere eight hours the story requires, but for 20+ hours. The game needs to give us reasons to explore the world we inhabit. So, we see a white, twinkling collectible in the background and immediately pursue it, passing by the people and beautiful architecture on the way.
Games like the Assassin’s Creed series unwittingly (or insidiously) reflect our human desire to chase after material things as if they matter. The iPad I own was coveted after for months before I finally bit the bullet and spent way too much money on it. Years ago, I bought an Xbox 360 as a way to cope with loneliness during a time of marital separation.
There’s the Christmas season, when the highlight for me was the stuff I anticipated getting. I looked forward to a laptop, videogames, money, but took for granted time spent with my family. Thanksgiving dinner is cut-short by looking at ads for Black Friday sales and making Christmas lists. Yes, even our holiday season is altered and changed to place entirely too much importance on stuff. The system demands it.
Life in general, and the holiday season in particular, is full of weighty and philosophical depth, emotional and social opportunities and appreciations. But I look up and see a collectible, or a gadget, and impulsively I begin to pursue it, passing by all of the good stuff on the way.
That stuff takes up so much of my present and future headspace, spurring us on to plan and pine over the most inconsequential possessions, filling our visions of the future and making us discontent with the present. In the meantime, the experiences I have and the people I surround myself with are taken mostly for granted.
I don’t remember what I told my parents I wanted for Christmas last year, though they insisted I give them a list. I genuinely can’t remember what kind of stuff I messed around with at my parents’ house after opening Christmas presents. Neither can I remember what I was slightly disappointed not to receive.
I remember sitting on the porch with my dad last year, after the last Thanksgiving meal I would have with him, and I remember telling him that I was thankful for him, and all of the reasons why, and that I was sorry I didn’t tell him that more often.
The few possessions which I most treasure and for which I am most thankful are the ones I did not anticipate or pursue myself: the small derringer that belonged to my dad’s dad’s dad, and my dad’s military dog-tag, which I keep in my wallet. They are not merely possessions, but symbols of something more. They’re something I can hold in my hand to remind me of the things I tend to take for granted: the abstract, relational, the familial.
I’ll keep these small tokens as long as I am able. But the other stuff? I can’t say. I like my iPad, but I’m sure something better will come along. One day it will be obsolete, a curiosity at best. And in the meantime, I’m doing my best not to feel the need to attain every possible goal and collectible. I’m struggling to keep perspective.
The games that resonate with that struggle are the ones on my shelf. They maximize my time, making every moment count, keeping my perspective firmly in the present. Some, like Minerva’s Den, refuse to encourage me to run around merely collecting things, and instead allow us to slowly discover our own past by exploring the setting and artifacts around us. Others, like Red Dead Redemption, provide collectables that feel truthful and poignant, like killing animals for their pelts and stopping to pick flowers. All of them leave me with little interest in the stuff I’ve gained and the achievements I’ve accomplished. Instead, they leave me changed, even if only slightly.
During that talk on the porch with my dad, he offered to give me the boat before he sold it. I’ve always kind of wanted a boat, but I had no place to put it. A few small things were enough.