Kira Nerys, the fiery officer from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is one of the my favorite characters of all time. I think it’s because she has so much going on — so many interesting contradictions within herself, which actually fit together to create someone totally unique and realistic. We’re all just a big old bag of seeming contradictions, right?
Happy birthday to Star Trek! Today is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek’s first episode airing, and to that, I’d like to talk about the show and the specific series that made me a Star Trek fan for life. =)
Lately I’ve been trying to pinpoint exactly why I game. Some people play for the challenge, but that’s not the draw for me. I think the reason I keep returning to games is that there are few things in life quite as satisfying as spending time in a fictional world where we are able to be heroes. That’s what children do when they play make-believe. And that’s what we adults do when we play video games… right?
This brings me to one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — and my favorite bit of Star Trek tech, the holodeck. The episode “Our Man Bashir” takes place almost entirely in a holo-program that Dr. Julian Bashir has been escaping to during all of his free time, apparently. The program casts him as a suave spy — an obvious James Bond type — taking down bad guys and getting the girls. But when Bashir’s real-life friend Garak bursts into the program, Bashir is upset. This is a private program, and Bashir feels that Garak has invaded his privacy.
It’s almost as if it’s embarrassing to play the hero with such abandon. It’s naive. It’s silly. It’s not anything like real life, and it doesn’t seem to solve any real world problems. Being so immersed in geek culture now, it’s hard to remember a time when gaming was a secret passion you didn’t want to talk about with others… but there are non-gamers who find it strange that adults would part with so much of their valuable time to play make-believe in video games. But maybe they have their own ways of playing the hero.
To return to the DS9 episode, members of the Deep Space 9 crew become trapped as characters in the holo-program (without realizing it), leaving Bashir and Garak to play along in the holosuite in order to keep them alive. This is a fun twist, as Bashir goes from playing secret spy in the holosuite to saving the day in real life… by playing secret spy in the holosuite.
Later, still in the holo-program, Garak basically accuses Bashir of being a child for play-acting the hero:
“It’s time to face reality, Doctor. You’re a man who dreams of being a hero because you know deep down that you’re not. I’m no hero either, but I do know how to make a choice, and I’m choosing to save myself.”
This could be a sore spot for some gamers, I’m sure. But Bashir wins out in the end, saving the day in real life with his play-acting in the fictional world of the holo-program. His solution requires quick thinking, creativity, and the balls to make selfish decisions sometimes — but all for the greater good, of course.
Because what’s wrong with playing the hero once in a while? If we sometimes forget our ideals in the real world, it’s wonderful that playing games allows us to rediscover them. And if you want evidence of the kind of important skills video games can teach us and the traits they reward us for, this TED Talk by Jane McGonigal is worth a watch: “Gaming Can Make a Better World.”
Until we have holodecks, we have video games to let us escape the limitations life sometimes imposes on us. But it’s not about turning our backs on our problems — it’s about finding new ways of facing challenges. Sure, not all video games are about heroes, but when they are, they help us tap into what heroism is and what selfless feats we’re capable of accomplishing. I believe the world is filled with real heroes, and it’s always good to keep that potential fresh in our minds — sometimes through gaming.
When I’m looking for a new nerdy obsession, I typically gravitate towards science fiction more than fantasy. It’s a very slight bias, because I love both… but when I’m immersed in a science fiction world, I feel a certain awe for what humans could potentially accomplish. I also hold science fiction authors in great esteem, because science fiction requires all the creativity and intelligence it takes to write fantasy — and then it requires scientific knowledge on top of all that. After all, part of the appeal of (most) sci-fi is the futuristic technology.
So what happens when you read science fiction that doesn’t come true? Watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine recently, the two-part episode called “Past Tense” has the crew of the Defiant visiting San Francisco circa 2024. The social commentary is incredibly interesting; during this time, the city has a “Sanctuary District” that houses the homeless. As you can probably imagine, this supposedly altruistic scheme has failed to create an idyllic place for people who are essentially treated as society’s outcasts; their freedom is taken away, and life inside this ghetto is hardly superior to what life might be like out on the streets.
The problem with the episode is the technology. Terminals are bulky — not the flat-screens we know today. At one point, Dax visits the office of a wealthy, famous entrepreneur and uses his computer, which turns out to be one of those bulky white desktop computers commonly seen in… well, the 1990’s, when DS9 was on the air.
These types of things crop up all over the Star Trek universe, as well as many other sci-fi worlds, but they feel more comfortable when they’re part of a distant, fictional future that has its own rules. It’s not so bad to see someone use a ridiculous walkie-talkie device if it’s on a spacecraft that’s using cloaking technology. Somehow, the mind-blowing technology balances out the technology that just sort of fizzles, and it all works together to feel authentic. However, seeing these characters jump back to a time that’s so close to our own puts all of the anachronisms into glaring focus.
This doesn’t ruin my enjoyment of science fiction. I don’t hold these sorts of “future anachronisms” against world-builders or writers. How can anyone be expected to predict exactly what technology will look like in the future, and exactly when it will look like that? And sometimes the date doesn’t even matter, such as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. So what if we don’t have a moon base yet? The film loses almost none of its ability to inspire awe on the part of the viewer, even if the date 2001 no longer screams “space age!”
But there’s no denying that it’s a jarring experience to see a futuristic world depicted in such an old-fashioned way. On the positive side, in a lot of sci-fi from the 20th century we see handheld data pads, video chatting, and remote communication devices that are arguably a step up from the cell phone. However, there’s also a distinct lack of personal computers and internet, because they’re examples of the technological advances that are so revolutionary and hit with such lightning speed, nobody could predict how much they would change how we go about our daily lives.
This is what terrifies me about writing science fiction of my own. I don’t want to create a world and completely miss a game-changer like social networking. Similarly, I don’t want to be overly optimistic and assume that we’re going to unlock faster-than-light travel within a couple of decades.
In today’s ever-changing world of fads and innovations, it seems the safest science fiction to tackle is space opera. In the 21st century, we’re space opera junkies. The further we are from developing a type of technology in the real world, the safer we are in imagining it for a fictional world. Sometimes that even translates to awe and anticipation for what the universe’s future really holds.