I am pleased today to interview Matthew Duhamel. He is a writer and animator who recently wrote an opinion piece (here) at the Website Kotaku. The piece is entitled: All My Life I Was Told I Was Special. It Was A Lie.
Matthew, thank you for doing an interview with Histories of Things to Come to follow up on your Kotaku piece. You spoke in general terms about your age group. Your background chimes with some of the experiences commonly associated with Millennials. Therefore, I’ll include some generational questions, even though obviously an individual perspective can’t pinpoint group attitudes.
One thing that really struck me about your Kotaku piece was that you grappled with shattered illusions during and after tragic life experience. I thought it took a lot of courage to be so honest about your struggles, and that honesty was (cough) unique compared to other Gen Y discussions I’ve seen out there.
ToB: Your Kotaku article talks about the dual impact on Generation Y of generational praise on the one hand, and increasingly sophisticated virtual realities on the other. These themes are common in media stereotypes of Millennials and are portrayed as the twin sources of Gen Y’s smooth competitiveness: their over-confidence is coupled with the fact that they are so tech-savvy. But your article paints a picture of extreme generational stress right at the point where those two influences meet, does it not?
Matthew Duhamel: For some people at least. It would be arrogant of me to assume that my problems are something like a generational epidemic. That being said, I did get some feedback from people saying things akin to “this reminds me of myself.” Some of them looked like they were my age so it is possible.
Personally, I think that any traits that have such profound power to shape our society are going to have good and bad results. This dichotomy is partly why we find the combination so interesting. When you see outliers standing out from people otherwise twisting in the wind you begin to wonder why and wonder what drives us.
ToB: BBC reported recently (here) on Generation Y, claiming they suffer from widespread over-confidence, yet wondered if that is what it takes to succeed today. They argue that excessive praise has bred a generational pathology of collective narcissism. By contrast, there are plenty of articles (like this one) claiming Gen Y is a ‘lost’ generation? What do you make of the labels and messages in these media reports?
Matthew Duhamel: People like labels because labels provide a sense of control over what is really a complex problem. On some level they are entirely meaningless; the data they provide to derive these labels is scant in the articles.The reality is that my generation is facing a huge economic shift just as we are facing a huge personal shift.
From what I have read, it looks like historically the path from college to a good job was fairly linear. Graduate, check the want ads, work. For those without college degrees there were also more vocational opportunities. Anyone with a strong back could find work at a factory or in a mine.
Now, less and less jobs are easily available but there is more and more opportunity for those with the proper combination of elements to succeed. For many, this is a huge problem because we were raised in an education system of rote memorization and linear paths. When we left college to find the path entirely non-linear we find ourselves paralyzed; unable to deal with the reality.
I should point out a caveat here that there are many who haven’t had such a problem with emerging into adulthood, but I am of the mind that this partly has to do with picking the right major. Plenty of my friends were Computer Science majors and they all have good jobs. Computer Science still has a very linear path from college to adulthood. The experience tracks more cleanly with what we were taught to expect.
ToB: Do you think your disenchantment with praise as a Big Lie is shared by others your age? Or has your individual perspective diverged from a happy consensus due to life experience?
Matthew Duhamel: I really can’t answer this with anything like an expert opinion. I have plenty of friends who have found good jobs quickly and plenty of friends who have not. I know that a high percentage of my friends who got art degrees are struggling to find work. Those who chose STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degrees have almost to a one found good jobs. This may have to do with the “Big Lie” only in so far as it encouraged a lot of kids to reach for the stars and pursue their “dream” careers rather than something more practical.
ToB: You wrote of video games as a place for retreat. Gaming allowed virtual control, a placebo for real world situations which were beyond control. “U[ltima] O[nline] provided me with the daily routine and positive reinforcement that I so desperately craved. It became a hiding place where I could pretend that I didn't feel powerless and incompetent in real life.” But again, this was within the shelter of a private server, where you would be praised. And later, “games allow us to repeat ad infinitum these rituals of self-empowerment.” Similarly, “I still craved an Ivy-League education and awards for my writing, but the ease with which I could turn on a video game and feel successful without any of the work was (and still is) incredibly difficult to pass up.”
This runs contrary to the narrative we always see about Millennials, namely, that they are the first all-digital generation, and therein lies their edge ahead of the rest of us who still have one foot stuck in the analog Dark Ages. But you are saying that tech immersion can lead to alienation from the real world, especially real life’s chaotic, uncontrollable aspects. Do you think there is a causal connection between excessive undeserved praise in childhood and those praised children growing up with a need to control their environments and other people?
Matthew Duhamel: Maybe not control but definitely continual praise. I suppose praise does act as a form of control, although I know I have always struggled with a desire for ‘authentic’ praise. Video games tricked me into believing they provided that because I had to work at earning it. It wasn’t so quickly earned as the praise from my parents, but it wasn’t so difficult as to be beyond my reach.
There is a book I cannot remember the name of at this moment, so you should find it if you can, that discusses the internet as the destroyer of the classic understanding of human knowledge. In the past, knowledge was information that had been filtered by experts into collections of need-to-know ideas. Books are the chief example of this knowledge. With the internet there is pretty much no filter. There are multiple people trying to be filters, but we still have to figure out which person to trust with our curation; the result being that we are completely overwhelmed with information, and those who succeed are those who can adapt to this new environment. Video games can provide a destructive shortchange to this process because they provide an artificial simplicity. All information in a videogame is actually useful knowledge. There is nothing superfluous. It is very relaxing for the mind. It also puts off the much needed adaptation.
I wrote a bit about this idea in another piece for a site called Gamechurch.
ToB: You spoke of gaming on a public server, where things were not sheltered: “What I found could be best described as a mixture of Atlas Shrugged and Mad Max in Medieval England.” Similarly, the JROTC was not “Simple rules inside of a clear worldview with straightforward praise in the form of ribbons and medals.” What do you make of these mixed messages in family, school, society, gaming, the military? Why does the world seem bent on seductively luring in the uninitiated with promises of praise, money, assurances of talent and uniqueness – and then devalues the initiate with messages that are the very opposite of what was offered in the first place? I saw a lot of self-righteous remarks below your Kotaku article that amounted to: ‘So, you were told you were special? This is the way the world really is. Suck it up, Snowflake.’ But surely, it is valid for you as a writer to ask whether toxic social dishonesty – a whole world of false promises – is a worthwhile way to breed good character?
Matthew Duhamel: It’s difficult to get anyone to do anything if you tell them up front how hard it will be. The only exception to this is if you are trying to play on their pride and their need to be viewed as powerful and tough. Some people need this feeling and so they got out of their way to do difficult things. My attempt to study animation and my attempt at JROTC were partly out of this need to feel powerful. I have to admit that JROTC was upfront about how difficult it was, but I was unprepared for it. In this case, I freely admit that the criticisms of my failings are warranted.
In the case of Ultima Online I think that the marketing from the game is very separate from the actual content because of player involvement. The game itself, when played in isolation, is exactly what they claim it to be. Then people come in and decide it would be more fun to steal and kill and generally ruin the day of other people than it would be to play the virtuous monster hunter. Should Ultima Online have a more honest marketing campaign? Maybe, but I doubt it would make the game any less punishing. EVE Online has a much more honest marketing campaign; they declare the absolute anarchy of it right up front. The result is that the game is precisely that: a distillation of human passions that is almost beautiful if it wasn’t so terrible.
ToB: You were told reality is one way, but then the reality which elders present to you is different. When you recognize that inconsistency and point that out, they tell you you’re entitled, spoiled and whining. How do you respond?
Matthew Duhamel: At this point I believe I am forming the jaded shell they want me to have. I shrug and move on. In my more tender moments I get paralyzed with a sense of betrayal; not because of the lie itself but because of the logical inconsistency of it all. People freely admit that no one is special but they don’t walk around depressed and self-deprecating. I’ve never seen a person say “no one is special” and then actually apply that to themselves in any meaningful way. The implication is that they are excluded.
ToB: And again, one of the people responding to your Kotaku piece remarked: “No offense but this article sounds like a lot of whining. Don't blame others for your own feelings of inadequacy. Would you rather everybody told you that you'd never amount to anything?” The latter is exactly what happened to Generation X. The latest example comes from US News, where Gen Xers are blamed for the housing bubble burst because they bought houses when they were ‘supposed to,’ but now it’s their fault that the system was mismanaged. Their faith in the system has consistently been met with a system that lets them down. Do you feel that Gen Y wants to trust in this system, or build a new one?
Matthew Duhamel: I think people are already trying to build a new system. In the video game community there is an active movement of people who are trying to develop games independent of the standard publishing model. For many, this is coupled with a retention of the idealism we were instilled with in our childhood. I think this is generally a good thing.
At the same time, however, the system exists because on some level the system does work. Where the system breaks down isn’t on a structural level but a human one. When we act in selfish and callous ways we break the system.
As an example, consider a basic commercial arrangement. If you need a product and I offer to sell you that product at a fair price the system works great. But, if I find a way to make my product for less money but proceed to raise the price because I have cornered the market the system begins to break down. People feel betrayed by the company, and that general sense of betrayal disrupts how we as a culture view commerce. Fixing the system doesn’t mean we come up with a better structure; it means we find a way to fix the human heart.
ToB: Much of what you said about gaming points to retreat to, and reinforcement of, false messages about promised success. But surely, there are positives here. I won’t get into the Millennial moral implosion that is Facebook (unless you want to comment on it); but there are other initiatives online (such as the Millennial effort, Samt Senit) which suggest that Gen Y is using virtual worlds to build a new system for themselves when the old system doesn’t work. What do you think of this? Is it more self-indulgent smoke and mirrors? You remarked that gaming negatively affected your university career, yet you now work in animation as a result of a gaming background. Have old ways of educating people simply not caught up with students who inhabit virtual realities? Can Gen Y devise innovations within virtual suites that have real production value?
Matthew Duhamel: Full disclosure: I don’t have a job as an animator. I work tangentally in the game industry, but it has nothing to do with the skills I learned in college.
I do think that games can be used for good. Jane McGonigal’s seminal work Reality is Broken is a great read on the subject. What holds games back is often a profit motive. The industry designs games first and formost that make lots of money, and that means games that can be addictive and destructive. Even the new concept of “gamification,” which is often heralded as an example of games changing the world, is just an extension of this profit motive. It infuses life with the addictive aspects of video games for monetary gain.
I think games will change the world, but the dominant manner in which they do will depend on how closely those making games cling to the profit motive.
ToB: Do you think your peers feel that successfully facing challenges really is a question of positive or negative attitudes? I ask because this is the Millennial stereotype: Generation Y believes that good or bad conditions boil down to a matter of perception and response – and control. This implies that Millennials think that they can individually control their situation in life, regardless of external factors, correct?
Matthew Duhamel: This might be a hold-over from the self-esteem movement. Personally I have come to believe that we have very little control over things, but that our perception of life does change how well we manage our affairs.
When we say Generation Y has an overabudance of self-esteem I have to wonder if this conclusion is granular enough. No one would say that we should walk around self-flagellating until we amount to something. The BBC piece you link to above makes this point rather succinctly: we need to have a self-confidence about our potential without having an arrogance about our current abilities. I need to believe I can become a successful animator without overinflating the worth of my skills as they stand right now. My Generation has a hard time separating these two because the myth of talent is pervasive in our culture. We believe that only those who are gifted can succeed. Success, in the mind of many, doesn’t come to those who simply work hard. The natural conclusion is that we have to believe we are gifted in order to believe we can succeed. The first great setback shatters this myth and if we don’t already realize the falsity it can shatter our sense of self.
I will be the first to admit that I have fallen victim to this thinking before and it has kept me bound in a fatalistic depression.
ToB: To the degree that we can believe any of these labels, I am a Gen Xer, and negative attitudes tend to be perceived by Xers as realistic, not pessimistic or cynical. Nor are they seen as hallmark traits of someone who has failed. Once, when describing what I thought were simple, obvious truths about workplaces to a Millennial, I was told, “You’re so negative!” Yet one could argue that if you want to mend what is wrong you have to face negatives and grapple with them, not dismiss their presence as an internal personal failing. For example, I recently saw a report on Guido Fawkes’s (Paul Staines's) blog decrying the non-payment of Generation Y interns (here). From my perspective, Staines’s stance is that of a classic Gen Xer. He’s describing what is wrong and thereby is attempting to help Gen Y. Do you think ‘being negative’ is a Gen Y taboo, because it is feared that negativity breeds failure? Or is that another stereotype about Millennials?
Matthew Duhamel: I think that pointing out the faults and failures of someone else in the context of social activism is actually a hallmark of Gen Y. We really like decrying the corruption of systems. But that kind of social awareness is different from being told just how tough it really is to get ahead. In the workplace many don’t want to be told just how hard it will be. Idealism is really what drives both. We believe that our lives will turn out great, and we are quick to point out corruption because we want our lives to turn out great.
The reality is that our lives will probably be very tough, and it will often be the result of systemic betrayal orchestrated by those around us. Our default mode, as David Foster Wallace puts it so aptly, is self-centeredness. Sometimes that means self-centered idealism, and sometimes it means self-centered acts that hurt those around us. The answer is to find ways to consider others in the “myriad of petty, unsexy ways” that make up our everyday.
ToB: Matthew, thank you very much again for your comments and for agreeing to this interview. Please see Matthew’s Website here, and his Twitter account here.
Ultima Online screenshot.
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