Side Quest: Why This Matters

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On March 27, 2013, my friend David Cole passed away in an automobile accident. He was twenty-seven.

David had one of the sharpest minds I’ve ever encountered in my day-to-day life. He read at a pace and with a level of comprehension that made me feel inadequate on a good day, like a proper numbskull on a bad one. Toward the end of his life, his admiration for Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals led him to read more about Abraham Lincoln in a few short months than most of us will throughout our entire lives. He was also re-reading Infinite Jest, and although “re-reading Infinite Jest sounds like something a snobbish character on a sitcom would do, he never discussed his intellectual proclivities with even a hint of snobbishness or posturing. Of all the media hounds and pop culture junkies I’ve known over the years, David’s interests always felt the most pure, the most born out of a genuine love of the arts and the discourse surrounding them. He didn’t talk endlessly of Faulkner’s brilliance or claim Andrei Tarkovsky’s famously trying Andrei Rublev was his favorite film for any other reason than that they emotionally and intellectually moved him. Yet he also adored the comparatively pulpy Song of Ice and Fire novels, obsessively followed comedy podcasts, and had old usernames inspired by Final Fantasy characters. He loved everything that gripped him or made him think, and if you got him talking on any subject for long enough, he could be touchingly earnest, hilariously self-effacing, and mind-warpingly smart within the space of a few sentences.

I never met David Cole in person, but in this day and age I don’t believe this disqualifies me from calling him a friend. We were members of the same message board, a tight-knit community spun off from a Simpsons website. (I feel like I drop a not-so-subtle reference to the show about, oh, every third sentence on this blog, so this should not be surprising.) We got to know each other on a more personal level, swapping stories about exes and family members, and bonding over some shared anxieties and experiences. But the online, writing-driven nature of our friendship always grounded it in our shared love of discussing the hell out of books, movies, and all sorts of pop culture minutiae. (One of my last and favorite exchanges with David came shortly after he moved to a new area and started a new job. He couldn’t wait to tell me that he met a girl who loved Joanna Newsom’s Ys — an album he knew to be a favorite of mine — and it gave him hope he might meet some cool people in his new life.) He was always gracious during these conversations, and truly listened to what I had to say, even if the subject was something as silly as over-analyzing the new season of Parks and Recreation. He was one of the few people I knew who could truly disagree courteously, and that always made me consider his opinion more carefully when it diverged on my own. He was, simply, a pro at this stuff.

I did not learn about David’s death until roughly a week after its occurrence, and it still hasn’t quite sunk in that I will never speak to him again. That I won’t get to hear his thoughts about the new season of Mad Men, or the next Terrence Malick film. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been lucky and have not lost many loved ones, but a strange and gutting sort of cognitive dissonance still washes over me when I do. I was so assured of David’s constant presence in my life — that I could pop online anytime and see new messages from him — that it’s difficult to truly believe that daily ritual will never happen again.

I wish I could have met David and discussed some of our shared interests over a drink, but our internet correspondence at least allows me to stay connected to his memory. David posted over twenty thousand comments on our message board, twenty thousand little gateways into his opinions and feelings. I know from now on, before I reach for a book or search Netflix for a movie, I’ll consult David’s opinion on the matter. He was so culturally well-read (and had damn fine taste, to boot) that I feel like years from now I’ll still be catching up with him, having a conversation with reviews he wrote years earlier. Eric Wirtanen, the founder and administrator of our message board, perhaps said it best. I’ve edited the following for capitalization (it’s a very informal community) and clarity, but it otherwise remains intact:

“In the future whenever I come across one of [David’s] 20,000 old posts here I’m sure I’ll smile and fondly recall our time getting to know him. I’m glad his humor and so many intelligent & insightful comments about various topics can be preserved here for all time, and that, in the years to come, random people stumbling upon…. this forum via a search engine will read these posts of his and undoubtedly be amused & learn a little something from our late, wonderful friend.”

Every kind thing I’ve said here about David is something I’ve heard this week about the late Roger Ebert, as well. The internet is already overflowing with remembrances of America’s most popular and celebrated film critic, and I’m not sure what more I could personally contribute. But one repeated phrase caught my attention in almost every eulogy, even in those crafted by my most academic or esoteric film nerd friends: “Ebert got me into film.” Even people who intensely disagreed with the man or hadn’t read his writing in years agreed that his nearly single-handed ability to get anyone and everyone discussing movies seriously was an incredible feat.

Ebert has a very different image within the video game community than he does in the culture at large. He’s the guy who said video games can never be art; never mind that his argument made perfect sense within his own definition of “art” and had more to do with said definition than the quality of games themselves. Frankly, it never bothered me that Ebert dismissed one of the chief passions of my life as something more artistry than art. Shit, there are days where I’m not sure if I totally disagree. Besides, the image of twilight-years Ebert blinking confusedly at Braid when he could be exposing people to a little-seen foreign film (about which he’s actually passionate) is far sadder to me than the guy missing out on it.

But you know what’s amazing, and you know what validates every Roger Ebert and David Cole in the world? When Ebert dared to say to the internet that games weren’t art, the internet responded with enough well-reasoned opinions amongst the shouting and mouth-foaming that Ebert actually reconsidered the statement. He did not change his position, but he admitted he was under-informed, and foolish for damning a medium in its infancy. Through sheer argument and discussion, the common man received a concession from one of the world’s most powerful cultural critics. A man known for his opinions admitted that there were others out there. As a guy who has taken part in some pretty bullheaded arguments, I cannot begin to tell you how incredible and beautiful I find this.

That’s why this is important. WordPress, Twitter, message boards, the whole damn thing. Because for every myopic, bigoted dunderhead who unfortunately gained a platform through the internet, there is someone trying to express himself in a genuine, thoughtful way. If we truly put our best feet forward, if we truly think about what we’re saying and how we feel, we can gradually improve ourselves and the culture that surrounds us. “Art” — and I use the term about as broadly as possible — is a conduit for empathy, a means of exposing people to new ideas and allowing them to consider the world around them in an abstract, simplified, and more engaging way. Sometimes, we all need another voice to push us toward an epiphany, to help us understand why an important work has something meaningful to say. The internet opens that conversation up to those who otherwise might be silent. For video games, I hope this multitude of voices continues pushing the medium past the Straight White Male Nerd bullies who cling to a sad, dying world. I hope these voices allow video games to blossom into a diverse and necessary art form on a global scale.

And it’s not about the sheer number of people reached. David Cole’s impact was relatively small, but he still forever altered the way a few dozen people on our message board absorb art. I consider him a militant soldier in the army of culture and progress, marching right alongside Ebert.

Games won’t be better until we detail how to make them better. They won’t be important unless we talk about why they’re important. This goes for anything and everything about which you’re passionate. We might lose soldiers like David and Roger, but unless we go silent, we won’t lose the war.

If you would like to read some of David’s thoughts and musings, visit Boards and Recreation. To make a donation in his name to the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology (at his family’s request), please go here.

Stay safe and please, please keep writing, thinking, and contributing.

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8 thoughts on “Side Quest: Why This Matters

  1. gimmgp says:

    I am so sorry for your loss, and thank you for these words. A truly inspiring post.

  2. Dorine says:

    Really sorry for your loss. What a fitting tribute to a friend though. Take care.

  3. Joseph says:

    Thank you for sharing. Well written, thought provoking and inspiring. Our online friends are most certainly some of the most important because we discover them over similar interests, not because they are my “wife’s friends husband” (I can’t tell you how many social relationships happen to me this way. Not a bad thing, but not the same as discovering a like mind in the wonderful world of the internet). I hope you find many more Davids in your life!

    • Joel Newman says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I love and value all my friends and relationships, but I definitely agree that there’s something very pure about bonding with someone through writing about a shared interest. Take care of yourself and all the best.

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