The Boundaries of Wonder

I’ve always taken the use of the word “awesome” as somewhat of an exception. I don’t want to say it’s been bastardized, but its definition has definitely strayed from the original “expressive of or inspiring awe.” I’ve been guilty of using it just to mean something is pretty neat or of rather high quality, but I generally try to stick to the awe thing.

The same could be said about “wonderful,” but its ancillary definition of “unusually good” has been around for a while. However, when I say something is wonderful, I generally mean it to mean that my wonder, for whatever that could mean, has been solicited, excited. Something has reached deep down inside me, rooted around, and finally found the child lost years ago.

When people describe something as bringing about childlike wonder, almost everyone can intuitively understand what they mean. We all went through the phase (namely childhood) when every single thing you saw, smelled, tasted, and did was a treat. Good or bad, you were inspired to do more, to discover more. It’s a shame then that once you reach a certain age, that wonder turns to cynicism and you rarely, if ever, get a chance to be a child again.

Video games, though, tend to provide a good sense of curiosity. This is very different from wonder and should be differentiated as such, but on the occasion, it provides a good analog to that spark we lost long ago.

You see, the wonder of being lost in a world that surrounds you and that still somehow lives within you is a very open path of questioning your very existence. You don’t just ponder direct cause and effect or poke and prod the limits of your capabilities; no, you think subconsciously and with every fiber of your being what it means to just be alive. No discrete thought bubbles up to the front of you brain, questioning what the meaning behind your life is, but instead a frothing, rolling boil of unknowns seek satiation through exploration and experience.

Most video games, however, rely on curiosity. In Grand Theft Auto, you want to know what happens if you hit ten pedestrians in a row with a garbage truck. Do they go flying? Do you come to a grinding stop? How fast do the cops get involved? This is testing validated by a condensed scientific method. You have a question, and then you can go get an answer. Want to know what happens if you point-blank someone in the back with a shotgun in Gears of War? It’s easy enough to find out.

That’s not to say that wonder and curiosity aren’t connected in any way. On the contrary, curiosity is often inspired by wonder. All those scientific discoveries involving a kite and a key or a giant particle collider in Switzerland are rooted in basic human wonder. These scientists have found their childlike admiration for living requires answers and the world can provide answers. Had the wonder not been there, I doubt that Sir Isaac Newton would have been so amazed that an apple fell on his head or that Archimedes would have yelled “EUREKA” upon realizing his tub was overflowing.

So it’s important not to conflate the two basic but essential concepts of curiosity and wonder. Almost every video game can inspire curiosity; we are voracious animals when it comes to rationalization, and knowing the direct relationship between your actions and the game’s world’s reaction quells the knowledge-hungry beast within us. Few games, however, inspire true wonder in the most childlike of ways.

Of recent memory, Journey is the standout. Yes, you wonder and check the limits of your flight and chirping, but something much more primal takes over the first time you shoot skyward in a swirling vortex of scarf bits. Every time you sail across the wind-tossed sandy dunes, a guttural reaction from deep inside you takes over and your thoughts cease being conscious and begin to become instinct. Perhaps that is the wrong word, “instinct,” but it all speaks to something fundamentally a part of your being, as fundamental and crucial as human instinct.

It perhaps isn’t what you wonder what you’re capable of as that would necessitate the ability to question what is at your disposal for testing. It is more about the sensation of discovering what you didn’t know was even possible. Journey is an inherently strange, minimalist world with little to no explanation of what you or the world is capable of. So when you first take flight, it is a discovery. The first time you realize you don’t have to be alone in the world, it is also a discovery. Wonder is not about finding boundaries and testing reactions, but rather about finding out what you didn’t even know existed is a part of your world.

If you look at Ico, you might be able to better understand what I mean. It’s a very different kind of wonder (dire, Spartan) compared to Journey (expansive, jubilant), but wonder nonetheless. Discovering the ways you interact with the world is as much a part of the game as it is just beating down shadows with your stick. Holding Yorda’s hand, lighting fires, and the like are discoveries you make along the way to the end of the game, and, while essential, are presented to you as if you were learning everything for the first time, unprompted. Not only is this good game design (a topic for another time) but this is also an emphasis on the “childlike” portion of childlike wonder.

When you were growing up, no one ever told you how to speak or walk. In fact, if someone had, I doubt it would have stuck as babies aren’t particularly good at parsing and understanding complex verbal instructions. But, seeing that other things can do it prompted you to do it, too, and you discover you are part of that walking, talking collective. Your wonder is an ever-expanding balloon within the void of the ever-expanding universe and every discovery you make fills that balloon a little bit more, sublimating and substantiating the air into a living, quantifiable stable of knowledge and realizations. It is an unspoken, inherently understood Manifest Destiny, pushing your boundaries of experience to further your realm of wonder.

And perhaps that’s where the aging cynicism is born from. The expansion of your wonder is eventually outpaced by your consumption of worldly discoveries. The slow realization that indeterminable well from which you draw excitement and curiosity and love of learning and living is steadily being wrung dry, that pang of self-awareness of the easily defined beginning and end of human life, is a slow drag back to a stark reality. The weights upon your shackled feet are pulling you down from your lofty, skyward escapism, lugging you from your highs to your eventual lows.

But that doesn’t mean you can or should stop wondering. Video games and daily life can both still inspire you, make you aspire to discover more and learn more. That ambiguous desire for knowledge should be sated, curiosity fulfilled. Play some good games and do both.

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