Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Realia", or, The Angry Birds Dog Chew Toy.

When my partner raised her eyebrow at my picking up the Chuck E. Cheese stuffed toy in the thrift store, I put it down without mounting a defence: but what other single mascot so completely defines arcade gaming in the '80s? Chuck E. Cheese, headed by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell -- loved by gaming enthusiasts for ushering in the mainstream video game industry, and reviled by them for the Chuck E. Cheese policy of dismantling unwanted arcade cabinets to prevent potential competition from using them. The toy cost a buck fifty, and on an hourly wage I probably would have earned that before I'd finished gushing. (Before we haggle over the price and the amount of space all this collecting takes up, to put things in perspective, does she know that some people have even bought up their robot musicians* and reprogrammed them to lip synch to music that doesn't suck? Probably no, and likely she doesn't care.) And I was the one who put on the brakes when she shows me a New Super Mario Bros. backpack hanging in the thrift store -- though, y'know, gaming stuff needs to be stored somewhere -- why not in gaming-related storage? I sure noticed the Giant stuffed Super Mushroom in the back of the Salvation Army, but storage space is finite, and am I going to choose to take it up with actual games, or just the stuff associated with them? (How many Nintendo DS carts could I fit into the room that stuffed mushroom would take up? A: approximately eleventy ho-jillion.) Though I have a couple of tiny sachets of game-licensed bonbons, I've managed to avoid accumulating (thank goodness) any of the videogame-themed breakfast cereals - so do those expired Angry Birds candy canes at the grocery fall under my collecting umbrella or not?

* NB: robot musicians actually from the competing "ShowBiz Pizza Place"** chain.
** Oh hm, this situation is more complicated than it appears.

The germ at the heart of this post dates back several months, when I found my stately & handsome household hound bequeathed a new chew toy from Grandma, and I had to ask myself if I was going to compete with my dog for custody of it.

Researching for an early draft of the post, I looked up the name of the white, egg-laying Angry Bird on the Angry Birds wiki (yes, there is an Angry Birds wiki) and conjectured about in which game he/she (this is not an entirely new problem) would have been most likely to appear in Victorian carolling garb. On a lesser blog (a Tumblr, let's say), that would have been the post: ha ha, here I was, doing research in the Angry Birds wiki about a chew toy. But did I have more to say on this topic? It's an interesting specific in a general trend we have already observed with the Ms. Pac-Man candy dispenser and of course the roll of Pac-Man wallpaper: I like games (even when I don't like the actual games, I like the idea of games) and I claim to collect them so as to be able to play them; why then do I also end up with these patently ridiculous unplayable materials?

A decade ago I was a driven man (not so different from now, the only change being which palace of wisdom I hoped to arrive at by conveying myself along which particular road of excess) who was in charge of performer-coordinating for a monthly variety show event series; along the way we accumulated many, many albums and chapbooks etc. representing the work of our local performers, and I took up the quixotic torch of starting and maintaining a library of cultural materials from my local creative community, literary, musical and visual. These could be recordings and publications, or also more ephemeral artifacts such as gig posters, ticket stubs, set lists, media clippings where members of our community were discussed and indeed entire magazines and newspapers of the alt-weekly variety. I cast wide nets and took what I could find, including small press comix and 'zine publications, novels by local authors hitherto unrelated to our events such as William Gibson and Douglas Coupland, videopoems, costume pieces, and, well, more, with the idea that eventually these could all be indexed and hyperlinked together in a way that would further a deeper understanding of what it was like to live here at that moment in time. Obviously bottling up the entire creative output of a city of millions was a doomed project beyond the capacity of one man and his filing cabinet (liberated from the VIFF offices during a move: the piece of furniture itself had a rich cultural history!) but try telling an artist in his 20s that his scope is too broad and see where it gets you. In my case I ended up well on my way to a Collyer brothers fate, sleeping on a bed surrounded by (and partially encroached upon by) fraying shopping bags filled with what appeared for all intents and purposes to be litter. I didn't fill the house with them but I definitely filled my room, the basement, and a shared hall closet. The collection has been dismantled (I cut the branch off the tree and kept the branch, not the tree) but not long after the end of this era, I renewed my pursuit of old consoles and their games, after a brief fling with assembling them piecemeal from thrift stores -- realising in a moment of lucidity that this couldn't end well, I gave them all away to Video In for their Video Game Orgy events.

This is all a bit of a digression from me talking about video game advertising, but it serves to illustrate the pitfalls of the collector mentality when not narrowly constrained.

Now even though I collected, primarily, books and recordings, I would keep finding these fascinating extrusions of these creative fields into the realms of the everyday, such as merch table commemorative t-shirts (usually) or baseball caps or (very rarely) underwear. Where in the Dewey Decimal System do I file my literary underwear collection? Does it turn up in the catalogue under U or L? It turns out that there's a term from the library science field that names these objects as "realia", summed up aptly by by Wikipedia as "three-dimensional objects from real life that do not easily fit into the orderly categories of printed material". It was a fascinating challenge to my filing system then and it is if anything more in effect now, in this Angry Birds Hallowe'en Costume, Super Mario Action Figure era. (But it applies just the same to James Joyce's writing desk, Mark McGwire's home-run baseball or Lance Bass' chewed piece of French toast. Basically, they're Things With A Hook That Might Appeal To Someone But Probably Not Anyone Or Even Most People.) Near my last place of residence, an apartment-dweller had turned their balcony into an outdoor storage unit, and among the mounds of refuse situated there was a plastic TurboGrafX-16 display that I envied and coveted while passing by, walking my dog, somehow able to abstract away its context: a piece of garbage in the middle of a pile of garbage. But but but... that particular piece of garbage is awesome!

In brief: realia are difficult to store, problematic to file, impossible to play, and basically irresistible. They choke many a gamer's collection, and mine is no exception.