Thursday, June 23, 2022

Creating Wilderness When There Is None

One day, a couple of decades ago, I was working away at my job as a Software QA Engineer*, with the NPR interview program Fresh Air playing through my headset. 

The subject of Terry Gross' interview that day was Jon Krakauer**, the author of Into The Wild. For those unfamiliar with the story, it's about 22 year old recent college grad Chris McCandless, who grew disenchanted with his family and decided to basically take off on his own. He abandoned his car, gave his entire savings to charity, and even burned the cash in his wallet, and set off into the unknown. Eventually his body was found in the Alaskan wilderness, having starved to death. Jon originally wrote an article for Outside magazine about Chris, and later expanded it into the book we know of today.

After listening to the interview, I made a point of stopping by our local bookstore on the way back home and picking up a copy. After a week or so of staring at it, wondering whether I was ready to read it, I finally gave in and devoured the thing in a day. Today, you can find Into the Wild --and Jon's most well known book, Into Thin Air-- in summer reading lists for high schools and universities. When I last visited my local bookstore, Into The Wild was on the large "summer reading list" shelf, surrounded by more classic fare such as Dune and The Aeneid.

Into The Wild is a tragedy caused by hubris, but a fascinating one nevertheless. 

When I read the book, one thing kept coming back to haunt me: just how, in the age of maps and global knowledge of entire areas, did Chris McCandless get lost in the wilderness? Even in the 90s, before smart phones that were more powerful than the best PCs of the era, you had access to everything you needed to survive in the Alaskan wilderness: where you were and where to go. Chris wanted to go to a blank spot on the map, and without any of those left, he decided the best way to achieve his goal was to simply get rid of the map.***


I've thought a lot over the years about that decision Chris McCandless made to throw away the map, because it has a certain amount of appeal. While it is frequently construed to sticking your fingers in your ears and going "LALALALALA I CAN'T HEEEEAR YOU!!!!" if you want to test yourself without relying upon modern conveniences the cheapest way to do so is to remove those conveniences. How much of a challenge is the challenge if sensors and monitors tell you everything you need to know in the same way a GPS vest is worn by footballers these days? Certainly even with all of the advanced tech in the world there's still plenty of challenge, and in quite a few endeavors that challenge can still prove fatal.****

I suppose that is the same sort of impulse --and hubris-- that causes people to ignore instruction manuals when installing/building something, only with potentially far more disastrous results.

The thing that gnaws at me about Chris' throwing away the map is that I do that sort of thing in some of my own endeavors. 

When I was about 13 or so, my parents drove the family up to Indianapolis to visit the Children's Museum. (If you ever are in Indy, it is worth a visit.) 

If your kid (or you) likes dinosaurs...

One of the exhibits there was about gears and levers, and among the interactive displays they had there were two differing gears with their teeth intertwined. The idea was to provide an example as to see which could move first: the smaller or the larger. If you know your mechanical engineering, or you've ever ridden a bike with multiple gears, you ought to know that the smaller gear has the advantage here. And yes, even back then, I knew that courtesy of 6th Grade science class. But when my father offered to compete against me, I chose the larger gear.

Why? Because I wanted the challenge to see if I could win through physical strength even though all the advantages were with my dad. 

Of course I lost, and as he began to point out why based on the display I said, "I already know that."

"Then you shouldn't have chosen the wrong gear," he snapped and walked away.

Yes, I was an arrogant adolescent teen, but how could I explain to my dad that I deliberately chose the larger gear because I wanted a physical challenge rather than the safe --and smart-- option? He was in absolutely no mood to hear about that, and to him I just proved my stupidity by choosing the wrong gear rather than using my mind to choose the correct one.


Compared to this stuff, the way I play video games is pretty much small potatoes. 

However, my approach to video games --and to a lesser extent boardgames and pencil and paper RPGs-- is to eschew the optimal or smart option and instead deliberately choose other options because... Well, just because.

Like, say, leveling Card via the Old World instead of going to Outland.

Okay, that's not a fair assessment, because that was a very specific challenge. But I'm thinking in terms of playing as a Frost Mage when Frost is considered the "inferior" Mage spec when compared to Fire and Arcane. Or ignoring the allure of all sorts of "required" addons and playing with as few addons and/or Weakauras as possible. After all, I didn't even install DBM at all in WoW Classic until my first foray into Zul'Gurub, and I learned to expect different boss mechanics the old fashioned way, by watching for visual and audible cues from the bosses themselves.

But by far, the biggest addon I refuse to use is the one that I think of first when I think of throwing away the map: Questie. 

I will admit that there is one thing I completely enjoy about Questie: that I can tell exactly when other people I'm grouped with are done with a quest. It allows me to make an informed decision as to whether I want to continue grinding toward my own quest completion or just go with the flow and follow the others and work on their completion at the expense of my own. 

Before you say it, I'll insert a frustrated reaction from my Questing Buddy to cover it for you. 


I've had this conversation with people before, so don't bother. I really don't care about whether I complete quests when I'm grouped with someone: that's not why I'm grouped with them. If I do ask to group with someone so I can complete a quest, that's a different story, but when I'm just grouped with them to go "questing" or be social, I really don't care if I complete any quests.*****

The thing about addons like Questie is that it also defeats the purpose why I play video games. I don't play for the end, but for the journey. In a video game, throwing the map away by eschewing addons --or not looking at a map too hard when you can't turn that stuff off in game-- means I explore and take my cues off of what is presented to me. Sometimes it takes me a while to find what I'm looking for, but you can bet all the in game gold or credits you have that I'll remember where it is the next time I pass through. I'll look at road in LOTRO before you reach the Ford of Bruinen and go "Okay, this is where those trolls caught me at night; I'll have to go around right *here* to avoid them." Or, in TBC Classic, "This is where those Bog Lords have a bad habit of respawning quickly, so I'd better be ready for a rapid exit if that happens while I'm fighting these two out there now."

Events like that are why I play video games; the questing and raiding and instance running are all incidental to that. So why would I want to use something that minimizes my enjoyment and wonder to reach the end quicker? 

Now, I get that for a lot of people, the end IS the goal, so addons like Questie or Dailies or Attune make perfect sense. As a guildie put it --and I suspected that he said it to tweak me, since there were only three of us online at the time-- "Sure, doing dailies is boring and repetitive, but you never have an excuse to not have gold ever again." But for someone who revels in the challenge of the journey, forgoing these addons is akin to throwing away the map and proceeding onward into the wilderness. 

There's a whole world out there waiting.

Is that arrogant? Yeah, probably. 

Not very smart? Oh, definitely. 

Does it give me a sense of accomplishment in an era of FOMO and rushing to the end? Hell yes.

*Yes, that was the real title. Considering that I did just as much coding --albeit for the test harness and to integrate the testing designs properly-- as a regular developer, I certainly earned that "Engineer" moniker.

**Jon is probably more well known as the author of both Into Thin Air and Under the Banner of Heaven, but his entire catalogue is worth perusing. Here's the audio archive of the interview, which based on the date means I likely heard the interview on a Friday, which is when Fresh Air repeats previous interviews from that season. Why Friday? Because the air date was in January, and I started that job in February.

***Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. Hardcover edition, 1996. Pg. 174.

****Such as what happened in Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air, which details his account of the disaster on Mt. Everest in 1996. Jon was actually there at the time, climbing Everest as part of an Outside article about companies that will essentially escort you to the top of the mountain, when the weather disaster unfolded. In spite of all of the advanced tech of the time, 8 people died. More would have died were it not for the heroics of fellow climbers (including an IMAX team present for a separate assignment) and a Nepalese helicopter pilot who pushed his craft to the limit to reach crippled climbers and get them to safety. When Jon came through Cincinnati next year on a book tour for the release of Into Thin Air, his presentation was gut wrenching. Here's his interview with Terry Gross about it.

*****Last night my questing buddy was NOT having that. At all. So I had to complete at least a few quests with her and her husband while I was grouped with them, or she'd get that Mom voice out and boy, would I be in for it.


  1. I've never read anything by Jon Krakenauer but I've sold a ton of copies of both "Into..." titles. We always have them in stock and often have them featured. They're perennial sellers.

    I'm not familiar with "Under the Banner of Heaven", although now I check we do have it in stock. Next time I'm in I'll take a look at it.

    1. Jon is a great interview, and his writing style is very easy for a reader to engage with. After having listened to his interviews again after 20 years, I can see why Terry Gross had him back on her program several times.

  2. I am 100% with you. Right now fun for me is among other things doing old Archeology digs so I have an excuse to sightsee in older expacs.

  3. Well, you know I've never used Questie either, sooo... I just don't see it as an act if rebellion, but simply as enjoying the Classic experience. If people want to retail-ify their personal questing experience, that's their choice. Vanilla didn't come with a map to begin with and I didn't fancy buying one.

    1. Same.

      That being said, there are days when I feel like I'm the only person on the server not using it. Or when somebody asks a quest question in LFG or Trade chat, the two most common responses are "Go to Wowhead" and "Use Questie".