Gross domestic productivity, 7/2/20

Since the school year ended, I've been asked more than once what I'm up to this summer. What I don't say: that I’ve spent most of my summer thus far asking myself that very question. What I do say: "Uh, like, chilling, I guess?"

But really, where does the time go? I lie in bed for hours and eat (junk) food and re-watch Avatar: The Last Airbender and talk on the phone for astonishingly long periods of time and read books and try to read the news more and sometimes even walk around outside and, one glorious weekend, watched the Met Opera stream of Philip Glass's Akhnaten, which was maybe the highlight of this entire godforsaken year. What I'm not doing is an internship, or writing stuff for publication, or basically anything my superego would deem "productive."

I have, however, also been dedicating hours of time to playing a very elaborate board game called Gloomhaven. Gloomhaven is relatively new, wildly popular among aficionados, and comes in a box that weighs approximately 20 pounds and is roughly the size and shape of a juvenile Galápagos tortoise. You play as a mercenary in a band exploring the city of Gloomhaven and its environs, completing scenarios that involve fighting various monsters (ravening animals, elemental demons, resurrected corpses, etc.) as larger questlines unfold. I started playing a few months ago, close to the beginning of the pandemic, and my starting character, naturally, was a sinister rat-like creature who controls other animals with its mind. 

But the real draw for me wasn't all the world-building. It's the fact that the game is almost comically replete with goals to accomplish: the win conditions for each scenario, secret "battle goals" distributed to each player before scenarios, maximizing gold or experience points, leveling up, raising (or decreasing) the group's "reputation," or raising the city's overall prosperity. Each character even gets a secret career goal that, once accomplished, forces you to retire and start a new character. 

I find all this neat progression ridiculously addictive, possibly because I derive my self-worth from accomplishing things. Sure, I felt becalmed and anxious about my real-life career goals, but at least I could throw myself aggressively at my very concrete, very not-real Gloomhaven career goal, where there was only one path to success and no doubts about whether I could actually get there.

There was a period of time, right after the semester ended, when I became laser-focused on designing a daily schedule that would give me a handle on all the time I now had, time as voluminous and unmanageable as my pandemic hair. How, I wondered, could I harness my seemingly unbounded motivation to play Gloomhaven towards my actual objectives? But then my objectives shifted. Everything I've ever been told was bad for productivity now seemed crucial: getting lost in the news on my phone, scrolling through social media, having impromptu, rambling phone calls and video meetings, saying yes to administrative grunt work and more responsibilities, none of which will pay me a dime. I have been writing, but it’s not for my own personal gain—at least, not directly. 

None of this comes naturally to me. I’ve been averse to reading the news ever since I was a kid and my dad would pointedly pile up the New York Times, the LA Times, and the Wall Street Journal by my breakfast every Sunday morning, which I would ignore. (A promising start for someone currently enrolled in journalism school.) I’ve never liked group projects; I am not a joiner. My preferred mode of existence thus far has been to go into a corner, shut myself off from the world, and work. But I worry now that it’s too easy for someone like me, who after all has spent much of her life getting lost in works of fiction, to get too far into my own head. It's straightforward enough for me to read large numbers of books or complete homework assignments—I've spent my entire life honing my ability to do these things. But how do I track my general awareness of the world and my place in it? How do I put metrics on the well-being of the people around me, or the strength of my various communities? What I'm just beginning to discern is that so much of actual life isn't a series of goals at all, to be meticulously checked off upon completion. It's never-ending maintenance, and constant incremental learning and thinking, and the hard, slow process of trying to make your corner of the world just a little less shitty.

A few weeks ago, I finally completed my Gloomhaven career goal and unlocked a new character. At risk of being terribly on the nose, my new character is a healer, which means that I now kill way fewer monsters and am constantly checking in with my teammates to ask how many hit points they have. I have a new career goal too, which I could pursue to the exclusion of all else—but I’ve decided, this time, to let the story take me where it will. 


—Chelsea

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This is way overdue, but back in March I wrote about the domestication of cats and dogs, and in May I texted with a scientist about a coronavirus vaccine, both for New York Times for Kids!