In Defense of a Vicarious Life
My partner never plays Stardew Valley with the soundtrack on. The last time she did, the farming simulator’s gentle theme song was stuck in her head for so long she couldn’t sleep the whole night. An earworm in the most irritating sense of the word.
I know this not only because we sleep in the same bed, but because I love watching people play videogames. This pastime has its fair share of critics. My favorites — the ones that can get under my skin sometimes — are those who claim that it’s lowering the IQ of an entire generation, that it’s a waste of time, and also, “Why don’t you just play the damn game?” If you’re going to waste your time, you might as well be in the driving seat of the gaming experience instead of watching events unfold from the backseat.
This pastime implies a vicarious life through someone else’s gameplay, which can get a bad rap, but for me, it often feels like the next best thing.
Because of aphantasia, I’m not able to form mental images. This condition can be explained as a visual impairment of the imagination, where ‘picture your happy place’ is a phrase that doesn’t mean anything. When I close my eyes, I see nothing. My world becomes pitch black, and it inevitably clouds how I see (or don’t see) my life.
In my experience, I realized playing videogames that demand some sort of planning or long-term commitment is mentally exhausting, and for good reason. With a game like Stardew Valley, where I need to plan out how my day should go depending on the weather, the efficiency of my tools, or where Sebastian — the struggling freelancer I badly want to romance for entirely cathartic purposes — is, my inability to make mental maps, however small, often stifles my ability to enjoy playing the game.
Some fellow aphantasics struggle when trying to draw out blueprints of the house they want to build in The Sims, where they can’t manage to get the interior they want to match the exterior they want. Some others have told me about the tiresome task that is to build something from scratch in Minecraft. But one singular moment sticks out in an aphantasic’s life: the one where they realize that most phrases that start with ‘picture’ aren’t just figures of speech — they’re something most people can do.
When talking about a condition some would consider a disability, it’s easy to fall into the traps of buts and if-onlys. I’d love to meditate, but when I close my eyes I can’t see anything and the white noise gets old fast. I’d love to imagine my dream house, if only I could magically conjure up mental images. This frustrating thought process doesn’t only impact my gaming experience, it impacts how I experience the world around me. I undermine my achievements, and I tell myself I could do much more, if only. But — and this one is not a trap — it doesn’t have to be this way.
When my partner steps into her farmhouse in Stardew Valley, we smile at the design of the home she and I created together. We like to think we’ll live in such a house someday. From the bedroom layout to where the plushie sits in the playroom, she consults me for every change. I might not be able to picture what our home could look like, but I can conjure up ideas while she helps with the visualization. Living vicariously through her gameplay is neither a waste of time nor the next best thing — it’s a part of my life, too.
As my partner asks me if she can change the rug under our coffee table to see what it’d look like, I realize that my happy place doesn’t have to be one unchangeable thing — a picture frozen in time and space. I can tweak the settings, adjust the brightness, or even move the plushie to the bathroom if it matches whatever lifestyle for which I strive in the moment. This process of trial and trial — where I can look around, experiment, point to my happy place, and then unabashedly change it further down the line — gives me a new approach to life: I can throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks, and if I’m still not happy, I can simply change the wall.
I believe there’s a lot of value in acknowledging the impermanence of one’s happy place, but with my condition, I found something even more valuable. When I close my eyes, my world is pitch black, but as I stand alone in my realm of darkness, I am perfectly content with where I am in life. I see nothing, yet I feel whole.
So, without buts and if-onlys, here’s to me: living my best life either vicariously through gameplay, with my partner, or alone in my own mind — eyes closed.