I have made up a game. I call it Exchange Year.
You have to play. Even though it’s pretty tricky to figure out the rules, and you don’t really know what you’re playing for, and if you stop and think about it playing the game is absolutely no different to, well, not playing it, you have to play. Because part of the point of Exchange Year is that it doesn’t give you time to stop and think about it.
You have to play. Because when you’re playing, you’re not concentrating on the tens of thousands of miles (and how, really and honestly, can there possibly be a distance as great as tens of thousands of miles? It’s too big), and you’re not concentrating on the strange impersonal house you live in, or the way that you don’t know the little codes and the slang terms and the tiny little splinter-sized cultural artefacts that only come with time. And when you’re playing, you’re not thinking about what there isn’t, and what there was. You’re not thinking that last year you were living with your friends, in a flat that you’d picked, and not just because it had a roof. That you were surrounded by a web of knowledge, social and cultural and geographical, that took years to build up and that you scrubbed completely away by coming here, out across the sea where no-one is.
And so, you play. You do that dislocating thing where you look at the world through the perspective of a you who is in the future but who is looking back at you now and approving, and it carries you through. And you check off all the boxes for that future-you to approve of, you make sure that you’re handing in essays and getting a job and thinking about travel plans and not spending your whole time just killing seconds to get them out of the way. Because it would be easy to do that for a bit, but it just leads to more time out of the game. And time out of the game is time getting lost in all those thoughts, and getting lost in them for too long is dangerous.
And it’s fun to play. That shouldn’t be ignored. The bit that’s difficult is when you’re not really playing, but you’re about to, and you have to drag your foreign limbs up out of the mire and prepare to engage. That’s difficult. Because once you’re playing it’s great. It’s especially great if you’re playing one of the fun games where you’re being social or you’re walking around somewhere new and interesting or you’re sitting being given free food in a fancy restaurant (a new personal favourite). Even playing the duller games like linguistics assignments or sending necessary emails or keeping on top of banking are fun, once you’re playing well enough that they properly divert you.
But it is a game, at least at first. Only slowly, slowly does it become not a game. That starts with those fun bits, especially the social ones. Good company is a universal pleasure, just hanging out is pretty much immediately Exchange Year and not-exchange year, it’s the perfect alloy. The fun parts of academia are too, my poetry tutorials, my modernism lectures. But eventually, even the dull bits which involve emails with more numbers than exclamation points in become just what you’re doing. And then not-playing isn’t different from playing, it’s just a different activity in the same paradigm.
Give this long enough, and eventually, the game becomes realer than the before, or it would if you were playing the game Being Somewhere. But I’m playing the game Exchange Year, which has a fixed telic boundary. It has begun, and it will end, and that makes playing it more distinct from not playing.
You do have to not-play some of the time, though. That’s necessary. There just isn’t the capacity in the human soul to play Exchange Year the whole time, to dedicate every single act unto that imagined future self. You have to — well, it depends on what activities eat up time, for you, in a way that’s completely disconnected from location. Sleeping is the most obvious one, eating next. For me, the main others are reading, writing, music. Those are the ones which don’t make me feel guilty about not-playing, I guess, because they’re things that I (and by extension future-me) regard as worth doing anyway. Something more vegetative like computer games are more of a fallback, the sort of activity I only fall into very occasionally when I psychologically need to rebel against the game.
Premeditated not-playing like this is necessary, and relaxing. I have to pitch it right, not over-indulge, but it’s good. What’s disconcerting is when I suddenly find myself not-playing in the middle of a game. Walking through Brisbane, and suddenly overwhelmed with the sensation that this really isn’t Edinburgh. Seeing something that reminds me of a running joke with someone on the other side of the world. This can even happen during the most enjoyable games; going to see Despicable Me with Morgan and Scarlett was fun, one of those merges of Exchange Year and not-exchange year where none of this was on my mind and I was just having a good time chilling out. But nonetheless, the first time the little yellow minions spoke, they reminded me of the voice acting in Abe’s Exoddus, and I had a moment where I just really, really missed sitting in my flat in Edinburgh, crunching my way through bourbon creams and coffee, and watching Gareth ingeniously rescuing …what were they called…Mudokons.
There’s lots like this.. Similarly (sort of), the new posters for Slipknot’s live [Sic]nesses DVD may make me terribly excited, but they also just make me want to be back around the people who I saw that show with last year. I could go on — I really could — but you get the point. And that’s not even getting into the things that just make me miss the comfort of being home with my family.
Don’t take this as a whinge, I write it more as just …a tribute to how nice it is to feel at home, really. It’s just how things are, it doesn’t un-create any of the fun I’m having or the exciting things I’m doing, it’s not an insult to any of the great people I’ve met here. And, yeah, the game becomes less obvious as time passes. But I guess I’m at a little glitch just now — academic deadlines (thankfully) pushed me into a few consecutive weeks of extreme Exchange Year, and then getting a bunch of them out of the way spurred on a burst of delightedly indulging in not-playing, and now I’m back on that cusp where you have to force yourself back into the game, which is difficult. But I will. And if I play right, then when I look back on it, I’ll be glad I played.
Because, really, that’s sort of the point.