What Survival Horror Can Teach us about Writing, Teaching, and Everything

It’s October, the spookiest month of the year, for all the cultural milieu of ghosts, goblins, and ghouls, but also, for those of us on the semester system, because of…. Midterms. That point in the year where you’re somehow expected to do everything at once, and also do this other thing that won’t take any time at all, they promise. I think putting deadlines for things in October should be illegal (she says, with an Oct. 15th deadline for this very blog post!). My point here is, the midpoint of any academic semester can often feel overwhelming, and not just for us: our students are taking some of their first college exams, and if they’re new to college, they may be starting to feel the growing pains of adjusting to this new life of adult accountability.

          My prior blog posts for CPGS have been about how we can use lessons we learn from gaming in our writing and our pedagogy, and this one is no different, but it’s also, if I may be so bold, a little bigger than that. This one is maybe getting a little into “life lesson” territory but follow me here. One of my favorite genres of video game (two words, fight me) is survival horror, and I’ve probably played more horror games over the course of the last several years than anything else: all the Silent Hills, the good Resident Evils, and a bunch of others. Most recently, I’ve been replaying the Dead Space trilogy, which was the first survival horror franchise I ever played. But now, instead of playing as a college freshman procrastinating on writing her Ethics paper, I’m playing as a digital rhetorician, and some interesting thoughts have come out of looking at survival horror through this lens. But the big one, and the thing that I think we can apply to our teaching, writing, and busy October lives, is this: it all boils down to Kairos.

          Kairos, beyond being the title of an excellent open-access journal in the field, is a Greek term meaning “a propitious moment for decision or action.” Basically, is NOW the right time to say or do something. We use Kairos often in our daily lives – we might not mention something to our department head when they’re already in a foul mood, or we review material with our students right before they have to submit an assignment. But when it comes to writing, finding that kairotic moment can sometimes be a struggle, since composing is always already tied up in audience, circulation, and genre. Even if you write it, will the right people see it? And will they see it in time, before it’s too late to act or the emotional tone around the topic has changed? Picking not just the right moment to write something, but the right time and place to put it out into the world, is a skill that many otherwise skilled rhetors and writers struggle with, let alone people still beginning to learn to compose.

          Survival horror games are absolutely rife with the need to attend to Kairos. As a specific example, let’s look at the very first Resident Evil. A famous survival horror game mechanic present since time immemorial is limited inventory space: you only have so much room on your person to carry health, ammo, and quest-relevant items. Also, some items are bigger than others – a shotgun takes up more space than a handgun, which balances the fact that it’s a stronger weapon. This makes inventory management an ongoing exercise in Kairos: knowing when you need to have certain items in your inventory, and when you should use them. Can you afford to offload some handgun ammo so you can carry the grenade launcher you just found, for which ammo will be much scarcer? Should you use the healing item now, even though you don’t really need it, so you can free up space to pick up the quest item? Even the ability to save your progress in Resident Evil is tied to limited inventory space, because in order to save, you have to have ink ribbon to use at the safe room typewriters.

          While we don’t have literal limited inventory space in our lives, and also we aren’t trapped in a mansion with zombies, what we DO all have, as teachers and students, are limited resources. These resources are material (our computers, our snacks, our medications), temporal (our free time, our obligations), and mental/emotional (our energy, our moods). And at the same time, our writing has its own limited inventory space: we can’t include every piece of evidence or every tangent or every citation. Thinking about my writing and my teaching the same way I think about my inventory in a survival horror game, while it sounds a little dramatic, has actually helped me immensely, because I can prioritize things based not on some weird abstracted concept of their importance, but on what will help most in this specific kairotic moment. Do I NEED to spend time on this subject in class, or would my students benefit more from some structured work on something they need more time with? Can I put this service obligation down for this week so I can have more space to give good feedback on these papers? And always remembering that I absolutely cannot do it all, because the game only gave me sixteen inventory slots, and at least some of those need to have healing items (time off, etc) in them.

          So it sounds a little cheesy, but I think using Kairos as a lens to triage your writing and your obligations can be really helpful in getting us to divest ourselves of things that, it turns out, aren’t all that essential, and lets us respond more fully to the needs of the moment instead of our lofty hypothetical long-term goals.

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