A Life Well Wasted, by Berkeley podcaster Robert Ashley, is hardly the only internet radio show devoted to video games. But it must be the only one regularly compared by fans to Public Radio International's beloved radio program This American Life. Its more-than-polished production values invite the association. The true clincher is A Life Well Wasted's focus not on video games per se, but on the quirks, fascinations, and daily lives of the people who play them.
In one episode, we visit an East Bay game developer with a personal gaming museum hidden in his basement. He leads us through a small hole in the floor, down a precarious ladder, and into a subterranean room filled with joysticks hanging from the walls, a host of vintage arcade machines ready to play, and shelves full of games from countless platforms — plenty of which were never actually released. Later, he explains how he learned to program his own games over the course of a few trips to K-Mart.
In another, we hear from a woman who designs computer chips and once made a purse that's also a portable Nintendo Entertainment System, the eight-bit home-gaming console that debuted in the United States in 1985. (Living up to the podcast's promise of unique characters, she also revealed some non-gaming endeavors such as building her own race car and joining the roller derby with the intention of getting into fights.)
But Robert Ashley does more than document gamers and gaming culture. He also asks big questions. In an episode titled "Why Game?" Ashley attempts to figure out why people are willing to invest so much time and money in games, and what exactly they get from their investment. Ashley begins simply by asking people the title question while wandering the halls at a game developers' conference. At first, the answers are unsatisfying: "Because it's fun," responds more than one person. "It's something to do in your spare time," another says.
In addition to the more shallow answers, we get a big helping of depressing ones: "It helps me to forget about my life ... my horrible life," answers one man. A score of others say they play games in order to "escape reality."
Still others strike the balance between pain and pleasure. Some game developers tell Ashley that video game violence can be therapeutic. That video games immerse you in other worlds. That they allow you to do things you otherwise can't, like save the planet, or get rich. And, strangely enough, they let you feel like you've actually accomplished something.
That last point strikes a chord with Ashley. "That's the secret sauce," Ashley said in an online interview. "One of the reasons I think gaming is so popular with my generation and the people younger than me is that we were all brought up with this ideal that we would go to college and become super successful. Obviously, everyone isn't going to live up to that ideal. You come home from your shitty job or take a break from your complicated relationship problems, and you vacation in a world with really achievable goals.
"You always know what you need to do in a game," Ashley continued. "And when you do it, the game goes out of its way to pat you on the back: 'Hurray for you!' 'Gold star!' Striving for such immaterial recognition may strike some as unfortunate, but Ashley feels otherwise.
"I don't think it's an unhealthy escapism," he said. "Real accomplishment is pretty elusive. Even when I do get something done, I don't feel a lot of catharsis. Certainly not like when I hear that chiming sound in Zelda that tells you when you've solved a puzzle. That is knowable progress."
Ashley produces the entire show by himself, painstakingly stringing together interviews, his own commentary, and electronic music made by his band, I Come to Shanghai. He does all this in his bedroom studio. "Probably spent twenty hours on that first episode," he said. "The last two have [taken] around 120 hours. I started inflating my expectations. I wanted to have original music for each episode. I wanted to have lots of big audio set pieces, musical moments in the story. I'm having a little arms race with myself."
That arms race often results in a strange hybrid between documentary and music, as well as a long wait between episodes. A Life Well Wasted has been around since January 2009, and in that time Ashley has released a mere six episodes. "I do wish I could get them out more frequently," he said. "If I could do it once a month, I think it would take off. People like regularity." Fortunately, plenty of the podcast's followers seem to be willing to settle for something a little more sporadic. Episode five, titled "Help," has been downloaded more than 50,000 times.
"New episodes are slow to come out, " acknowledged Keith McNally, one of Ashley's regular listeners and a fellow podcaster, "but each one seems like something worth hanging on to, and worth listening to multiple times."
Ashley got his start as a freelance writer for video game magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly and Computer Gaming World. "I was flying all over the world writing stories for the magazines, " he said. "It was a lot of fun. Nothing makes you feel successful like international air travel. I went to the Ukraine, Finland, China twice, Poland, lots of places." Ashley's charge was to visit game studios and write stories about the games they were working on — but only games, not people. "I would meet all of these interesting people, but the magazines only cared about the games. They wanted boring nerdy details. Like, what kind of guns can you shoot?" Ashley's frustration with this process eventually led to the birth of A Life Well Wasted.
The show is available for free online. Ashley never asks for donations, but he does sell posters. Olly Moss, a graphic designer based in Los Angles, designs a poster for each episode. A friend of Ashley's in Austin then screen-prints runs of 200, and Ashley hand-numbers them, then sells them, usually for $25 a piece. "Then I spend a week stuffing tubes and staring at a spread sheet," he said. "It would be a pretty good living if I could get it more regularly. It's enough to support me and pay for some traveling for interviews."
Granted, there are a few things he doesn't have to go far to see. Alameda's Lucky Ju Ju Pinball, for example, was featured in the second episode. "My bandmate Sam was dating some girl, and she took him to Ju Ju," Ashley recalled. "He came back and told me, 'Man, there's this pinball place in Alameda where you can play all the pinball you want for ten bucks.'" Ashley says it's still one of his favorite Friday-night outings.
While Ashley may be said to occasionally exploit the eccentricities of his subjects, he's not afraid to turn the spotlight back on himself. "I was a total freak as a kid, tons of social problems," he said. "Some of my best memories are of laying down in front of the TV, in the air conditioning on a really hot day, playing these simple old games. When you're a kid, you have no control over what happens to you. The universe is cruel and arbitrary. Games, for me, were really empowering."