Read This: Arena by Holly Jennings

Arena by Holly Jennings (Roc, April 5, 2016) – I live with a gamer. It’s a hobby for him, but it’s one he takes seriously. He haunts forums and watches Let’s Play videos on YouTube, and one time, he actually woke up early on a weekend to participate in a group mission because Jef Major (aka One F Jef) was going to be on it, too. And these Let’s Play gamers? They spend hours playing. They take the time to instruct other players (and entertain them). If gaming is a hobby for them, it may very well be their only hobby.

Kali Ling puts them all to shame.

For Kali, life as a pro gamer is pretty sweet. She’s about to be named the first female captain in RAGE tournament history. She has access to the best training equipment money can buy, and her team is the one to beat. Then her team is basically eviscerated in the final match-up of the preseason, landing them in the losers bracket and needing to claw their way back to the championship. The night of their massive loss, Nathan, one of her teammates, overdoses. Kali doesn’t take it well, and the new player, Rooke, doesn’t seem to care all that much about putting forth a team effort. But Kali’s not giving up. She’s worked too hard for this and sacrificed too much to take the defeat lying down. As the line between reality and the arena begin to blur, she struggles not to fall into the same spiral Nathan did.

Arena is a creative, fast-paced, and entertaining allegory for what happens when you live your life plugged in. Kali’s world is all ads and image and virtual reality, and she loses sight of what matters. It’s an addiction (and the irony that I’m using an online tool to tell you this is not lost on me). And that’s what Arena does really, really well – tells the story of an addict coming to terms with her problem. Some people (who aren’t gamers, or who don’t have to listen to gamers go on about games and missions and characters) may have a harder time understanding why the game is such a big deal.

Think about the amount of time you spend on Facebook. Watching YouTube. Perusing Pinterest or Instagram or Tumblr.

Now unplug. See if you can go a day.

For some people, they can’t. That’s Kali’s life. She needs that rush. The arena, as fake as it is, is where she feels most herself, most alive. She starts to exhibit all the symptoms of a junkie, and when she finally wises up and tries to cut the cord, she suffers from withdrawal.

And like any professional sport, the addictions – whether it’s to drugs or alcohol (both surprisingly easy to get) or to the game itself – are swept under the rug.

It might be fiction, but Arena paints a pretty nasty portrait of a very important lesson too many people need to learn. Life is meant to be experienced, not viewed through a VR lens, and if we’re lucky, we’ll figure it out before it’s too late.

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