Video games have come to define a generation. Consider the 26th annual Game Developers Conference held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco last week. In attendance were more than 20,000 people who love video games; in fact, they love them so much that they make video games for a living. Within this crowd of aficionados, you might have found Robert Ashley, creator of “A Life Well Wasted.” But he was not there to advertise a product or network for his company; he was there to look for stories and personal ones at that.
In listening to Ashley’s Internet radio show “A Life Well Wasted,” a show about “video games and the people who love them,” you probably will not learn much about the newest video games. You could call it “This American Life” for people who love video games, but even that wouldn’t capture the amount of editing and attention to detail Ashley puts into his show. In hour-long episodes, he examines a handful of stories on certain themes, such as creating things based on video games in the episode “Artists, Fans, and Engineers,” through the form of highly personal interviews. Back from a three-year hiatus, Ashley has released the seventh episode, entitled “Work.”
A former Berkeley resident, Ashley wrote for various Bay Area video game-focused publications such as Electronic Gaming Monthly and Games for Windows Magazine. After the closure of Electronic Gaming Monthly, which brought about writing staff layoffs, he made his first episode of the show, “The Death of EGM,” which is about the writers’ experience of working at a video game magazine for most of their adult lives. Even without formal editing or production knowledge, Ashley went on to make five more episodes in 2009. In mid-2010, Ashley moved to Athens, Ga. to focus on making music with his band I Come to Shanghai, which also produces music for the show. During the hiatus, his band released two albums with no updates on the show. But now he is working on “A Life Well Wasted” with renewed vigor and plans on regularly releasing more episodes in the immediate future.
At the heart of Ashley’s show are interviews with mostly ordinary people with interesting stories to tell. However, unlike the typical journalist interview in pursuit of an angle, Ashley prefers subjects tell their own story in a unfiltered manner. “I like it when they don’t really know when the interview started, like you’re just sort of talking, and then all of a sudden they’re used to the fact that you have a microphone in their face,” Ashley said.
And this interview style is evident in the show. In each segment, Ashley highly edits dialogue down so that his own voice is eliminated and the interviewee’s story flows seamlessly. This is storytelling in the purest, most human sense. As a final touch, Ashley integrates music to propel or provide certain moods to segments of each story. It is here where Ashley’s skill as a musician shines: Ashley knows when to place a sad, wistful tone or to go out with an extreme flourish.
Through limiting the scope of the show to video games and the people who love them, Ashley is able to explore trends in this relatively new community. One of the central themes of the show is the sense of escapism inherent to playing video games. This escapism attracts people we might label as freaks, nerds, outcasts or weirdos. Yet Ashley explores this idea without making fun of the awkward. “I’m really not the kind of person who thinks it’s funny for someone to be a weirdo,” Ashley said. “I identify with the outsider type of person.” Ashley says he grew up as outcast, stating, “When I was a kid, and up until my mid-20s, I was a real weird, fat, awkward, not-a-lot-of-friends kind of guy, so I can understand people who don’t really fit into society in like a beautiful, normal way.”
A great example of this theme is shown in an interview with Nick “Ulillillia” Smith, the subject of his latest episode. A quick Google search may lead to a description of an Asperger-diagnosed shut-in who has played more than 1500 hours of “Bubsy 3D,” one of the worst video games ever made. But Ashley highlights Smith as a meticulous, intricate guy who has detailed his life in one incredible website and is attempting to make one of the most complex video games ever made, “Platform Masters,” from scratch. It’s this ability to remove all the stigma of being a “gamer” that Ashley excels at. He acknowledges it, stating, “I always try to find people who have something interesting about them that might not be obvious and encourage the audience to empathize with them and to get what is similar between them and someone who they might not think they could relate to.” Ashley believes that if you shove away all the superficialities, we’re all the same, and Smith is at heart an ordinary person with devotions, ambitions and emotions.
Ultimately, “A Life Well Wasted” is a podcast that evokes sympathy as much as awe. Ashley shows interesting stories can still come from people who stare at a screen all day.