At some point in high school English class, they teach you about the difference between passive and active voice. The active voice, it is said, places the subject and noun such that you can immediately tell who is performing an action. With the passive voice, the subject is acted upon—for example, “The boy kicked me”, versus, “I was kicked by the boy.” It’s an important rule, in it ensures that our language accurately reflects the responsibility and attributes the action-taker in a direct way. The passive voice, meanwhile, hides the responsible party behind language.
These concepts have practical application outside of their use in writing and extend to other areas of our life. Active versus passive can describe the ways we think, our approach to problem solving, and our ability to make an effort. It can describe the initiative we take, or don’t, and whether or not we hold ourselves accountable to our own actions.
As a writer, the rule is one that I used to ignore—however a sentence appeared on the screen, it was staying that way. I didn’t put much stock in the impact it would have on the audience. But as I grow older, I’m realizing my refusal to recognize this simple structure is related to the way I have dodged a proactive approach to my own life. My circumstances have not been the result of deliberate effort but, rather, letting life happen to me. And the difference between my success and failure has come down to not knowing how to try.
That may sound reductively simple, but to make an effort requires a set of internal boundaries that provide a person with a sense of structure. That structure determines our ability to impose limitations on our own behavior, and to maintain it, and if that framework is not established during key developmental phases as a child, you really suck at adulthood. Going back and trudging through those developmental phases is hard, and even harder without the malleable prefrontal cortex of youth.
Back in 2014, when I wrote my first piece for Polygon, I was getting close to having figured it out. After reaching a threshold of frustration with my physical health, I was finally exercising regularly, with the help of Dance Central, and starting to see some improvement in a few of my symptoms. Several times a week, I’d fire up the game in the privacy of my own home, and quietly struggle through the basics of movement that so many others take for granted. Over time, I regained some mobility.
But while I did make some gains, it never seemed to crossover into the abilities I expected. I kept waiting for a major breakthrough with my muscle mass and endurance but it never came. As I plateaued, I blamed my poor circulation and abysmal eating habits and lost interest. But by the time I got back around to it a few years later, I was a different person. A few rounds of cognitive behavioral therapy had given me the ability to focus and maintain consistency, and more than that, an ability to actually make an applied effort. Once again, I picked up the latest Dance Central game and, this time, a copy of Zumba Fitness: World Party for the Xbox One, deciding to switch back and forth between them as my boredom and muscle soreness demanded.
The difference in those experiences illustrates what my problem had been every other time I tried to get in shape. Dance Central:Spotlight, for example, has the series’s signature tracking system, which allows for more complicated moves by outlining and isolating key body parts and using visual cues to correct your positioning. It requires a level of spatial awareness that tones the muscles but doesn’t allow for a lot of mistakes. Zumba Fitness: World Party, meanwhile, is easier on the tracking, but the pacing is more intense. Trying to keep with the professional trainers on-screen is a workout in and of itself. It’s forgiving on form, which adds a freedom of movement, letting you work harder without worrying about missing a step or losing points.
While they both have their strong suits, I realized that Dance Central had almost been holding my hand all these years. I didn’t have enough room to grow, so I put myself through the motions just well enough to get a high score. I wasn’t gaining, I was maintaining.
With that factor removed, replaced by the ambiguity of the Zumba Fitness tracker and the intensity of its routines, I could flourish, like a root bound plant repotted in new soil. Over time, with Zumba added to my weekly routine, I started to see gains. My range of motion and flexibility improved all over my body, and it’s become much easier to go about a lot of my daily tasks. It supports what I’ve since come to learn: there’s a vast difference between passive and active movement, between going through the motions, versus moving forward with purpose. While it’s hard to see when you’re on the outside looking in, there’s a conscious intent that separates the two. And nothing got better for me until I saw it.
People have to be taught how to try. It’s a learned, not innate, behavior. Think of the brain’s capacity to process events and emotions as a computer. We have a long term memory and a short term memory. Our ability to function and, if we’re going with the metaphor, run a program, can depend on how much “space” we have free to run a command—the availability of our RAM, so to speak. When our long term memory ages and becomes bogged down by the many things we’ve saved over the years, items at times that we find hard to forget or let go of, we start to get clogged up. Our load times become sluggish. Background applications begin to fail. Certain functions cannot be performed at all. Often the only thing to do is free up space, which means jettisoning the things we don’t need and moving on.
I didn’t know that freeing up space in your head was an active process, that I couldn’t just wait for the space to free itself up over time. You have to decide and make the effort yourself. But that’s the thing: all of it is a decision. You either make a proactive stab at it, or you let the chips fall where they may. It’s the difference between making your life happen, or letting life happen to you.
It was the difference between these two games and two fitness experiences that made me realize the same tendency to switch into autopilot that I showed in Dance Central appears when I play other games, too. It’s why I used to love button mashers but absolutely detest strategy. Games were for zoning out, for passive and inactive thought. In having my hand held by Dance Central, zoning out mindlessly as I ensured my limbs successfully completed each step, I wasn’t actually putting in the effort. Every time I actually narrowed my focus and applied direct mental effort, my dexterity and ability to recall moves instantly improved. Now I wonder how different my health might be if I’d been taught to try as a child. Would my joints and muscles and bones ache so much? Would it still feel like wading through molasses when I try to move? Is my physical pain because of my self punitive thought patterns? Does my own body attack itself? If my internal voice became more supportive, would all of this go away?
Medical science still can’t answer those questions for me. And sometimes I still get caught in a trap of passivity where I let life happen to me instead of making it happen. But now that some resources have been freed up, maybe I have enough energy to plan ahead instead of just reacting all the time.
I’m reminded of this every time I fire up Dance Central: Spotlight or Zumba Fitness: World Party on my Xbox One these days. When I start to feel resentful of my body and the obligation to exercise, I remind myself that nothing worth having comes easy, and that making an effort is unavoidable. Every day is a new opportunity to get a little bit better, in hopes it will all be okay someday.
And I can succeed, now that I know how to try.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.