Humor me for a second.
Subtly nod your head if a video game has ever made you shout or swear at the screen. Be honest. How about angrily throw your hands or controller? Yes? No? Has a video game ever made you laugh? Facepalm, maybe? Has one ever made you argue with your friends? What about crying? Has a video game ever made you cry, or at least made you want to? How about pride? When you have finally overcome that one boss–that one obstacle that had been giving you so much trouble–did you feel pride and accomplishment stir in your chest? Have you ever felt like part of something bigger–a unified force of combined efforts from friends and strangers alike to explore, battle, and otherwise accomplish what you could not do alone?
Did you love video games as a kid? Do you love video games now? Do you have hope for their future?
When you put aside all of the what’s—franchises, corporate powers, game sales, conspiracies—all of the when’s—E3, console generations, the expansive history of the medium, the crash of 1982—all of the who’s—the players, the characters, the men and women who create every cartridge and disk—and all of the where’s—households, international tournaments, retailers, the Mushroom Kingdom—there’s only one primal question remaining. The burning question.
Their popularity is at an all-time high in the mainstream market, and their existence is becoming observably more prominent in culture at large. They aren’t hiding in the basements of peculiar, male thirty-something’s, or requested exclusively by children. Video games are an imperative and evolving part of the air now. Like pollution in California, but with less poison and more pretty colors.
Some snap answers to the question why will include: “It’s just a hobby,” “I play to kill time,” “A lot of my friends play them,” and my favorite: “Because they’re fun.”
Yes, they can be a hobby, they can kill time, a lot of your friends probably do play them, and they are fun. These aren’t answers, at least not satisfactory ones. These are all bits of a larger reality. A virtual reality, if you’ll forgive my gaudiness. Other pieces of that same reality are: “The music is so diverse and great,” “They’re an escape from the world,” and “They inspire me.”
All true, but all vague. So I return to the burning question: Why do video games consist of, and promote, all these things?
Because of the negative stigma associated with the activity (a stigma now steadily dying out), anybody who’s called themselves a “gamer” in the last 40+ years has at some point been pressed into a metaphorical corner, where they must confront that question for themselves. After all, if video games are so bad or pointless, what justification do we have to keep playing them? We needed to convince ourselves. And, as such, thousands, nay, millions of answers have been born to tackle this question.
But neither of us have time for a million answers, so I’ll make it easy on us both.
The Vehicle of Video Games
Believe it or not, there are like, books written on this very subject. Two gentlemen named Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan co-authored a neat little work called Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound (http://www.gluedtogames.com/), compiling their mutual, psychological studies of video games and the results born of that research. In the book are many good answers to a lot of good questions, but for our purposes, allow me to pull back the curtain on three specific needs that the authors believe video games satisfy: competency, autonomy, and relatedness.
Competency. The innate need to grow and develop mastery. Videogames can provide this in a couple of different avenues. Role-playing games are notorious for their leveling systems, in which you accumulate experience throughout the course of the game to grow stronger, unlock abilities, and transform your character into an ever-more-proficient being. Examples would include games like Final Fantasy, Diablo, Elder Scrolls, and even games like Mass Effect.
Platformer games are basically designed to fulfill the value of competency. These would be items in the realm of Sonic, Portal, Megaman, or, if you hate yourself, The Impossible Game. Each of these rely on a mind for precision, navigation, and knowing the specific limitations and physics of their respective game worlds. The further into each game you get, the more difficult each challenge (some of which might be puzzles) becomes, demanding you (as the player) to refine your skills in order to come out on top. And while the following are not platformers, competency also plays an instrumental role in games like Guitar Hero or Dance, Dance Revolution! where literally the only function they serve is to make you feel like you can play guitar or dance. And maybe learn who Slash is.
Don’t underestimate the power of the word feel. Feeling is the hook, line, and sinker when it comes to all of these needs, as will be more prominently shown in the next point.
Autonomy. Every human thirsts for a feeling of autonomy. If we didn’t, we’d never get out of our parent’s house, learn to drive, or make our own decisions. Videogames are laced with gifts and promises of autonomy. The importance of “choice-driven” gameplay is becoming increasingly popular, especially in Western society (because we’re American and yay freedom).
Which side will you choose? The Light Side or the Dark Side? Paragon or Renegade? Will you save all of the Little Sisters or use them as fuel to confront the next Big Daddy? It seems videogame developers have become more interested in the moral consequences of your actions and the influence these actions serve in the game world. They’re filling your consoles and computers with back-to-back calls on whether you should spare the man who tried to rob you, or shoot him in the face. Even then, it’s not all so black-and-white. The Walking Dead has a small segment in which you are given only three rations of food to divide up among nearly a dozen people for the day. Not only is this a difficult situation in the first place, but knowing that all of the NPCs (non-player computers) opinions of you actually change depending on your decision is stressful. You reap their judgment or gratitude, and there’s no way to make everybody happy.
Developers are starting to tread new waters with this whole decision-making concept, and see how far they can push and manipulate their consumers into making weighted decisions. I’m sure they’re having a blast every time they sit down to work on the storyboards. I probably would. It sounds fun.
But autonomy isn’t only about having choices. The choices actually need to feel like they matter. Choice alone will not capture somebody’s interest. They are only worth including if the player thinks that what they’re doing is having an impact on the game world or the characters around them. There are games with an abundance of character design options, but minimal to zero instances where you actually see your character afterwards. Some games give you tons of spells or techniques to unlock, but not many people are going to care if only a select few of these techniques are any good. My roommate and I are playing Tales of Xillia right now, a Japanese Role-Playing Game with a great battle system. While fighting, you can have your characters polymerize attacks to form new abilities. While many of these combinations look cool, most of them aren’t worth using during in-game combat. I think we prioritize 20% of all these combinations, because our strategy is good enough without the rest most of the time.
Or think of Mass Effect and its elaborate dialogue trees. This might not have been the first series to come up with a system of selecting your responses to other characters, but it’s certainly one of the best at crafting the illusion that what you say actually has influence on the direction of the narrative. Anybody who’s played the game more than once knows that most (read: definitely not all) events would occur the same way regardless of your choice. But it doesn’t matter. When you’re sitting there, immersed in the expansive plot and intense interactions, you feel like everything you’re doing is carving out the game world. See, there’s that word again. Feel.
Relatedness. You know what video games have been focusing on more in the last several years than ever before? Connecting the gaming community in a beautiful nebula of multiplayer opportunities. Xbox Live is largely responsible for pioneering this change, not because it came first, but because it articulated the first decent multiplayer servers on consoles. Since then, we the people have spoken and become agents for a relatedness phenomenon. Nowadays, lack of multiplayer is considered a weakness if not included in new games, and the developers of those games are practically shunned until they learn from their mistakes. Like children forced to sit at the fence instead of play during recess.
We need relatedness because we want to know we make a difference to others–even if only one other person. Every human feeds on the knowledge that they contributed to somebody’s life. The same goes in reverse. Whether conscious or subconscious, there’s something profound and satisfying with placing your faith in somebody else. One of my favorite characters from Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender wraps it up as such: “While it is always best to believe in oneself, a little help from others can be a great blessing.” Love you, Uncle Iroh. Such a bro.
A sense of belonging has always been found in supporting and representing a team, and from Titanfall to World of Warcraft, teamwork is the name of the game. We feel like we are investing into something bigger than ourselves, if even just by a small margin. That’s probably why MMO’s (Massively Multiplayer Online games. I’ll cover video game genres in a future installment) have been so forcefully on the rise. From the lesser known names of Path of Exile and Elsword up to Bungie’s Destiny, we are embarking on ever newer and bigger expeditions that cannot be completed without companions by our side. Hours of playing with the same party can generate a sense of cognitive harmony, and even promote members calling out each other’s strengths and weaknesses for the betterment of all.
A good representative of all three parts of this trifecta is The Smash Brothers documentary, a nine-piece series documenting the rises, falls, and lives of several of the best Super Smash Bros. Melee players of all time. The nature of competitive Melee gameplay demands extraordinary competency. The autonomy is found in each player having their own methodology and unique style of combat, and the relatedness is found not only in the “crews” of players, but the gaming community in general. Really, if you haven’t checked it out, do yourself a favor.
The Game of Life
Notice something about these three elements? They don’t apply just to video games. Bernard Suits has this to say on playing games as a general activity: “[Games are] a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” He’s right. There is not a single scrap of DNA or biological obligation that encourages you to walk down to your nearest video game retailer, pick up a copy of Dark Souls, and spend the next few weeks in an insufferable pit of self-loathing. Sorry bud, that one’s on you. Video games are not necessary. All three of these things—competence, autonomy, relatedness—can be fulfilled by everyday things. Some of you are saying, “Well duh, of course they can. After all, it’s not like videogames have been around forever or everybody plays them.” And again, you’d be right.
But you could argue that video games do it better. By which I mean video games might be the most attractive dispenser of these needs–so attractive that they can become more of an end than the means to that end. Work, school, family, friends, religion, and other hobbies can all satisfy these facets of life, but separately, and with more difficulty.
As it has been said before, life is much like a game. It’s just the most difficult game ever. Sure, it can fulfill your competency, autonomy, and relatedness, but at what cost? The amount of choices are staggering, and you have no way of knowing if you’ve made the right or wrong choice until it’s often years too late. The goals are indeterminate, and the methods for achieving them are either unknown or confusing because everybody does it differently and some information clashes with other information. Feedback is rarely immediate, and, if it is, there’s no way of knowing if the judge of that feedback is biased or even prolific enough to give an accurate report in the first place. Rewards are slow to come, assuming they come at all, and the prospect of winning and losing is arbitrary at best.
Somehow, if that wasn’t enough, videogames have one more ace up the sleeve. They have a strangely keen connection to nostalgia, especially in the relatedness department. Get a group of long-time gamers together and they’ll talk about some of the things they’ve experienced until their tongues fall out of their heads. They’ll talk about who their favorite characters are and why, which video game songs are the most memorable, and which personal achievements were most satisfying. We’re not talking about things that they’d only done in the last couple of years, either. No, some of these memories can be traced back to just after the cradle. And, chances are, most of the time they won’t tire of these discussions. They won’t be ashamed or feel like they’re missing out on something by playing games instead of–dare I say it–going outside.
Because, and here’s the kicker, video games have changed people’s lives.
Now, some of those might be fake. It’s hard to say. But it’s not hard to see the appeal, which is why, at their worst, video games can lead to procrastination and even addiction. There are entire divisions of addiction-recovery programs for helping those trapped by their video game cravings and lifestyle. But that’s just the shadow, cast by what many would call a light. Because of the increasing popularity and growth of the medium, people are starting to take it seriously as an art form. Fully-fledged authors, illustrators, and a host of other professional fabrics are finding their ways onto the gaming scene, and their contribution is only serving to make games that much more appealing. Good luck playing Bioshock Infinite and not being utterly floored by the end. The writing, the characters, the everything. Just…good luck.
Challenging the Burning Question
So we’ve talked about all of this, but video games aren’t just about what we do. They speak to who we are as people. If you tell me you like to play video games and I learn that all you play are Madden and Grand Theft Auto, that says something. We probably aren’t going to click very well. Not because I’m choosing to dislike you, or because I think those games are necessarily bad, but because if those are the flavor of games you are inclined towards, then chances are we wouldn’t have much in common in the first place, even if videogames weren’t involved. On the other hand, if I meet somebody new and unearth that they love role-playing games like Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy, we already have a mutual channel into each other’s souls. From those conversations alone I could probably deduce most of individual’s worldviews, personality traits, and, if I tried, even what sort of friends they have. It’s not so strange, really. With practice, you can do similar things with music, reading material, or any other form of artistic expression.
“Why” is such an intimidating word, but, short of accidental or divine discoveries, it has led to pretty much every single development of knowledge our race has seen. “Why” has made us look at things as big as the galaxies and as small as atoms. “Why” has forced us to look inwardly–at who we are–and outwardly–to the actions of others. As a Christian, I’ve had to take a couple looks at my “why’s,” and they’ve consequently undergone changes over the years. If you’re playing video games (or any game) because they give you a sense of control or competency, then something is wrong. For a long time, video games were one of the only things I actually cared about, and I only have myself to blame for that behavior. For many, video games are a place to go for healing, but that’s not something they were ever made to do. Can some touch your heart or inspire you? Yes, of course they can, and that’s not a bad thing. But when they are the exclusive source of your self-worth and direction, you’ll find yourself lonely and disappointed. Videogames are a pleasure, a convenience, and an entertainment. They should not replace God, they should not be your guide, and (maybe this is just me) they should not be your only hobby or source of enjoyment.
Because as much as they provide, and as great as they are, there is still more to this world God has made. Do not be ashamed of these things you love, but remember where they stand and prioritize them accordingly.
God bless, make a friend, and always remember to smile.
“You beat the game, thanks for playing.”