The dark side of the current gaming experience

Gaming has been a common and popular activity in the recent past, and will undoubtedly continue to be so. The main reason is simply that it’s a lot of fun. Not only that, but just as you may watch movies that have value beyond entertainment, you occasionally encounter informational, educational, and mind-expanding games (to name a few, Age of Empires, Portal, Syberia, Limbo, Myst, Braid). Some have surprising literary value, at least in part if not in whole (e.g. Half-Life, Bioshock, maybe Bastion?). A greater number of games provide a moderate amount of intellectual exercise, so it’s not entirely unproductive (e.g. Professor Layton, Hotel Dusk, Phoenix Wright, and a great number of puzzle games). There’s even the rare “sandbox” style game with immense possibilities that promotes creative thinking and imagination (I’m looking at you, Minecraft).

Starting this post with what games do right is necessary because I’m about to bash gaming hard.

The allure of games is manifold, but in all the ways below they are bait for traps.

Addiction. Little needs to be said here. Because gaming is so very fun it is easy to become ensnared by your desire for it. The potential and occasional benefits (some described in the introduction above) and its acceptance in many social circles gives one plenty of material from which to rationalize a compulsive addiction, just as with television

Escapism. The possibilities inherent in computing are huge, but couple that with human storytelling and arts and you’ve got yourself a recipe for immensely varied landscape of experiences. As Fred Brooks once said, computing is like magic made real in our own world (paraphrase from Mythical Man Month). We want to fall in and explore fantastic things that we might never have imagined. The problem: Game worlds are not actually our world. They are imaginary, just fantasies. Point is, like drinking and television, it’s a way to escape the unpleasantness of existence. Entertainment in moderation may be acceptable; drunkenness and media addiction never is.

Sedentariness. (it’s a word). Some health implications here. Eyesight and posture will no doubt suffer. I hear that sitting isn’t healthy, but you can search for some sources on that for yourself. It’s pretty obvious to me that sitting is horrible for my health. If you often work at a laptop, you probably understand intimately the miserable neck pain and discomfort that looking down at a screen causes.

False achievement. Here is where it starts getting interesting. This is a subtle phenomenon that an avid gamer may not perceive at first. It took me a lot of experience going through the cycle to become aware of it. One of the funnest aspects of many games is the sense of progress, development, or growth of the player’s story, abilities, character, or relationships. (Bioware’s famous games involve the player in convincing and moving relationships with other characters. Innumerable games, notably RPGs, allow the player to improve his abilities with practice, time and effort. Games like Myst, Half-Life and Syberia tell stories that the player cares about and span multiple games like a novel series). Let’s not forget achievements and badges, which are a popular and hard to resist method for motivating players to do things that are not necessarily fun in and of themselves (badges are a whole different topic that I may blag about one day).

The problem with such “development” is that it’s a terrible substitute for the real thing. I don’t have the world to explain this as well as I’d like, but I’ll try with an analogy. It’s like drinking lots of water when you’re hungry to try and trick the stomach, or drinking salt water when you’re thirsty. It has the effect we want, but only mildly on the occasions that it works at all. And because of the need for instant gratification, even the “effort” that one must make to achieve goals is minor. It’s a poor effort for a mockery of achievement. Exemplified, one does not build relationships by picking dialogue options, develop skills by repetitive clicking, or get involved in interesting things by watching a monitor.

If you’re not agreeing with me, it’s probably my fault for not explaining this point well. All I’m saying is that the illusion of achievement masks the truth of you not achieving anything. It’s ok to have entertainment without productivity, but it’s not ok to believe that you have made progress in some area without actually making progress. I’m sure many educators could jump in at this point and explain in detail why that is bad.

I’ll never remember the sickening feeling I felt when I realized that the very things I cared to pursue for my character in The Sims 3 were the things that I was neglecting to pursue for myself because I was spending my available time sitting at a monitor. In a fit of sanity, I deleted my data to make sure I couldn’t continue playing.

Disappointment, feeling of emptiness. The natural result of a gaming experience with the above element of false achievement is disappointment with the experience. There’s the concept of suspension of disbelief: you willingly stop thinking about the implausibilities and give your mind over to a story you know to be untrue. When the story is over, your mind has no option but to re-acknowledge the unreal nature of the experience you just had. The problem is the stark contrast between what you thought you were doing at the time and the reality of it. Like hindsight into a decision you regret making but seemed good at the time, the realization that your “achievements” were actually pretty meaningless makes the player a bit disgusted with… well, it depends. I find that I get disgusted with myself for wasting so much time. Some people blame the game or the developers.

I will venture to guess that this is why the endings of brilliant games and game series are so heavily criticized by its most ardent fans. Take, for example, Mass Effect. I’ve been warned that if I liked the first two, I should not even touch the final game. My theory here proposes that the disappointment comes not from a bad ending, but from realizing you just finished a three hundred hour long mission to save the human race (and all the aliens and the galaxy itself) to learn that you just ran out of game, that you didn’t actually achieve anything, and that you’re gonna have to find another game to occupy your attention or it’s back to the unpleasantness of your actual life.

From the above, I can pretty much fabricate the experience of any modern game by only knowing its basics. For a Bethesda RPG, you’ll be taken with the huge world and varied social circles, drawn in by the convincing stories and intrigues, enchanted by the lore and histories of a land rivaling the depth of Tolkien’s works, and absorbed in your strategies to level up and defeat enemies. You’ll drudge through repetitive grinding barely masked by slightly differing premises and settings, and build up expectation for the grand finale, where the big bad will fall and you’ll be the hero at the center of everything. Then the credits roll, and you spend a few days bemoaning your existence, unused to living without playing the game as the central activity of your waking hours. Blame the game, rue your stupidity, and bemoan the loss of two hundred hours of your life. Maybe be a little ashamed of it and hide the truth when people ask you where you’ve been or what you’ve been doing. Be very ashamed of it if you are a recent graduate and haven’t even started looking for a job.

As for the solution to this problem… that will have to wait for another post. It’s a specific incarnation of a more general lifestyle problem, and I want to tackle that in terms that can cover all or most of its manifestations.

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