July 14, 2012

Confessions of an Ex-Gamer - 5 Thing I Sought in Video Games

I am an ex-gamer.

I quit playing video games for good just a few weeks ago.

For years I invested countless hours in little virtual worlds that left me with nothing to show for my effort. While many players give up gaming because of the time and money wasted on it, that is not what I'm focusing on. While virtual entertainment is a major time-sink, that is not my primary concern as I evaluate my old addiction. What interests me is discovering WHY games held me in their thrall for so long. What is it about them that sucked me in for hours a day, and years at a time?  Like any hobby or addiction, I was a user because of what I wanted to get out of it. In the end I identified 5 primary things I looked for in video games - which they ultimately failed to provide.

1. FUN
This is the driving force behind not just video games, but most forms of media entertainment. I played games primarily because they are fun. Any gamer would tell you that. Whether it was facing hordes of monsters in combat, or solving intricate puzzles, or piloting a starship through outer space, the gameplay itself was enjoyable. Maybe your thing isn't games, maybe it is movies, or sports, or hunting. Any hobby at its foundation holds the primary element of pleasure. How this changed for me I can't really say. I just know that one day I loved me some Mario-kart, and the next it was as tasteless as clay. I stared at the screen and wondered "What am I doing? This isn't fun anymore."

However, I was also aware that a big element in gaming is novelty. If I was bored, it must be because my games were old-hat. I'd played through Metroid Prime so many times I could probably map the entire alien planet on graph paper if I was blind folded and had to hold the pencil in my teeth. What I really needed was something fresh and exciting. So in a last ditch effort, I took all my games to the local Gamestop and traded them in for credit to buy new ones. It worked, for a little bit. But pretty soon the appeal wore off, and I was asking the same questions, and growing increasingly frustrated. Like an alcoholic who hits the bottle long after he's lost any pleasure from it, simply through force of will and habit I went through dozens of games, telling myself that if I could find the right one, gaming would be fun again. Title after title failed to provide, but I still would not give up my addiction. Even if the fun factor had worn out, I still had plenty of reasons to invest in gaming.

Just second to the all-important principle of pleasure is the principle of escape. Games were how I de-stressed from the craziness of life. The deeps of space and breathtaking vistas of my fantasy worlds offered a chance to breathe, when my own world was increasingly claustrophobic. I knew that things were stable and unchanging as soon as I hit the power button. Nothing had changed since my last save point. If I enjoyed games for their novelty, I also depended on them for their predictability. Of course this mode of escapism backfired, the way it always does when we avoid issues. Because no matter how controlled and safe the game world was, I had to emerge sometime back into real life, and things had most likely gotten worse due to my progressive inaction. This of course, scared the daylights out of me, which caused me to retreat back into the digital realm.

It's insane, really, the way some gamers will seek comfort and solace in their hobby while the real world they live in (and the only one that matters) goes to pieces. I was like a man hiding in the bathtub while his house is burning down. Just when I ran out of breath and had to resurface, I would see how bad things had really gotten, take another gulp of air, and submerge again.  

There was something entirely satisfying about the challenge games offered. It's a frequent complaint among players when a game proves to be too easy to complete. This is because the thrill of adventure comes in the difficulty of it. Like any hobby, be it mountain climbing or jigsaw puzzles, the process of surmounting that challenge makes it worthwhile. It is hardwired into humanity. We all seek out something bigger than ourselves to live for, to be part of some all important mission for the betterment of mankind and our own souls. If life seemed too easy, dull, and boring, I was always one download away from being swept up in some grand adventure. Why would I deny myself that opportunity?

And as the player progresses, so too does his skill level, which provides further incentive in the form of felt rewards. The monotony of daily life and work does not offer such an easily recognizable leveling up system, and this can make it feel trivial. Yet games have built in achievements which provide a sense of accomplishment.

Men specifically, it seems, enjoy the threat of a challenge because it presents the possibility of both risk and failure, with the promised chance of success. Which of course brings me to my next point.

There's no feeling like it. Striking that final blow, vanquishing the evil king, completing the adventure, and sitting back to watch the triumphant closing cinematic just before the credits roll. It's why we play games at all. To beat them. To complete the challenge. And we enjoy it so much it's why we are willing to shell out thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours to do it again, and again, and again. It meant so much to me growing up that some of the most poignant memories of my childhood are the exultant moments I felt when all that hard work paid off. When Ganon was defeated and the kingdom saved, when Bowser was trounced and the princess rescued, when the aliens were destroyed and the galaxy was again at peace. There's no doubt about it, beating a game provides a major sense of accomplishment. For many gamers the significance of that success is no small thing, which is why my friends and I would spend time (whatever time we weren't playing video games) bragging about our feats. And this brings me to the final thing I sought in the video game world:

To this point the things I have focused on have been mainly personal in application. But a major component of gaming is the friendship it provides. Again, like most hobbies, there is immediate community formed whenever two people discover they share the same hobby. Suddenly whole new conversations open up, and the opportunity to enjoy this pastime together becomes a significant bonding activity. Over the years some of my best friends have been gamers, and I recall many long, fun-filled hours spent over Halo matches and Smash Bros tournaments. As long as I could identify with other gamers, I knew I always had a place to belong, a common people to identify with. Because if there's one thing we desire more than challenge and success, it is community, and we will find that wherever we can.
A few years back though, I came to the frustrating realization that while I had many friends, we often did not know each other very well at all. The time we spent was side-by-side, not face-to-face, with our joint attentions focused not on each other, but on some glowing pixels dancing on a screen. We were trapped in worlds of incredible splendor, but closed to the worlds of ourselves, and each other. We knew very little, if not nothing, of the deep, heartfelt, intimacies of true friendship, things that can only be found in the meeting of souls. This is something that all friendships based around common interests must at some point surpass. No matter the cause that brings us together, as long as it is the common cause we are focused on, we will be too distracted to fully know or care about others. We must at some point take our eyes off of the screen, field, stage, podium, and look at one another.

Final Thoughts
I have compiled here the list of 5 things I sought in video games, alliterated for clarity's sake. You will notice, as I have, that none of these things are inherently bad in themselves. There is nothing wrong with reward, and friendship, and a chance to pull away from the harsh demands of life. And this is one of my primary motivations in compiling this list. In reflecting on my past addiction I do not seek to simply demonize games as harmful, but to discover what it was that kept me coming back to them. To find the goodness that, if not inherent in video games, was at least inherent in my desire to play them. And yet the conclusion I inescapably came to, and which I think all habitual pursuits will ultimately arrive at, is that the things I longed for most could not be found in the places that I searched. For years I would have told you that I loved video games. I would have believed myself to have been telling the truth. But the truth is that I never loved them, I only loved the things they hinted at, the things they whispered of but failed to deliver. I loved the ideas behind the onscreen world, not the world itself, and eventually came to see that the things I longed for could never be found in that world, and perhaps not even in this one.

1 comment:

Mike Slone said...

Yes, well, you posted this a long time ago and it is a great evaluation of the gamer's mind. I have been an ex-gamer many times, but I'm prone to falling off the wagon.

So the big question is, are you still an ex-gamer? If so, I'd love to see a post about your feelings now, and everything in the last six months. Surely you have been tempted to relapse.