Illustration for article titled The Current Juncture For Gamers

So I’ve been playing video games for an interesting interval of time. When I first started playing it was Mario 64: pre-designed silent protagonist given the straight forward objective of moving towards a goal, maybe a boss at the end to give a sense of ultimate difficulty and achievement, other “optional” goals are listed as collectibles for those who enjoy the journey of the goal, emotional/intellectual investment was no big deal. The most recent game I played that best contrasts the development of games since I was young—and is popular enough that someone reading this would recognize it, even if they’ve never played it—was Fallout 4. Essentially this game serves as an augmentation of what I found myself infatuated with as a 10 year old: now the world is sprawling, objectives are no longer represented by tangible “stars,” ambiguous quests gift the player with the power to make extreme moral choices without having to suffer any real-life consequences, collectibles are still available but they’re generally acquired to improve the talents of the uniquely1 designed character (e.g. their ability to kill in most cases) and the player decides if they want to equip these collectibles to their character to make their character more unique, difficulty options are included to appeal to the multitude of players and their desired cost-gratification ratio, 2 peripheral characters have been added for complexity and they often drift into monologues of troublesome stories sprinkled with a bit of wit for a maximum chance of player engagement. I could go on, but you should get the point.

Someone (maybe you) might read those descriptions and ask, “What’s the problem with that? Yeah, it’s amazing how far video games have come since I was a kid. Imagine where they’ll be 15 years from now.3” I’m trying to do that last part, and I’m a bit concerned.

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One of my first prizes.
One of my first prizes.

I’m also concerned about the future of movies and television for similar reasons, but focusing on video games seems to be the best subject for a complete analysis.

A good place to start, I guess, on why I’m concerned is Mass Effect. Mass Effect was a big turning point in video games for me, as I’m sure it was for a lot of people—and there might be other games that predate it in terms what it did for the industry; I’m not disputing that, just using it as an example here. It was the first game that interjected dramatics and complex character development for me. I thought it was the first meshing of TV elements and interaction. I thought it was the beginning of an immersion that would transcend anything TV or movies could produce. What I didn’t realize was who would dictate this innovation.

Skip ahead to Mass Effect 3 and the notorious ending. I’m probably in some sort of minority saying that it wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to the video game industry. Whatever; I’ve seen worse before and apparently most series endings in all forms of media are terrible in this era, according to most fan bases; science fiction fans are impossible to please and I give anyone credit for showing bravery and ending their series. Focus instead on why these fans complained. They were promised an ending that would be the culmination of all their choices throughout the three games and instead they got one of three choices. There was a big outcry and EA apologized in the form of a downloadable ending expansion. To me this signaled the big dictator in the industry. In part it was the fans, but really it was gratification. The fans did not receive the personalized ending they always wanted and they weren’t gratified.

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Honestly, I’m not sure what they expected. The entire foundation of Mass Effect was built upon that wheel that could be broken down into the choices of boy scout, neutral, and asshole. Even if someone was able to create a listing of some 15 endings4 based on your composite renegade/paragon scores, did you ever feel immersed enough that it seemed like you were in the game? Or were you like me and wishing you could pick something else not listed, something a little more unexpected?

In any case, this probably should have signaled the forthcoming problem. I started to look at these epic drama games a little differently. I noticed that the Dragonborn in Skyrim was gifted with a skill that s/he did not earn by any merit. I noticed that in Mass Effect you could romance any female partner in the game and that they were aesthetically pleasing in a human sense, free from blemishes or unsightly alien growths5. I noticed how many games were predicated on killing multiples of normal humans, which was a subtle way of increasing your own value by saying it takes more than one normal man to kill me. I noticed that characters were carrying inventories that were not realistically possible to carry. I noticed the emphasis on nobility in main characters or “chosen one” tropes. I noticed this entire culture of attainment and possession based around the flexion of digits.

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Here’s an aesthetically pleasing alien, whose only real difference from a human is a very small growth on her head.
Here’s an aesthetically pleasing alien, whose only real difference from a human is a very small growth on her head.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In no way am I trying denounce video games. They are a form of entertainment and there’s nothing inherently wrong with entertainment. However, being consumed by any one pleasure is—I think most of us can agree here—a dangerous thing. How many times have you envied an alcoholic, a junkie, someone who jerks off all day? There are a lot of similar pits to these that one can fall into, and video games have that potential.

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It’s very reasonable for someone to refute this argument, to say that I’m overreacting and that video games don’t have the same chemical interaction that drugs might. I can see what they mean. But we’re also heading into uncharted waters here. Virtual reality is the next level in cutting off all other stimuli so that a viewer/player can enjoy a purer experience. Full disclosure, I have not tried VR yet.6 My fiancé had actually planned to surprise me with a set, but I refused, saying that I don’t want any part of it. I love TV shows, movies, and video games; but I have to acknowledge in the back of my mind that they are contrived, much as they might resonate with me. Every art form passes through the hands of a man (or woman) and every perspective of a man (or a woman) is limited. When someone surrenders themselves to a single doctrine they are committing to a single perspective and I will not do that. I consider it a form of slavery, and I detest slavery. Thus, I need my peripheral, I need to see the edge of the monitor, I need to see my window just to side of the screen to know that there’s still a world outside. By removing those things I’d feel like I was lying to myself or forgetting something. Anyway, I haven’t tried VR for those reasons and a lack of trust in myself to say enough is enough with the immersion.

The most logical response to this is: is there anything inherently wrong with immersion? I’m not sure. What I do know is that in order for one to immerse themselves they must also reduce reminders telling them that what they’re experiencing is fiction. The response to this: is it fiction anymore if they truly believe it? Don’t have a clue to that one either. But I can watch an individual absolutely immersed in their entertainment, know full well that they are experiencing an ecstasy that I am not capable of producing myself, and see that they are totally living for themselves. Yeah, maybe there’s someone else immersed in another remote location on the same team as this subject I’m watching, and maybe they’re winning a match, sharing a victory that they equally enjoy. Is there anything beyond that though? I played basketball in college for a number of years. Lots of different personalities on those teams. We won some games; we lost even more than we won. It’s good to share a victory, but that doesn’t mean I can actually go out and have a meaningful conversation with everyone on my team, nor does it mean that I can totally empathize with the other 14 teammates. The victories come and go and I shared them with others, but those relationships haven’t been the most enriching of my life. It’s hard to describe what I mean by “enriching” relationships. I hope you know what I’m talking about and don’t need an explanation. The hypothetical subject I referred to, who was completely immersed, he or she might need that explanation.

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Of more importance than “enriching” relationships is what this total immersion could do to the development of the individual. What do you think: would they rather stay inside and live as a level 50 demonic prince who can court all the voluptuous pre-rendered mates they want, or would they rather go out and work at their cubicle even though they know their boss is coming by to check in on them and their progress on the latest project? Easy choice. However, most of us are adults and realize that we have to make living to survive. Well, what about kids? Are they going to make a tough decision and do something that is arduous but also improves themselves? If you left them by themselves to make those decisions what do you think would happen? What about you as the parent? How often are you sneaking off to your fantastic world and leaving your kids to their own devices? I’m not saying that kids need to be micro-managed. I just wanted to highlight that there are some things you wouldn’t leave your kids alone with.7 What grows out of a culture that progressively becomes more self-absorbed?

There’s the root of my concern: self-absorption. Some might use the word immersion instead, but immersion eventually becomes self-absorption, right? Maybe not. Consider a future where some VR dictator has created an MMORPG with currency, governmental institutions, a solid set of laws without contradictions, and a system that generates real pain. Everyone has access to this MMORPG and some have even found ways to “retire” so that they can exist within its cyberspace until they naturally expire.8 There are no NPCs. The only things rendered by the CPU are the world itself and the physics it consists of. When a player joins they are given a randomly assigned appearance that they can modify but with many limitations. All competition happens between players. There are no randomly generated events that all players must band together for. There are strict consequences for actions and players can have their financial funds drained or they can serve sentences. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Not too far off from our own world? I could actually call this total immersion: a realm that is not ours but follows a set of punishments and rewards that can happen to any player, resulting in appropriate shame or fulfillment. This scenario might bring up some questions about morals, questions regarding the reality of this MMORPG, and other existential dilemmas philosophers or stoners might muse over for hours. I don’t really want to get into that. I want to ask: do you think gamers would play this MMORPG?

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This MMORPG seems immersive,9 equipped with all the consistencies it needs to subdue the expectations of the player so they truly view the realm as realistic. But I think—and this is probably where a lot of the disagreements start—that the hypothetical creation-of and interest-in this “realistic” MMORPG is unrealistic because no one would play it.

Now, tweak one aspect of this scenario. Reduce the punishment. Mute the pain. Allow the player to restart as many times as they want. Add in NPC adversaries that can be defeated for maximum elation in victories, all parties involved sharing their achievement. Make it so the player can modify their appearance however they want to. Give them NPC assistants that will listen to their complex commands and carry out orders without fail. Enable them to enter a sleep mode whenever they are incarcerated so the time passes in a blink. Remove limitations from their stats so they can measure themselves in a finite series of numbers and can infinitely increase those numbers so long as they simply put in the time and grinding required to do so. Does this sound like a game modern gamers would want to play?

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After what I saw with Mass Effect, I think yes.

Apparently this is all mine for the taking
Apparently this is all mine for the taking
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Maybe you as an individual don’t think this tweaked version of the hypothetical MMORPG would be as successful as I do, because you value a challenge and surmounting a challenge is the most rewarding thing for you. That might be true, for you, as an individual. But think about the AAA games that have been put out over the last decade. Have you ever heard these businesses say, “Screw the popular opinion. We did what we thought was best at the time, something innovative and unexplored, not for everyone, something that challenged the beliefs of our targeted audience. We wanted to create a piece of art that was not aesthetically pleasing, a game that was difficult, one where the gamer would walk away feeling improved as a human being, not just entertained.” Is it actually possible for a gaming studio to successfully release a tragedy in this age? I know this is possible with movies, definitely harder on the audience, but there have been acclaimed movies that don’t end well for any of the “likable” characters.10 Is it possible to create a game where your character or icon ultimately loses and the game is well received?11

If you think I’m trying to imply that the larger video game producers are responsible for the obsequious nature of games, I’m not. At all times the consumer has been in control of what kinds of games are being produced. If no one buys a game, it will not be produced anymore. If a game (or a brand) is proven successful, these studios will churn out sequels regardless of quality.12 So if I’m implicating anyone here, I’m implicating the gamers.

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Which means that gamers should be in control of the future of gaming, to some extent.

I mentioned how far gaming has come in my lifetime, starting at Mario 64 and ending at Fallout 4. I’m amazed at the difference, even with all my criticisms of the schemes in games like Fallout 4. There was a time where I preferred deep games like Fallout 4 because I respected their attempt at immersion (something I thought Mario 64 never accomplished with its cartoony presentation). I thought that the deeper games were more successfully imparting a message that couldn’t be conveyed through conventional means (something that Mario 64 hadn’t tried to do13). But now, as I’ve vivisected the immersion I’ve found it to pander far too much to the empowerment of the player, something I do not experience in the real world, a reminder that I have not stepped into another realm and that some conscious entity is trying to sell me a product. In every action I take—leveling up, designing my character, NPCs complementing my character—I feel the game trying to appeal to me. And, at this point in my life, I’d rather gain a perspective that I wasn’t aware of before. Just think: how many gamers could benefit from experiencing persecution first hand? How many groups of people are there that denigrate others simply because they don’t understand their situation?

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Video games could be very strong tools for empathy, but instead it feels like the entire industry is trying to coax me into escaping my world, abandoning it because it cannot be fixed, creating a new one where I am mighty and well-liked.

Don’t drug dealers practice a similar tactic?14

Illustration for article titled The Current Juncture For Gamers
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I didn’t see myself saying this 8 years ago, but my preference now is for the simple, guileless atmosphere of a game like Mario 64 over detailed worlds and fleshed out characters that want nothing more than to please me. At least when I’m playing Mario 64 I know where I stand: I’m a young adult enjoying a problem I must maneuver around, not judging the campy themes because that’s what was advertised and that’s what I paid for, taking a break from a day at work and the stress it can bring. At no point while I’m playing this do I actually believe myself to be in the game, nor do I seek this game out to fulfill the fantasies I can never accomplish in real life. It’s a game, I’m a player, and that’s it. If I’m in the mood to learn something or gain a new perspective I’ll read a book or watch an independent movie that doesn’t depend on my success for its own completion.

I feel better about that setup than losing myself in an expansive universe that is going encourage me to immerse myself deeper and thus cut off contact with other human beings. So far in our history the human race has been largely dependent on interaction and exchanging as a means to advance itself. If we abandon this interaction and exchange, are we forsaking our advancement too?

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I’ve probably alluded to it a bunch of times but there’s a million voices in my head telling me that I’m overreacting, that this is merely the newest platform in entertainment, that it’s progression and it’s never damaged the human race before, that I’m a lame adult who just doesn’t get how kids want to play their games. We’ve shown restraint in our infatuation with entertainment before. We’ve always been able to separate the world of fantasy from reality. We value ourselves in our real lives far more than we do in any fabrication. These arguments are ringing loud and clear to me. And I don’t believe our basic need for worth, whether it be derived internally or externally, has doomed us. I just want to ask the modern gamer, who’s probably like me (simply looking for a way to relax, and feeling naïve to the grander schemes of game developers), I just want to ask because I think it’ll be important in the upcoming years for our interactions with those that will provide us with our format for gaming, and there’s no right or wrong answer her (I don’t have a definitive answer to this myself), I just want to ask: do you want to live in this world or another?

Endnotes:

1. I say “unique” here but really it is dependent upon the available inputs in the interface at the beginning of the game when the player designs the character. There are many choices set in rows of sliding bars, but the number of sliding bars are finite and so are the places the player can select on the sliding bar. Thus, while numerous, there are a finite number of options and anyone can replicate them. Unique, in a real world sense, is thought to be irreplicable and taking on a personality no one else has. That’s at least the impression I get from people.

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2. Cost being how much time they really plan to put into this taxing ordeal—and it can be taxing in this modern era of gaming—and gratification being the amount of satisfaction they will achieve should they complete the objectives of the game, if they even finish them at all and overcome the daunting list of objectives.

3. Or you might read those descriptions and judge them to be reductive assessments and an oversimplification of the industry’s products. Part of me agrees with you there.

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4. Don’t expect more than that. You can’t realistically look at the resources at the time and think they were capable of more than 15 gratifying endings.

5. Or they were so mysterious that you simply had to be with them just to see. Even then the physique could be described as attractive by North American male standards.

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6. Transparency is fundamental in this article. I’m not going to sweep flaws under the rug and pretend that I have all the answers. Too many reporters are afraid to show the “weaknesses” in what they’re reviewing. This is a technique to imply that they are experts and that their arguments are infallible. Politicians practice this as well. I am not going to bluster like they do. I am not trying to elevate myself to a false sense of security so that I might better impose my ideas on you. I am just as flawed as anyone else and I’m going to show it. You can judge that choice, call it a mistake, but know that it is honest. Do you feel like you’re getting enough of that everywhere else?

7. I’m speaking from a place of fear, fear of myself. I don’t have kids but I want to have them someday, and I’m apprehensive about how much time I will dedicate to them vs how much time I will dedicate to myself. I’m aware of my selfish tendencies, and I would describe myself as a selfish person. I’ve seen parental selfishness cripple the development of kids. I don’t want that to happen to mine. But does that mean that I don’t deserve kids? Do I have to be miserable in order for them to develop in an ideal manner? These questions are digressive, certainly. I just wanted the reader to understand where I’m coming from.

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8. They probably have some hospital type setup where water and nutrients are fed to them intravenously. They age the same as any other organism would, and eventually they die. This is not important but you probably thought of it already to satisfy your belief of this hypothetical situation.

9. Some are going to argue that I didn’t cover certain elements that would be deemed essential to creating an immersive realm. Interject whatever you want into this scenario. I don’t care so long as you stick with the strict rule of reward and punishment. Someone wins, someone loses—the objective of most MMORPGs anyway. I just want to make sure there is a severity of reward and punishment that mimics our own world, thus engendering the immersive quality that so many people claim they want.

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10. Resevoir Dogs might be a good example. I would also cite The Counselor, but that obviously didn’t have widespread appeal. I thought it was a good movie. Why does everyone expect a happy ending anyway? Does anyone disagree that about 90-something-percent of stories end with something fairly positive? How can I actually get invested in something if I know everything is going to work out at the end? How can we expect people to give a shit if we keep pounding the principle of “Everything will be alright Good always wins” into them? Shouldn’t the possibility of everything not working out make people want to apply themselves to something in order to ensure that it ends favorably? Is the very “safe” nature of all forms of media making people lazy because it happens to be comfort food, something that sounds nice and that they want to believe in? But is it what they need to believe in?

11. I’d really like to know the answer. I’m a bit naïve when it comes to lesser known games. If anyone knows of one, please post something about it.

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12. See Dynasty Warriors, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Star Wars, Marvel, DC. See our entire culture of sequels, reboots, remasters, remakes, etc.

13. I’m assuming. The creators very well may have had some important message they wished to impart, and I in no way want to devalue their work by saying they didn’t even try. What I guess I’m trying to say is, the message, whatever it was, couldn’t have been particularly complex. It wasn’t something like an outlining of the effects of consumerism in America. It was probably closer to “Perseverance triumphs over everything” or something of that nature—a message that saturates every kid’s movie and doesn’t require any knowledge of the complex issues afflicting the human race.

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14. And while we’re on the subject, is anyone else a little disturbed by the marketing campaign for VR? It’s really pornographic. I don’t mean that it’s lewd or obscene; I mean that it’s functioning in the same capacity as porn. It is a product that the supplier cannot readily deliver to the consumer, so, as a compensation, they display images of people reacting, partaking in this activity that you (the consumer) cannot currently participate in. Big smiles, pristinely white teeth, gleaming cheeks, and wide eyes telling you to feel as they do. I know all forms of entertainment are supposed to transmit emotions through observance, but this seems different. It’s not like I’m in mourning with one of my favorite characters. It’s just attractive people looking like they’re experiencing euphoria and asking me, “Hey, wanna have a good time with us?”

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