What I’ve Learned from Playing Video Games

Several months ago I started hanging out with video game designers. The more I got to know this fascinating tribe, the more self-conscious I became about my own lack of gaming knowledge. I realized I was coming across as pretty uninformed, with my points of reference stuck resolutely in the mid nineties–Myst, The Sims, Civilization. I knew that if I was going to work in virtual reality I at least needed to be conversant in some of the gaming conventions that were being ported over from the world of consoles and RPGs. I threw myself at the mercy of my social network and asked if anyone would take pity on a poor book nerd such as myself, lend me their console, and suggest a couple games. I expressed particularly interest in open world, explorable sandbox games.

Members of the local VR community were characteristically generous, and pretty soon I found myself with an XBox One, two XBox 360s, and lots of games. I felt a bit like Christopher Plummer’s character in the Mike Mills film Beginners, discovering house music at age seventy. It’s both humbling and exciting to explore a whole body of knowledge that you’ve otherwise ignored.

I was intimidated by the complexity of console games. The vaguely amorphous controller with its multiple buttons and two joysticks always looked unfathomably complicated and I couldn’t imagine ever mastering it. As I loaded up the first of what would prove to be a series of deep gaming experiences, Red Dead Redemption, I felt as though the reprogramming of my brain had begun.

Red Dead Redemption

I played Red Dead for a couple months, ignoring the narrative challenges, choosing to simply wander the dusty trails and snowy woods of this version of the mythic, gun-slinging West. The vastness and detail of this geographical facsimile of American terrain–mountains, prairies, coastal towns, desert–was itself entertaining enough for me. In Red Dead you play a grizzled cowboy named John Marston, and in between the occasional gunfight with outlaws and random cougar attacks there are moments in which you can simply take in a spectacularly rendered vista. I found myself placing Marston at the edges of cliffs or on train trestles then using the POV joystick to swoop around him, as if I was directing the movements of a camera in a movie.

Mostly I had Marston hunting and collecting pelts, harvesting wildflowers, and seeking out unexplored corners of the map. The game tapped the same story-making impulses I had enjoyed as a kid playing with action figures. One night, I had Marston wander into the city of Blackwater, and I decided that he was going to seek revenge on a man who had assaulted his daughter. This was entirely my own narrative and didn’t have anything to do with how the designers built the game. I trailed a random villager, a non-player character governed by artificial intelligence, some shop keeper. He behaved as if was unaware I had shown up in town to exact my revenge, and this added a new layer of dramatic irony to the game. I knew that as soon as Marston put a bullet in this guy’s skull that the other NPCs would spring into action and there’d be a massive vigilante shoot out, so I carefully plotted the assassination.

This is all to say, I made my little video game character wander through a 3D town and created meaning by inventing a story in my head. It occurred to me that video game narratives replicate the experience of writing stories as much as passively receiving them. I could make my character do any number of things, but the reasons, the connective tissue of causality, was largely within my purview to provide.

Spoiler alert, I managed to assassinate the dude and high-tail it out of town. And then I decided to go full-on Tarantino. I wondered what would happen if I walked into the Sheriff’s station with hundreds of rounds of ammo, shot everybody, then hung out waiting for the posse to show up. So I performed my homicidal psychopath routine for awhile, filled the station with bodies, got killed, then was resurrected anew with my moral slate wiped clean, free to gather flowers in the high plains once again.

I grew up in an era when a frightening number of actual adults believed that a metaphysical being from another dimension was personally interfering in the audio recording procedures of heavy metal bands, encoding “backmasked” pro-suicide messages on the vinyl grooves of LPs. I remember the hysteria of the Parent’s Music Resource Center, whose warning label efforts provided my peers with the most reliable method of seeking out the very music we most wanted to hear. And I remember watching a made-for-TV movie starring Tom Hanks about how playing Dungeons and Dragons was inspiring real-life ritual homicide.

I’ve come to the conclusion that you just can’t make a causal connection between real-life violence and video game violence any more than you can make such a claim about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a novel far grislier than what the fine people at Rock Star Games delivered. Symbolic violence is just the surface level of what these games seem to really be about–overcoming challenges to acquire resources, and in the process advancing one’s capacity to overcome challenges and acquire resources. You kill things, take things from the things you’ve killed, and that makes it easier to the kill and take from the next thing.

After Red Dead Redemption I spent several weeks in the post-apocalyptic Boston of Fallout 4. While Red Dead has you occupying the predetermined role of a particular cowboy, you can customize your Fallout 4 character. I chose to make mine a woman I named Anne Specularian, the recently thawed-out resident of an underground bunker who finds the retro-futuristic landscape overrun by mutant naked mole rats, ghouls, marauders, and an economy based on bottle caps. There’s a cheeky, winking edge to Fallout 4’s Tomorrowland version of the post-apocalypse, and I was quickly absorbed in the splendid grossness of it all. The mutants are hulking green brutes, the mutated bugs ooze viscous, toxic juices, and piles of garbage and urban decay make the whole thing vaguely depressing even when the combat is thrilling.

One of the storylines of Fallout 4 allows you to join an organization called the Brotherhood of Steel, a heavily armored paramilitary force whose command center is a dirigible that hovers as a rare outpost of order and decorum above the bombed-out Boston airport. The violence that you deliver to various undead and mutated residents of Beantown comes to feel justified by the comforts of the civilization that has agreed to keep you well armed. You can join up with other bands of resistance, too, and help construct shelters and other resources for ragtag communities of hapless farmers and settlers. Over time the various baddies that can be dispatched with a baroque assortment of armaments appear to exist to flatter your Nietzschean will-to-power. Thank goodness there’s another synth around the corner, giving you yet another opportunity to diversify your killing skills.

I encountered an unexpected moment of tenderness in Fallout 4, when I had an opportunity to exchange my companion, a super mutant named Strong, with a cocky douchebag of a mercenary. When the game asked if I wanted to send Strong away, the vaguely gelatinous-looking NPC delivered a few lines of sad dialogue asking why I was rejecting him. And it really did get to me, to the degree that I changed my mind and sent the mercenary packing instead.

I paused the game and reflected on what had just happened. I’d had an emotional experience as poignant as any I’ve had watching a movie or reading a book. That this experience involved a brutish monster who liked to crush radioactive bugs with a sledgehammer seemed beside the point. More salient was the defly crafted illusion, bolstered by the martial rhythms and orchestral swells of the soundtrack, that one of my decisions could emotionally impact another sentient being. I recognized how thoroughly I’d been seduced by this illusion.

Fallout 4

I’ve spent a lot of my life working out how to manipulate peoples’ emotions with words designed to be read in a certain sequence. Narrative, to me, has always been overlaid on the passage of time, and stories have to proceed in a very specific order in order to generate meaning. My experience with open world games has introduced new and exciting possibilities of narrative choice into the concept of story. The orientation between storyteller and audience changes when the audience is given agency–it’s not simply that there are moreĀ  paths available for the audience to follow, it’s that by providing multiple paths, the creator is ceding some of their own responsibility of cultivating of meaning, handing the audience some of the tools of the writer.

Having reached points of exhaustion with Fallout 4 and Red Dead Redemption I ventured into a game that many of my gamer friends claim to never have fully exhausted, Skyrim. It was as vivid and wonder-filled as they’d claimed, and I spent a good month probing its dungeons, defeating its dragons, and enduring its inscrutable dialogue, the kind of Tolkienesque huffing and puffing that writer Tom Bissell once called “lobotomized Shakespeare.” This isn’t to discount how fantastically creative the game is in so many ways, but like the Wild West of Red Dead and the bombed out world of Fallout 4, Skyrim‘s aesthetic M.O. appears to be trope-based.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Last week when I had the flu I spent a few more hours with Skyrim, and perhaps it was the illness overlapping with the kill-and-plunder mechanics of the game, but the whole experience started to make me feel sick. I just started getting grossed out by the process of slaying another frost troll, looting yet another treasure chest. It seemed that my capacity for this kind of entertainment might have run its course, at least for the time being.

Over my several months of immersion into video games I’d been wowed, moved, dazzled, and impressed. But did these experiences make me a better person? Had a learned anything while playing video games that I could apply to my day to day interactions with flesh and blood people?

Over the weekend I saw Martin Scorcese’s Silence, the story of two 17th century Jesuit priests attempting to minister to Japanese Christians in a society hostile to their faith. The film asks us to consider what we’re willing to make others endure for our beliefs, and has much to say about empathy, faith, cultural dislocation, and power. Coming just days after that grand guignol of an inaugural, Silence shook me and made me reflect on how to become a better human being. It rattled me profoundly, and I know I’m going to be processing it for weeks to come. Later that evening I played a few minutes of Skyrim and the activity seemed kind of a bullshit waste of time to me.

We call our entertainments escapism but the best of them force us into confronting the very things we would most like to escape. It’s clear to me that video games have evolved into a powerful art form, and I know I’ve just scratched the surface of what’s possible, in terms of emotive connectivity, with the medium. But I wonder if the medium is morally constrained by the structure of kill/acquire/level up. And yes, yes I know that there are plenty of video games out there that don’t hew to this orthodoxy. If playing games these past few months taught me, it’s that they’re a lot more sophisticated than our culture gives them credit for.

We yearn to get outside our own heads and into the heads of others. We reflexively gravitate toward eavesdropping on the broken hearts and scheming minds of people who are unlike ourselves. It’s incredible how much we indulge our fantastic worlds to obliterate our loneliness in the presence of others. I suppose this is ultimately what compels us as children to play.