“What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets!”
My gaming career began with the clunky, perma-greasy Galaga arcade machines that featured prominently in the lobbies of ’90s Mexican restaurants. All you could do was feed it quarters, move side-to-side, and pew-pew-pew away with your laser cannon–but it was enough.
Then came Nintento’s miraculous private-property equivalents, a Gameboy with Pokemon Red permanently affixed to its cartridge slot and a Gamecube sporting Jedi Outcast, Animal Crossing, and Super Smash Bros Melee.
Just at the age when pretend-play started to be frowned upon, these machines and their simulations provided a perfectly acceptable substitute. What I had once done in the confines of my own imagination–occasionally relying upon primitive props such as a cap-gun revolver or stick for a sword–was manifested for me upon screens. Creation became consumption, and fantasy tip-toed a little closer to the edges of reality. Overly grandiose? Perhaps, but consider this quote which adorned the Gamecube console’s box:
What if everything you see is more than what you see–the person next to you is a warrior and the space that appears empty is a secret door to another world? What if something appears that shouldn’t? You either dismiss it, or you accept that there is much more to the world than you think. Perhaps it really is a doorway, and if you choose to go inside, you’ll find many unexpected things. -Shigeru Miyamoto
I believe this near-mystical language indicates the video game ideal–that which is both excellent and exceedingly dangerous about the medium. It is meant to transport one’s consciousness to a digital beyond, a sub-life within life. It could be argued that this is the purpose of art entire, but I respectfully disagree–most classical art, no matter how fantastical, is at its core concerned with real implications. Monsters may not be real but monstrosity is, etc. If video games primarily serve the same purpose, then I would have to appraise them poorly–Metal Slug and Metal Gear made me neither more lethal nor stealthy; Team Fortress 2 has little to impart by way of actual teamwork. Video games occasionally have genuine stories, it’s true, but their locus is player acting vicariously through character. Video games invoke where classical art evokes.
Take the shoot-n-loot formula of my favorite game, Borderlands 2, for example. When the below happened, I was not glad for my character that he had received a legendary weapon drop due to empathy; I was happy for myself due to immersion.
And yet, dopamine rush aside, what good did this pixelated gun do me? Was there anything edifying about the pursuit of it, beyond killing time? Do I at all miss it since my game-save was deleted? I’d have to say no. I increasingly suspect that video games are as popular as they are, not simply because we have the technology to create them and the leisure time to indulge in them, but because our modern, industrialized world increasingly feels just as empty, just as inch-deep and mile-wide, as the games themselves. When real life starts to feel pointless, you begin to lose your frame of reference for what does and doesn’t have a point. Why not just play video games if going out and “adulting” nets you similar or less existential reward?
Lest it sound like I’m bashing gamers, I’ll pick on myself alone. Question one–would I have lovingly built a church in Minecraft if I felt any connection at all to a real church? Question two–would I have spent even a minute crafting a waifu in Black Desert Online if I was in a meaningful long-term relationship? Again, no. It is the real world absence of those tribal fundamentals, those communal cornerstones, that left me with the time and inclination to do either.
Forays into weight-lifting & martial arts confirmed this suspicion, at least subjectively. Video games simply do not compare to the real thing, and the illusion that they do is dependent upon minimal experience with the genuine article that’s being imitated. That’s not to say that I’ll ever be a fraction of the badass that my game characters are–only that the faintest real-world attempt is sweeter than the greatest simulated victory.
But they’re working on that. Inevitably, virtual reality will provide us not with an imitation but an improvement upon the real world. Video games are, in effect if not intent, the introductory notes of transhumanism’s siren song–the trial-run of a Matrix-esque Blue Pill. That’s why, though I’m anxiously awaiting Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, I think I’m going to make it my last vidya purchase–just to draw a line in the sand, and have practiced saying No for when that final temptation comes along.