This post stems from a few annoyances I’ve always had about gaming, but I have never found much support in this regard among gamers, even though what I’m going to say isn’t new. It’s an issue that has always been there for me. Sometimes it’s more apparent, sometimes it’s hidden in the background, but it never really goes away. I also know I’ll probably never feel really satisfied with my formulation of the problem. Given the nature of the subject, I’m going to talk about ‘me’ as opposed to using more universalistic language, in hope that it will foster empathy and discussion instead of a feeling of confrontation. But I do have a strong belief that these things do not only apply to me.
Truth be told, I have a LOT of ethical issues with gaming culture, quite aside from the more obvious ones of intolerance, harassment and lack of inclusivity. Most of them are unresolved (when does spending money on a gaming computer, upgrading components etc, plus spending money on games, with skins, optional content, DLCs, etc. become excessive luxury? When does it become selfish and unethical as opposed to the real need other human beings may have for that money?), some are hard to even define (How much escapism is still ‘ok’, and when does it become ‘wasting time’? How do you define escapism as opposed to a valuable experience, even in subjective terms?), others are more obvious (DRM, Steam’s near monopoly, the issue of curation, exclusion and discoverability of games, companies’ unethical and consumer-insulting practices, gamers’ incredible sense of entitlement, the backlog problem and feeling compelled to buy more and more and exponentially more than we need or even play) but it can still be incredibly hard to find a viable solution, especially on my own and counter to the majority. And these are just scratching the surface. For many of these, I try my best not to be part of the problem, or at least to minimize the damage. Sometimes that means being excluded from (part of) the community, and that’s ok. Just because I define myself as someone who loves games, doesn’t mean I need to be part of the entire community of gamers: I want nothing to do with many parts of that community, and I’m not exclusively defined by being a gamer myself. But for other issues, I am an active part of the problem, there’s no denying that, and I do nothing except feel guilty about it, which is horrible.
One good thing that came out of the whole GamerGate disaster is the renewed energy that went into examining what it means to be a ‘gamer’, and to acknowledge it as an extremely artificial, constructed identity, fundamentally shaped by marketing departments and consumerist values. It’s a community based on manufactured hype and peer pressure. Here I could link to dozens of articles, but I’m only going to link to two, one by Stephen Beirne and one by Liz Ryerson. I must have read Liz’s one a dozen times, but it’s so so important and so relevant to a lot of discussions around gaming, and not just gaming.
Before I get to the point, I need one more link (Sorry, but it’s crucial to my argument), to the famous lecture that Jonathan Blow gave in 2010 about games’ exploitative practices, dressing up a fundamentally uninteresting concept with eye-candy, ear-candy, plot-candy etc, and, centrally, the misused and misapplied concept of fun in gaming: things can appear to be fun, but actually not be, and we should learn to recognize that. Besides, the slavish attitude that games have towards fun tends to make us forget the way more significant aspiration of creating a work that “speaks to the human condition”. Honestly, this is the point in which I tell you that watching that lecture is exponentially more important, interesting, thought-provoking and enriching than reading the rest of this post. It actually helped me flesh out some of my beliefs, since he argues for them better than I could have. Funnily enough, as I was planning this, I watched one of the new episodes of South Park “Freemium isn’t free”, which repeats several of his arguments.
I wanted to start from one simple word, one that is used by marketing departments and journalists alike; it pervades reviews, previews, the lexicon of indie games and it trickled down to gamers themselves. The word ‘addictive’. Gaming is, as far as I know, the only community in which the word addictive is considered a positive. ‘Addictive mechanics’ is a description officially used as a selling point for a product, it’s an objective that devs often set for themselves, and it’s also something gamers and most journalists seem to want and look for. Reading on a forum the story of a gamer who has not done something, or rushed something, in order to go back to a beloved game as fast as they could, is met with a complicit wink, a complete dismissal of the fact that a potentially important task or experience has been ignored, possibly to the person’s genuine loss, and praise for the game that is so successful at being so compelling that it even overcomes our super-ego, our commitment to external obligations, our better judgement. (“I know, right, it’s so good, I can’t stop playing it either”)
And I’m not talking about the more obvious cases of exploitation, like the ones discussed in the South Park episode, in which a game is free but compels you to spend an unhealthy amount of money, while not even being fun. I’m not talking about the Farmville model that Jon Blow discusses in the lecture, although many of his arguments still apply. Let’s take more traditional games. Ones in which you pay once, and then you play forever. No DLCs, no microtransactions, no subscriptions, no nothing. Unless obvious, that’s how I’ll treat the games I’ll mention, even if they do have one or more of those additional charges. The ‘money’ problem is inevitably intertwined, and very very serious, but I don’t want to make it about money per se.
I feel like ‘gaming’ wants me to be compulsive. And I have been, and still am, incredibly compulsive, despite my better judgement. Part of it boils down to being part of the ‘hype industry’, itself part of the larger consumerist ideology that a faster computer, the next iphone or what have you, is going to make my life better, and it’s going to make me into a better person too. But, again, that’s not it. I wouldn’t write about gaming specifically if that was the case. That’s all true, but there’s an aspect of compulsion that is unique to gaming.
Perhaps the best way to get to it is to start from the concept of gamification. Gamification takes videogames’ tools and systems and applies them for marketing ends. For a quick rundown, you can read Ian Bogost’s “Gamification is Bullshit”, or Chris Franklin’s Errant Signal video on the matter. Take gamification and reverse the thought process: marketing discovered in games several tools to generate compulsion. From the Bogost article: “Game developers and players have critiqued gamification on the grounds that it gets games wrong, mistaking incidental properties like points and levels for primary features like interactions with behavioral complexity.” I don’t think that’s entirely true. I absolutely don’t mean to say that games are just a bunch of paper-thin exploitative systems, and I hope my other posts show it. There is so, so much more to games than that. And, obvious but always worth repeating, not all games are created equal: these thoughts apply to different extents to different games. Still, to maintain that those properties are simply ‘incidental’ is to deny empirical evidence.
I’m slipping into making arguments and universalistic claims, which I didn’t want to do. So, instead, I’ll tell you about a thought experiment I like to make. Whenever I ‘use’ something, in the broadest sense of using, I like to think about how the thing that I’m using thinks of me. In other words, I try to imagine the thing’s ideal user(s).
No no no, that’s still not right.
Okay, let’s put it this way: for some time now, some games have started scaring me. They scare me so much that I avoid buying them. What scares me is that I might end up playing them, and feeling hooked.
Perhaps at this point I should share a little bit of my past.
I’ve never really been ‘okay’, I’ve never had more than one or two friends, I’ve never fit in, and depression has been a part of my life since my early teens. But a couple of years ago things escalated and I had a major breakdown. I dropped out of university (where I was one of the best students) and I went back to my father’s house, crying, broken and defeated. Everything scared me, everything was a problem, and I didn’t even want to be left alone. I couldn’t read, because it required too much focus. I couldn’t watch a film, because I’d get distracted from it, I’d start thinking again and I’d feel sick. But with videogames, I was in my element. I had mastery and control over that world, they constantly asked me to engage with them so I wouldn’t look away from the screen and I felt… well, I felt nothing much, but it was still better than the alternative. So it was that I logged 600+ hours on MMO The Secret World. And then I discovered League of Legends. I don’t have a counter, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I put more than 1000-1500 hours into it, over about 9 months. It wasn’t the first time I’d become nearly obsessed with a game, but it was the first (and only) time that it happened to that extent.
And it helped me, as much as I hate admitting it. I needed space, I needed detachment, I needed rest, and I needed to forcefully make my mind not think about anything real. I used to put entirely too much pressure on myself, and then feel guilty for not living up to my impossible expectations, I was stressed and overwhelmed, but videogames let me forget about everything, and the moment I started to feel guilty I would be able to find refuge in them again, and again. They’d even cure my feelings of guilt over playing too much. Those games offered me stakes in a fictional world with zero real consequence, a sense of involvement without real emotions, without saying anything about me (other than perhaps about my ability to play those games, hardly something that’d define me as an individual) and without asking anything from the ‘real me’, the one that existed outside of the game. Not that I did much outside of gaming and seeing a psychologist during that time.
But then, I slowly started getting better. And better. It took months, mind, but I slowly started to get back up on my feet. And when I wanted to go back to the ‘real me’, the one that existed outside of games, the one with a sense of identity, aspirations in life, values, interests, awareness of her surroundings, I started seeing those games as a chain, holding me back. I don’t know if it’s technically correct, but I saw myself as an addict. Addicted to videogames.
Now, if I think about any other kind of addiction, the more common ones for instance, what is bad about them is not necessarily about physical health, although that’s certainly an important of many. But what makes all addictions bad, in my mind, is that they’re totalizing, and they take any meaningful choice and any balanced worldview away. The world didn’t exist anymore, the other parts of my complex and rich identity didn’t exist anymore, my feelings, dreams, aspirations, knowledge, reality, nothing mattered. I’d pour all my time and energies into League of Legends, even though I knew how unimportant and trivial it all ultimately was, and then I had nothing left for anything else, including my own happiness and personal development. Every day, it was just playing, and sleeping. It’s a feeling that the game Little Inferno (and the Errant Signal episode dedicated to it) captures beautifully.
I got over it, eventually. I got over it when I realized that I was playing so much, at the expense of everything else, because I wanted to feel appreciated, I wanted to feel like I was good at something when my life was a disaster, when I felt that I had no skills in real life. Videogames are great at easy, if shallow, gratification, their closed and predictable systems are relatively easy to master, and winning a low-level game of League of Legends was a lot easier and quicker than learning to play an instrument until you can use it for self-expression. The fact that I found learning the musical instrument infinitely more valuable was something I couldn’t turn into actions, even though I felt strongly about it.
That’s an attitude that didn’t start with my breakdown, although it wasn’t as bad: for years, I had chosen playing videogames over anything else, as soon as I was done with my school homework, even though I’d feel bad for… missing out, for wasting my years without having anything to show for it. The ‘fun’ I had with most videogames didn’t really satisfy me, it went away the moment I quit the game, and I felt hollow.
Eventually, I got over it, and now I’m engaging with the world instead of hiding from it. (Maybe some day I’ll actually have some skills too.) And yes, I still play games. I even play escapist games. Winding down with a session of Euro Truck Simulator 2 is a pleasure. Immersing myself in a massive RPG on a Sunday afternoon is a pleasure.
But I watched the kind of games that came out recently on PC. Especially some of the most popular ones. Civilization: Beyond Earth, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, Dragon Age: Inquisition, the WoW expansion Warlords of Draenor, Elite: Dangerous, Football Manager 2015, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Yes, I cherry-picked these for a reason. I could add the multiplayer of the latest Call of Duty. Perhaps I could add more, I could go back in time more, I could add from console, from mobile, but these will do. What all these titles have in common, and they’re more honest about it than others, is that they want me to spend an overwhelming amount of time with them. Quite aside from considerations of worth for each individual title, they all want me to spend a potentially infinite amount of time with them. And that scares me, because I may like them. I may like them in spite of my better judgement. And I may get hooked on their mechanics, their achievements and collectibles, their progress bars and experience levels, on their ‘one more turn’ and that sweet 100% completion, which for some games doesn’t even exist, because they are truly neverending. Procedural generation has been on the rise, and that too is an attempt at making games infinite.
I want to play for the aesthetic experience. I have realized that now: that’s why gaming has value to me, just like many other things do. But many games do not want me to do that. They want me to play to ‘win’ and to ‘complete’. They try to appeal to a part of me that wants to subvert my control, my will, my values, the order of my life outside of the game, in a way that books, comics, films, music don’t do, or at least I haven’t noticed. For, as much as any of these may be compelling, they are very limited. I read a book, and then I am free. I watch a film, and then I am free. I play a game, and it’s not ending anytime soon, and it doesn’t want me to stop, and it wants me to think about it even when I’m not playing, and it tries to entice me into doing boring things for irrelevant rewards and I’m not free. Regardless of whatever any individual may get addicted to, there’s something about ga-
No. No universalizing. Not in this post.
“David Golumbia argues, in a study of World of Warcraft and Half-Life, that MMOs and FPS games are more like training simulators for work under capitalism than anything else. There’s little meaningful play going on, only a relentless push towards efficiency and completion. Golumbia goes so far as to say that the term ‘game’ is a misnomer for a large percent of interactive digital works. Here he’s supported by theorists like Keith Burgun, who argue that extremely popular titles like Pokemon actually aren’t games at all, because their primary mechanic of grinding boils down to a trade-off between the player’s real-life time and their in-game success. In other words, grinding isn’t a meaningful choice within the context of the game.” (Source: Merritt Kopas and Naomi Clark’s talk at QGCon 2014. PDF.)
Yeah, sorry. I can’t help it.
My time has value. It’s limited. When I needed escapism, it was because I was sick. Now I don’t have anything to run away from. I only need it in small pills, because I can do better, I can be better. You have to be very confident in yourself to ask for 100, 500, 1000+ hours of my time. It better be worth it. The experience better be valuable and precious, and it better persist when I walk away from the screen.
My favourite games, like my favourite books, music, films, leave me free, and yet stay with me longer than the time I spend with them. Not as an obsession, but as something enriching.
You know what I’d like to see more of? I’d like to see more games acknowledging that they’re only one part of my life. That I have other interests, and I care about those other things just as much, and maybe more. Time locks or energy mechanics are just two obvious and very flawed solutions for longer games. The former I encountered in Hate Plus, as well as in a number of browser add-ons and other software designed to block, under the user’s rules, certain programs or websites, in order to remove distractions and foster productivity. An abuse of those things can have deeply negative effects, but they can also help tremendously, if used correctly, with parsimony and understanding. In Hate Plus, the storyline spans 3 days, and you have to wait 12 hours to proceed from one day to another. It was well integrated in the flow and fiction of the game, it built expectation and suspense, and I felt that the game respected me as a human being. As for energy mechanics, they’re most often used in casual, social and mobile games for exploitative purposes. The player is supposed to feel frustrated, and spend money to gain more energy. But, as Jon Blow noted, with just a couple of tweaks those could be turned into an asset. That’s what Zoya Street’s book “Delay” is about. (I haven’t read it yet, my info comes from this article on Unwinnable) Surely there are other solutions that I’m just not thinking about. But, then again, it’s not really about forcefully locking myself out of a game. Many of the games I love didn’t need that. It’s a simpler, and yet deeper, pervasive design problem.
I say this with nostalgia, because there’s something fascinating in them that it’s almost impossible to find elsewhere, something that, I suspect, comes at least in part from the time-commitment itself, but games like Dota or Eve, just to name the most blatant examples, aren’t people-friendly. They’re not life-friendly. They’re bigger than me, they want to take over everything else. For me, they’re not healthy. If I had infinite time, I’d immerse myself in their systems with joy and carelessness. But in this lifetime, I glance from afar, with just a touch of envy, and then keep walking in my own direction.
Sometimes I come across as confrontational to many, when discussing these issues, and I apologize, but I am just over-eager with concern. I do not wish to force myself on anyone.
I’ve been called a gamer with a guilty conscience. Perhaps that’s right. But guilt, like every other motivation to act, is not always right just as it’s not always wrong or misleading.
This is my story, and these are my thoughts. Take from these words what you will.
I’ll leave you with these words, from the 12th episode of Ghost In The Shell: SAC
Kanazuki: What do you think [of my movie]?
Major: I have to admit, for a movie it wasn’t bad- but diversionary entertainment is transitory, it just comes and goes at the viewers whim. It’s the way it should be, but a film with no beginning or end that hooks an audience and won’t let go of them is harmful no matter how wonderful you may have believed it was.
Kanazuki: Ohh, you’re a tough critic. Are you saying that we members of the audience have a reality to which we should return?
Major: Yes I am.
Kanazuki: For some who sit and watch the film, misery will be waiting for them the instant they go back to reality. You’re willing to accept responsibility for depriving these people of their dreams?
Major: No, I’m not. But dreams are meaningful when you work toward them in the real world. If you merely live within the dreams of other people it’s no different from being dead.
Kanazuki: You’re a realist.
Major: If a romantic escapes from reality, then yes.
Kanazuki: A strong girl you are. If the reality you believe in ever comes about, you give me a call. When it happens, that’s the time we’ll leave this theatre.
P.s.: After writing this, I kept watching and reading as I normally do and, by pure chance, I found my sentiments echoed elsewhere. Most importantly, I watched this other interview with Jon Blow from 2011, and from 14:00 onwards he repeats the core of what I said here. I wasn’t aware of it when I wrote this (I listed all the relevant sources I did use, and did my own research and my own thinking), and it’s not so similar that it makes my post redundant, but, in the spirit of full disclosure, I thought it was important to acknowledge it nonetheless.