Over the course of one weekend, I lost 12 hours, 42 minutes and 1 second. I don't know how it happened. It took me like a fever.
I somehow slipped into watching a 56-part YouTube playthrough of The Last of Us, a video game recently released by Naughty Dog Inc. The game, which earned a 95 out of 100 on Metacritic, features a gnarly but loyal 48-year-old named Joel and a scrappy teenager named Ellie. In their world, there has been a viral catastrophe, and Ellie, somehow immune, represents the only possibility for a cure. The game takes the player -- sometimes as Joel, sometimes as Ellie -- on a journey across post-apocalyptic America, seeking help in a world that's all but hosed.
It is, I should say, a truly top-notch game.
The characters, story, and aesthetic are complex and well-composed, and as a result, everything about the game feels literally (and figuratively) 3D.
Increasingly, this seems to be the objective of the gaming industry. Developers are piling resources into making each video game's world, content, and choices as high-res-real as possible. And this, to some, represents a problem. Some critics of video games claim people, especially children, struggle to distinguish between gaming fantasy and everyday reality. This, for one, may contribute to violence (specifically gun violence) in children and young adults.
So, do you buy it?
Maybe you should, but not as it's stated above. There may be something more impressive at work.
Video Games as Expressive and Formative
In the 2006 documentary, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, celeb cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek expounded on the 1999 blockbuster, The Matrix. (He's written a paper on the topic, though it's too technical to discuss here.) In one memorable scene, Zizek berates The Matrix for its proposal of a reality/fantasy dichotomy, represented in the film by iconic red and blue pills. He rejects the dialectic and instead demands a third pill. This pill, he says, would offer an understanding of the "reality within fantasy itself."
Here, I urge you to consider Zizek's proposition seriously; it's really not so esoteric. To explain it, Zizek uses video games and the gamer as an example.
The dominant perspective regarding video games is that they enable players to embody their own fantasies. This is to say, video games are appealing because they allow players to become what they are not. For example, outside the World of Warcraft (WoW), a player may feel weak and vulnerable. However, inside WoW, the player is some buff, kickass ogre. A dweebie pantheon of strength.
But Zizek dismisses this popular perspective, opting instead to turn the idea on its head. He claims that, rather than allowing players to act out a fantasy persona they wish to be, video games allow players to express who they truly are. To be clear, this doesn't mean people who kill in video games are killers, or people who take on Mario are truly Mario. However, it does mean that video games allow players to express natural, all be them taboo, aggressions (and even perversions).
This isn't an "outlet" argument, though; Zizek doesn't propose that video games primarily serve to relieve us of lawfully reprehensible urges. Instead, this argument is about video games as self-expression. And I'll depart from Zizek here and go a bit further:
I claim that the virtual gaming experience -- especially considering its significant young audience -- is a formative one. As games become more complex and open-ended, they are less about inhabiting someone else's identity, and more about inserting and developing your own identity inside another body and world. This, if nothing else, is the most powerful (and potentially dangerous) aspect of video games.
And I mean it. Like all storytelling agents, video games can be dangerous. Just like television, movies, and written/spoken word, video games bear the freighting responsibility of conveying messages and teaching us about the world. The important thing, then, is to understand how those storytellers speak to us, and how video games are different. The distinction here should be obvious: relative to other forms of storytelling, video games allow for choice.
Whereas fiction readers have to glean a novel's takeaway and apply it through real life choices outside the binding, video games streamline the process. They allow players to simultaneously interpret what the game is teaching them and apply (and thereby reinforce) those teachings through in-game decision-making.
It's a simultaneous feedback loop, a sort of "When I move, you move (just like that)" scenario.
For instance, I was recently re-playing Metal Gear Solid 2, a critically acclaimed stealth shooter, when I realized something: I could play through the entire game without intentionally killing someone. What's more, by restraining my urge to go through each area guns blazing, I could earn rewards in the form of dog tags. These prizes -- available to be stolen from every, individualized guard -- indicate a masterful, crafty player. And I could only earn them if I didn't kill guards on sight.
And there it was: one of the many messages the video game teaches its players, even today.
Violence is a choice.
Thinking about that, I found myself changing how I played the game.
The Future of Gaming (read: My Marketing Pitch)
Metal Gear Solid shows us that video games aren't meaningful/dangerous because they expose us to difficult, high-stakes concepts like violence. They're dangerous because they can make things like violence into choices of the player. And they can make those choices vivid and difficult, or incredibly easy.
The key piece to remember, though, is that formative, self-actualizing experiences within video games hinge on having choices in the first place. For example, Call of Duty (a top-selling first-person shooter) provides no deep choices surrounding violence. The player begins and ends as an agent of violence, reduced to literally nothing but the butt and muzzle of a gun. More complex games, however, can provide choices around violence. And in doing so, they offer more immersive, developmental (and possibly dangerous) storytelling experiences.
This is the captivating future of gaming. This is how video games distinguish themselves from other forms of storytelling. Complex, next-gen games are going to be less and less about pretending to be another person and more and more about simply being yourself, transforming the screen into a plane of both self-expression and self-aspiration.
So what will you aspire to?
In "The Last of Us," the player's first kill is designed to always be the euthanasia of a virally infected soldier. You're not allowed to simply walk away and proceed through the game.
But what if you were given that choice? Would you leave the poor sap?
Think about what the game is really asking you: what's your personal stance on euthanasia? Not the character's stance. Yours.
Go ahead and aspire. Be yourself.
Every good developer already knows that the most ground-breaking games are going to be those that free you to do just that: aspire, be yourself. That's how games will become profound artifacts of self-actualization. That's how they'll become the greatest storytellers. Forget having the realities of human dilemma materialize through a character. Games can make those realities materialize through you.