“They’re coming!” are the last words your comrade screams before being silenced. You are the last one left. You check your ammo and gear. Two magazines, one grenade, no first aid kits. You’re half dead. You can hear your enemies’ footsteps getting closer. You peek through a window in the outside wall that has been made larger by successive volleys of gunfire. The enemies waiting below acknowledge you with more bullets in the window. You duck down and begin to wonder if you are going to be able to hold out for the next few moments until the headquarters you have established is secure. Just then you realize that you have overlooked the last claymore, an anti-personnel mine, in your equipment. There might be hope! You quickly set the mine up near one of the doors to the room, taking special care to put it at an angle that conceals it from an intruder and directs the shaped charge across the path an attacker must take to enter the room. You run to a corner and set up behind a crate. The claymore-defended door is at your eight ‘o clock. The other door, leading to a stairwell, is at your twelve. The footsteps behind the wall get louder, and you see the shadows of the enemy moving up the stairs. All you can do now is wait to see the face of the enemy on the stairs or hear the egg-timer like ping of the firing pin in the claymore. FPS (First Person Shooter) games, a genre of video game, are full of harrowing moments like this.
From “Twenty Questions”, a simple, question based, children’s game often played while driving long distances in a car, to “Call of Duty”, a sophisticated, violent, frenetic, military-based, video game, geared toward adults, games are a part of life and people of almost all ages and backgrounds play games of some form. Video games are my preferred medium for gaming. I’m certain that you or someone you know has a video game console in their home. You may think that video games are an unnecessary waste of time. I don’t think so. If you are seeking an escape from the ordinary, play a video game. Whether it’s being a professional athlete, an elite special-forces operative, or the hero of an adventure, video games provide us with a portal through which we can vicariously experience situations we don’t have access to in everyday life.
There are several major genres of video games: RTS (Real Time Strategy) usually provides a top down, three-quarter perspective of a large area, and involves controlling many units at once, RPG (Role Playing Game) focuses on the development of a player-character that increases in strength and ability through a story, Action/Adventure games typically involve a third person perspective and focus on environmental challenges, Puzzle games are just that, puzzles, such as word games, and, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, FPS (First Person Shooter) games which put you inside the protagonist in an attempt to mimic reality. Each of these genres offers a different gameplay experience from the others. Many Games can be generally classified as one of these genres, but most games utilize various combinations of genres. You may, for example, play a FPS game that rewards your utilizing a particular piece of equipment by improving, and making it more powerful in a similar to the way a RPG develops a character. Division exists between all of these genres, yet they all share in that they provide an interactive experience for the player. Playing a game gives you control over decisions that you make. The same cannot be said for television, movies and books. The power of choice that is bestowed upon the player in a video game gives him/her the access to the experience of being a part of the outcome and not just an observer.
We all want the power to control our destiny. In real life we don’t always get the opportunity for that. We want to be heroes and villains. We all have inside us an Angel and a Demon. Society teaches us not only to quell the naughty impulse but also the benevolent. Stephen King (1982) asserts that we need horror movies to satisfy the beasts inside us. The same applies to the caring side of us as well. The ideals of positive community are slowly slipping away, and we increasingly find ourselves cut off from the outside world. We all need to practice things to get better at them. When it feels like no good deed goes unpunished; how can we practice being good people? In a RPG called “Mass Effect,” the player-character, Shepard, is presented with tough decisions that have an impact on the final outcome of the game. Do you find a cure for the mysterious illness effecting the inhabitants of the space station, or upon discovering responsible culprits, who seek to eliminate the population of the station, take the bribe they offer and leave the people to die? If you save them you will gain their gratitude, and thus, a safe haven where you may resupply from at a discount. If you take the bribe you will line your pockets eliminating financial worries for a time, but the innocents will perish. These are the kind of choices that make us human.
We live in a concrete world complete with the laws of physics. For some of us that can mean being physically restricted in our mobility. Just because a disability prevents you from running doesn’t mean you don’t want to. Many prison inmates would, likely enjoy a vacation, but are artificially restricted. It can be easy to feel like a prisoner to our disabilities and circumstances alike. The burden of having bills, children, or property to tend to, can wear us down over time. As adults we forget how to be awesome. When we are children we live inside our imaginations without any care for the rules of the outside world. Our parents spend many hours teaching us to be cogs in the machine, and ultimately we submit, but we never fully lose the desire to be more. Video games like the forms of entertainment that preceded them give us the temporary freedom we need to feel alive.
People escape into media, for just a moment, to recapture that sensation. Books have been around for centuries. Movies have been with us for decades. Video games have only been around for about forty years. The earliest video games, like the technology of the time, were simple. These games primarily relied on their function as tests of manual dexterity to draw players in. Story telling was a minor concern at best. As computers have become increasingly sophisticated, so have video games, and their ability to tell a story in a way that no other medium can do. When we turn the final page of a book or we see the closing credits of a film we have experienced something new, but even if you fall asleep in the theater the credits will roll. “We can keep turning the pages of a mystery novel even if we’re missing essential clues, but in most video games our progress is contingent on facing and overcoming uncompromising challenges.” Buchanan; Elzen (2012). In video games you cannot fast forward. You cannot skip to the end the way you can in a book. The same can be said of life. As you take action in life new circumstances present themselves. Only by continuing forward can we discover the outcome. The difference is that in games the dangers associated with failure never threaten your life and are rarely even permanent for the character. For some people, however, this fundamental feature of the fantasy world of video games presents a real world danger: addiction.
This is most apparent when looking at the players of a sub-genre of RPGs known as MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online, i.e., The World of Warcraft). These games present a player with a safe way to experience a persistent world complete with economics, jobs, personal growth, and are populated by thousands of other player-characters with whom the player interacts. As a result of the aforementioned mechanics present in this type of game, more time is required to meet with any measure of success than that which is typical of other genres of video game. For the individual with a negative self-image this can be dangerous because he/she might find themselves favoring the imaginary life of the avatar over real life. In a paper published by David Smahel, M.Sc., Ph.D., Lukas Blinka, M.A., and Ondrej Ledabyl, M.A. (2008), it is stated that younger people have a higher chance of being MMO addicts than their older peers. Owing this to the connection one might feel to his/her avatar, due to the inordinate amount of time spent playing, the stability of the fantasy world, and a weaker sense of self than older players. Regardless of age it seems that we should all exercise caution when seeking an escape from our everyday lives. Going to a casino once a year and blowing a couple hundred dollars testing fate can be fun. Going everyday will likely lead to financial ruin. The house always wins.
Video games are the present and future of entertainment. They provide a distraction from toils of existence while without putting us in physical danger. Video games give us a vehicle for fulfilling our need for accomplishment beyond what we can achieve in reality. They allow us to magnify our perfectly ordinary selves. We can be as as strong, as fast, as nice, or even as badass as we want, and we don’t have to alienate the real people around us to do it. Through the internet and services like Xbox Live, video games can even bring family members and friends, separated by thousands of miles, together to compete with, or against, one another in games like Call of Duty or UNO. The next time you are looking for a distraction, instead of watching a movie or reading a book, play a video game. Don’t be the third party to a story that belongs to someone else. Be a part of the story. Forge your own destiny. Laugh and cry at your own expense. Weren’t we waiting for something? Ping!
Smahel, D., Blinka, L., & Ledabyl, O. (2008). Playing MMORPGs: Connections between Addiction and Identifying with a Character. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 11(6), 715-718. EBSCOhost
King, S (1982). Why We Crave Horror Movies. In Alfred Rosa, Paul Eschholz (2012) Models for Writers (11th ed). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 524-530. print
Buchanan, K., & Elzen, A. (2012). Beyond a Fad: Why Video Games Should Be Part of 21st Century Libraries. Education Libraries, 35(1-2), 15-33. EBSCOhost