I have heard many reasons over the years for why people like me play video games. Silly reasons such as to assert their masculinity or to escape from the real world. Now these reasons might be true for people with unhealthy addictions, but for most people, myself included, these judgments are simply false. I’ll explain myself as I always do: with examples. Let’s talk about gaming experiences. A good video game has the ability to change the way you see the world or at the very least teaches you something about yourself. This is because the intrinsic, unique element of video games is interactivity. These experiences are something that you cannot truly get from absorbing a story from a film, book, or song. This is the fundamental reason why I continue to play video games: because they teach me things about myself that I would never have thought of otherwise.
I’ll give you an example of a video game that asks you a question that most people may find hard to answer. By answering the question, the player ends up learning something about themselves.The game is Mass Effect 2. In this game, the player is asked to decide the fate of a faction of the Geth, a sentient machine race. Here’s the context: the Geth were originally one unified group, but they began to have ideological and religious differences. Now one sect believes it is the will of God to kill you,the player, and the other sect believes they should protect you. You are then given the choice to either destroy the Geth sect that wants destruction or to reprogram them in such a way that they want to protect you (and they won’t even know you did it).
What do you do? This is by no means an easy question to answer if you think about it hard enough. How do we deal with religious fundamentalism? This question is meant to lead us to consider current world affairs. Are these the only two solutions? Are there options other than total destruction or the mental undermining of belief? Fundamentally the player is being asked what it is really like to be human. Is not our freewill, the ability to choose our own beliefs, that which is the core of what it means to be a human? Being forced to confront these questions and answer them teaches you something about yourself. This is the unique power of video games as a medium. They ask us to live our decisions. In this medium we cannot be spectators. We are forced to confront our own actions and that forces introspection upon us.
Here is a second example pulled out of my favourite horror puzzler: Virtue’s Last Reward. Here is the context: 9 people have been kidnapped and are now forced to play the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition. To say that this game places psychological strain on its players would be an understatement. Trust is the key component here. The Ambidex Game is a short game in between puzzle rooms and the purpose is to gain points. If a player gains 9 points then they can escape through the number 9 door. But if their points go down to 0, they die. How do they get points? Players are forced to vote to Ally or Betray the people they entered the preceding puzzle rooms with. Depending on the action chosen by the players, points are assigned differently. This process is essentially the Prisoner's Dilemma. If both parties choose Ally, both parties receive 2 points. If one party chooses to Betray and the other chooses Ally, the party who picked Betray will receive 3 points while the party who picked Ally will lose 2 points. If both parties choose to Betray, neither party will receive any points.
Now obviously in an ideal circumstance, all players would simply Ally every time, allowing everyone to escape after three rounds. But real life is anything but ideal circumstances,and the allure of getting out after only two rounds (leaving everyone else behind) can be too tempting to resist for most people in the game. So here is the fundamental question in this game: can you trust complete strangers to actin the best interests of the group? Or should you expect them to act in their own best interests and plan accordingly, even though a circle of mutual betrayal benefits nobody? The first time I was asked to do this in the game, I just satin my bed pondering for half an hour. What do I do? What would I do? After thinking about it for a long time I resolved that I would choose ally, and in doing so, I learned something about myself. The game put me into this experience, and forced me to make several hard decisions, unlike a film or a book where I just observe what the characters choose to do.
Once again, in this medium we cannot be spectators. We are forced to confront our own actions and that forces introspection upon us. This is the unique power of video games as a medium. Why, just two days ago while I was playing Fire Emblem: Awakening, the game forced me choose between saving my sister and putting the entire nation in danger, or to let her die, ensuring the safety of my country. What would you do in this situation? I know what I would do, because I literally sat in my room thinking about it for no less than an hour, and then made my choice. By being in the situation, and having to actually experience the consequences, I learned a little more about myself. And that is valuable knowledge. Games can tell a great story like the fairy tale lore of The Legend of Zelda or provide simple arcade entertainment like Mario Kart. Games can test your critical thinking like Professor Layton or have an amazing cinematic sound track like Kid Icarus Uprising. But the interactive nature of games makes them so much more than just a good story, puzzle, competition, or set piece. I can’t speak for everyone, and I am aware that some people have video game addictions (anyone can be addicted to anything – even novels), but this is the reason why I play video games: because they put me into experiences that can change the way I see the world or at the very least teach me something about myself.
P.S. A lot of what I said about Mass Effect 2 came right out of this video:
Games can and should tell stories and share ideas through their mechanics. This is the intrinsic element of the medium and this is how experiences should be crafted in video games. No company does this as well as Nintendo and their echoes from the past.
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