Breaking out of a self-centered gamer mentality
There is one person I think about when I’m playing a videogame. Here’s a hint: it’s not the characters I’m interacting with, nor the 2-dimensional cardboard cutout of a character acting as my avatar. It’s me.
In fact, when I started playing videogames again after a several-years hiatus, it was because I had convinced myself I deserved it. “I’ve been through a lot,” I told myself. My wife at the time had asked for a divorce, and I found myself at home alone having just finished a masters degree with no real career track to show for it. It was out of self-pity and a self-congratulatory attitude that I traded in my lesser-used Wii for an Xbox 360 and delved deeply into the world of videogames.
Games are, for the most part, contraptions designed for self-gratitude. They cater to my desire for personal success and my nearsighted desire for satisfaction. They are developed with an eye toward “replay value,” making sure I get a sense of immediate gratification from the slightest maneuver or choice.
Games can be insidious little deceptions if we aren’t thoughtful about what we glean from them and what we use them for. They are worlds that revolve around us. Cars are meant for us to crash into them. The people with guns are there for us to kill them. The Pokémon are there to be caught. Buildings exist solely to be found by the player and people are there to be saved by no one else but ourselves.
It’s no wonder, then, that after marathon sessions of playing videogames I start to feel disengaged from the real world. Many of us have experienced that surreal feeling after spending most of the day playing videogames: desperately wanting to crash into things after playing a racing game for an extended period of time, or being irritable after shooting Nazis or monsters for hours. It’s almost an involuntary urge –controllable, but for at least a few minutes, seemingly irrepressible.
Because of how deceptively attractive a world created for our personal pleasure can be, when we stumble upon one that works for us, we are markedly protective of them. They begin to take a holistic role in our lives, living in our thoughts as we work and interact with others. The open worlds and the multiplayer competitions bleed into our reality, and become a kind of ongoing reality that we indulge in most explicitly during our free time. So naturally, gamers are known to become incredibly frustrated when we feel our favorite franchises have been mishandled. When reviewers dare to speak ill of a game we find particularly fun or meaningful, we rage against them with the fury of a riotous mob. We throw tantrums, as if our games were holy objects and that a particular gun being available “only at Gamestop” somehow violates our sacred human rights.
It does not. My own insistence that games, their developers, and their critics bend to my will betrays an ugly truth about human nature that is accentuated by videogames: I am fundamentally self-centered and unloving, desperately concerned with my own well-being to a lopsided degree.
Games didn’t train me to be this way, but they provide an outlet for it. They provide constant positive feedback – regular assurance that even if I fail repeatedly, I am still always “leveling up.” They go out of their way to assure me that I am accomplishing goals and unlocking enough to justify the activity. Games fall over themselves to win me over, and to show me that they are worth my time.
To the degree a game caters to my whims, my play sessions are both engrossing and oppressive. Resigned to chasing present moments ad infinitum, I am desperate to keep them going and hesitant to bring the game session to a close, because what exists outside of it is a set of rules and rewards that are more demanding and less satisfying. The rules of the real world are, by our game-criticism standards, completely broken. The feedback loop feels meaningless and disconnected, and our avatars are slow and fragile. When characters die, related quest lines are broken.
The expectation we have from birth – that the world exists to cater to our needs and desires – does not easily vanish. It is always a shock to emerge from the womb of a well-crafted videogame only to be confronted with a cold, loud and seemingly uncaring existence on the outside.
When I was a child, my mother unplugged the console because I ignored her cries of dinner-time, and I threw the controller across the room in outrage. I pounded against the walls. I told my mom I hated her.
In college I played to protect myself from expectations, finding rewards and success in Tony Hawk, barely aware of the homework deadlines creeping up behind me.
As an adult, I retreated into games as my life ceased to go as planned. As my marriage ended and a career choice was revealed to be misguided, I found solace and meaning in my Xbox. I crawled back into the womb, waiting for the storm to calm before I crawled back out.
But these things don’t calm down. The longer you live, the more personal tragedy becomes commonplace. The world keeps turning without concern for your personal well being or life goals. The mission of the naturally self-centered is to acknowledge our shortsightedness and to adapt. There is no easy or clear reward structure, and there is no one in this world that exists to make us feel happy or fulfilled.
No, we exist for the world, not the other way around. Games can allow us to forget this truth for a time, but I also genuinely believe they can prepare us for the way things really are. In their narratives, games can center stories on the needs of the few and disenfranchised, and not the powerful. Games can allow for acts of selflessness that are implicitly rewarding, not because of what they unlock, but because of the experiences that flow from them. Games can dare to interrupt the feedback loop between player and game just long enough to insert the motivations and desires of some other character.
We’re getting opportunities for selflessness already in some of the more boldly designed games: Journey, The Walking Dead, Minecraft, Bastion all provide opportunities and even motivation to thwart our own selfish impulses. They break new ground, not just graphically or mechanically, but in terms of focus. These are games that, when played, allow you to consider the impact you have on others. They allow for gratitude to be acquired, not from unlocks or clearly marked and accomplished goals, but from the messy work of relationship building and sacrificial serving, by the ways they emphasize community. They shift the focus from personal pleasure to the desires, needs and struggles of others.
When my Dad was dying of cancer, I dealt with it with all sorts of escapism. I remember falling headfirst into several TV shows and films that dealt with what it’s like to lose a loved one. Eventually, I found myself playing To The Moon, the story of a dying man and his wish to make those around him happy. I remember playing that game well into the night, hammering on the space bar to find out not what would happen next to my own character, but to get further inside of the mind of the dying man. I remember feeling like the game was gently rebuking me: I shouldn’t be relating to people who lose loved ones. I should be relating to my Dad. I should be probing his mind, not my own. The guy that’s dying, that’s the one that should matter to me, not myself.
I learned that from a videogame.