So one of the things that happened at Swancon was this: I found myself double-booked on Friday night and sided with the Gentleman’s Etymological Society event rather than the Emotion, Attachment, and Video Games panel. This wasn’t really intentional – originally they’d been scheduled to go one after the other – but such things happens in cons and decisions must be made.
I do, however, have several pages of notes I put together in preparation for the panel I didn’t make it too, and since I’m a waste-not, want-not kind of guy, I figured I’d torture the rest of you with a more formalized write-up of the argument I would have made. Turns out I had rather a lot of material once I started writing things up, so it’s probably going to happen in three or four posts over the next couple of days. Consider yourselves warned.
Emotion, Attachment, and Video Games
Part One: The Confession of a Computer Game Tragic
I live in fear of computer games. I am, at my core, one of those gamers – the kind who lacks the self-control to say ‘now is the time to walk away.’ Once the game is started, I have about half an hour to turn it off and get back to my real life; beyond that, I’ve committed. I want to figure out how to win, or how it ends, or even what the next cut scene might be, and then it’s three days later and I haven’t slept and I’ve burned through the bulk of my sick leave in an attempt to try and stop the dark spawn from taking over Ferelden. The game itself doesn’t seem to matter – I can spend three days trying to figure out how to beat an online flash game like Dice Wars or take my promotion to the top in my favourite wrestling sim just as easily as I’ll get sucked into high-profile, gaming wonders with state-of-the-art CGI and thousands upon thousands hours spent in development.
My only defence against this obsessive impulse seems to be refusing to play in the first place, so for the last seven or eight years I’ve refused to let computer games into my house. Mostly this is pretty easy, because I control the technology around me. My computers are low-budget machines, utterly incapable of running state of the art games; I’ve refused to own a gaming consol since I picked up an original NES system at an op-shop in my twenties and lost six weeks to beating the original Super Mario Brothers games; my despair when I upgraded my mobile phone and it came with computer games was considerable, but I found the resolve to delete the ones I liked and now play the ones I don’t when stuck in an airport.
Yet despite my best effort, technology creeps forward. Computers die and get replaced, and suddenly all those games I would have played a few years back if the technology had been up to it are available to me. And occasionally I’ll slip. I’ll break out the copy of Blood Bowl, which I justified as an online game that has a set time-limit to prevent me from going overboard, or I’ll fire up my favourite wrestling sim, which is by nature unbeatable and therefore unlikely to set off my need to achieve.
These are, of course, convenient lies I tell myself because I can’t quite kick the computer game habit, but at least I’ve grown familiar with the cycle of playing both games over the last few years. After a day, maybe two, I’ll realise that my promise that I’m just firing it up for an hour or so is shot and pull myself to a halt.
It would be easier if my friends gave up gaming as well, but they don’t. People will rave at me about their new favourites from time to time, rattling off the cool features, and I’ll find myself tempted. Very occasionally I’ll break and ask to borrow their copy, and I now thank the digital gods that most people now have Steam accounts and aren’t in a position to loan me their actual discs. With the delivery of games via disc becoming outmoded, I am safer from computer games than ever before.
Except when the games are cool enough that people really want to make sure they never lose their copy to hard-drive failure or power surges. Apparently there are still some games worth picking up, old school-like, and thus remain available for being left out. Which is how, six months ago, I found myself playing Dragon Age: Origins. Before I began, I was told three things: play it all the way through, once; play all the introductory stories; be prepared to spend the majority of your time talking to people in the camping site.
While I never managed to reach the end of the game – it’s crack-like qualities were sufficient that after the first week of playing I gave the discs back and asked that it never be leant to me again, for fear I’d stop writing altogether – I did play several of the introductions and the camp proved to be the most fascinating part of the game-play. I also know how it ends – my frustration with the gameplay interrupting the narrative led me to checking out walkthroughs and cheat-sheets, which ultimately led to me shrugging and realising that I was less interested in the game as a game once I knew all the alternative storylines.
This is not the first time this has happened. Many years ago, back before I realised me and computer games didn’t really mix, I started playing Starcraft. My interest in the game ended the moment a friend said “you know, I have this DVD full of cut scenes”, whereupon I promptly watched the story without the game and went on with my life.
Here’s the brutal truth of my relationship with computer games: I’m interested in their narratives, but can’t engage with the narrative because of the game play. As soon as you establish conditions of victory or submission, I’m hardwired to try and win. This, more than anything else, kills my interest in the game the moment it becomes apparent that victory will take days or weeks to achieve.
Computer games aren’t stories, and in this respect their attempts to manipulate emotions always feels like a bit of a cheat.
To be continued…