Just a Video Game

One of my bad habits is gaming. That habit is intimately connected to the holidays, as it is for many men of my generation. Those born anywhere from the late 70’s to the present likely grew up in a household with a game console or pc (usually given at Christmas) which could run games. That looked different for each generation included in that timeframe: for some kids it was a pc playing Runescape or Age of Empires. For others it was a Nintendo Entertainment System playing Super Mario Brothers. For me, I grew up with friends who mostly played Star Wars Battlefront on PS2. In high school, Call of Duty kicked off and everyone played it religiously on the Xbox 360. Once I went to college, my actual time spent gaming decreased and my amount of time watching videos about gaming increased. All these videos told me that gaming was getting better: more mature stories, better graphics, more immersive systems, and bigger worlds to knock around in. At times I would return to games to see what the fuss was about, be repulsed by boring, overly-complicated games with 20+ hour time investments to even get started, and go back to reading articles and watching videos about the good old days for gaming. Those days were about late nights spent playing games while your parents weren’t looking, playing deathmatch with your buddies until the wee hours of the morning while drinking way too much soda, and nerd-ing out over the inclusion of some new feature in a Star Wars game that let you play as Boba Fett or something. These days sound immature, and they most definitely were. They existed in a world devoid of things like jobs, responsibilities, moral quandaries, budgets, politics, and other adult concerns. When I would return to gaming, I would find that gaming was trying, with every fiber of its bloated, capitalistic, post-modern being, to grow up and keep within its grasp the generations brought under its spell in the past decades. What are the kiddos all about these days? Diversity? Throw some racial commentary in Bioshock. Homosexuality? Make the main character of The Last of Us a lesbian. Sadomasochism? Make almost every new game so hard that you have to quit your job just to spend enough time playing it to beat the second level. Dick jokes? Populate your games with macho, grizzled, profane, not-at-all-homoerotic gunfighters in games with names like Bullestorm or Warfighter or Gears of War. Zany humor? Make all your characters make inane self-referential, fourth-wall breaking jokes. With every trend comes a new game, and with every new game more money separated from the already-thin wallets of a distracted, disillusioned generation. Granted, there are exceptions to this trend. Nintendo still hasn’t caught on, and I think thats the point: they still think of games as games. Not a hobby or a pastime. Just games. Toys. For children. Why am I thinking of this? Because, this Christmas, I’ve been playing Doom Eternal, which is, for better or for worse, just a video game.

Doom Eternal is a video game. It pretends to be nothing else, it is nothing else. You play as a cartoonish, muscled space marine who shoots demons from hell with big guns. You shoot the demons with your big guns in levels with literal monkey bars built into them that you can swing off while shooting the demons with your big guns. There are big red barrels that explode when you shoot them with your big guns which can also kill the demons. If you shoot the demons with your big guns well enough you can make your guns bigger and shoot the demons harder. When playing, all you are thinking about is: shoot demons with my big guns. Thats it. The game does have a story, which comes off as fan fiction written written by a high school boy who just read some Nietzsche. It makes little sense to the uneducated and even less to those with any cursory knowledge of theology. Angels and demons are material beings who can be killed in this game and, despite some marginally Christian/Occult terminology and symbolism (pentagrams, crosses, halos, etc), there is a complete lack of mention of Christ or the Church. This makes the whole thing come off as a weird, slightly tone-deaf alternate-reality take on the whole Heaven-Hell concept, rather than a subversive narrative meant to lampoon or belittle Christianity.

Therefore, when I play this game, I turn off my brain, enjoy the experience, then turn the game off (and presumably my brain back on) and do something else with my life. Yet here is the dilemma: I have the same reaction to the rest of my life now after playing Doom Eternal as I did when I was a middle-schooler. Reality seems boring. Flat. Pointless. I don’t feel in control. I no longer feel empowered. I feel small. Helpless. So I run back to the comfort of the screen, the controller, the bright lights and the loud noises. There are some days where this isn’t the case, but I find that it is inversely related to the amount of higher purpose present in my life at the time. The lower my most pressing goal is at the time, the more I am effected in this way. If I am focussed on simply making money, I am more distracted. If I am focussed on my studies, I am less distracted. There is a sort of immature slackness brought on by gaming that is either irksome or welcome, depending on my own confidence and sense of purpose. I think this is rooted in the small, anxious voice that has been in the back of my head since I first started thinking about who I wanted to be or what the majority of my life was going to look like. The voice that whispered “how are you going to make it? What are you going to do? You can’t. It’s too hard.” That voice shuts up when presented with things like philosophy or theology. It gets very loud when presented with things like budgets, car repairs, insurance, and the like. It is this anxiety which makes a game either just a game, or something worse. If this anxiety is present (and I think it hard to deny that it is for many of our generation), then it is natural for gaming to make more and more of itself in an attempt to sooth that anxious voice. Games get more serious, more involved, more of an investment, simply to replace the sense of purpose being put off and rejected by that voice. Players allow themselves to be tricked into believing that they are a crucial part of society if there are more videos and articles talking about games or more contemporary concerns shoehorned into the games themselves, but are oblivious to the rapid decline of the society surrounding them due to their continual absence from it. Men are the primary consumers of video games, and society shows the marks of male absence: less focus on industry, duty, and prudence and more focus on charity, bureaucracy, and license. I am sure many young women can attest to the lack of genuinely strong, masculine, and convicted men to be found in our age range, and I think gaming is a large part of their absence. But what does Doom Eternal, as a particular video game, have to do with this cultural illness?

Doom Eternal is not a cure for the illness, but is a step in the right direction. It is, at the very least, just a video game. It is easier both to get into and walk away from than many of the games in recent years, despite the reaction that I myself have had to it at times. Video games need to be just video games. Not an expression of timeless truths, not a commentary on current events, not a way to replace a lost sense of purpose, but simple ways to relax or reach some small level of catharsis. I hope someday the gaming industry can be graced with an unceremonious collapse under its own weight, whereupon either the old days of gaming can return or, to dream a bit bigger, not return at all, for the betterment of coming generations.

3 thoughts on “Just a Video Game

  1. Two questions:
    1. Do you think there’s a significant difference between multiplayer and single-player games? I don’t mean MMORG (or whatever it is), but the kind of multiplayer that involves the same screen and different controllers, with all players playing simultaneously. (Super Smash Bros., Wario, Monkeyball (sorry, those are the ones I have experience with)). Do you see those kind of games as the same kind of escape that you’ve described?

    2. I stand by my belief that open-world games like the new Zelda and Skyrim are less fun that linear ones
    like an older Zelda game. Linear games are less overwhelming and time consuming. Change my mind.

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  2. I’m not Graham, but here are my two cents: I think multi player games like smash bros aren’t as much of an escape as others because of its “social” aspect. The game is meant to be played with several other people in the same room so its not as isolated and disconnected from the world. I also feel like when a bunch of people are playing that kind of game they are all more likely to call it quits together at a reasonable time whereas with single player games its harder to stop cause its just you without any social accountability.

    To the open-world question, non linear/open world games can definitely be more overwhelming and I guess time consuming (kind of depends), but I’m not sure about them necessarily being less fun than linear games. I thought the open world aspect in BOTW matched well with the situation of the story: you’re searching for your lost memories that are scattered over an uncharted world. But the order in which you piece it all together doesn’t really matter. That’s a pretty similar mode to Ocarina of Time, it doesn’t matter what temple you complete first, but you need to complete all of them. And with BOTW, you can kind of decide how much time you want to invest into the game. You don’t have to do all of the side quests that exists, just the main ones that still complete the story in a satisfying way. I think many linear games can still be just as time consuming as non linear ones, it depends mostly on how long the story is.

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  3. Let me re-state what I consider to be the main thrust of my article: while games can provide a bit of relaxation and mild catharsis under the proper mindset, they are not ultimately worth the time and effort they require from the player and it would be a cultural boon if they were to cease to exist. They are, ultimately, a net negative, regardless of this or that specific person uses them. This applies to all of the kinds mentioned in the above comments, though they do have specific drawbacks. I was not trying to claim that only games like Doom Eternal are bad (or good?) but rather that games that are simpler are more refreshing because they are not chasing woke moral-cultural trends. I would lump Smash Brothers, Mario Kart, and Halo together in this category, because they are very game-y, simple, immature titles with little narrative thrust and an emphasis on cathartic action that can be shared with others. I loved playing these games with my friends when I was a kid. They are still a great time, but I still think time spent playing these local multiplayer games could be better spent having just as much fun with a game of Euchre, Bananagrams, etc, which would not require the loud noises, flashing lights, and general dulling of reality.

    The dulling of reality element is what really bothers me these days. I should not be bored by the prospect of trying to finish a grad school application or of reading a good article, yet I am when I have a new game burning a hole in my PSN account. I remember a 16th birthday party I went to in high school where the kid really had gone all out: there was a band, tons of food, and a huge invite list (if it hadn’t been one of those kinds of parties, I likely would not have been invited), but all the kids his age wanted to do was sit in the basement, awkwardly flirt, and play Mario Kart. I overheard the kid (his name is Alex) complaining to someone about how there was no one out dancing because they all wanted to just play games. At the time, I thought he was being ridiculous. I liked playing the games, and I thought live bands were lame. Also, I couldn’t dance. Looking back now, he was right. We were stupid, selfish, and lazy for just playing games instead of learning how to dance or generally being better party guests. It is because of this experience that I am hesitant to talk very positively about local multiplayer games anymore.

    As for Sandbox games… I don’t know. They can be fun, but they are really huge time sinks. I played BOTW for 200+ hours in one summer… and that just is not healthy. Maybe it is more fun. But I think the same thing can be said for cocaine, which is also not healthy. What is or is not more fun really depends on the player. “Fun” is an incredibly subjective term, and games reflect that. I find games like Smash Brothers, Halo, Doom, Blood, Zelda, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario Brothers to be “fun.” Some people do not. I do not think that gaming is mature enough for anyone to start making arguments about an objective standard of fun. If anyone reading this thinks such a standard exists, I would love to hear an argument for it.

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