As my semester begins to spin up and I begin to drag myself out of a solid month of liquor, social engagements, rich food, and other indulgences, I find myself thinking at length about my gaming habits and the idea of “gaming” as a cultural force. In my last article on the topic, “Just a Video Game,” I expressed the sentiment that gaming should be summed up in that titular phrase. I said that gaming has become too big, too bloated, too shiny and distracting for men in their twenties and thirties and, therefore, it should either revert to what it was during the 90’s or early 2000’s or simply cease altogether. I still hold that opinion, but I am happy to report that the online gaming “community” is beginning to move towards a similar position. The AAA gaming spacing—which consists of the larger publishers such as Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, Ubisoft, Activision/Blizzard, etc.—has slowly but surely begun to push many players and developers away through its slavish adherence to the most profitable model: the live service game. But what is a live-service game?
A live-service game is (usually) a multiplayer, free-to-play, multiplatform—i.e. can have versions on iOS, Xbox, Playstation, etc.—game usually based around some repetitive, high-time-investment combat gameplay. Recent examples of this are games such as Fortnite, Apex Legends, Overwatch 2, and Destiny. These games are meant to be played daily, similarly to how people used to World of Warcraft or Runescape, with very slow player progression: in many cases, one must play for at least 20 hours—about 2 weeks worth of play sessions for any decent person—before one can unlock anything of note. Game unlocks are the almost universal mark of player progression in the current online gaming space. In single-player games, you are attempting to move through a plot or a series of challenges so that you can reach some kind of conclusion, even if it is simply “beating” the game. In multiplayer, however, there are two kinds of progression: rank and unlocks. Rank is determined by your rising skill at a game as you play and is determined by easily manipulated metrics—kill-death ratios, high scores, objective completion, etc. Unlocks, in the early days of widespread online gaming circa 2009, were an innovation brought in by Call of Duty in an attempt to hook players deeper into the game mechanics with in-game rewards: you get enough kills or win enough matches, you get a new gun to add to your arsenal. Basic stuff. Live-service games, however, took the unlock idea and corrupted it with an exploitative, capitalist mechanic: microtransactions.
Microtransactions are what they sound like: small purchases within the live-service game. These kinds of games have a “shop” icon prominently featured on their main menu, with the rest of the menu options being intentionally obtuse and difficult to navigate so that you spend more time in the presence of items—player models, skins, emotes, and other such cosmetic frippery—available for purchase and are thus more likely to buy something. Yet the fact is that even if you are buying something on these stores—which, as a Catholic, you should never, never, do—you are in fact not really buying anything. Each item is a series of ones and zeros which contain nothing of real value and can be arbitrarily “taken back” from you without your consent if the game servers are shut down. Setting this aside, the reality is that these “shops” are the main item being peddled in the mainstream gaming world now, despite the frequent protests of the online gaming “community” every time a new game of this sort is released. The game to which they are attached is more akin to a free sample from a crack dealer than an example of the interactive medium. The sheer amount of profit these games produce makes it apparently impossible for large gaming corporations to neglect their development. Even Sony—historically a largely single-player publisher known for games such as Uncharted, The Last of Us, and Ratchet and Clank, have begun to succumb to this pull. Corporate gaming has, in a sense, created the purest form of capitalism: a virtual, completely worthless, commodified version of the addiction to materialistic consumption. Rather than selling you some approximation of the experience of a soldier, pirate, or similar character, games now sell you shiny lights and addicting sounds attached to price tags. It is the perfect product, costing almost nothing to reproduce infinitely and which can be taken back without the consent of the purchaser. I fear I have wandered from the point. What does this have to do with Catholic indie developers?
What these kinds of games have done is split the gaming “community” into two camps: those who are simply and utterly addicted to purchasing shiny lights and satisfying noises attached to price tags and those who are… also addicted but with some shadow of a conscience. The first group vastly outnumbers the second, mostly because it is likely composed of very young, iPad-addled, and over-medicated products of parental neglect. The many—already addicted to other corporate products and gorged on processed foods—will support these live-service games regardless of the protestations of the few who object to them. These few, however, have some solace in the indie game sphere. Indies (short for “independent developers”) got their start sometime around 2009-2011 with the success of Fez, The Binding of Issac, Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Bastion. These games, made by a only a few people while they worked day jobs, have consistently shown that gaming itself is capable of insightful, deep, and engaging art which is fully—and ironically—aware of itself as a product. They know precisely what they are: experiences sold to us so that we can broaden our understanding of experience generally. This trend has had its ups and downs—the sphere is a tad over-saturated with sad games featuring grey-tone “color” schemes, lesbians, and overbearing white males—but most of these games still show the marks of genuine creatives: core concepts and gameplay loops given room to breath rather than suffocated under bad menus and too many other gameplay options; story and gameplay with matching tones rather than the usual AAA ludo-narrative dissonance, and an overall sense that what the game is saying is of some actual importance to some person, somewhere. The problem is, of course, that we, as Catholics, cannot condone some of the things these people are saying, as evidenced by the large number of games revolving around gay romance. The natural response is to ignore them, but we know that the only way to overcome bad speech is good speech. We need Catholic indie developers in the same way that we need Catholic teachers, politicians, professors, and writers. Speech is the medium through which a culture understands itself. Insofar as games inevitably say something and therefore contribute to a culture’s self-understanding, it is part of Catholic social responsibility that we make games that say the right thing.
This is not without problems beyond the usual “What kind of Catholic gives a shit about video games?” The issue of player choice is particularly thorny: If you are playing a character who is manifestly evil, is that in any way a moral failing on your part? Should a developer allow a player to choose evil actions? Most broadly, what is the relationship between virtual choice and virtuous choices? On the level of game content, what kinds of stories either can or ought to be told in this medium? Is there, in fact, any kind of game which does not contain an implicit story and can therefore be either good or bad as such? Catholics simply do not care for these kinds of questions because most good Catholics have already delegated gaming to the cesspool of post-modern consumerist nightmares. I myself am not particularly disturbed by this lack, since I assume that means that people capable of thinking well are doing so in regards to much more important matters than whether Mario or the player is culpable for curb-stomping a Koopa Troopa. Yet the fact remains that there is a sizable group of souls lost in their obsession with games and thus blind to the ways the games they play effect the beliefs they hold. It is a particularly dark, fetid, and depressing cave that they find themselves in, but that ought not stop us from attempting to lead them out of it. Not being one of the creative types, I can be of no help to such an endeavor. We need good Catholic indie developers to show the way.