There was once a time when writing about video games meant addressing a specifically young demographic. Older folks, marketing analysis told us, simply didn’t waste their time in front of the gaming systems they felt were rotting the brains of America’s youth — and as such, approaching the topic from a serious and analytical perspective was an exercise in futility. For what audience would you hope to bring a real-world perspective to a digital playground?
But in the past few years, things have changed.
Video games, once aimed directly at prepubescent boys with aggression to work through, are now fully realized worlds aimed at drawing in players of all ages. Button tappers and first-person shooters remain, but where stories were once a few lines of text that distracted you from a loading screen, they are now at the forefront of the gaming experience. “The Last of Us,” a third person zombie/apocalypse survival game, might be better described as a movie that you participate in — complete with better character development that we’ve seen in multiple seasons of “The Walking Dead” and a heart-wrenching plot that should come with a disclaimer for fathers with young daughters.
Among the initiated, the stories the precede the game you’re playing is often referred to as “lore.” Just like its real-world counterpart, gaming lore has become the subject of extensive analysis and debate among those passionate about their games. Sometimes, Lore is developed as an afterthought for a franchise that has existed for years (like in the case of the Fallout games). In other instances, games are developed from their very inception to contain a robust in-game history you can choose to explore or disregard as you meander your way through open worlds. The “Mass Effect” franchise, for instance, could probably give Star Trek a run for its money regarding alien cultures and histories to wax on about on Reddit and in Facebook groups.
For those interested in nothing more than the gaming experience, this shift away from mindless button-smashing and toward emotional investment has served to make the games all the more engrossing — becoming a reality all its own to escape into. Just like with a good TV show, movie or book, being invested in the characters in a story gives the story new meaning, new weight in your psyche. Logically, you know the characters aren’t real, just like you know that the dog in “Old Yeller” isn’t actually getting shot but there, in the moment, the emotion is real nonetheless. It’s not the same level of pain that you feel when a real loved one dies, but emotions are elicited all the same.
Video games have always been about escapism, but in recent years the level of escape offered by the best in video games has exceeded the grasp of many traditional outlets — thanks in large part to the role the viewer gets to play — which is why video game consoles have become a facet of college dorms and military barracks the world over. College kids and young service members, away from home for the first time in their lives and often feeling largely helpless when it comes to the direction their lives are heading can escape the real struggle by voluntarily thrusting themselves into the fake ones of the digital world, but recognizing that begs one serious question: why?
If you’re a young Marine, deployed in a combat zone and just returning from a twelve-hour long patrol in which you spent the better part of your day cycling between boredom and adrenaline-fueled fear — why on earth would you want to strip off your gear and jump straight into playing Halo against your buddies, shooting space rifles at opponents and trying to keep your digital ass in one piece? The idea of seeking refuge from real combat stress by engulfing yourself in fictional combat stress seems counterintuitive, but that may be because that’s only a superficial appreciation for what gaming really offers. Playing games offers you the ability to experience a wide range of emotions, to blow off steam, and sometimes most importantly, a chance to shoot your best friend in the face with a laser cannon — but beneath the surface, what gaming actually offers is a simple, logical progression of narrative.
That last sentence sounded painfully like something a graduate school student would write and leave hanging, hoping the vague meaning and long string of syllables would serve as the “emperor’s new clothes” of thesis statements: if you don’t get it, it’s because you’re just not on my analytical level. What I meant to say (in non-pretentious English) is that cause and effect applies in the video game world, and it just doesn’t (in an appreciable way) out here in real life.
Whether you’re on a deployment or stuck working 8-5 behind the counter at Macy’s, life is full of innumerable variables — so many in fact that it’s often impossible to know exactly what complex chain of events led you to where you are. Relationship problems don’t arise because you hit the wrong button combination in a minigame, they develop over weeks, months or even years — you can’t put your finger on when or why things went sideways with the love of your life, all you know is that when it did, it hurt. You don’t understand why you’re not actually happy the day you graduate from college, or the when you find out you got that big promotion at work — all you know is that you think you should be.
While reading a book about propaganda recently, I came across an incredibly important concept to consider when trying to counter foreign information operations. Dr. Ajit Maan, head of the think tank Narrative Strategies, explains that because real narratives rarely follow a direct line of cause and effect, one of the easiest ways to know when you’re dealing with a fabricated narrative is when the story you’re being told makes perfect sense. Complex sociopolitical issues don’t develop in places where one party is clearly in the wrong and the other is clearly in the right — no one seeks the role of the “bad guy” — which means a narrative that clearly depicts one party or the other as evildoers is often the product of an effort to manage your perceptions.
Even in the case of ISIS versus the developed world, you’ll be hard-pressed to find stories about the humanity at play within the enemy group (admittedly, because it seems to be exceedingly sparse within groups like ISIS). There’s no denying that there have been young men fooled into believing they’re on the right side within their ranks, but if we started deliberating on the humanity that might be found within some small fraction of the enemy, the fight itself loses its appeal. Not for the American Warfighter on the ground, fighting against the evil in men — but for the American public, whose will ultimately decide the level of involvement we tolerate in these far-off battles. The reality of war, most who have been there will tell you, has little do with hate. Hate is an emotion you don’t have time for when clearing a house — but to stomach the repercussions of violence, we need to see the enemy as something different from ourselves back here at home.
ISIS, like the Nazis before them, use extreme and grotesque violence as a means to what they consider to be a favorable end, but in their minds, that end justifies the means. In other words, even while enacting the worst sorts of violence possible against innocent victims, these people believe themselves to be the good guys.
Whether we’re talking about that sense of loneliness that surprises you on an otherwise good day, that lingering fear that your husband is spending too much time with that girl at work, or the terrifying reality of fighting zealots in faraway lands, the one universal thing through all of these instances is simple: life is pretty f*cked up, and often, it’s hard to make sense out of.
Not video games though.
Even in the most complex lore-laden games, everything still follows the basic cause and effect premise. Some characters are bad, some are good, and their motives are clearly defined. Video games may offer complex plots, and like Mass Effect, even for the player to make difficult choices about who lives or dies within your gaming world, but ultimately, even those choices are presented in a way that adheres to a logical, progressing narrative. You’re never blindsided by emotion, never caught off guard by a tragic attack you didn’t see coming, never left feeling helpless.
When Soldiers and Marines come back from a mission, plop themselves in a semicircle around a TV and start playing Call of Duty, they’re not doing it because they need more combat in their lives, they’re doing it because they need more control. Out here in the world, things don’t have to happen for a reason — sometimes they just happen.
But in there? In there, things make sense — and really, that’s all the escape we need.
Feature image courtesy of Bethesda, via Fallout 76 trailer.