Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Existential Gamer

Instead of talking about games, I want to talk about gamers. Not hardcore. Not casual. But the existential gamer.

My 8 year old son has been looking forward to the new release of Sam & Max: Night of the Raving Dead and loves playing the series. Watching him, I've realized that he plays games in a very different way that I do now because he carries the game experience beyond playing the game.

For example, he talks about the game with anyone who will listen, recounting the funny parts or his attempts to solve the puzzles. Because he loves to draw, he draws pictures of the characters while sitting on his bed or riding in the car. When he plays outside with friends, they sometimes play characters from the game in some imagined setting. He's enjoying the game in other ways than just playing the game. He owns his play with the games, creating his own experiences other than what the game defines.

The last time I experienced a game in such a way was when my friends and I played Everquest in large part because we had such interesting stories to tell. Even if we played together and retold the night's events, the perspective each of us had was interesting and different, not to mention the humorous spin we added. We told stories about how we played through the game event as well as how our character behaved, somewhat separating the two. It wasn't uncommon for us to switch between first and third person: "I saw that no one was on last night . . . . Vali fought in East Karanas." Sometimes, though, the difference between player and character somewhat blurred. Yet, even for players who maintained that the character was apart from themselves, they still talked about that character outside the game with great details. Regardless, we all enjoyed the game outside of the game itself. While some of that external talk was about strategy and teamwork, we were also developing our characters while telling those stories, explaining motivations or telling some backstories. We didn't mistake those characters as "real" but they became interesting in their own ways.

But since that time, I don't talk or think about games (either playing them or the events in them) as stories. Listening to friends who play games, I don't hear them thinking that way either. It's about achievements or about the game graphics or engine or difficulty.

Certainly, a part of it has to do with the games themselves, but mostly, it's the gamer. Why recount something from Mass Effect or Super Mario Galaxy when anyone who plays it will probably have the same experience? Yet, do we really have the same experience? An multiplayer game is dynamic because it involves real people, and sometimes we can hear stories about multiplayer sessions.

There's also the consumer element. I know many gamers who are like speed readers: they consume games very quickly, and I frequently hear (from myself and others), "There are so many games to play." With so many viable platforms to play on, we have indeed more games that we can play. As a result, how do we not regard games as somewhat disposable and momentary? I also hear games talk about games as critics, how game Y isn't as good as game X.

For my son, Sam and Max are important. Not out of whack important. 'Meaningful' is a better word . . . these aren't just characters or a game that he plays and then leaves behind. His experience of those games are something he talks about, that he replays in different ways outside of the game.

It's tempting to think of this difference as one of identity and otherness. Mature gamers like myself mostly recognize our game experience as something very different from ourselves. It's a way to "get away" from jobs, pressures and the like. To get away from our "real" lives. Paradoxically, we often gain this separation by immersing ourselves in a game.

But for my son, he doesn't have that need to separate his life from the game. His immersion is different: he immerses the game into his life, allowing it to inspire his non-computer play and activities. His connection to a game that he enjoys is much deeper than mine. The boundaries are different for adults like myself where his boundaries are more fluid, thanks in large part because as an eight year old, he's still defining himself largely through play, even while working at school. When he does his math, he is making a game of the task and the numbers. Yet, for all his goofing, he is learning: He's a straight A student. So, his ways work, where boundaries between learning, work, and play, between games and life are looser, even while he clearly knows the difference between them and doesn't think the game is life. It's not that simple.

I'm reminded of a line in A Thousand Plateaus:

Be the Pink Panther and your loves will be like the wasp and the orchid, the cat and the baboon.
This Lewis-Carroll sentence comes in a passage where Deleuze and Guittari explain their theme of the rhizome, of connections and interplay. They talk about betweenness as AND logic, which is not going one way and then another but traversing both ways at the same time. In a way, they are talking about the absence of boundaries.

This is what I think he does with his work and play, life and gaming. His gaming is both more playful and more serious than mine. It's not serious in the way of using a spreadsheet to track when to do what in an RTS. It's serious in that the game is something to use for other purposes, often creative. It's serious in that he's willing to experiment more than I do with the games that he truly enjoys.

What of this difference? Should I be more like my son? Am I playing Robert Fulguhm here? In a way, yes. But it's hard for us as adults because our lives are so different. If nothing else, few adults in their 40s are still trying to define themselves, although I think we still are. Most of us probably stopped drawing, writing, singing or doing anything creative long ago because we became convinced we couldn't that. I don't think we have the playful kind of roleplaying speech and activities that my son and his friends have.

I'm not sure the world would be better if we were more like kids. But I'm thinking that we might have more fun, at least. We've designated one part of our lives to gaming, where we roleplay in safety. But what if we did more of that? Some adults do that, but they get tagged quickly as abnormal, obsessive, immature, or queer. Some adults take the games too seriously and probably forget their responsibilities too easily. The point is to play but to open up the play.

Take a linear game like Titan Quest. Rather than play it as a shopping game or just following the scripted storyline, have your character start losing his belief and faith in these gods: begin as a pious character and play the game an increasingly disillusioned character. Or maybe play as someone who's fallen in love with one of the NPCs. Write your own story here, just as if you were playing a sandbox game like Grand Theft Auto or Oblivion. Don't take the given game as the only given.

When my son and I play a multiplayer game like Ben 10 or Marvel Ultimate Alliance, I would sometimes get frustrated because he wasn't "playing the game." But he is. He's playing his own game. When we play those kind of games now, we often provide our own dialogue and talk in voices for the characters and come up with our missions. Sometimes, we play just for the sake of trying to come up with bad puns and jokes. Sometimes, we don't do anything in the game that we are "supposed" to do. Sometimes, we have no goal at all. So, I'm learning to be the existential gamer that my son is. Oddly enough, I'm finding the attitude improving my "real" life, too. I'm not getting into cosplay, but I am reminded that I'm in control of nothing except myself and my attitude about what I can't control.

To paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is the father of the gamer.


gnome said...

Very, very interesting. It sort of reminded me the way I used to approach games and toys, or at least, the way I think I did. A meta-game of sorts...

Anyway. Happy thing is you're still not into cosplay and Heinlein wasn't that young when he begun writing.

Ioannis said...

Very interesting article, and I'll second gnome on the toy thing. Your suggestions on 'opening up' play do evoke an approach to videogames as toys. But I wonder whether this would apply to more 'authored' games as well: wouldn't I be missing something of the point of a deliberately complex narrative game if I superimposed my own off-the-hook interpretation on it?

And what about grand strategy games, like Civ? Is there a useful sense of 'opening' those up? They do afford some chance for 'role-playing' or 'narrative', but how far can you go from the goal of beating the AI?

I can't follow the 1000 plateaus angle, but I'd be interested to hear more on the conundrum of identifying the structure of a videogame vs. imposing a structure of your own.

guttertalk said...

I agree that some games would not lend themselves to creating your own adventure, but in a sense, don't you at least to some degree?

In Mass Effect, which is a very complex story, I'm definitely creating my own character, which of course the game wants you to. I think you could take it even further than the game allows.

Back when I was beta testing different MMOs, I played one in which the player defined all sorts of things about their character, including a backstory, parent and sibling names, etc.

I very clumsily was suggesting that it is as much writing our own game as well as our own story. Both have beginnings and endings, but the structure can be what you want. The challenge could be trying to author your own game/story in a game that might not easily allow you to do so.

The Thousand Plateaus reference was, I see now, too underdeveloped. I was making two points here: one is owning our games (authoring as you say) and the other is removing our boundaries between our gaming and the other parts of our lives. (For many kids, playing is more serious to them than schoolwork, which is not as bad as it sounds IMO.) The Plateaus reference was for the benefit of the latter point. It's something to probably something to have left to a different post.

BTW, gnome, the comments on your other blogs are missing.

gnome said...

Think they are fixed now guttertalk. Thanks for pointing it out though.

Oh, and truth be said that ioannis character might have a point y'know. Perhaps he could even let us reprint something of his concerning v.g. narrative. Perhaps he'd be so kind as to translate it himself too...

The Sports Satirist said...

I am pretty sure I had the same experience as other gamers during the sex in Mass Effect.

Caleb said...

It's an excellent article.

I am somewhat unsure how I feel during gameplay.

Loner Gamer said...

Interesting. I usually find myself creating my own story to a game that is vague in its own storytelling. Not quite the level of immersion described in your article. The one thing I do enjoy the most is coming up with my own interpretation of the gaming experience of a particular title, no matter how linear it may be. To find deeper meanings and connections to video games is an art in itself.

needmoreparachutes said...

My son interacts with and beyond his games in the same way as your son. His creativity and playfulness are extraordinary. His ability to see a task through to the end always amazes me - even if it is only a game, I'm sure that he is disciplining his mind in some positive way that will prove useful in the future. Good luck to you both!

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