Seth

August 28, 2012

The Importanace of Video Games by Seth

Jane McGonigal, a speaker on TED, once said (paraphrased), “Avid gamers aren’t just wasting time, they’re practicing something…a lot. Whenever someone spends a lot of time doing the same thing, that constitutes practice, and practice makes perfect. So what are gamers getting so good at? I submit that they were practicing a special kind of optimism–the kind you feel just before a pivotal moment in the game begins, at which time you believe to your soul that this challenge, this game, is beatable. All you have to do is just…beat it. In that moment all things are possible, all problems are solvable, everything is going to be all right, and the risk of failure is no obstacle. Gamers, whether they know it or not, have enough practice in this area to be considered masters of this state of mind. They are the most experienced optimists the world has ever known. If the whole world viewed problems the way gamers view the next level, how would our global crises be dwarfed?”

In a video featured in a different TED speech, then college student Michael Highland said (paraphrased), “No medium is better suited than video games to make the human brain so susceptible to reprogramming. In my own mind, the lines between reality and virtuality continue to blur. I drive my real car at sunset and think, ‘This is almost as beautiful as the game,’ which is tragic, of course. But there is potential for good here as well. Imagine games that are designed to get us to confront real ideas in virtual spaces–games that aren’t just about spectacle, but about the practiced exploration of ourselves. Such games have the potential to foster our integration with society, rather than nurturing a confused, antisocial mind.”

Video games have reached a sort of pinnacle in the entertainment industry. Games create more revenue than music. Games are produced by larger crews than movies. In short, the video game in some ways has become the new gold standard of entertainment. In just a few more years, I believe creative minds everywhere will view video games as the penultimate medium through which to convey their ideas and stories.

At this point, everything the gaming industry does tends to impact our culture. And the debate still rages between those who believe the influence games exert on us is bad, and those who think it is good. I want to take a moment to ponder the ways video games might be used to nudge us users in the right direction.

As a gamer, there are two series I’ll use to make my point, just because I’m more familiar with them. I’ll start with the Metal Gear Solid series–produced by Konami and distributed by Sony on its PlayStation consoles. In my opinion, this series is the first (and best) to ever attempt conveying a story arch that matters. For all the spectacle it does contain, the game’s true standout moments are in the story. And like any truly compelling story, the plot elements in this series explore the heaviness of all kinds of fuzzy concepts. Politics. Patriotism. Cloning. Justification by command. The “opiated masses”. And don’t forget federal corruption. In the Metal Gear Solid series, this hugely dramatic concoction of elements amounts to much more than some crappy Steven Segal flick. It’s a gripping narrative of what wrestling with such questions can do to a person. This series provides a virtual space where it’s safe for minds of any level of maturity to get a taste of existential chaos and psychological panic, all while dealing with military conflict and international hostility. Confront the unanswerable questions in this game series, and you will have experienced some serious growing pains by the time you turn off the console. It’s a masterpiece that is still under-recognized today.

Next, the Halo series, produced by Bungie (until recently) and distributed by Microsoft on its XBox consoles. Though hugely popular, Halo’s campaign mode as designed by Bungie has been the most straightforward of First Person Shooters. Not a lot of spectacle or imagination with how the game is played. But again, the strength is in the story elements. A united, secular human race against the hostile, religiously motivated alien federation known as The Covenant. And as if the conflict between science and religion wasn’t dramatic enough, add biological warfare. The social integration of artificial intelligence. The definition of consciousness and sentience. The conflicting priorities of reverence for history vs. the need for progress. The origin of species. And finally, the effect that a mutual apocalyptic threat has on those who disagree with each other. I’m talking about the question of what’s worth living for? Dying for? Killing for? These are the components that make playing the Halo campaigns memorable and praiseworthy.

Now consider all of this along with the point those TED speakers made – the part about gamers being seasoned optimists, rehearsing important decisions in virtual space. In a video game, the player doesn’t waste time wondering if the problem is solvable…only how to solve it. That attitude in a sentence reads something like, “I don’t care what it is. It’s in my way, and I’m gonna fix it.” That kind of approach has a profound effect on worldview and personal stress levels. Calling it a game makes the industry seem so trivial. But it’s not. It’s arguably the most significant revolution in the history of art, with the most intriguing consequences.

Of course, as with any entertainment industry, much of the output isn’t anywhere near this level of importance. Mortal Kombat comes to mind. As does Super Mario. Each represents its own extreme of entertainment for its own sake. Though these less meaningful games have become icons in their own right, and are very enjoyable in that context, they do not exemplify the medium’s potential to evolve the human mind.

As an artist, I’m extremely excited about what video games have become. As a gamer, I’m ecstatic about the experiences available to me in virtual space. And as a philosopher, I’m in awe at the implications of this medium’s potential. It is a zenith of human creativity, and frankly deserves many times the celebration it’s received to date.

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