Video Games for the Disillusioned Gamer

I think I hate video games.

After a friend of mine finally managed to get a flight back from Chicago, I texted and wondered if he would be interested in talking on the phone. You know? The telephone? Either that or I guess we could facetime or Zoom or whatever they’re doing these days.

He said he bought a switch and we could play something together.

For men, this is the typical scenario. Men simply cannot talk to each other. In between there is always the sportsball game, there is always the video game console. I have been with some friends for almost a decade, and I really have no clue what goes on inside their heads.

From elementary school until sixth grade, I was a top student. I read more than everybody else, I won math speed drills, and I had a genuine interest in school. After that, two things happened.

I went through puberty, and I got an Xbox for my birthday.

And then for six straight years, I am not sure if I read a single book. If I did it was on accident. I played video games all the way until senior year, where I turned back, finally, to books.

But the damage had been done.

I hate the culture of video games. I hate the obvious effect it has on reading scores. I hate that feeling of getting upset playing a multiplayer game and “rage quitting.” I hate that I almost lost a sense of who I was after so many years of playing. I despise myself for not turning away sooner. And I most especially hate that even now as an adult my friends return to gaming as a way to keep us from acknowledging each other.

Games almost always take more from you than they give back. It has been described as a poor person’s hobby, which is fundamentally ridiculous when you consider the price of kindles, e-books, and the availability at the local library. Instead, people make the “dollar per hour” measure, and they conclude that if their son or daughter can spend over a hundred hours playing a videogame that only cost them $60 or less, that is fine by them.

And the result now is that games have now become “living” which means they are constantly updated and keep refueling a Skinnerbox mantra of behaviorally manipulating young people into wasting their life. Many games have you performing repetitive tasks and slightly increase the challenge while also increasing your “power.” This hedonic treadmill to me has become sort of disgusting.

Many games are Pavlovian, but not all. After playing games for so long and being on my way out, I thought to myself that if I had to recommend to someone games that addressed philosophical or cultural issues, inspired wonder or critical thinking, or highlighted what the medium could really be about, what would those games be? I have three recent ones. These are games that have no “leveling up” or experience points, that do not require hundreds of hours to sink into them (if you do not want to), and they provide attempts of intense thinking that makes you feel like you are doing something good for your head. These are also fun to play with partners or spouses, either working together or trading off.

1. The Witness

The Witness was made by Indie game developer Jonathan Blow, and contains some of the pretentious behavior that makes Blow infamous. But it is a puzzle game that combines the sense of discovery from Myst with the simple rule-building of solving line puzzles. It addresses philosophical questions of mind-body dualism, perspective, free will, and so on and so forth. It is a long game that has several layers in it when it comes to line puzzles, and with more than one ending (a true ending), it gives a player the drive to learn all the lessons and mechanics of the puzzles and pushes them in ways that make them see the puzzles in real life.

2. Return of the Obra Dinn

Imagine a game of Clue, but transcribed over an entire sailing vessel, and with all the names removed? That is Return of the Obra Dinn, a game where you play as an insurance adjuster. A ship has been spotted, having returned after years out at sea, but all the passengers are gone. You are magically equipped with a pocketwatch that, when activated on a corpse, can take you back to the moment they died. You are given a manifest and told to find the names of each person, who killed them, and how they died. The game is gloriously fun, but it also allows us to question the concept of value in human life. It is tragic, haunting, and has bits of dark comedy thrown in.

3. Outer Wilds

Recent winner of the BAFTA award, Outer Wilds might be the best game I have ever played. It combines puzzle elements with some wonderful text dialogue that you find yourself investigating over the course of a single loop played over and over every twenty-two minutes.

You are a space explorer in a miniature solar system, and every twenty-two minutes, the star you orbit goes supernova. Yet you come back to life to have it all play out again. No one but you remembers the loop, so it is up to you to figure out why the star explodes, and how to fix it.

It is a riveting experience, where the clockwork universe developers Mobius Digital created such a meticulous and intricate system where everything is in flux, nothing is static. Each planet provides its own beautifully zany or hauntingly grotesque features. I have never experienced a puzzle game that horrified me and made me laugh in the same session. The dialogue is cleverly written, the exploration available, and the resulting thoughts you have about your own mortality, about the nature of time and space, will be altered for the better. I’ll make that claim here.

I can see the critiques of my thoughts on videogames. I understand that I might have had to play those other video games so I would crave something more profound. I understand that games do provide changes to the brain that may thwart Alzheimer’s disease, like first person shooters, for example. Not to mention that here I am, still writing and reading. So was all that really for the worst?

But I also think that those are stop-gap answers that do not address what we typically see among young people, specifically young boys. Especially now, we are talking about whole weeks of their life removed, due to the plight of video games. 10,000 hours with the chance to learn something, work on a skill, or at the very least a chance to spend time with other human beings. Gone. The concept of “opportunity cost” is what I am addressing with these counterarguments.

The mantra I have had when playing a game is that there has to be more going on in my head than on screen. Usually puzzle games fit that role, but I am sure there are others available if you are willing to stretch the requirement. What exactly does “more” mean? I’ll let you find out.

If I could go back in time, I would have slapped my parents and destroyed that Xbox and told them to never give me the opportunity to waste that kind of time. Because I did.

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