I have to admit that I have a tumultuous relationship with video games.
More than any other habit, the habit of video games is to me most unsettling in my students and in myself. Any time I see a young man playing video games in a show or movie, or when I see myself from my wife’s perspective in front of the computer, I have a knee jerk reaction of shame. I feel it is shameful to be in this circumstance. Should I not be out enjoying the world? Should I not be…buying a boat? Playing golf?
I do want to be clear that there are some games worth playing, in the same way I suppose that there are some books worth reading, some movies worth seeing, some albums worth listening to, and so on.
But for some reason games feel like unforced free labor.
Take for example Hardspace: Shipbreaker, a game recently released that has you as a space blue collar worker, effectively salvaging broken ass ships. I mean it is most definitely labor in the way that we know it to be. You are doing the work that some middle manager does not want to do. And yet the game looks incredibly fun! It’s like a puzzle trying to get the most value off of the ship using your cutter and your grappling hook in a way that does not rupture a gas line that sets of a chain reaction and gets you killed.
Yet people are also loving it! The question I have always had was how we could have this much free labor in a video game, but we cannot get people to do work in the real world for actual money?
One reason may be because we reward ingenuity and creativity in games but we dismiss it in the workplace.
I myself as a teacher have had a very difficult time trying to teach the way I want to, despite the fact that what I do is empirically based and accepted and praised by students and parents.
In games like Stardew Valley, or Animal Crossing, we have people donate an inordinate amount of hours to picking fruit and planting flowers.
Clearly chores, given the right context, cease to be such.
In the age of coronavirus, this labor for me has turned out to be more embroidery work, where it seems to be the medium under which I talk to my friends. When it is dangerous to be having open-mouthed conversations within 14 feet of my friends, no amount of interaction is worth being eventually put on a ventilator.
We all have our own demons to face, and often they can be self-imposed. Satan in Paradise Lost in book four begins to personalize his act of betrayal. He builds his home, Pandemonium, yet it is not until he leaves and investigates this new rumored Garden of Eden created for Man does he conflate Hell with his own being:
Nay cursed be thou since against His thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell, myself am Hell,
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.
Colson Whitehead is a Pulitzer prize and National Book Award winning author who has admitted to playing video games. Karl Ove Knausgaard has admitted to playing Wolfenstein. Perhaps my issue with games is a lack of exposure. Typically my perception of “gamers” is not pretty. Their representation in mass culture is tantamount to a nightmare usage of words, as they call it a “review.” Or it resides in outright childishness (see Gamergate). While I am defending gaming by mentioning leading intelligent authors, it is the dumb gamer or, much more perniciously, the FPS player turned mass shooter, that make the headlines.
People have been playing games since humans have ever been evolved to be social creatures. When crews have been shipwrecked in human history, the best cases, according to Nicholas Christakis in his book Blueprint, were the ones where games were organized to provide social cohesion.
Stranded in Antarctica, Ernest Shackleton and 27 other crew members were forced to live out nine months aboard the Endurance as the water around the ship had frozen. To be sure, the crew realized they had tough work ahead of them, and they spent it hunting penguins and seals, building shelters, cooking meals, and organizing logistical arrangements of supplies.
But they also played games. “Strikingly,” Christakis writes, “the men spent a lot of time on organized entertainment, passing the time with soccer matches, theatrical productions and concerts. One one occasion, the men etched out a track in the snow, placed bets, and raced dogsleds in a competition they dubbed the ‘Dog Derby.'”
These games seemed at first glance to be worthless, but they clearly provided something “worth it” meaning the opportunity cost crossed some threshold. Even in a moment where it would be believed that every ounce of productivity needed to be extracted from each crew member, they felt these entertainments to be just as necessary.
It gives criticism to this workaholic trap that young people find themselves forced into in order to get ahead. If Ernest Shackleton can arrange games on the cold landscape of Antarctica, if farmers in Iowa can spare enough money to found a college and discuss great classics of mythology and literature, there must be more to human flourishing than simply “productivity” for its own sake.
So games are here to stay, in a work climate that does not applaud innovation, and in an environment where face-to-face conversation grows increasingly dire.
Steam Sale is tomorrow. For those who do not know, the Steam Summer Sale is the biggest reduction in game prices from the largest client of games on the PC. I have a list of games I’m watching for, I admit it. Even when I have no job and so therefore must be saving money. But perhaps there is also an opportunity cost that is worth the expenditure. Whether it is well-being or social cohesion, games seem to be the product of my immediate future, more for what they provide than what they intrinsically are.
Games are the icing; life is the cake.