Monday, July 12, 2021

notes on video games and my relationship with them

Sometimes I use Twitter. I'm not sure why.

The other day, I tweeted:

At age seventeen, I was still listening to Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails on a regular basis. I was just getting into Skinny Puppy, and was dabbling in Leæther Strip, the Electric Hellfire Club, Birmingham 6, and Wumpscut. All of it loud, abrasive, clanging, screeching, thumping music with an antiheroic (if not outright villainous) lyrical charisma, embracing the tacit philosophy that music ought to be a contact event. I suppose I understood then that a lot would necessarily change in two decades—but the insinuation that I'd somehow get to a point where most of the music I chose to listen to would be recordings of people from India playing the sitar and occasionally singing in a language I didn't understand might have been a bridge too far.

A longtime internet acquaintance pointed something else out:

Yes, well. Let's see here. When I was in my twenties I made a (relatively) long-running webcomic from ripped NES sprites and wrote (and rewrote) a series of essays about Final Fantasy. I haunted gaming message boards and IRC channels. I racked up hundreds of hours in Disgaea and Makai Kingdom, and probably even more playing online matches of Street Fighter III: Third Strike. I routinely drove forty-five minutes to play King of Fighters XI at an arcade in Wayne, New Jersey. I bought and played through seven—SEVEN!—.hack games, despite knowing in my heart that they were trash. I'm not certain if I ever self-identified as a gamer, but video games were more than just a hobby. They were my touchstone.

But I never stopped playing them! Why, just a few months ago, I wrote about the Valiant megaWAD. Last year I ploughed through Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 (and had nothing but good things to say about it), finally played and finished Cuphead, and fondly revisited Einhänder. Early into the lockdown, I kept the anxiety at bay with Lumines. And right now I'm feeling like it's finally time to try out Black Mesa, which Shirley's PC can apparently run (though my laptop falls far short of even the minimum requirements)—but I'm going to wait until the fall or winter.

Right now, if I've got time during the day where I don't intend to do anything constructive, I feel like I ought to at least go on a bike ride to the river (if I don't sneak out of the city to visit the Pine Barrens) or sit outside one of the reopened coffee shops and either read a few chapters of a novel or write postcards before Philadelphia cycles back into the six-month period when the doesn't come out and the temperature ranges from frigid to just unpleasant enough to be distracting. I've started bouldering again, too—though I don't make it out to the rock gym as often as I'd like.

I played more video games last summer than usual, true, but it wasn't like I had to budget my time during the lockdown. Now that I've reentered the workforce, the hours that I'm not doing what I must to earn a wage have become more precious. But when it's dark and drizzly again, I'm sure there will be days and evenings when I don't feel like doing much, even when there's opportunity—and that will be when I make Shirley regret she ever offered to let me use her desktop PC for video games.

I miss video games—which is a strange thing to say after admitting I never quit them. But part of me hates that I'm not playing fighting games online every night, and that I'll never experience Final Fantasy XIV. I'm trying to enjoy a healthier relationship with games than I once did—which is very much like saying that I love cigarettes but don't want my smoking them to become driven by compulsion.

If gaming is a lifestyle choice, then it's one of those choices that has a funny way of making itself. If you're old enough to remember being a child at the mall arcade, or at the local restaurant that had the latest Street Fighter knockoff or Konami beat 'em up in the vestibule, and can remember the anguish of running out of quarters and being refused more by your parents, you have some insight into how the smoker feels when his pack goes missing and all the convenience stores are closed for the evening.

Talking about video game addiction in particular seems a little beside the point in the age of Netflix and social media. Over the last decade or so, "bingeworthiness" has become the metric by which the quality of a new serial is assessed; in 2019 (before the pandemic), the average American was spending two and a half hours on social media per day. In 1990, the average America household watched seven hours of television per day; in 2017, that number had dropped to nearly eight hours, after peaking at about nine hours in 2009. (These numbers come from Nielsen and did not take streaming services into account.) It seems silly to believe that there's no correlation whatsoever between our media habits and our not going outside, not doing volunteer work, not participating in social clubs or civic groups, and our not having sex.

None of us want to think of ourselves as zombies, moved to and fro by the operation of attractors, repulsers, and our own biological exigencies. We want to believe we do what we do, whatever we do, with reason and intentionality. I say that I open Instagram when I think "gosh, I wonder what my friends are up to?" and check Twitter because it occurs to me that there's so much happening in the world and I ought to bring myself up to date.

"I have weighed the alternatives, and I believe the situation calls for me putting off going to bed one more hour to watch another episode of Jupiter's Legacy."

"It is Saturday, and I feel powerfully that of all the activities to which I can possible commit my finite leisure time of my fleeting existence on this planet, playing PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is, by any conceivable metric, and for the fiftieth consecutive week, the most reasonable choice."

"This enriches and gratifies me," I grit through my teeth at 2:30 AM, starting another ranked match in BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger after losing thirteen in a row. "I am asserting my will as a rational, self-determining agent!"

BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger (2008). I mained Rachel, and ArcSys probably did
me a big favor in the long run by nerfing her in Continuum Shift.

The ingenuity, artistry, and passion writ large in good video games is undeniable. But trust a current nicotine addict who once had an unhealthy relationship with ranked matches in 2D fighters: the raison d'etre of video games to make a lifetime customer out of you.

When I do play video games, I try to bear in mind that they're also playing me. I like to think of them a as a friend whose company I really enjoy—he's brilliantly intelligent, funny, eloquent, imaginative, and makes me feel like I'm at the center of the universe when he engages me in conversation. But he's also a bit of a sociopath whom I can't completely trust, and to whom I shouldn't allow myself to get too close.¹ Letting myself get drawn too deeply into his world, permitting his fancies, biases, grudges, and idées fixes become my own would be—well, you can read as many internet testimonials as you'd like about the experience of getting stuck in the orbit of a dark triad personality.

To the video game industry (and to the entertainment industrial complex as whole), we are mere instruments. No matter how wonderfully video games stimulate, delight, or inspire us they are also using us. I don't doubt for a second that the creatives who work so hard to design games earnestly wish to delight, stimulate, and inspire—just like the guy who invented Lunchables wanted to help out time-pressed parents who had to pack their children's school lunches, and make brown-bagging it a bit more exciting for the kids. But they're operating within an industry whose business model consists of selling people a habit and devising new ways of privately profiting from it.²

Sure, yes, with the way things are organized, we're making some horrible exploitative asshole somewhere richer no matter what we do. I'm convinced that for every book I sell, Jeff Bezos is able to buy 0.005 USD worth of rocket fuel. All I'm saying is that I'm trying to be more deliberate in choosing whom I hand over the keys to my mind, and setting limits on how long I allow them to rent the space. The vector through which the worms of heteronomy get into our brains isn't media content, but media formats

I have a lot of fun playing video games, and nothing but admiration for artists and auteurs who achieve excellence in the medium. I still enjoy writing about games from time to time. But it makes sense to me to limit the extent to which I give myself over to them. I don't like who I am when I'm so emotionally invested in a game that I get angry at it, when I'm so engrossed in a game that I put off sleeping, bathing, and/or eating, or when games make me avoidant of the people in my life and indifferent to actual events on my part of actual Earth.

It makes sense to me. But you should do what makes sense to you—naturally.

1. Yes, I've actually had friends like this. They're all very fun and charming.

2. The tobacco industry understands that it needn't fret when a smoker isn't buying cigarettes on a regular basis. What matters is that the pack is in his drawer or coat pocket, and sometimes he reaches for it. As long as he's using the product, the tobacconists can reliably expect he'll be back to buy more. Incidentally, I believe the happiest day in the the lives of the people who sold discs, cartridges, and consoles was when they understood that the kids and adolescents to whom they marketed their products in the 1980s and 90s weren't "aging out" of video games as they did conventional toys. 

3. Obviously Marshall McLuhan build an illustrious career exploring "the electric dilation of our various senses" by twentieth-century media forms. From The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962):
This externalization of our senses creates what de Chardin calls the "noosphere" or a technological brain for the world. Instead of tending toward a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as in an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside.
Big Brother needn't necessarily refer the government. Facebook and Twitter getting into people's heads made the QAnon cult possible. As a collective, journalists are in the advanced stages of Twitterbrain, and our politics are all the worse for it.


  1. H'okay, my comment is long, so I'll split it.

    It sounds like you're wary of dysphoria.

    Me, I view video games (and for that matter, TV shows) suspiciously, with a leer for padded ones that the Internet will talk your ears off about. The prospect of an awkwardly written, 150-hour Red Dead Redemption 2 makes me ill. ("But the immersion! It's so realistic!" says the internet. "Just go outside," says I.)

    But that could be because of how I grew-up with them. I only beat LucasArts point and click adventure games and (repeatedly) Metal Gear Solid 1-3. At some point, Team Ico's games drew me in, and I got a PS3 to play MGS4 (not worth it) and The Last Guardian (worth it, though it debuted on PS4). Everything else was stuff we'd either try out and fail at finishing, or which we'd play on summer nights for a bit, like Tekken and Winning Eleven. I became especially wary of dysphoria at university, so I played Telltale's episodic games (which required 2-3 hours a month), and once they switched formulas (and the original team left, post-Wolf Among Us), I bounced off those, too.

    Those were good, though. They nourished my life. At worst, they were entertaining. At best, I learned about things like postmodernism from them. (And the LucasArts and Telltale games were beautifully written.)

    Ironically, it was my go-into-life attitude that tripped me into playing games more seriously. My girlfriend ten years ago grew up with jRPGs and horror games and—well, you know how it is. Her enthusiasm rubbed off on me. She'd come over with her Final Fantasy games and speedrun through the first disc in a few hours. I started playing longer games because of her. (I have yet to beat Final Fantasy VII.)

    But that translated into giving different kinds of games a whirl, always with a wary eye on the clock. What I don't want is video games that just make me think of video games, nor video games whose reference points are other video games. I walk through Regent's Park and, if I think of something that isn't the people around me or nature (I'm trying to memorise bird calls), it's that passage in Mrs. Dalloway (the one beginning with, "The grey nurse resumed her knitting as Peter Walsh, on the hot seat beside her, began snoring"). It depresses me to no end that, walking through a cemetery after a funeral this year, a friend who rarely travels—an otherwise kind, intelligent, and well-rounded person who loves his wife, works hard to pay the bills, but has lobotimised himself, who still talks about Harry Potter because that was the last book he read (over a decade ago); a person who spends his free time playing games or watching Netflix with his wife—remarked that the misty treetops reminded him of Skyrim. Instead of marvelling, for example, at how evocatively Skyrim rendered its misty treetops (a shallow but nonetheless admirable notion; it really is artistry), his feeling during a walk through the very graveyard he may someday be buried in was to go play more of a game he's poured over 1000 hours into.

    My feeling is that the difference is in how we discuss these things. Literary scholarship is largely outmoded, Anglo-centric, and unable to shake off its racist legacy (school of resentment my arse, Harold Bloom), but it can be tremendously insightful, and there is (again, an outmoded) canon; serious attempts at video game journalism are either shut-down by anime profiles or beholden to big budget publishers wagging their fingers: give us good scores or you stop getting coverage. Books, as stupid as some literary criticism may be, allow for modes of actual engagement; literary theories abound.

    1. I notice sometimes the confounding of the real with the simulacrum in people who spend a lot of time using electronic media. I can't call to mind any specific instances, but it's like if I'd say that birdwatching is like playing Pokemon—when it really ought to be the reverse.

  2. (part 2 of this comment)

    That said, the good games have been good. While I'd like the hours back from Assassin's Creed: Odyssey (at least past the point where the novelty of swimming aroung Ancient Greece wore off), I haven't stopped thinking on The Last of Us, Part II for weeks, in the same way I couldn't stop thinking on Memories of Murder or The Book of Night Women for weeks. I left The Wire with a stack of nonfiction (on poverty, racism, and institutional failure, starting with When Work Disappears; more to the point, the shows I love include all of David Simon's, and I always wind up reading a lot more when I wrap one). Similarly, I left The Last of Us with an inadvertent compulsion to explore Argentinean folk and guitar music, plus finally pulling City of Thieves off my shelves. I think SuperGiant, Clifftop Games, Wadjet Eye, Telltale, LucasArts (and some others) have all enriched my life, and I don't think it's a coincendce these had specific names, authorial intent, behind them. The Last of Us, Part II was an exercise in empathy as powerful as any novel. (So was The Last Guardian, which will wreck a person.)

    Yet I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to sometimes just have fun. VVVVVV and A Good Snowman is Hard to Build did wonders during the pandemic, and I've been tempted to try Dark Souls. I believe in video games enough to keep buying indie ones or interesting big ones. Enter the Gungeon was a ton of fun with a friend. I suppose the trick is (as you imply) in how you deal with it; I'm as likely to succumb to dysphoria after a bad novel as I am with a bad video game. (The only way I could play another Rockstar game, or read another "dynamic tour de force" airport novel, is if you cut a cheque.) So long as they remain a lens from which I view life and not other video games, I'll play them. Give me Primordia, Hades, Grim Fandango; give me Song of Solomon, Yoko Ogawa, Palace Walk.

    1. I love video games. Love, love, love them. I could study Street Fighter III and Darkstalkers animations, frame by frame, for hours. I just wish it were possible for me to enjoy them in moderation. Playing them at the arcade was one thing; having them in my house (with an internet connection and a P2P service) is a recipe for depression.

      You got me thinking about whether there are any games that not only enchanted or inspired me, but whose impact on my way of thinking and feeling carried over to my old age in a way that goes beyond nostalgia. I want to say Mother 3, but now I'm not sure whether it was the game itself or my writing about it through the lens of Toennies' "Community and Civil Society" that made it a ready mental metaphor for alienation and anomie.

      I'll have to keep thinking about.

  3. To me at least...Video games being my fav hobby has not wavered since I started school. Its not that its the sole purpose of my life, no matter how much I get invested in a game or want to beat that damn bonus boss( God damn you Guilty Gear Strive...casual friendly in every other way but you ALSO decide that's the time to make the hardest final boss in the series? Good greif)

    I mostly don't let it get in the way of social or financial obligations. I guess its just, there is a reason one keeps coming back to there preferred hobby, they enjoy it the most.

    Of course I don't dismiss the importance of keeping in shape and, the pandemic drilled home how no game can make up for physical interaction with someone, still does not change the fact that video games always were more fun then the more mundane board games or the majority of sports.

    Plus they are the key inspiration for my own writing at times, the fantasy story at least. I guess, wanting to get into that system, the system of the fantasy entertainment business , either vie a novel, a video game or other is another reason to not get to far from the market I hope I can be a part of one day. Well, that's my take on it at least.

    1. Huh—just a harder version of Nagoriyuki? I'm a little disappointed. I sort of miss nonplayable boss characters.

      Beware the market. For every wunderkind who makes it work for them (publishes exactly the book or game they wanted to), there's hundreds of people who either aren't let in the door to begin with, or make so many compromises and pay so many dues that even they wonder if it was worth it. (A good read that sorta touches on this.)

  4. What was your favorite Skinny Puppy album? Mine was Too Dark Park, though I also really like Last Rights, VivisectVI and Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse. Too Dark Park is like an audible nightmare in the best way possible.

    Also, The Downward Spiral or The Fragile? :)

    1. Rabies. Yeah, it's kind of less a Skinny Puppy album than a Skinny Puppy/Ministry collab, but it's just too damned good. Too Dark Park is a close second, though.

      Um...huh. Good question. Downward Spiral by a hair's breadth. I prefer its sonic textures to The Fragile's, and it's a much more focused record overall. But that's not to say The Fragile isn't just as amazing an accomplishment.

  5. I can relate. It's easy to get the illusion of accomplishing something... when you're not, not really. It's certainly not like building your own shed or whatever.

    I do feel some remorse over all that video game playing time. What gets me are the save files, though. All those 100% profiles, all those characters created juuust right, all those items which were supposed to be so important at the time... what was it all for? The files are all still there and yet pointless. It’s the graveyard of your lost free time. That’s why the PS1 memory card is literally a little tombstone.

    Then again, maximizing your self-actualization through your free time is exhausting. In a way it’s worse that just wasting it.

    1. I will never look at a PS1 memory card the same way—although there's a fair chance I may never actually look at one again.

      I started to reply to the third paragraph, but now I'm not actually sure what you mean. Could you elaborate a bit?

    2. Well, free time is supposed to be free, right? Says it right there in the name. There’s a middle ground to everything, but if I had to choose between couch potato and giving myself a panic attack for not doing something more productive with every second of free time I have, I’d choose the former. God, where do these people even find the energy?

      I suppose I once fancied myself as someone who has Read All the Important Books. Then again, getting a graduate degree and spending years writing something no one will ever read did a lot to change my mind. For example, I’d read The Gallic War, but then I thought of all the people who have read it over two thousand years, maybe hoping some of Caesar’s greatness would rub off on them, or something. Gosh, what’s the point? Plus, I once thought my parents lazy for not reading more, but now I realize that after spending an entire day wading through technical documents, I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to pick up Plato’s Republic either.

      Besides, cough, cough, “someone” wrote a brick and I’m not through reading it yet.

      So sure, don’t get sucked in time-hogging entertainment, but don’t sweat it either. That’s my motto!

  6. Just play the FFVII Remake Pitchfork, the world wants to know how you feel about it (you will love it, I guarantee it).

  7. I play video games regularly, but i never had a problem with addiction. Sure, a challenging video game can sometimes be frustrating, but the last time i got genuinely angry at one was in my teenage years.

    Nowadays, i mostly buy and play relative short indie games.