The Promise of Video Games

by on January 15, 2012

Illustration by Sally ScopaIllustration by Sally Scopa

Listening to music I love with someone who doesn’t is a painful experience. It often ends with me turning off the music, sheepishly apologizing for sounds that only the day before inspired raptures of emotion, babblingsof superlative enthusiasm. This friend, with whom I had desperately hoped to share this experience, is in a different world entirely, obscured from me by a desolate gulf of non-feeling. We become islands, and must ford our way back to the shore of common understanding.

It is a lonesome feeling, a stark reminder that what we share with others—or fail to share—irrevocably constitutes our world, and theirs. For me, music is the fundamental medium through which I have forged countless bonds with people; our hushed amazement at the audacity of certain performers, the turns of improvisation in old recordings, the ecstasy of a live symphony creates canals through which we can float into each other’s lives and more fully understand our own.

A recent New York Times article makes a convincing case for the recognition of a newly prevalent shared medium, the video game. As the article points out, the rise of smart phones and quotidian gaming has subtly changed the cultural approach to this way of spending one’s time: “As games become ubiquitous, they are not only content but also context, context for mundane human relationships among people who don’t even consider themselves gamers.” Where once daily gaming was the province of the wayward child or the adult who refused to recognize adulthood, it now forms a part of the everyday fabric of life for disparate people, of all ages and walks of life. The banker who plays “Words With Friends” is in the same position, existentially, as the child next to him street-racing on his PSP.

Human being is a remarkable phenomenon, how it always finds ways to define itself in and through the worlds of others. Video games are an inarguable exemplar of this tendency. Like board and card games before them, they are shared activities in which the substance of the game is less important than the time spent with others. Yet video games add an aesthetic element missing from, say, “Risk.” We can appreciate the way a friend experiences a game and find new ways of experiencing the game, and subsequently the world around us, through the way he perceives the ascent of a hill, with a dragon lying in wait in the fortress at the summit. Video games can thus be like music: mutual enthusiasm instantly creates connection. My companion’s enthusiasm will be reflected in my eyes, and we will plunge ahead into the forest, or the bunker, or the void of deep space, as the case may be.

One might argue that compared to music, there is less interpretation involved in a video game. Gaming does not require the same interpretive apparatus which magically come together in the experience, both people bringing in their collected ways of hearing and being together,each soul shaped just so to fit the puzzle of a Beethoven symphony . Yet perhaps this is unfair. In the end, if we are to evaluate what shared experiences mean, the way we talk about them afterwards and the way our eyes meet in the light of day carries more weight for lasting relationships than anything else. By this criterion, video games satisfy the very same urges that music unquestionably does.

I recently met up with a friend from early childhood. He was one of the first people ever to tell me—I remember this vividly, for it marked my recognition of the differences among people—that he simply didn’t care for music. We did, however, share a deep passion for a game called “Rogue Squadron.” It allowed us to imagine ourselves as fighter pilots in the intergalactic struggle of Star Wars. For kids raised on the films, it was a real treat. We played and played, often drawing the ire of our elders, who insisted we play outside sometimes. But even when we played basketball in his backyard, we never stopped discussing “Rogue Squadron,” Our minds were fixated, perhaps unhealthily, on that world, on success in that world.

We have long since grown apart, though we still see each other from time to time. When we meet, we talk fondly of “Rogue Squadron.” Though our lives couldn’t be more different now, whenever the subject comes up, we are transported back to those days, to something we both felt deeply. The details of the game are not important; what we remember is the communication that occurred between our younger selves, forming a triangular node (hands-screen-hands) that we will never forget. When I think about what it means to relate to people, I realize that so much of it is these kinds of indelible memories, these vague experiences that we shared.

The internet has taught us that social experiences, however impoverished, can be enjoyed in the comfort of our home, with only a screen as visible companion. It did so by bringing us more completely in contact with an entire social milieu, all dumped on to our screen like the most panic-inducing high school reunion. Our social urges are increasingly sublimated into this world; the continual redesign of Facebook has had the conscious goal of bringing more and more of the way we connect to the internet.

Gaming, paradoxically, shows us another, more traditional way of interacting with people in a shared medium, rather than a social network. In a pure gaming situation, we are focused on the game completely, and this focus brings us into contact with the others who are feeling and seeing things the way we are, who share our passions and our pleasures. We can engage with each other in ways that texting, talking on the phone, or Facebook messaging just cannot provide. This might just be a way to alleviate the social malaise that accompanies the Facebook era. I can only hope that you might share my enthusiasm for this possibility.