People play video games for many different reasons: for escape, a sense of accomplishment, to waste time, to get paid. Most gaming these days seems to be about filling up bars and making numbers go up (see the seemingly endless procession of bars, numbers, and accompanying guitar riffs in any of the Call of Duty games since #4); hell, even football games have become an exercise in leveling up. As a now-crusty role-playing game veteran, one would think I would be pleased with the way that the nerdiest of the nerds have conquered the gaming industry, but in typically contrarian fashion, I hate it.
As with everything, I don’t want all the things to be like the one thing that I like. If I want to play an RPG, I’ll fire up Final Fantasy or Persona or whatever. If I want to shoot people in the face, I want to get to doing just that – keep your leveling-up and grinding and other new-fangled shit out of my murder simulator!
At any rate, I didn’t intend for this to veer into crotchety video game criticism; rather, it’s about why I play games. Despite having been playing them for nearly three decades (!), I have only just thought about the topic. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been staring into a glowing rectangle for damn near thirty years and it’s become a lifestyle and people in their mid-thirties on the Internet have to engage in serious navel-gazing about the most trivial of shit.
I woke up from a dream a few months ago, and as I often do, I was awash in feelings afterwards. What they were isn’t important; I don’t remember now anyway. I recalled the events of the dream as well as the feelings, but I realized in trying to explain the dream to Mrs. Melobi that a mere explanation of the events therein was totally inadequate to convey the milieu, the richly layered world presented by my subconscious in ornate (but sublimely incomplete) detail. It made me think of the only part of the movie Inception that I liked, when Cobb explains the dream process as being a cycle of simultaneous creation and perception.
Later, while playing a game, I realized that my experience with video games is often analogous to a dream. Not in the sense of doing things impossible in real life, or in wish fulfillment (though those are of course part of the experience); rather, it’s dreamlike in the sense of being immersed, with consciousness submerging into visuals and sounds and the on-screen action. The best games are dreamlike, too, in that afterwards describing them is difficult, as the grasp on those feelings brought on by the game vanish with the press of the power button, just as surely as snapping awake with the alarm clock.
I think this is why music has emerged as one of my main criteria for games: music is powerful in evoking emotions even on its own, and a well-crafted score combined with the visual content of a game is a powerful drug. The graphics and text of a game lead you inside that virtual world, but the music compels you to stay, enfolding your second dominant sense and shutting out the mundane, soundtrack-free world outside. (Maybe this isn’t unusual, but it’s extremely rare for me to experience taste or smell sensations in a dream, thus amplifying this effect in the waking world.)
Naturally, there are other reasons that I play games – cutting cyborgs in half and pulling out their spinal columns, then crushing them in your fist while your eye glows red sure is a powerful motivator – but this embarrassingly self-aware motivation might just be the main one (for single player games, anyway). Either that, or I just can’t stop filling up those bars.