Games Are Too Big for Us

Four years ago I finished playing a game called Valiant Hearts: World War One, a beautiful, melancholy look at how wars disrupt and trivialize life. It is a game dedicated to an honest, thoughtful portrayal, and it demonstrates how mature the video game medium has become. I’m still thinking about this game. Still wanting to talk about how important, how big of an achievement it is. This is a game that should be making gamers of everyone (and a good portion already are - ~2.5 billion). And yet I've never felt so closeted as a gamer.

To be clear, when I discuss maturity in games, I'm referring to a tonal maturity. "M" rated games are rated as such because their content is appropriate for a mature (adult) audience. These games might be quintessentially rock and roll in their share of drugs, sex, and violence, but this rating in no way suggests that a game does not gleefully splash about in these subjects with childish abandon. I am not referring to a thematic maturity in a meta sense; that "Call of Duty's endless trail of corpses represents the trivialization of violence in media" is of no concern to me, as the content itself isn't always tonally mature even if it lends itself to thoughtful analysis.

Tonal maturity, by the definition I will use, is the presentation of any subject - "mature" in content or not - that explores honestly an aspect of life in a thoughtful way, intentionally acknowledging and considering the presence of multiple contexts.

In recent years, I have been fortunate enough to play a number of such games, Valiant Hearts simply being one that still resonates. It is the most human account of World War I, or any war, that I have encountered. The protagonists of the game occupy both sides of no man's land, and their stories are personal ones: protecting family and comrades, following orders, surviving. Artifacts throughout the world expand on these concepts; a ring made from a bullet casing or a tent used as clothing express the humanity of warfare in new, personal ways.

But again, this is only one example. Games like Journey and The Last of Us have explored the limits of isolation, the former a meditation on the value of companionship and the latter an exploration of how isolation can be preferred over man's baser, more dangerous instincts. The Unfinished Swan is a parable on loss (with it’s narrative sidequest What Remains of Edith Finch collecting a number of short stories on the topic) and The Swapper is a game about exploring space and searching for the human soul. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons speaks about the limits (or lack thereof) of family. Tearaway, arguably, considers the value of a personal, loving God - and if perhaps we might be that God.

Even games of larger budgets and scope, when wrapped in familiar tropes, are managing to think about the world in new ways. Dying Light, a first-person, open-world zombie game, manages to sneak in characters dealing with mental health issues, spousal abuse, parent-child kidnapping, and almost always (almost) in ways that don't use them for a punchline.

And for all of these great experiences that I am so fortunate to enjoy, I don't have anyone to talk about them with.

When I think back on gaming, I remember playing Rambo on Sega Mastersystem while lying on the floor with my dad. I remember playing Altered Beast (Sega Genesis) with Nathan and Peter Drainville, and Mortal Kombat (Sega Genesis) with Derek, all friends from my Orange County Days. I think back on Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (PS1) with Matt McCaffery and the childish names we gave the enemies. Or the score chasing Jason Kersey and I did in Dave Mirra Freestyle (PS1) and Tony Hawk Pro Skater (PS1). Or Goldeneye (N64) with Jason and Chas before we snuck out in the middle of the night. Or Virtual Fighter with Matt Howll when I was anemic from a significant quantity of throat-bleeding. Or bouncing around Elpis in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel with my wife.

I have so many more gaming memories, and each of them is paired with someone else. There is a social experience that has been so ingrained in my memories of gaming that when I think of these games I think of people, in the same way that familiar smells allow us to revisit places and experiences from our past.

But this social component has been gone for a while. As games have matured to be ever more artful, heady, and capable of telling compelling narratives, and as I have matured to be able to discuss them for their artistic, social, and cultural merit, I have lost the companionship that made them so memorable. Of course I have an audience if I want it; this post is proof of that. But how many are truly going to read this, and who has made it this far? And even if I expanded my audience, I wouldn't be engaging people I cared about in conversation. These discussions would be with avatars and handles for people I don't know and will never meet, and while I might enjoy the conversations, I sincerely doubt they will have any greater resonance in my life. These people, regardless of how well they keep up their end of a discussion, will be forgotten.

For a while I had these people in my life. My former roommate Ben would game and talk games now and then when he lived in Reno, but he's thousands of miles (plus a wife and two kids) away from doing this again. I was fortunate enough to have a brief stint on a podcast that talked gaming, a period of months I will be forever be grateful for. Each two hour stint of conversation with Jimmy and Marques Casarez was satisfying in a way that food or wine is after a fast. When  my good friend Adam is in town I can talk gaming with him, even if we were on a barter system: I would talk my gaming flame-of-the-moment and in return he would talk World of Warcraft or Diablo - on a few occasions our interests aligned.

The closest I get today to these discussions - and experiences - happen at school, in my gaming club, but I'm limited by the boundaries of ESRB ratings there. The games we play there are fun, but often childish. I can put games with interesting, artistic merit in front of them and they’ll chew on it for a bit, but there is no great discussion about it (although there are moments of passion that truly satisfy). Mostly, it is momentarily satisfying, but affirms this gnawing feeling that gaming, for me, will forever be at its greatest when I was young. Playing various incarnations of Mario with teenagers only further asserts this and infantilizes a hobby I enjoy. And yet Gaming - capital G - is so much better today.

It is frustrating because I firmly assert that video games are an adult hobby, more so today than any time in the past, and yet I don't feel like I have anyone with whom I can share this hobby. I'm a stereotyped secret-gaming-nerd, or so it seems.

It isn't all doom and gloom, however. I have my lovely wife, and she continues to join me in the activity of gaming, even if it isn't a passion for her. And, of course, I'm a Dad. That means I get to spend the next 18 years raising gamers, if they'll have me.

I'll get a comfy spot on the floor ready for my girls. The conversations, I'm sure, will come, even if I have to wait a few years.

But for my students, I encourage them to find people that matter and put them on the couch next to you. Play games. As our gaming landscape has become dominated by online massively multiplayer games, the opportunities for memories, I believe, has begun to dry up. I’ve played thousands of hours of games online. More than 300 in The Last of Us. Nearly 200 in Rainbow Six Siege. But I can’t remember any individual matches that have become a cherished memory, that I will look back fondly on. Every single one of those have someone, in person, next to me.

It is strange to see how wildly large the audience for gaming is and how big the online battlefields have become, only to realize how mnemonically isolating it is as well.

So enjoy your Battle-Royale flavors of the month and hero shooters, but try to make time for people that can share a room, couch, or screen with you. This is a magical hobby that can be high art or puerile filth; it can develop empathy and compassion as well as it can help release anger and frustration; it can teach skills and distract you from having to learn. In short, video games are the most capable medium that has ever existed for recording, presenting, and creating human experience, and it is only just getting started. Be sure to take the time, every so often, to experience and enjoy it all with someone close to you.