Video games: the perfect escape?
Why oh why did you say yes to that last shandy? The kebab seemed like a good idea, but your mouth now resembles the inner lining of Phil Jupiter’s underwear. And to top it all, you are trapped in a lava filled dungeon and a bitch has kidnapped your princess. Where did your life go so horribly wrong?
I have news for you, it is much, much worse. It’s not that you’re hungover playing Super Mario Brothers, it’s that you spend your life “working” on a computer located in a sterilized office surrounded by drones. Your only escape? A drunken session Friday night in Clapham, tonsil tennis with a rather suspicious woman fatal and bouncing in 8-bit levels crushing Goombas skulls with your immense plump Italian plumber girth the next morning (she didn’t come home with you).
Computer games started out as completely innocent. I remember that my cousins had a version of Pong that, despite being an absolute nightmare to connect to the TV, it was a lot of fun for ten minutes. Bouncing the ball with the paddles was not Wimbledon. What it was, was the 8-bit version of AELTC’s prestigious tournament, which was one of the first games I played on Master System. Even to this day, the game mesmerizes me, with the added career mode, I can’t help but feel like I’m there on center court. Especially since he couldn’t play tennis for candy.
These days, games like the Grand Theft Auto and Halo franchises take escapism to whole new levels, letting you explore entire cities and indulge your wildest fantasies while channeling hordes of bad guys. There is a magazine on my desk right now adorned with the word “hero”, if only. And although escapism is almost at its peak (except for virtual reality), it started in the 80s and had as much impact then as it does now.
Adult life, fundamentally, hasn’t changed much in the last thirty years. Despite numerous advancements in technology, supposedly to make life easier, for most of us it’s the usual 9 to 5 hours. Slaving to line someone else’s pockets only to get home in an hour unholy, completely exhausted. Eat your dinner, hit the TV, sleep, repeat. Roughly enough, I hypothesize that life requires five different needs: achievement; relaxation; emulation; competence and belonging. Right now, sitting here in a nondescript office, I feel tense, bored, alone, and like this is just another day to kill on a seemingly going nowhere highway. No need is being met, I want to be at home playing video games.
Achievement is the easiest. Those who are successful in life and who feel they are living a good life can point to a number of accomplishments. Whether it’s a continuous progression through the ranks at work, raising descendants, or jumping out of an airplane, nothing beats feeling a sense of accomplishment. For those hungry for these types of events, video games offer an easy alternative and their impact is almost immediate. Going back to early arcade games like Pac-Man and Asteroids, you are instantly rewarded with level progression and accumulation of points (sometimes to get to the celebrated leaderboard). Home entertainment systems like the ZX Spectrum brought games like Manic Miner to the fore. This increase raises the other point that these needs are not only related to adult life, but also to children. For growing children, a sense of accomplishment can be gained by doing well in school, doing well in PE, being praised for good attendance, etc. How often would this really happen? Sometimes in elementary school, I would feel a greater sense of accomplishment after nailing a few Sonic levels than from anything I would have done during the day. With the xbox360 console, Microsoft brought the “Achievement” point system based on unlocking hidden secrets or even simply completing levels. Why did they do this? We all love rewards, even more so when they are obvious. As unnecessary as this development was, it adds another level of achievement to the subtle one that already exists.
This brings me to the next “need”: relaxation. Or should I say, relaxation through detachment. It doesn’t make sense for me to go home to play a computer game where the protagonist is a customer service advisor who has to answer the phone and answer emails all day. They say that during lunchtime it is advisable to have lunch outside the office, so that your mind is distracted and relaxed accordingly. Video games work on the same principle that they can get you out of work, out of your home life, and into something much more wonderful. The aforementioned Super Mario Bros is a great example. I think it’s the first true example of an ethereal world where you can explore and unlock hidden rewards at your leisure. Earlier consoles and computers had games that contained hidden levels, but the graphics and memory available prior to 1985 had trouble doing anything at this scale. Add a hero story where you have to rescue a princess and you have the whole package. I could talk about detachment all day, but the upshot is that video games take you to another world with the push of a button where you can easily forget what your life is about.
As I mentioned earlier, when I was a kid, I was really bad at tennis. Someone who wasn’t terrible at tennis was Stefan Edberg. Although Wimbledon on the MS was licensed, it did not contain actual player names. But my word, did any of the characters resemble the Swedish master himself? When you are growing up, role models are important. It seems pretty obvious to say, but how many children lack the right role models in everyday life? We admire people and want to emulate them. We see them achieve great things and we want to achieve them ourselves. When we can’t do something, video games (especially sports titles) are an easy way to emulate our heroes. I played the Italy 90 World Cup on Mega Drive a lot more than I should have, simply because it was the only way to recreate the tournament I had available. The emulation even comes down to wanting to be said Italian plumber hero (one was pretty useless with the ladies too) or a spiky blue hedgehog foiling an evil genius.
Emulation follows the competition. There is nothing like winning a game. All that coding and you’ve still beat the CPU. Have that Edberg. It’s also great to show that you are the best at something, that you are better than your peers. At work, I have few colleagues simply because of the mediocrity of my work. Do I want to be better than them? The feeling is barely tangible. Competition is good for the human spirit. The constant challenge is how people get better and successful people thrive on it. The rewards are sometimes obvious, a big trophy, a big raise, but sometimes they are not. Video games offer competition at all levels. Defeat the CPU, defeat your friends, defeat the world. Video games offer a challenge when life falls backwards. Do you want an arena to show that you are better than your peers? Celebrate a Days of Thunder at the NES competition (not everyone was impressed …). Multiplayer games existed in abundance since the days of Pong and now video game tournaments have grown into a multi-million dollar industry of their own.
That brings me to my final point: belonging. Sega or Nintendo? If you like retro games, that question alone is probably moving something inside of you. Why? Because choosing a console isn’t just about choosing a gaming machine, it’s about choosing a gang, a way of life that must be better than its counterpart. Both children and adults experience segregation on a daily basis. I was lucky in school because I had good friends that I still socialize with to this day. Others were not so lucky. When you move into the professional world, it is natural that you want to work for a company that you belong to. In your personal life, it is natural to want to live somewhere in a house with the people you love and where you feel you belong. Even before online gaming with its vast communities and friendship existed, just saying on the playground if you were a Mega Drive or SNES guy started a positive conversation about Sonic or Mario alike. It wasn’t just consoles, it was who you were.
As much as a vacation can satisfy your relaxation needs or a soccer game can satisfy your need for belonging, there is nothing as complete as video games to offer the complete package after a long day in the face of coal.