Nels Anderson recently pointed out a post over at Jamie Madigan’s Psychology of Video Games blog. While Madigan’s post does not really say anything new (and is based on the kinds of experimental social scientific research that went out of style in the 1960s – sorry, couldn’t help myself), it does bring up the most important unanswered question that we have as gamers: Why do we play video games?
Nels takes us a large step in the right direction towards understanding this problem when he observes (in his own response to Madigan’s post) that, “We need better ways to talk about what makes games enjoyable.” Gamers, I’ve found, lack articulacy when it comes to understanding our own experiences playing games. Sure, we can go on for hours about what we like/dislike about the game’s rules or design, which characters we found empathizable and which we could not connect with, or how “immersive” the world is. But that’s not the same as being articulate about our own experiences and what they mean to us. Speaking articulately about ourselves requires some kind of language to put things into perspective, especially when it comes to sketching out what makes playing games so darned enjoyable.
Towards that, I want to play with the idea of “mastery” that both Madigan and Nels mention, and how mastering a game is its own enjoyment.
Mastery as Pleasure
… there are certainly some [games] where I engaged with the story and characters (Planescape: Torment, Fallout, any adventure game, etc.). But the majority of my favourites would be games where I had the opportunity to master their systems, to improve skills. I think this also helps explain why so many games can have a terrible story and lackluster writing but still be a very satisfying experience…
I share in his enjoyment of mastery and skill acquisition, as I think most gamers do. Recently I’ve been playing through Final Fantasy VII again, and re-acquainting myself with the world after a long hiatus. Even though this is the n’th time I’ve played through the game, I’m always finding out something new and surprising (I truly didn’t understand Elemental materia until now, for instance) – or learning how to exploit certain areas of the game to maximize my characters’ levels. Anyone who has played Tetris understands the joy of mastery (think of your pleasure at completing four unbroken rows).
Mastery as Unpleasure
At the same time, mastery is not the only way in which we enjoy things. Often, mastery stands in the way of enjoyment. For instance, there is a large nature preserve near our city that my fiancée Stacey and I like to go hiking at. It is a large and complex forest, with plenty of trails to get lost on. We have hiked with people who wish to master the trails: they want to know all of the short-cuts, the fastest way to get from beginning to end, the most efficient method of eating (on your feet!), etc etc. When Stacey and I go for a hike, it’s to see the scenery. The land, the trees and the water all speak to us – we have to be very still, very silent some times for this to happen. This kind of joy cannot happen when we distance ourselves from the park by trying to master it.
Back to gaming. I worry that gaming has become predominantly a means for mastering imaginary places. Shadow of the Colossus, as a game that definitely lends itself to killing things, becomes an exercise in dominating other beasts. The rich joys that it’s sparse landscape evokes are passed over in favour of a joy of control, mastery, usage. The same can be said for games like World of Warcraft that throw the player into an exploitative form.
This is especially obvious when, as Madigan recognizes, many of us primarily play games as “to temporarily detach escape from reality, including our jobs or school. While some games leave us whit knuckled, others can be very relaxing. And at their heart, games are about mastery, developing new skills, or acquiring new knowledge.” Games have become a way of managing psychological symptoms – they allow us to withdraw from the stressors and responsibilities that fill our everyday lives. Our desire for mastery in the private world of games seems to point, most obviously, to a desire for control that is unmet in our public lives. We turn to games to fulfill that desire, and they become what is termed (in Freudian language) “substitute-gratifications” or “neurotic pleasures”. Gaming, when negatively defined as a way of managing work or school stress, is a form of repression. That is what I call a “negative definition” of gaming – a method for modulating stress without realizing anything positive in itself. Work now circumscribes and enframes play. That is a dangerous place to be in.
The Way Out (or: Poetic Joy)
I wish to resist that pessimistic interpretation. That is what got Freudian psychoanalysis into trouble in the first place, because he saw the end-product of civilization to be repression. I would rather follow the path that Norman O. Brown carves out in his magnum opus Life Against Death (Chapter XVI: The Resurrection of the Body) and Gaston Bachelard does in his Poetics of Space. Joyful living: true enjoyment, free from the burden of repression, “pure sublimation” as Bachelard calls it, is possible. This activity is called Play. Playfulness – expression as a pleasure in itself – does not abhor boundaries nor does it see them as unbreakable “rules”. Play takes boundaries and makes them part of its expressive dynamism. Work – all of our institutionalized settings – become places for playing. But playfulness for adults is not the naïve polymorphous perversity that we see in infants. Adults must learn to play through the language, cultural practices and institutions that we live in, whether we like them or not. Video games and work are two of those institutions.
I see the “poetic imagination” as one source for the joys of play. When I imagine through the world that a story, a poem, or a game has to offer, part of me is “in the game” and part of the game “is in me”. I cannot distinguish very easily between myself and this imaginary world. In those moments, where I allow myself to imagine freely while respecting the world the place has to offer, I am at my most playful. I see things that I did not see before. I feel things – fear, pleasure, anger, surprise, disgust – that I did not feel when I stood outside of the world and peered into it from a distance. That world calls out new emotions and experiences from me – Shadow of the Colossus is no longer a series of quests with colossi that must be overcome in order to complete it, but an austere landscape that allows Agro’s trot, canter and gallop, to explode with vitality. Watching Agro run, and imagining the wild thunder of its hoofbeats echoing across the canyon, is a pleasure of its own. Feeling the awesome earthquake of a colossi’s footfalls as Wander stumbles madly to get away is frightening. As I play and use the world’s contours to enrich my imagination, I am reminded that I not only have a body, but that I am a body.
In other words, I sometimes play games to “blow off some steam” from work, or to escape from the nightmarish demands of a student life that stands outside of my control. But when mastery (or domination, violence, aggression, etc) becomes a game’s central source of pleasure, it places a mortgage on my desires, gratifying them temporarily until they rear up again in a few weeks. It is neurotic pleasure.
However, when I fulfill a game with my own imaginings and make myself a part of the world it offers – whatever that might be – and allow myself to be transformed (emotionally, bodily, spiritually) in the process, I enjoy the game in a completely different way that does not pay dues to repression or neurosis. This poetic way of imagining changes the game: I can no longer just shut down the game after a few hours and call it a night. The game dwells in me. I lay awake at night imagining how to express to my fiancée, family, or friends, what I experienced earlier that night. Poetic imagining places within me the demand to become an artist of a kind: to express for others something that demands re-expression. Learning to play a game in that second manner, and showing for others how a game is part of my means for expressing myself, has become my life’s work.