Gaming. A word said with pleasure by some and with disdain by others for decades. There’s a lot of imagery attached with the word. Boxy retro consoles and tangled cords in 80s family photographs. Dice, character sheets, and figurines. An overweight thirty-something living on Doritos in his family’s basement. The glowing desk looking like something from a science fiction movie.
In my view, gaming communities don’t do a great job of explaining why we love what we do. I don’t think most, if any, of us fully understand why. I’ve been examining this for some time now, and I’ve uncovered some insights I think may benefit gamers to hear – whether you play tabletop RPGs, trading card games, or console and PC video games.
The Gamer with 1000 Faces
Come back in time with me if you will, into Renaissance art. Imagine in your mind a tour of a meta-museum; a tour of all museums at once. There’s Michelangelo’s glorious statues of David and The Pieta. Further down is the Mona Lisa and other works of Da Vinci. In another room lies the Venus de Milo, Bernini’s The Rape of Prosperina, then busts of Augustus, Hadrian, Caligula, and Nero.
What inspired these works? Why were all these art pieces made? Did the artists only want to see if they could? Was their goal to win art competitions? There was something significant in the minds of these creators. Most were paid commissions, but there must have been something driving them to develop such incredible skills in the first place.
Now come back to today, and search around for the most expensive movies. They spent $285M making the 6th Harry Potter movie. Do you even remember it? Talk about a risk. Then they made $900M in sales. That’s a lot of money changing hands. And for what, so you can sit in a dirty chair eating salty corn for a few hours? Apparently, we really like being told stories. Titanic made $2.2B worldwide plus $1.2B in VHS/DVD. Yes, billion – combined that’s over 3000 million.
But wait, we’re here to talk gaming right? Why aren’t the greatest games riveting stories? Some don’t seem to have a story at all. Minecraft passed the top spot of Tetris’s 170M copies while this article was being written. I mean, you can count GTA V and Pokémon as story games, but Wii Sports and PUBG both surpassed Skyrim and Diablo III in sales. Why? I think I have the answer, and I think I’ve spelled out enough zeroes to make my point.
One of the aspects the best games have is they follow the journey of the archetypal hero. They either tell a story, or more significantly, they make the player the hero of a story by challenging them. I don’t think we teach the monomyth, or hero’s journey, as well as we should in the humanities. In my opinion, Joseph Campbell, who is credited with popularizing the concept, should be a household name. Games are, as far as I can tell, the modern interactive representation of storytelling we see from millennia ago.
Perhaps, then, it isn’t too difficult to understand why some individuals spend too much time playing games. They can be a unique source (or replacement) of meaning and purpose in life. Who wouldn’t want to be a comic book hero? It’s rather fulfilling to save the princess. They serve, as with other entertainment, as an escape from everyday life. Unlike Netflix and Hulu shows however, they don’t leave you wanting more at the end of the last season, so they can become habit-forming. Each entertainment form can be positive or negative depending on how it is consumed. Regarding the typical complaint of time waste, the same problems were shown with TV the year I was born.
Storytelling and competitive entertainment have been alluring for a long time. Games where you play the hero or anti-hero are ancient. In another time children on playgrounds played “cops and robbers”. The same game was played in colonial times, albeit with the natives they feared as the bad guys. Sports and adult equivalents are ancient too – we know the Olympics began in ancient Greece. And now we watch digital gladiators in esports competitions.
Enemy at the Gamer’s Gate
But what of gaming culture? There’s a lot of debate over ethics in gaming nowadays, and rather harsh words are said on social media towards some subcultures that spring up around games. To understand cultural warfare around gaming, I again turn to the humanities, this time to philosophy and art movements.
The 18th and 19th century movements of the Enlightenment and Romanticism were relatively aligned with the timeless “hero’s journey” as we later understood. Surely Joseph Campbell drew conclusions from them. Rather than cite sources I encourage you to learn more yourself. I offer you a side quest: look for words like “individual” on the Romanticism Wikipedia page and read those passages. If you accept it, good luck. Don’t get lost in there.
But then, horrors of wars in the 20th century profoundly affected art and philosophy. Here’s where the controversy begins: I assert the evil forces defeated politically in world wars won in the artistic spaces and have infected us ever since. Spicy enough assertion for you?
The 20th century brought forth more philosophical and art movements than ever, as we became more aware of movements as an idea. The ones I want to focus on were rejections of the previous patterns of individualism and myth. Modernism in art grew from its roots in the 19th into the 20th century, and as it did so, it became a desire to experiment with the “new”. This paralleled the initial growth of Structuralism in early 1900s social sciences in Europe, which sought to understand how everything fits together. These are oversimplifications but will do for our purposes.
Post-WWII, cynical attitudes about life and other people crept in, and by the 1960s, many fields of the humanities were being overtaken by what are called Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism. I won’t point fingers here but suffice it to say they spread to us starting with Axis powers, to French academics, and then to western universities. These movements insist on cynical irony and rejection of even the enlightenment ideals. They insist there is no truth, there is only opinion, and reality is subjective to the point of having nothing objective about it whatsoever. Everything is socially constructed, morals are relative, and everything is to be deconstructed. These forces took hold in every field of humanities in various forms like the avant-garde, and have been in place so long, modern culture warriors cite academic papers that cite other papers to the point that arguing against them is impossible without rewinding time.
Gaming developed much later, and did so contrary to these dominant forces. Gaming is a performance art, like theatre. Developers of games are the scriptwriters and choreographers. One possible comparison: gaming is a dance where there needn’t be an audience. Yet like dance, people will pay to see those who are the best at it. It’s no wonder then, that watching people play games has grown, and that esports are becoming more popular.
Imagine then, the outrage post-modern forces have against a medium that builds on the very fields it had already conquered. Gaming in its best forms is the resurrection of myth and the classical hero’s journey acted out. In that regard, it contains an inherent meaning that serves as a vaccination from such critiques. Furthermore, characters and scenery inspire costumes and fanart that resurrect other wings of the humanities. Many games such as Assassin’s Creed take you back to historical settings. Fanfiction and lore add to modern literature.
That’s what the “war” is all about. Most “soldiers” on each side aren’t aware. It’s an eternal human philosophical war that goes back further than we have record. Gaming is here to stay, and the fight between its communities and activist academia will last until the end of time, so be aware, but don’t waste too much time on it.
Gaming Soup for the Soul
One of the main reasons people stop playing games with friends, as far as I can tell, is life simply gets in the way. To me this seems natural – if your life becomes filled with more meaning and purpose, eventually playing games can become inferior to real life. Getting married or having children can make daily life more interesting than games. I spend more time than I need to feeding, burping, and changing my kids before and after naps. It’s not time wasted, because I love them and my relationship with them means everything. As they get older, I’ll have more reasons to play with Legos and nerf guns than games. I’ll still introduce them to Minecraft and Legend of Zelda someday.
So, don’t mourn the loss of old digital friends, most of them disappear into their own life’s adventure. Gaming will always exist because of the meaning it has in our lives. Perhaps it touches upon our own hero’s journey in life. I’m learning to be a DM and I’m starting to think Dungeons and Dragons will someday become a crucial part of my family.
Don’t let gaming be a substitute for life. If we give the devil his due, that may be a message those against it might be failing to convey. But let it enhance your life. If you play Skyrim, you should for the same reasons you’ll re-watch Marvel movies. Go back and conquer something hard you struggled with in the past. Find video games to play with siblings and old college roomies that now live thousands of miles away. Have the courage to talk in the chat about what you love most. Find excuses to make new friends. Learn to apply what you learn from games to your heart and mind. If you haven’t, read how Martyr’s life was made better by a game.
When you are confronted by people who don’t understand why people play games, and find watching people play games even weirder, tell them something you’ve learned from the humanities. Tell them it can contain as much theatre as pro sports. Show them gaming contains the seeds of heroes.