Thursday, October 10, 2013

The treachery of video games

When I was a kid, I used to have this space game on my home computer. It was really cool. This was before the age of the NES, and yet this game had 3D graphics and an awesome soundtrack. The funny thing about this game was that instead of being controlled in a simple up-down-left-right fashion by a joystick, the controls were all on a keyboard and the spacecraft moved like an airplane, pitching and rolling instead of moving in the standard way most of us probably expected of video game flying craft. You had to navigate through space and carefully synchronize the movement of your craft with rotating space stations that you had to dock with, all the while fighting off space pirates and dodging bits of space debris. It was a tough game, but for some reason, I liked it.

I think one of the main reasons that I liked it was that the game play was supposed to be a bit more open-ended than most games of its age. While the main idea of the game was to trade goods between one star system and another, you could beef up your ship with good weaponry and capture bounty for chasing down space pirates. You could equip your ship with an ore scoop and mine asteroids. If you wanted to, you could actually become a space pirate yourself and destroy other ships to take their cargo. I used to play around with the possibilities.

The thing that really made it easy to play around was that the game had a save feature, but it was of course optional. That is to say, if you ran a mission and it didn't turn out quite the way you wanted it to turn out, you could just reset the game and reload your last save. I think with a lot of games these days, that's almost something you take for granted, isn't it?

I never realized until just recently how strange the world of most video games is, at least in comparison to the world we live in. When you're playing some Legend of Zelda game, and Link dies, what are the consequences? Hyrule is lost? Princess Zelda is doomed? Ganondorf reigns triumphant forever? No, not at all. The consequence is this: "Would you like to try again? YES/NO"

Of course it's not a universal truth of video games, although I think it may nearly be so, but whereas reality as we know it has no consideration for whether you come out of your next adventure triumphant, reality as known in video games is looking for you to win. If you don't win, reality itself grinds to a halt and says, "Wait, it looks like we should try that again!" Time and space realign themselves to a place back before you made your big mistake and says, "Okay, take two!"

I started to wonder, does this warped view of the inevitability of success do something to the minds of people of my generation and younger? I've heard it said that young people today are disgruntled by the fact that they don't see much chance for success in their future, and maybe some of that is the economy that our forefathers messed up to some degree. Then again, maybe young people have had their brains wired to expect success to be handed to them. No, not fresh and steaming on a silver platter, but rather that if things don't go the way we want, there's a part of our brains that expects there has to be a way to go back and do it all over again until it turns out right.

Around the same time I had that space game that I talked about above, there was an unfortunate incident that happened to me. I was in my grandmother's garden one day, and I was foolishly playing with a knife. I'll spare you details, but I ended up in the hospital with forty stitches in my hand. I have a scar on the palm of my hand and nerve damage that will be with me for my whole life. No doubt there was a moment when I looked at the cut in my hand and would have been very happy for a chance to back up to the last save point, but life doesn't come with save points. "Would you like to try again? Too bad."

Maybe I'm overestimating the effect that video games might be having on our collective psychology, but I've started to notice something strange in me lately. The more my life seems to be messed up and in need of a magical restoration at the click of a button, the less I find myself interested in video games.