Rationalizing your video game addiction: A mixed bag in “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter”

I added this book to my shelf for the two oxymorons built into the existence of this book. The first is the juxtaposition of genres: a book…about video games?! (Pardon my rant here) I suppose the Venn diagram of bookworms and video game addicts could have some sort of intersection, and the presence of the author writing this book indicates there are indeed some out there. The second is built into the title: Why Video Games Matter. My instantaneous and perhaps self-righteous answer is: they don’t. I never got into console games, but I did have a 5+ year addiction to the MMORPG Runescape— and while I look on those lost years very fondly, I don’t consider them to be of any inherent value. There are two main reasons my I personally don’t think video games can justify their existence. First is that they are an addictive time sink, with the corollary that the lost time takes away from not only more productive hobbies, but also things necessary for existence like an income to provide for yourself and healthy relationships. The second is that many (OK, not all, but quite a darn few including the entire genre of FPS games) video games are extremely violent, and they treat violence very casually. Just reading paragraph after paragraph in this book shows you how casually murder is treated in these things, and the author admitting multiple times that, well, you just kind of don’t feel anything:

Image result for extra lives: why video games matterAt one point in Far Cry 2, I was running along the savanna when I was spotted by two militiamen. I turned and shot, and, I thought, killed them both. When I waded into the waist-deep grass to pick up their ammo, it transpired that one of the men was still alive. He proceed to plug me with his sidearm. Frantic, and low on health, I looked around, trying to find the groaning, dying man, but the grass was too dense. I sprinted away, only to be hit by a few more of his potshots. When I had put enough distance between us, I lobbed a Molotov cocktail into the general area where the supine, dying man lay. Within seconds, I could hear him screaming amid the twiggly crackly of the grass catching fire. Sitting before my television, I felt a kind of horridly unreciprocated intimacy with the man I had just burned to death.

If the video game references were taken out of this passage and you didn’t know the context, this would be horrible. But because it’s a video game… well, it doesn’t matter right? It’s just flashes of pixelated light.

A third critique of video games that I thought of while reading the book was given in an article by Mormon apostle David A. Bednar that I find philosophically interesting, even if it isn’t the first reason that might come to your mind. Let me share a passage:

Sadly, some young men and young women in the Church today ignore “things as they really are” and neglect eternal relationships for digital distractions, diversions, and detours that have no lasting value. My heart aches when a young couple—sealed together in the house of the Lord for time and for all eternity by the power of the holy priesthood—experiences marital difficulties because of the addicting effect of excessive video gaming or online socializing. A young man or woman may waste countless hours, postpone or forfeit vocational or academic achievement, and ultimately sacrifice cherished human relationships because of mind- and spirit-numbing video and online games. As the Lord declared, “Wherefore, I give unto them a commandment … : Thou shalt not idle away thy time, neither shalt thou bury thy talent that it may not be known” (D&C 60:13).

You may now be asking yourself, “But, Brother Bednar, you began today by talking about the importance of a physical body in our eternal progression. Are you suggesting that video gaming and various types of computer-mediated communication can play a role in minimizing the importance of our physical bodies?” That is precisely what I am declaring. Let me explain.

We live at a time when technology can be used to replicate reality, to augment reality, and to create virtual reality. For example, a medical doctor can use software simulation to gain valuable experience performing a complicated surgical operation without ever putting a human patient at risk… However, a simulation or model can lead to spiritual impairment and danger if the fidelity is high and the purposes are bad—such as experimenting with actions contrary to God’s commandments or enticing us to think or do things we would not otherwise think or do “because it is only a game.”

I chose to move this book to the top of my reading list after a conversation with a friend on a hike this past weekend. I’m pretty open about talking about my faith with other people, and I get quite a few curious inquiries. This friend asked, “What do Mormons think of video games?” I explained that there is no commandment, persay, banning video games. But Church leaders have given pretty stark warnings about video games, and many Mormon families are wary of them. My family, for instance, had a no-video-game policy for our entire childhood, and we would only get to play them at friend’s houses where the long arm of parental rules couldn’t reach. I myself made it to adulthood feeling the better for it, and am glad I escaped childhood relatively unscathed.

Funny enough though, this book doesn’t purport to be an exercise in video game apologetics. It doesn’t provide a cohesive argument, and even readily admits the dark side of video games. Tom Bissell gives a disclaimer at the beginning that the book rather seeks to express “one man’s opinions and thoughts on what playing games feels like, why he plays them, and the questions they make him think about.” This provides an interesting mix of game play-by-play, a bit of philosophy, the role of narrative, and even some (literary?) criticism. Some of my favorite passages include this explanation of why the best games are the ones that don’t try to explain too much:

For many gamers (and by all evidence, game designers), story is largely a matter of accumulation. The more explanation there is, the thought appears to go, the more story has to be generated. This would be a profound misunderstanding of story for any form of narrative art, but it has hobbled the otherwise high creative achievement of any number of games. Frequently in works with any degree of genre loyalty– this would include a vast majority of video games– the more explicit the story becomes, the more silly it suddenly will seem. (Let us call this the Midi-chlorian Error). The best science fiction is usually densely realistic in quotidian detail but evocatively vague about the bigger questions. Tolkien is all but ruined for me whenever I make the mistake of perusing the Anglo-Saxon Talmudisms of his various appendices: “Among the Eldar the Alphabet of Daeron did not develop true cursive forms”– kill me, please now– “since for writing the Elves adopted the Faenorian letters.”… The impulse to explain is the Achilles’ heel of all genre work, and the most sophisticated artists within every genre know better than to expose their worlds to the sharp knife of intellection.

the comparison of modern-day games with their older counterparts:

A game like Gears of War differs so profoundly from Super Mario Bros. that the two appear to share as many commonalities as a trilobite does with a Great Dane. Super Mario requires an ability to recognize patterns, considerable hand-eye coordination, and quick reflexes. Gears requires the ability to think tactically and make subtle judgments based on scant information, a constant awareness of multiple variables (ammunition stores, enemy weaknesses) as they change throughout the game, and the spatial sensitivity to control one’s movement through a space in which the “right” direction is not always apparent. Anyone who plays modern games such as Gears does not so much learn the rules as develop a kind of intuition for how the game operates. Often, there is no single way to accomplish a given task; improvisation is rewarded. Older games, like Super Mario, punish improvisation; You live or die according to their algebra alone.

and the “literary” device of mechanics within games:

For any artist who sails beneath the Jolly Roger of genre, this is an alien way to work. As someone who attempts to write what is politely known as literary fiction, I am confident in this assertion. For me, stories break the surface in the form of image or character or situation. I start with the variables, not the system. This is intended neither to ennoble my way of working nor denigrate the game designer; it is to acknowledge the very different formal constraints game designers have to struggle with. While I may wonder if a certain story idea will “work”, this would be a differently approached and much, much less subjective question if I were a game designer. A game that does not work will, literally, not function. (There is, it should be said, another side to the game-designer mind-set: No matter how famous or well known, most designers are happy to talk about how their games failed in certain areas, and they will even explain why. Not in my life have I encountered a writer with a blood-alcohol content below .2 willing to make a similar admission.)

There were some detracting elements, including his pretty foul mouth and a few jabs at religious folk I found in poor taste. And while I enjoyed quite a bit of the book, the last chapter kind of ruined it. It’s literally a play by play of him doing nothing but playing video games while getting high on weed and cocaine. Any aesthetic appreciation for the genre of video games kind of left at that point. Listen to this summary by the author of pretty much why both video games and cocaine are bad for you– and also a kind of existential crisis:

Video games and cocaine feed on my impulsiveness, reinforce my love of solitude, and make me feel good and bad in equal measure. The crucial difference is that I believe in what video games want to give me, while the bequest of cocaine is one I loathe and distrust… For every moment of transcendence there is a moment in the gutter. For all its emotional violence there are long periods of quiet and calm. Something bombardingly strange or new is always happening. You constantly find things, constantly learn things, constantly see things you could not have imagined. When you are away from it, you long for its dark and narrow energies. But am I talking about video games or cocaine?…

So what have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories. Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that points not toward something, but at something. Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough.

There is some absolutely beautiful prose here. Bissell is very gifted, and this book is worth reading whether you like video games or despise them. If anything, it at least helped me appreciate the appeal that video games have for some people.

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