Officially, I am a high-school English teacher. I lead discussions, assign important texts, and grade essays (slower than I should… Christmas cards from my students often read like bribes: “Merry Christmas and please grade our Narrative Essay”). But once or twice a year, during a special time called Mini-Course Week, I put aside the poetry anthology, pick up a video game controller, and teach a weeklong course called “The History of Video Games.” Given that my school is a high-achieving, Christian boarding school, this course stands out as a bizarre anomaly in our 100 years of educating students. Taking a break from Dante to talk about an Italian plumber who jumps on turtles can feel off-putting. But a couple of years ago, some enterprising students wrote an official pitch for the class, recruited me as the teacher, and made a successful plea to the academic dean. As a result, my job description now includes discussing the ethics of gaming and occasionally defeating a horde of students at Street Fighter II.
Often, this course is the first time many students have thought conscientiously about the games they play and why they play them. The primary questions they have used to navigate life are the consumer-based ones: is it permissible? and is it pleasurable? In this realm, only a psychologist, medical doctor, or scientist has any real authority. If it doesn’t affect your mental or physical health too much, then eat and drink for tomorrow we die. But using the question “What can I get away with?” as your guiding star in modern America only ends in some level of addiction. Taking the virtue-ethicist tack – how is this activity forming me? – is a new one many of my students have never considered.
To face the role of videogames in personal formation also requires answering the bigger question: “What are these things for anyway?” Some will quip that it is “just a game” and, with this as a barometer, you can see why video games usually go without much critical evaluation outside of the media. Who spends time pouring over the value of solitaire or basketball? You just play. I suspect this is why gaming caught so many parents off-guard when they first brought a Gameboy into the house. They expected that their kids would play it the same way they play everything else. But they didn’t. If this was “just a game”, why was the experience of it so different from the experience of playing with a Rubik’s Cube?
Caught in a moment of honesty, I suspect that most gamers will tell you that there is a terrifying difference between your feelings five minutes before ending a long gaming session and five minutes afterwards. The five minutes before, you are fully engaged and immersed in a primal way. You are being hunted or doing the hunting yourself, your adrenaline is flowing, and every move you make is loaded with meaning and significance. You are in the jungle or in space or in a fantasy world, you have a weapon, and the stakes are high. But five minutes after the session ends, your eyes are adjusting, you are trying to triage the list of things you failed to do that evening, and you are full of shame.
During one of the first times in our marriage that my wife and I were apart for a weekend, I bought Red Dead Redemption, a massive, open-world Western videogame, and played it for most of her time away. I didn’t keep up with my hygiene or go to any social events; I barely fed the dog. I suppose, subconsciously, I was making up for the sharp decrease of gaming in my first year of marriage, during which I had maintained a very strict video game diet. When I picked up my wife from the airport, I looked terrible, the kitchen was trashed, and I was humiliated. I’m an adult, right?
Very few people step outside to play basketball and then look up five hours later, dazed and confused. Games are disembodied enough that physical limitations rarely kick in and you just keep going. A coworker once told me that if you eat a bag of something and are still hungry, you probably aren’t dealing with real food. No one unconsciously eats a whole bag of apples while watching Monday Night Football.
Here’s the rub: the purpose of gaming is not to simulate whatever unique experience is unfolding on screen. The purpose of gaming is to simulate meaning.
Video games give us a way to feel important while meaning nothing. This is what they are. You play Madden because you want the experience of being a top-notch quarterback without the hours in the weight room and without getting destroyed by 300-lb linebackers. You play Call of Duty because you want the experience of military combat without the boot camp, the long hours on base, or the bullet wounds. This explains why so many videogames are preoccupied with giving you experiences that would have life-wrecking consequences were you to have them in the real world. I get to have the thrill of combat or speeding or killing without the consequences. This may seem obvious, but it is surprising how many people seem to have forgotten this.
I am aware of the higher, real-world stakes in online competition, but your average gamer seems to just fritter away their time in free, no-stakes gameplay. And while we might want to draw comparisons to other competitive games (where only the peak performers are paid), these other games are not simulations of something else. The point of pick-up basketball is to play pick-up basketball. The point of NBA 2K22, meanwhile, is to simulate what it feels like to be LeBron James.
Interestingly, the complexity of the game doesn’t matter that much. The first time I played Donkey Kong (1981) was just as powerful as the first time I played Dark Souls (2011). I suspect that most of us know that video games don’t need more complex storytelling or better characters or even better graphics (hence the rise of simple mobile games like Angry Birds and the massive success of Minecraft, which intentionally uses simple, dated graphics). The simulation has always been powerful and overwhelming, even when our avatar was nothing more than a green square (Atari’s Adventure). When I booted up the Atari for my students, they could get lost in Centipede just as quickly as any new shooter.
So many of the conversations around video games seem to be a plea for video games to start mattering… but then they would no longer be video games. As Will Toledo croons out in the song “Not What I Needed”: “I’ve been waiting all my life/ I’ve been waiting for some real good porn/ Something with meaning; something fulfilling/ I’d like to make my shame count for something”. Maybe all the conversation about video game storytelling and ludonarrative dissonance is born out of the hope that one day we will design a game so good that we won’t feel shame when we turn it off after a long, unplanned night of gaming.
Enter the Metaverse. We’ve long had the dream of a fully immersive digital world, and we seem to be rapidly approaching this as a reality. (We just really missed the point of The Matrix, didn’t we?) I suspect many people will see the Metaverse as an extension of social media, but I wonder if it is really an extension of gaming.
On the final day of our mini-course, we watched some of Mark Zuckerberg’s pitch for the Metaverse. My Gen Z students were clearly unimpressed (they saw it as something that “Boomers and Gen Xers will throw lots of money at” before it ultimately fails). But as Zuckerberg presented his vision for the new, disembodied world, it struck me that he had found his way around the drive for the shameless game. I suspect that VR and the promise of a completely immersive reality, like the Metaverse, is an attempt to accomplish a darker goal: if there is no way to eliminate the shame after disconnecting, maybe we should never disconnect.