One of the reasons people play videogames is because they promise meaningful choices and immersive worlds. It’s all an illusion, of course, but it still has some degree of power. We might not be able to change our real world, but we can make an impact on a fictional one, briefly forgetting whatever anxiety we might feel over our general powerlessness. That feeling doesn’t last, though, and so we keep chasing it through more games and more immersive worlds. What we play says something about who we are, as with all the media we consume, and, ultimately, all the purchases that we make-and ultimately that’s what videogames are selling, a commercial product and status symbol built around the promise of power in an immersive world. We have sought the catharsis of the power fantasy and found it lacking.
Art and media are common battlegrounds for so-called culture wars. Social media discourse is frequently replete with arguments about what makes a good piece of art, what makes a good critique of a piece of art, and—implicitly and increasingly explicitly—what makes a good person, as seen through what art they consume. While varying in sophistication, these are frequently immaterial critiques—sometimes they’re astroturf campaigns from major conglomerates asserting that, for instance, if you don’t like a dull blockbuster you’re actually a racist homophobe. Regardless of the degree to which these arguments can deliver insight or substance (of course I believe there is value to deep readings of art if done in an interesting way), the urgency to invest moral and political value in the immaterial reflects the same problem that the desire for greater immersion in virtual worlds does—the feeling of powerlessness that comes from living in a place (or in a political and economic system) that claims to give voice to people’s needs while elected officials and their appointees are impotent, inept, or inadequate to the task of providing relief to the people or preventing global disaster. This is the rage and confusion that comes from living in a country which frequently pats itself on the back for its greatness while the president has just announced to the world that the federal government can’t fix a national problem. This is the consequence of developing a sociopolitical culture which aligns humanity with consumption and which equates citizens with consumers.
If you are told—if we are told—that the purchase is the purest form of self-expression, we will invest inordinate emotional value in that. Aside from that, if we in the U.S. or the Western World or the Global North are sold that the things we can consume are what set us apart from the rest of the world as a sign of our advancement, then we will seek to consume things to fill holes in our lives. And luxury items can substitute the intangible desires and necessities of our humanity—the need to feel like our actions matter, that we make a difference.
Art expresses experience—artists experience events and want to show them to others, to duplicate the feeling or the thought and see how the adaptation or interpretation strikes the audience. Does this climate change film make you feel compelled to do something? Does this story about a person learning they’re a robot cause you to consider how you think about and treat other people? Aren’t these sunsets beautiful? Hero’s journeys are compelling because of the excitement and danger of taking part in an epic quest. Farm sims are fun because backbreaking work becomes a relaxing and rejuvenating affair. This duplication of life isn’t life itself, but it grants us a taste of an experience, and therein provides an opportunity to see the world in a new light and grow as people. But is fictional heroism capable of inspiring real life people to work together? Or do all the moral choices and romance plots just add up to equaling the stories we tell ourselves about the people we want to be, rather than being those people?
I personally love when games create expansive worlds and invite the player to have a hand in shaping them. It’s lovely to feel like what you do matters, like if you work hard enough you can be unstoppable. In real life, hard work doesn’t always end with a reward. In real life, it can all too often feel like none of our choices matter because we are frequently reminded of our limited ability to change the systems under which we live. Making lasting change in the real world is seldom as simple or as spectacular as slaying a dragon.
While I favor branching paths in games, even within linear narratives, there is usually a comfort and confidence that your actions matter. So how do we convert our need to feel like our actions matter into taking actions that matter? How do we take the sense of accomplishment in overcoming fictional challenges and turn it into a drive for creating change in the real world? How do we turn the gamification of life away from making us better worker cogs and toward making us better actors in solidarity with our communities? Raising money for people-focused causes through Twitch streams and Humble Bundles are certain steps; how else can we get from the here of consumption-as-morality to the there of a socially just reality?
As I’ve gotten older, my expectations for what makes a good game have remained anchored in ideas about choice and immersion—the desire or need to make choices that matter, even in imaginary worlds. At the same time, we’ve all been reminded repeatedly over the past several years that digital spaces have a difficult task in substituting for real experience. You can try to make a metaverse, you can certainly have a functioning work meeting over a video chat, but you can’t quite replace real life, real action, real choice, or real change. Games, as any art form, have the potential to inform and inspire-they can help articulate ideas you struggle with, open your mind to possibilities you would not otherwise have encountered. But, in the end, they are objects to be consumed, frequently limited in how they address real issues, when they address them. Purchases can reflect values, but there is a very low ceiling to voting with your dollars while the people and institutions with the most money can control market forces. Can games be more than a placebo for the world’s ills? Or can we allow them to just be products, and take the dissatisfaction they highlight with the real world to work to turn it into a better one?
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer and Paste intern. He loves videogames, film, history, pop culture, sports, and human rights, and can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.