pray.png [ “Why We Play” is a new weekly column by freelance writer and HardCasual blogger Chris Plante that discusses how video games benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back.]

Every Friday I go to a class to discuss games. I enjoy our conversations, because they give me a different perspective on stories I’ve played dozens of times. Their rants are like Rashomon, Akira Kursowa’s classic film about the dangers of perspective. For us, everyone’s killed Bowser, it’s how we killed Bowser that’s unique.

As we spent more time together, we noticed our differences. By label some of us are the stereotypical gamers, but then there are a handful of jocks, a few bubblegum girls (who beat my ass in just about anything), professional students, artists, and young professionals. How do we get along so well, when we’re so different? Is this the power of a shared hobby?

To figure out this puzzle, we considered only the essential aspects of gaming. The player. The game. The controller.

For me, a controller works like a pair of shoes. When I sport my kicks, I no longer literally feel the ground beneath my feet. I feel rubber and crusty socks (see: mysterious foot condition). But when I step on grass, I still know it is grass. I don’t have to see it, or even smell it. I feel it, somehow, through the shoes. They’re a tacit part of me.

To bring this back to controllers, in Call of Duty 4, I don’t feel the rubber or broken glass or even the gun in my hand, but I recognize the environment and how I interact with it via my controls. They’re my game shoes, and after twenty years of play they’re perfectly worn-in. The controller is an understood extension of myself.

Our tacit relationship with games through our controllers offers many advantages in real life. They teach us motor skills and linguistics, organization and management, and even bring us closer to the divine. That’s right, God is in the game, or, better, in our interaction with the game, but, out of modesty and complete fear you’ll never read “Why We Play” again, I won’t unpack such a lofty claim in my 5th paragraph on GameSetWatch.

Motor-Skills and Language

Recently, I wrote a post on my personal blog, HardCasual, about the potential of Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword’s play mechanics as tools for early childhood education. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“I call it the scribble factor. On the normal setting (definitely not on Hard), the player can wildly scribble across the screen, mostly back and forth between enemies, and fair pretty well. Eventually, they must learn to make distinct and correct pen strokes to progress, but by that point they have a move-set so exciting and large it still allows for plenty of creativity. The complexity’s nice for advanced gamers, while the scribble factor’s great for a young player, creating a sense of wonder as the game translates his simple movements into elaborate, elegant attacks.

Pause: I need to be cautious with my previous statement. The biggest problem with selling Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword to children is that it perceivably portrays violence in a positive, beautiful, and glamorous light. Violence, in reality, is none of these things. If a parent were to take my word literally, and give their child a copy of NG: DS, they would be expected to explain this hypocrisy to their child, preferably sharing play time with them to answer questions or help beat difficult tasks. Or, if the game negatively influences the child, the parent should know when to take it away.

OK, back to my hullabaloo.

The scribble factor allows for a young player to experiment, and learn their own way to play the game at their own pace. If they don’t want to commit to intentional moves immediately, they can slash and swing that little stylus to their hearts content, at least, until the game requires the player to take the first big step in any educational setting, learning a language and how to write it.

Ninja Gaiden: DS uses a unique spell system language where the player selects a spell or special move, and must draw a particular character on the touch screen to perform it. The system’s fun, quick, and forgiving. I love it. In an educational setting, I think it teaches children to quickly create complex and foreign characters—they’re in Japanese (I think, apologies, sometimes I’m vastly uneducated). It also guides the player away from scribbling away at enemies, and greatly rewards precise pen strokes.”

Organization and Management

Games’ ability to teach doesn’t end after childhood.

To many, videogames are the universal training device for organization and management. Windows originally shipped with Solitaire as a tool to teach users how to use their mouse for desktop organization. Schools use SimCity ad Populous to visually communicate basic city and society management methods, while The Sims allows teenagers with a tinge of worry about their unknown future to practice their lives after education by running others’ virtual lives.

Yet, organization and management in games reaches far beyond God-sims. The Madden series is possibly the world’s most popular management game. While it appears you play the role of your favorite players, any great Madden fan or even armchair quarterback knows they act not as player, but as coach. They organize a virtual squad, monitor stats, and choose plays that exploit their available resources for maximum efficiency.

During my sophomore year of college, my dorm room was wedged into a floor of business majors. My roommates and I often joked that these yuppies had two pastimes: “Madden Saturdays” and masturbating to their portfolios. I cannot guarantee either hobby made them wealthy members of the work force, but I can presume a lot of their talent, their ability to improvise organization, came from endless virtual scrimmages.

Controlling virtual systems (Zerg Sims, the Kansas City Chiefs) allows players to experiment with the creation of organizational systems and practice managament strategies without consequence. You can go for the onside kick on the kick-off. You learn to try big ideas, knowing you’ll make mistakes. This is an idea not practiced in the American educational system, but one practical to real life. You can’t learn without failure.

As I mentioned earlier, we’re all different; people game for different reasons. It’s the games themselves that bring us together. I don’t play to learn their languages nor do I like to practice work, though those are wonderful perks. Instead, I play for a spiritual reason, one I never noticed until my class discussed an article on Second Life.

I’ve never played Second Life, nor do I have any real intentions to play it in the future. I like goals; until the Second Life experience more resembles a game, and less of, well, a “second life,” I remain apathetic.

Like much of great journalism, this article gave me a perspective I would otherwise have ignored. It discussed a group of Buddhists that meet weekly in a virtual retreat to meditate. If you’re like me, it's easy to write off this whole thing. Virtual meditation? Didn’t that go out of style with Lawnmower Man?

Consider nurturing the Bonsai tree, another practice of many Buddhist cultures. Every morning the Bonsai keeper stares over her miniature-giant tree, grooming, feeding, and every-so-often, repotting it. She’s like the tree's own special keeper, its god. While a common western perspective of the Bonsai tree is a mode of meditation, I feel the bonsai offers broader reward: perspective.

When you spend hours toiling away at the bonsai crafting it into your perfect image of the perfect tree, considering its day-by-day growth, you will re-examine yourself when you sit under a magnificent Oak. You see that something, or possibly someone shapes the Oak above you, nurturing it from sapling to timber. As you are to the bonsai, something is to the Oak.

Perhaps virtual meditation acts similarly. These Buddhist users craft their avatars into perfect images of their perfect selves. They set them in a large (and virtually infinite) world. Each day they regard the interactions their avatars have with other virtual selves, considering how they will influence the avatar for the best possible outcomes. Then they meditate, building not only a physical and mental bond between them and their avatars' thoughts and actions, but also a spiritual bond.

When the Buddhists logs-out and meditates in real life, he might consider himself like a Bonsai tree. Not only is the force that nurtures the trees present, but it too must share a bond with him, as he does with his avatar. To unpack even further, he might consider if he watches his “second-self,” then “another self” watches him, and a “further self” watches that self. Thus, there must be an infinite number of selves. They are one of many, all bonded together.

Crazy? Maybe, but I think this concept applies beyond Second Life. The next time you play, consider how it makes you look inward. I believe gamers have a strong grasp on how they interact with the world around them, because they have learned, practiced, failed, and relearned life in games without consequence. They also understand that they control many virtual selves, and what is to say they too aren’t under a certain control. Gamers, more than most, understand they may be just one of infinite.

Through this, we have an ability to find the rules of the game or the world, and use them to our advantage. I don’t believe that’s coincidence, not just part of a shared hobby. It comes from the perspective games offer us.

I cannot say I reached many of these conclusions on my own. They came to me from Aram Sinnreich, a games analyst, and his class of games students. We considered ourselves, and how we share our gaming experience. We continue to consider why we care so much about games.

Like with Aram and my friends, I hope to use “Why We Play” as a place of group think. I look forward to offering ideas on what games do for us and how we’re the better for playing them. And I'm eager to see how the GameSetWatch community responds, and helps me and others better understand what make us continue to buy these $60 discs.

[Chris Plante is a freelance writer living the post-collegiate pauper life in New York City. By night, you can find him at HardCasual.net. By day, he produces theatre and television.]