braidhumanity.jpg[The Gaming Doctrine is a monthly GameSetWatch column by Richard Clark about the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality. This month - how games can make us acutely aware of our own humanity.]

Why do we play? What seems to many a waste of time often captures the attention and devotion of a significant portion of humanity. Sports, board games, playground games, and video games all require a commitment to ignore life’s more pressing matters for imaginary stakes that only seem to matter in the moment. Play is a deception we submit ourselves to for a time. But what’s the point?

The easy and oft-repeated answer is that it serves as a sort of escapism from the pressures of everyday life. Thus the apparent counter-productive nature of play: we often indulge ourselves with it when things most require our attention. On an individual level, this seems perfectly reasonable and even honorable, especially in the moment.

Play makes us feel better about ourselves and puts us in the position to make better decisions under less stress afterwards. Still, to those watching from the outside, play is often simply a coping mechanism that is most often a detriment to real life. When it comes to gaming for the sake of escapism, they’re not always wrong.

What is a Fulfilling Gaming Experience?

As mature gamers we often feel badly about ourselves when we indulge too much in games that seem empty and pointless. Hours of Tetris, mindless fetch-quests, and star collection tend to weigh on the soul. In response, we either turn off the games and go do something “real”, or we play another game that’s not so soul numbing.

What is it about those few games that make us feel better, not worse, about ourselves for playing? Why do some games make us feel like the typical gamer stereotype while other games give us a feeling of actual fulfillment and even enlightenment? As any other medium demonstrates, there’s a difference between empty entertainment and artistic entertainment. Some books or movies leave us feeling empty, while others leave us feeling fulfilled.

With games, though, the difference between the two often seems arbitrary and depends on individual response to individual games. Because games are about player interaction, exploration, and experience, or “play”, there are several complex and distinct filters that we apply to games, meaning that one person may find a game to be undeniably resonant and profound while another may simply view it as mere entertainment.

But what is it that games do when they cause us to turn inward? What is it about games in general that often causes us to respond in such extremes? One aspect of games is particularly interesting to me: they cause us to be acutely aware of the fact and nature of our humanity.

As human beings we are thoughtful, reactive, emotional, and flawed. Video games often remind us of how our human traits and flaws come in to play in both mundane and extraordinary situations. Because they provide a window into our reactions without the added baggage of actually happening to us, they affect us in ways that can surprise, delight, and even change us.

Braid and the Side Effects of Being Alone

Real life can present us with some incredibly painful fail states. My most memorable: the moment my wife looked up at me and told me that she was leaving. During a time when my relationships, my career path and my faith were suspect and uncertainty ruled the day, I began to play Braid.

While I struggled with convincing myself it was worth attempting to save my marriage, I relished the concept of a game that gives me a simple goal to pursue: save the princess. The game hinted at past mistakes. Certainly, though, heroism would result in automatic forgiveness. It was simple, even if the puzzles along the way were complex.

Throughout my day I would alternate between thinking about the puzzle of my real-life situation and the puzzles in the game. Then I would come home and start where I left off. Braid’s protagonist, frozen in time, would begin to try again as if nothing had ever gone wrong. Eventually he would succeed. We were another step closer to our goal, even if no progress had been made outside of the game.

There is a key moment at the end of that game when (spoiler) Tim realized that he is actually the one the princess is desperately trying to escape from. I forced myself to maintain my composure, but I was exposed.

As time in the game world righted itself and the truth was revealed, Braid forced me to face up to the truth about myself. Braid made me acutely aware of the extent my fear of loneliness affect my perspective. It showed me that I feared losing control of my life and my marriage. In a season of powerlessness, I refused to let go. It wasn’t Tim whose soul was laid bare in the end. Tim’s story and struggle were mine.

Mass Effect 2 and the Responsibility of Leadership

Toward the end of the mission, I had decisions to make. There was now a large team of people who looked up to me, depended on me for answers, and wanted me to lead them. It was time for me to establish who would go where with whom, and who would do what. Time passed in the real world as I hit the guide button on my controller and went to wash dishes. I told myself I had things to do, but the truth was I simply couldn’t decide.

Still undecided after the chores were done, I turned off the game and went to sleep. The real world wouldn’t give me such an absurd amount of decisions and expect me to act as if I had all the answers. The real world wouldn’t demand such an absurd amount of responsibility from someone like me, and I didn’t want it.

It’s possible to complete that mission with the entire team intact. It’s possible to lose only one or two members of the team. But, I cared too much about their opinions and hang-ups. I wanted them to like me, so I did what I thought they would appreciate. Three of them died. They will never come back.

Far Cry 2 and the Dangers of Impatience

I meandered aimlessly through the jungle, searching for some objective and some sign of humanity. After attempting to follow the hurriedly spoken orders, I read a vague instruction to cause mayhem in some general area. I hadn’t been rewarded or reinforced in quite some time. Tired of the mundane and unsatisfying, I searched desperately for some sign of progression. I wanted to know that I was getting somewhere. Something needed to happen.

When I stumbled on a group of guards whom I was charged to attack and destroy, I wasn’t sure why I was supposed to kill them, except that I had been told to and promised a reward.

As I jumped out of my vehicle and began to fire on the unsuspecting guards, one of them accosted me: “You’re a monster, leave us alone!” My heart raced and I suddenly felt as if I was on the right track. Excitement. That was what I craved, and what I had been searching for, at any cost. I asked my questions later. For now, I shoot.

We See Ourselves in These Games

Video games work splendidly as simple outlets for escapism, but where they really shine is in their ability to allow the player to come to terms with their own tendencies, desires and struggles.

The truly great games throughout history - the ones that are successful despite themselves - are great partially because they succeed in providing an outlet for the player to both express and discover himself.

The best we can hope for the medium going forward is that games focus less on being cinematic, flawless experiences and focus more on providing an opportunity for a truly resonant experience that’s as much about ourselves as it is about the plot or the in-game characters.

Maybe deep down we know that all games, and video games in particular, serve a very specific purpose. In this post-modern world of live and let live, where we are always directed to stare outward at screens and consume the opinions of others, we begin to feel automated, isolated, and inundated.

But games provide us with an opportunity to engage ourselves and others within the context of an established world, all the while never forgetting that there’s a world outside in which we live. We interact with the objects and game characters in light of that truth. As time goes by and the game nears completion, the game world and our world converge not because we are escaping into the game world but because the lessons we learn from the game world escape into ours.

Human expression, in every since of the word is the name of the game here. Let us fail, not because of the extreme difficulty, but because of our personal flaws. Let us succeed, not because we followed directions and demonstrated fast reflexes, but because we became aware of our flaws and sought to guard against and correct them. At the very least, let us become aware of our depravity. At the very most, let us attempt to redeem ourselves.

[Richard Clark is the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, where he often writes about video games. He and his wife live in Louisville, KY. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter (@deadyetliving).]