Comfortable epics

I’ve been thinking lately, riding as I am on strange tides, about games as a pastime, about why I’ve spent so much time with them over the years, and about the implications of that time for other areas of my life. I haven’t really come to any conclusions yet, but as an exercise it’s yielded some interesting, if mixed, results.

Brace yourself. I’m about to get deep, so you might want to grab your nose plugs and snorkels. Or better still, just unplug your computer and throw it directly out your window.

I enjoy video games for two reasons, and I imagine most people would agree, though the balance will shift toward one end or the other depending on the individual. First and foremost is the story. I play games because they are my favorite storytelling medium. And storytelling in games isn’t confined to just the narrative: it’s achieved through a combination of the plot, the character and world designs, the voice acting, the script writing–all the things that are also relevant in cinema–and something else: the act of play. This is by no means an original thought, though I’m too lazy just now to track down any references. The point is, gameplay means that you engage with the game world in a significant way, which isn’t possible in other media. And games have really started, in the past 5 years or so, to put narrative at the fore. Now all kinds of player decisions affect not just the ultimate outcome of the game, but the player’s in-game relationships with other characters, major plot points, and even the physical appearance of the player character.

So games are, in this sense, the ultimate escapism. They allow you to enter a fictional world where your presence makes a difference. They are, as many have observed, power trips; but they are very specific in the ways they choose to empower the player. In most cases, “empowerment” means putting you in the role of a hero or heroes who alone can save the world.

For many gamers, MMOs are the end-all of gaming. Not for me. While WoW and other games do have well-developed narratives, they really don’t enter into the experience of playing the games at all. And you’re not unique in an MMO. You’re not particularly special, and your actions make little to no difference to any supporting narratives–though I haven’t dipped into MMOs in quite a long time, so perhaps this has changed. If Star Wars: The Old Republic or any other current-gen MMOs offer that kind of immersion, I might be interested. But without feeling like what I’m doing matters, I can’t really feel that compelled to do it, and grinding for loot in MMOs isn’t very satisfying. Is it really all worth it for bladed shoulder-pads? I guess I’ll never quite get it. Without the narrative content, I’m not interested, and most MMOs just don’t deliver on this front.

Unless you play on an RP server, of course, but that’s an entirely different universe. A sad, lonely universe. With lots of awkward in-character flirting and archaic sex-talk.

But gaming, anyway, is the perfect drug for me, in that it creates compelling narratives where I can be the hero whose motivations I sympathize with and and through whom I can actually make a positive impact in the game world. There are stupid games, too, of course. I did my stint with Angry Birds (like, a week, tops), and I understand the appeal of simple games with no discernible narrative and obvious, easily-attainable objectives. But if Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja or Farmville had been the only games available in the 1990s, I wouldn’t have become a gamer. It was Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, and Chrono Trigger that did me in. They are fun, and they have great stories (well, not as much Dragon Warrior, but it was still engaging). I can’t resist that combination.

So I love games, and I doubt I’ll ever swear them off. But 30 is rapidly approaching, and I suppose for that, and a few other reasons, I’m thinking a lot about what I’ve done with myself. Regret, for a neurotic like me, is a huge part of life. I routinely regret not learning a language when I was young, and not reading more seminal works of literature and philosophy when I had the time, and not learning an instrument. All of these can be reduced to the simple issue of time management, and it’s interesting to think about how differently things might have played out if I’d made different choices.

Say I spent 120 hours of my life playing Final Fantasy VII, for instance. That works out to 60 two-hour language classes. 120 hours of guitar practice. A dozen or so books (I’m a slow reader, screw you).

It’s even more telling if you look at it on the daily level. If I played 3 hours of games a day, for example. I could have played just 2 hours, and spent the rest of that time on something else. 7 extra hours a week. A whole school day.

If you extend this logic to other areas of your life, you are probably me, in which case, you’ve got more important things to do with your time than read your own blog posts, asshole.

I don’t regret playing games. But I guess I do regret not managing my time better, and, through no fault of their own, games were and are a big part of how I spent and continue to spend the only resource that really matters.

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