I played 4,530 holes of Desert Golfing last fall.  I hit the ball 11,001 times.  Every shot counted.  There was no par.  There was very little ‘game’ at all.  It was just me, a ball, and a series of holes in an endless desert.

At the same time, I played the fall’s biggest release, Destiny.  I plasma-rifled my way through every mode except the end-game raid.  I reached the soft level cap of 20.  I, like millions of others, saved humanity from extinction.

How I managed this, I’m still not sure.  Because outside an early Strike in Russia with two strangers, cvtherine and frazzledmommy, I hated every minute of it.  I suppose critical spite kept me going after it was clear the game had nothing to give.  No, Destiny was designed only to take.  My time, my attention, and in wave after wave of recycled encounters, my dignity.

Dignity is a strange thing to talk about in videogames.  The awesome, the cool, sometimes the beautiful, sure.  But the dignified?  Yet dignity is something most of my favorite games possess.  And it’s something they grant their players as well.  I’m always asking: how does a game treat me?  How does it expect me to treat it?  Does it respect me?  Does it want me to respect myself?

I think of Minecraft’s sturdy, dignified worlds and everything players create within them.  I think of the dignified titans in Shadow of the Colossus, the lonesome men and women in Kentucky Route Zero, dignified in their regrets, and how Problem Attic finds dignity in transgression and escape.  I think of Demon’s Souls, which makes even squalor and depravity dignified.

I think of the Elites in the original Halo.  Now there was a dignified foe.  Elites were a pleasure, an honor even, to face.  They were the player’s double – a proud, tender thing wrapped in an invisible shield.  Defeating just one required constant strategy in motion, pure kinetic thinking.  Also, a gun.  But you did not covet a better gun to finish the fight.  Any upgrade was going to come from you, your performance, your ability to meet this Elite head-on.  When he fell, it was a victory to be sure.  It was also a kind of tragedy.  I can still hear his death cry – as I can not a single utterance in Destiny – all these years later.

My favorite games respect their worlds, their characters, their players.  They are confident, unapologetic, completely themselves.  And they allow players, within their constraints, to explore a virtual existence, to really own it, in ways unique to the medium.  Desert Golfing may seem too simple, too humble even, to warrant such a description, and yet its very focus and clarity evoke a quiet, unassuming dignity that is altogether radical in gaming.

The games that dangle carrots at every turn, that hang them right in front of our braying donkey faces – our presumed donkey faces, that is – these I can no longer bear.  With their predigested worlds, their icon-infested maps, their naked systems and pitiful stories, their shameless parceling of upgrades and achievements…is it any wonder that a player regularly mistakes enfeeblement for empowerment?  That he then declines to take the measure of himself afterwards?  Or that dignity ultimately has so little place in videogameland?

Destiny not only debases players with the usual carrots – levels and loot – it also doubles down on the grinding and farming needed to earn them.  The campaign itself is little more than structured grinding, and barely structured at that.  The words ‘grind’ and ‘farm’, so utterly commonplace to gamers, already give the whole thing away, don’t they?  Who is ground down?  What harvest can be had?  It requires an insular logic, and a prisoner’s heart, to use such words without wincing.

Desert Golfing, of course, offers nothing to farm, nothing to grind, no economy at all to define your play.  There are no options.  There’s not even a menu to start over.  The desert swallows everything but your ball, your angle, your momentum.  It waits, unperturbed, for another swing.

I suppose it’s worth noting that Destiny is a first-person, massively-multiplayer online shooter, and Desert Golfing is a 2D, two-tone single-player golfing simulator.  And while Destiny cost half a billion dollars to develop, Desert Golfing appears to have cost, maybe, half a thousand.  Yet the two games are both simple at heart.  Both have sensational physics and feel, whether in their double-jumps and guns or golf balls and sand.  And both aspire to that old Bungie gaming dictum about offering 30 seconds of fun, and then repeating it over and over.  Except only Desert Golfing actually achieves this, and without 500 million dollars of fuss.

Destiny and Desert Golfing are both designed to be played daily.  So the question is: how will you spend your days?  Plundering the same planets in hopes of finding a better gun?  Punching the intergalactic clock until DLC comes along that finally makes it all worthwhile?  Or hitting a ball into a hole?  The desert is at least honest.  There is no distraction, no mirage on the horizon, no promise of some future satisfaction.  But there is space to breathe.  You enjoy golfing for itself, the game says, or you enjoy nothing at all.  The desert stretches on forever either way.  And one day you’ll have to put your club down.




Why do we play games that debase us, that leave us so undignified?

The very question goes against the common wisdom of the videogame apologists.  We are told on a regular basis that games are better than ever.  That there are so many wonderful games now that the real problem is not having time to play them all.  That whatever troubles there might be, we should all remember why we’re here: we love videogames.

But we profess too much.  When uttered online, seemingly straightforward claims of “I love videogames!” function more like the flag pins of gaming.  They become public loyalty pledges that tap some real feeling and twist it towards tribal ends.  We proclaim, loudly, and hope to gather strength from our fellow game-lovers.  Our love comforts and assures.  It justifies us.  And it helps us suppress, temporarily, the fear that lurks underneath.  The fear that we are, in fact, wasting our time.

It is no small thing, our time.  As we age, it becomes clear that it’s our only thing.  In his review of Destiny, Kill Screen editor Clayton Purdom speaks to this with unusual candor: “I am, in other words, a Halo apologist, and a “poptimist,” and I always will be, because if not I have wasted my life.”  The stakes can really feel this high for the lifelong gamer.  So his review sympathizes with Destiny, takes the long view, “roots for greatness”.  And this feels generous, almost laudable.

Except that it also feels preordained, born of admitted necessity.  If those really are the stakes, what can you do but look ever ahead and treat a review like a preview, shot through with a gamer’s hope?  Even when a game is hellbent on wasting your time.  Who wants to root against greatness anyway?  Never mind that the game in question is pretty clearly not great.  That it doesn’t even root for its own greatness, let alone the player’s.

Destiny is not unique in this.  Greatness is simply not something most games aspire to, or believe their players capable of.  Consider 2014 ‘Games of the Year’ Dragon Age: Inquisition and Shadow of MordorInquisition aspires to lengthiness, to maximum lore density, to the epic errand.  It wants to overwhelm you with content, with a buffet of choices so plentiful, of such gaming value, that you dare not complain.  But greatness?  I’m afraid not.  Inquisition aspires to be merely the widest of troughs.  There may be some tender morsels floating in the soup, but you’ll only taste them if you bend down for 50 hours and drink.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is more distilled, but the result is far worse: a rancid brew of effortless badassery and low cunning.  It relishes its brutality, flatters you as the eager executioner, expects your mute complicity.  And all under the flag of an ‘innovative’ Nemesis system, which individualizes and half-humanizes your Uruk opponents before you gut them.  Shadow of Mordor displays only the dimmest self-awareness (yet another videogame story of the player as Mr. Bad Man), but any narrative fretting just clarifies where the game’s loyalties lie – in the unabashed pleasures of slaughter and domination and looking cool while doing it.  Shadow of Mordor aspires only to degradation in the end.  First your enemy, then yourself.

But we love videogames, right?  And these are two of 2014’s ‘best’.  What do we expect of the others?  What about just a fun sequel?  Far Cry 4 is supposed to be a fantastic follow-up to Far Cry 3.  It offers hours and hours of unscripted mayhem.  All it requires is yet another native playground, super-authentic, in which our thoroughly Westernized hero can rip and run.  We needn’t worry about the respawning outposts, jamming guns, or malarial spells that so frustrated our colonialist ambitions in Far Cry 2.  And we can ignore how similar the game’s playground mentality is to the mindset of many actual Westerners in Asia.  No, this fourth installment aspires only to providing the most gratifying chaos.

Or if we want a sandbox that won’t take up too much of our time, something with a bit more edge, there’s always Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes by gaming luminary Hideo Kojima.  It’s a next-gen game of sneaking and choking and hiding.  Sometimes shooting, when your ninja dreams fail and you lose control of the situation.  It is also a game whose entire plot turns on the fact of a bomb being placed in a woman’s vagina.  In secret, so that when it explodes, because it does explode, you are left shocked, bereft, teased.  It’s all a set-up, you see, for the villain’s masterplot, for Big Boss’s character arc, for Metal Gear Solid V proper, The Phantom Pain.

Are you even surprised at this point?  Are you still rooting for greatness?

I keep waiting for our critics to come for our Games of the Year, for the latest entries in our most beloved franchises, by our most revered designers, and find them wanting.  To take their measure without a fan’s indulgence, without an apologist’s heart, without mercy, and pin them to the wall.  But no, our critics, year after year, respectfully decline.  They can’t be asked to criticize seriously.  They lack the judgment, the imagination, the confidence, the teeth.

Mainstream critics remain caught between the imagined expectations of their readers and the pitfalls of their own beleaguered fandom.  They self-censor out of long habit and navigate the implicit demands of commenters (tell me something pretty) by expressing opinions about as sharp as pudding.  When not abdicating their responsibility to render judgment on the most vexing games, they cling to rudimentary notions of value, questioning a game’s length but not its grotesque sexual violence.  When they do finally get worked up, it’s about broken PR promises and consumer rights.  And so we get ‘hard-hitting’ pieces like the RockPaperShotgun interview with Peter Molyneux, in which an adult is interrogated by a child.

More academic critics aren’t much better.  When not offering fussy opinions or wallowing in ambivalence, they don their theoretical armor and play the anthropologist dispassionately observing the digital natives, as if they’re fulfilling some Prime Directive.  Never mind their own underexamined tastes.  Or worse, they retreat from the human altogether and counsel resisting “the temptation of personal identification” in favor of “participating in systems larger than ourselves”.  It’s the old objectivity argument made intellectual for those who, on some level, have given up on people.  Lord knows radical subjectivity doesn’t get you tenure.

What these critics, mainstream and academic alike, refuse to articulate is a fully-committed human response to the game at hand.  They hedge every which way and deny the full measure of themselves as people playing videogames.  And so, questions of dignity, of time wasted, of just what it is we’re saying, exactly, when we say we love videogames, cannot even be taken up.

The critical discourse surrounding games instead leaves us feeling confused, rattled, a bit guilty, unsure about our own videogame experiences, hoping our best days are still ahead of us, afraid they are well behind.  We’re left rooting for greatness, again and again, because videogames are, in the end, personal.  They’re so terribly personal.  And we’ve always known this.  We root for their greatness as we root for our own.




Think of the first questions our hands naturally ask when we start a new game: Where can I go?  What can I do?  These are basic questions of existence.  We ask because the answers are not a given.  We don’t expect the same range of verbs we enact outside the game.  We are more than willing to adapt to this new world, to its constraints.  And yet we don’t submit completely either, especially if the answers to those initial questions do not satisfy.

Because when we talk about games, there is always a person.  A specific agency at play.  I’ve written before about the tenuous ways we inhabit our avatars and why critics must embrace the personal, even the brazenly subjective.  But it goes further than this.  For we cannot understand videogames as an artform, even at their most basic level, without coming to terms with the player.  The irrepressible I.

“Players are artists who create their own reality within the game.” Miyamoto speaks and we applaud, but how seriously do we actually take this?  We know interactivity is somehow the thing, but we keep forgetting it requires an inter-actor.  It’s tempting to retreat to safer questions about the nature of ‘interactivity’ – what is it?  How particular is it to videogames?  And what is a ‘videogame’ anyway?  But our hands and eyes and ears keep moving ahead, feeling a difference.  When we face our own experience, we find that videogames offer the player – our I – a unique opportunity to encounter the self, to grapple with that machine-assisted reality we create in the game.  Unique, yes, because no other mass medium invokes the I in quite this way.  Elsewhere, we become viewers or listeners or readers.  We experience vicariously, often intimately, but the experiencing I remains outside the work.  Within, it is not us.  We are not Anna Karenina or Roseanne Conner or Nina Simone or Imperator Furiosa.  We do not say I.

But in videogames, we not only say: I fucked up.  Or: I got lucky.  Our actions, big or small, missing the shot or switching the right candies, feed directly back into the game.  The game responds.  It adjusts, if only slightly.  Our agency, however limited, becomes an actual part of the game’s world, and this world seems to have a life of its own, a presence.  We exist within it, and what’s more, our existence becomes newly visible to us.  Newly felt too.  It is given form, made external on a screen, and yet we also remain inside that existence at the same time.  You can say such existence is virtual, but virtual doesn’t mean unreal.  Rather, we are sifted through a screen, roughly.  We are synecdoched.  And we tremble and thrill as our existence is translated, transmuted.  Occasionally, transfigured.

Ebert said videogames could not be art because of the interactivity that allows for such transmutation.  And he was half right, given his understanding of art.  Videogames aren’t that kind of art.  It’s easy to say that games contain many recognizable artforms – visual, musical, literary, architectural – and leave it at that.  Art in the aggregate.  But this doesn’t address the essential binding agent: the player.  The problem with videogames as art is not simply cultural acceptance.  Games legitimately challenge the boundaries that would separate art from life, artist from audience, and that would keep our agency – yours, mine, every player’s – absent from the discussion.  And unlike so much avant-garde art that raises similar questions, videogames resist the museum, the installation space.  No, videogames bring it home.

In the existential art of videogames, every player is implicated, every time they play.  And this comes as no surprise, really.  We feel our complicity in our bones, even if we have trouble articulating it.  We know what it’s like on the inside, hands and eyes bound to screens.  Games demand so much time, so much effort, so much inter-acting.  Which is to say: acting.  Our delight, our rage, our love, it’s primal.  I did that.  Or failed to.  It’s our person on the line, our fragile, ornery, striving selves.  A human will, wrangling with a world.  And this is where our troubles begin.

For it soon becomes clear: players do not know themselves.  Perhaps this seems unremarkable given how little people know themselves in general.  But for an art predicated on our involvement, on bringing our selves to bear and collaborating with the game to create its reality, the consequences are significant.  Sure, there is mindless engagement with every medium, but that mindlessness doesn’t feed back in so directly and become as readily reflected in the work as it does with videogames.  Games throw our choices, our reactions, our limits back in our faces, and what we often see – well, we’d rather not.  We stop short, ignore those bothersome questions of who and why, redirect our ignorance outward to the nearest vulnerable target, or back into the game itself for another round on the feedback loop.  Whatever the case, our intentions are clear: we’d prefer not to know that self at play.  Truth be told, we’re afraid of what we might find.




If we honestly want to know why games are still so widely disrespected, we have to be prepared to face an uncomfortable truth: it’s us, the players.  It’s not only because of the games themselves, it’s because of how we play them.  We haven’t been playing the wrong games – we’ve been playing games wrong.  As if they are just entertainment, just a distraction, just a fantasy, just a release, just a hobby, just a toy, just a product, just tech, just mechanics, just systems, just an illustration of theory, just a container for a message, just a cultural object, just an object of any sort.  Just anything but an opportunity for a subject to encounter herself.  To see and be seen.  To have an experience and own it.

To really own it.  This is ultimately what an existential art requires.  And what the nascent art of videogames still lacks: players who fully own their experiences.  We so readily submit to the logic of genre, to the consumer mindset, to some subcultural consensus, to the gaming gods themselves.  But playing right, as the designers intended, is so often playing wrong.  It demands submission, our complicit participation, a trust which is rarely earned.  It requires, in other words, that we play along.  This is where to go.  This is what to do.  That’s a good boy.  Here, have a treat.  You’ve earned it.

Who wants to own that?  Who wants to recount “My History of Compliance”?

But of course that’s never the full story.  Much of the history of our videogame experiences remains hidden, even from ourselves.  This history has been everpresent and yet deemed insignificant or marginal or just too personal.  Which is to say: unreal.  Instead, we are asked to talk only about the games.  The verifiable objects.  The real things.  But divorced from the player who activates and anchors them, who creates and experiences their very reality.  This who at the center has been exorcised, and it is the corpse left behind we are told to celebrate.  Even as it starts to stink.  Is it any wonder that the world does not respect a medium that treats itself like a morgue?

There is another name for this death cult and it is objectivity.  Objectivity is many things, wears many faces, but none of them are about owning it.  No, objectivity is the opposite of owning it.  It is a deferral, an appeal to outside authority, a paternalistic grasping for power.  Objectivity is a status quo that does not know itself.  It posits a world without perception or persons.  It supposes a reality to which it alone has privileged access.  It presumes universal standards to hide its motives, even from itself.

Objectivity is ultimately a lack of confidence.  And it is the hobbyhorse of men.

So many people, but especially men, seemed to have learned the wrong lesson about objectivity in adult life.  They emerged from their childhood solipsism shocked at their ‘objective’ insignificance, their grand plans and tender egos dashed against the shore of ‘reality’.  They announced a full retreat from subjectivity and called it wisdom, when inside they were actually hurting and disappointed.  They denied their own subjectivity, even as they lived it, and refused to see the value in their own limited existence, or that of others.  It was like they said: if I can’t be everything, then I’ll be nothing.  Instead of saying: I am something, and that is enough.

Owning your videogame experiences means owning your subjectivity, and this is exactly what many players refuse to do.  They would prefer to isolate their games, to lower the stakes and forget the world, to make of their magic circle a moat.  But videogames can never be truly isolated, not as long as they have players.  Players are the breach, the wound, the endless crisis at the heart of the fantasy we call objectivity.  Their irrepressible subjectivity cannot help but be in conversation with the world.  Not a world of objective facts but of perceptions, beliefs, desires – a world of other subjectivities.  A world of other worlds.

Owning your game experiences thus means listening to yourself – your breach, your wound, your crisis – and coming to better know yourself as a player.  Where you come from.  What you value.  How you are.  It means playing in that knowledge, more aware of your particular existence in a world, virtual or otherwise.

But let’s be real about the stakes here.  Subjectivity is all well and good until someone else’s subjectivity comes along and shits on something you love.  Subjectivity means difference, and difference threatens.  To truly own your subjectivity is to recognize the equally valid subjectivity of others, but the disparity this admits is inherently fraught.  We so often talk about diversity as if it’s all about inclusivity and our colorful array of differences, as in a certain coke commercial.  But our differences are not shallow, papering over some deep universal subjectivity.  That is just another version of objectivity, one that would treat individual subjectivity as incidental, a mere detail, instead of the main event that it is.

When differences inevitably arise and favorite games are attacked, many critics like to question why players get so upset in the first place (at least until their own favorites are on the chopping block).  They feign bafflement at such personal identification and act as if being critical while simultaneously loving a game is some magical formula for gaming enlightenment.  But players are not wrong to care, and a cultivated distance is not the solution to the problem of loving videogames.  This is yet another preemptive flight into objectivity, and a misunderstanding of the personal roots of criticism itself.  A desperate truce between gaming love and gaming criticism neuters both and avoids the real questions posed by videogames.  It is but a temporary cease-fire masquerading as maturity, a renewed commitment to the steady-state of mild engagement, seeking comfort instead of challenge, preservation rather than riot.

No, actually dealing with difference is hard, and necessarily so.  It requires not cool heads and muted zeal but honest engagement, sincerity and vulnerability, the possibility of being wrong, of having to change.  It requires genuine curiosity and courage.  Ask yourself: How much do you really want to hear about another’s experience?  Especially if it’s completely different than yours.  What if it suggests yours is incomplete or misguided or simply wrong?  Can your experience itself be wrong?  Would it then still be yours?  Would you want it to be?

It’s so tempting to stop short.  Owning your experiences means owning their difference, and the resulting conflict with others is not some regrettable byproduct to be waved away.  Being a person among persons brings real strife, but when we reach for a premature peace, for the shallow understanding of agreeing to disagree, for the desperate conclusion of staying positive at all costs, we fail to engage the true differences of others.  Negativity in particular must not be downplayed or ignored; it needs to be allowed in and owned as well.  And in videogameland, there is certainly plenty to feel negative about.

This past year has seen an existential crisis in gaming that has been both painful and profound.  But Gamergate didn’t arise out of nowhere last August.  It had been building for years, bolstered by the increasing dominance of social media that no one seems to understand, reinforced by a timid games press and an industry whose values still flatter a subset of narrowly-defined gamers.  And this crisis will not pass with the reduction of its most grievous effects.  For the existential art of videogames will continue asking fundamental questions of its players: Who will you play as?  Whose subjectivity matters?  And who are you, player?  As games diversify and more players step forward, these questions become more urgent than ever.  Yet many deny that such questions even matter.

What has erupted into fuller view this past year is certainly dangerous and ugly.  The harassment is real, the sexism is real, the threats are real.  But the misery, the rage, the ignorance that can dominate our existence – these are real too.  It’s tempting to want to pin it all squarely on ‘others’, kick it under the bed, and get back to ‘loving videogames’.  But the business as usual of gaming isn’t good enough.  It never was.  We must instead face ourselves as players.  Our own misery and rage.  Our ignorance too.  For the image of the gamer that has emerged from this crisis, one that so happens to confirm the worst stereotypes, is radically incomplete.  The loudest and nastiest Gamergaters simply don’t get to speak for all gamers.  Or define what the word ‘gamer’ even means.  If we are to admit that gamers do not know themselves, then we should also admit something else: that we do not know gamers.  And gamers are worth knowing.




My grandfather played golf every day he could.  Once he retired, this meant every day.  He had worked for decades as an insurance claims adjustor, raised six children, and never had much money.  He was a big-hearted family man at home, but out there, on the greens, he was another self, in another world.  The noise of life fell away for a few hours.  He was focused, calm, present.  He was a player.  He played against each hole, against the landscape, sometimes against others, always against himself.  He played every day until the pain in his legs became unbearable, but even in his final year, he was hopeful that his health would turn around, that he would have another chance out on the fairways, that another game still lay ahead of him.

A few months before he died, I asked him how he felt not being able to go out there like before.  “Aw hell,” he said and trailed off.  A little later he leaned in, “You know, Tev baby, it’s hard to explain.  But it made sense out there.  I’d look at the course – the grass, the trees, the sky, the flag down yonder.  The whole thing.  Goddamnit, it was clear.”  When he was buried last year at 91, the lid of his vault was covered with the landscape of an unplayed hole.  The putting green was perfectly cut, and a lonesome flag stood off-center.  This made me cry more than anything else.  To see what he loved was to see him.

I wonder how well we ever see each other.  I wonder how well we ever see ourselves.  I worry that our love cannot find expression, that it cannot be spoken and truly shared.  That it certainly cannot survive online, in fragments, among strangers.

Desert Golfing found me at a particular time, in a particular place, as every game does.  It felt the most lifelike last fall: continuous, accumulative, implacable.  But also distilled and tangible, there in my hand.  Each hole was a situation, a jagged story-line, and there were thousands of them.  This modest videogame, it made sense.  It was clear.

There were other games that resonated with me last year – 80 Days, With Those We Love Alive, Left Behind.  They drew me into another mode of being, into a brief, flickering existence not unlike my own, here on the outside.  Each was alive with a humanity that the games I hated most – brutal Shadow of Mordor, callous Far Cry 4, monstrous Ground Zeroes – so clearly lacked.  Even a game nominally concerned with the fate of mankind, Destiny, couldn’t muster the least bit of humanity worth saving.  What is meant to resonate in the end?  What is worth fighting for?  Destiny, the half-billion dollar charade, that shameless game with the most presumptuous name, is the kind of game that makes me despair, briefly, for all videogames.

But this doesn’t have to be our destiny.  So much more of this is up to us, the players, than we want to admit.  It’s so hard to truly own our experiences.  “I hate this game but I can’t stop playing!” Actually, you can.  You can stop anytime.  And when you do play, there are so many more ways than we regularly allow.  The common gaming metaphors of addiction and dysfunctional relationships and mindless busywork and sad, sad fantasies do no justice to the diversity of our actual game experiences.  They tell us more about the limits we put upon games, and upon ourselves, than anything else.

Even the games I dislike contain multitudes.  We play the same games, but our experiences are not the same.  I’ve read powerful accounts of impossible love in Dragon Age: Inquisition, though my own affairs were far more mundane.  And I know there are compelling tales still being told between guardians in Destiny.  Even I occasionally ponder the clumsy, desperate war of attrition I waged against a spidertank with two strangers in a Russian cosmodrome.

The existential art of videogames requires no qualification or agreement.  It requires no consistency either, no definitions to be tested or validated.  The world of games is wide, and those that have roused me most so far this year have no common method or ideology.  The vibrant maze-walking of Ramble Planet, the meticulous mess of Splatoon, the phenomenological bullet fields of Jamestown+, the steady hand of Three Fourths Home.  And my two very favorite games couldn’t be more different.  Rocket League does what videogames have long done so well: it gives me a spry virtual body and a field in which to extend myself.  At first clumsily, then with greater finesse, always with gusto.  The Witcher 3 does what few games have ever done well: it invests an open world with generous writing and patient storytelling.  With a humanity and tenderness and attention to detail that makes its hard lives and dark myths feel lived-in and true.

There is dignity to these games.  There is room to breathe, to dwell, to unfurl my many selves and play them out.  They provoke in me uncanny lulls and moments of reflection.  Waiting downfield in Rocket League, watching the mad scramble of distant cars, searching for the right instant to boost towards the goal, fling myself into the air, give the ball that final nudge.  And then letting that instant pass.  Or a world away, riding hard into a Velen storm and remembering a dead village boy named Skjall.  Another game would hardly concern itself with the lost honor and ruined name of such a minor character, but The Witcher 3 cares as much for its village folk as for its heroes.  I am thinking about his brief life, loosening the reigns, gazing into the restless landscape.  The light on the water.  The wind in the trees.

And yet, I can still hear that voice lurking somewhere near, creeping up in moments of doubt.  It’s just a game, it says.  Just a game.  It’s the same voice that says: It’s just your opinion.  Or: You’re just one person, just some rando.  But our games, our experiences, our persons are never justJust is the language of diminishment.  It is drawn from the same casual cruelty as that awful word, rando.  Both seek reduction, dismissal.  Where in such words is there any room for a person?  For our particular existence?  For dignity?

There is often a lightness to playing videogames, it’s true.  But games are never just that.  Their lightness is in fact part of their power.  For life itself is too much to bear.  We cannot grasp our existence directly.  We cannot look at reality straight.  But videogames cut the intimacy of interaction with the distance of art.  They give us truth but give it slant.  And we are grateful for that.

Even in their lightest moments, videogames offer no escape from reality.  For what escape can be had?  There’s no escaping life, no escaping ourselves, no escaping the end that is coming for us. But if videogames cannot offer an escape from reality, what they can offer is an escape further into reality.  Into the reality of striving and failure, of mastery and mystery, of lives and ends.  Into the reality of ourselves.  How far are you willing to go?  Our experiences are fugitive but no less real for that.  It is our very sense of reality being challenged the further into the virtual we go.  That tree, that wind, that water, that light – none of it’s really there, I know.  Except that it is.  Because it is finally the reality of my experience that videogames take me into anew.

Where can I go?  What can I do?  These first videogame questions scare us.  They are a provocation, a chance for revelation, a plea.  And they pose a challenge to our very existence.  Because we can’t go everywhere.  Because we can’t do everything.  Because we live in time.  We know that one day our controller won’t respond.  One day our screen will go dark.  One day our hands and eyes will stop.  But for now – right now – our world is still happening.  We can go somewhere.  We can do something.  Because we are still happening.  Because we are alive.


~ Tevis Thompson

August 19th, 2015

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