In Real Life

How Video Game Deaths Help Us Live

“Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result,” wrote Winston Churchill, in The Story of the Malakand Field Force in 1898.

The thrill of survival in the face of danger is so satisfying and scary that we recreate it in a thousand ways, among them the adrenaline-pumping sensations provided by video games. The cleverest, most sophisticated pastimes we have yet devised give us the means to simulate or even invent new forms of terror and release in the midst of every kind of danger and the threat of an imaginary doom. Beyond this, I would argue, games are designed to produce for us not only the thrill of danger and survival, but the ecstasy of reincarnation. They bring us through death, and to the other side.

I want more LIFE, fu**ker, is what Roy Batty says to Tyrell in the versions of Blade Runner that I prefer. In this movie, Batty, played by Rutger Hauer, is a biorobotic creature who has run great risks to confront his own inventor, Tyrell; it’s the allegory of what a man would say if he could speak to the God who created him. In the movie, an apologetic Tyrell explains that he cannot, alas, offer the furious Batty more life, because of this and that flaw in the design, there are insuperable obstacles, he’s tried, he can’t. And Batty gets so mad, that, well…

But in the world of games our desire for more life is satisfied in a never-ending flood. We can die a million deaths and come back unscathed after each one; just push this button.

An old-fashioned Super Mario Bros death | Mongo’s Mania

Games have changed a great deal in this respect; for one thing, GAME OVER used to be a much costlier affair. In the 8-bit days, death meant losing all your character’s attributes, all his jewels, coins, weapons and experiences. It was in some ways like real-life death (or maybe the Buddhist version of it.) You were forced to start over absolutely, from nothing. There was a certain Puritanical satisfaction in this hard reality, I must say. You must learn your lesson, the game’s underlying message seemed to suggest. There is no free ride for you, not ever. (Human ingenuity being what it is, there were, and are, a number of ways to foil the unpleasant consequences of total 8-bit doom. For example, there’s this gang of modern NES enthusiasts I know at Oberlin College who recently kept a single game of Super Mario Brothers 3 going uninterrupted for over a month, and came in the fullness of time to taste the joys of the eighth world. World without end, amen.)

There was, though — there is — no real terror in game-death, or nothing very comparable to the terror we feel at the prospect of complete annihilation. And in the modern game, even less so.

The deadly risks, the need for valour and daring, the hair’s-breadth deliverance; these attributes are all still there, but today’s games keep you alive for a lot longer, and the cost of death in general has become relatively slight. Your progress may entitle you to reenter the world at a way advanced level; long investment in a role-playing game is rewarded with a richly developed character that may persist for months or years. The underlying logic of newer games is in balancing the thrill of escaping danger and dismemberment with various other complications in the gameplay, with aspects of exploration and literary elements that provide not just the adrenaline spikes of a shooter game, but permit the player to give rein to a range of more complex intellectual pleasures, to curiosity and narrative appetite. Increasingly, the game is more than a question of win/lose; it’s more and more like a dream, a totally immersive fantasy.

This desire for complexity is well served by the semi-death in the modern game, where the player retains certain artefacts or experiences from his former life. But there’s another way of looking at it, too. The retention of assets from previous incarnations mirrors the way we make and remake ourselves in waking life. My friend Kip Hampton put this well. “In your life, when everything crashes and burns, you aren’t rebuilding from scratch. Even though it feels like death when you have to put the world as you knew it aside and reinvent yourself, it’s not a true death, because you carry your knowledge and experience along with you.”

A modern rewindable Braid death | Official Braid site

This ultimately means that there is more and more to learn about the world and about ourselves as we play. For example, there was little opportunity to explore ethical questions in the early games. Nowadays the player may find himself in all sorts of interesting quandaries such as those posed by the designers of Fallout 3, a game which permits players to achieve success through either evil or noble behaviour. Kip says that he went through the game a first time, identifying as the hero, and then set out to play a second round from the other side; he found to his surprise that even in play, he couldn’t force himself to push the nuclear button and destroy a whole city, with its thousands of imaginary innocents.

Other players, of course, may have no such qualms, or may have them only now and then. And maybe the deliberate, imaginary satisfaction of our craziest, most random, bloodiest and most irrational impulses, too, has its uses.

I am rather afraid of heights, and one evening I was discussing this irrational fear over dinner with our friend Jake, who this amazingly doughty, worldly, fearless-seeming guy who used to run a safari company in Kenya. And it turned out that he, too, is really scared of heights. So I shared with him my theory as to the reason for the fear, which is as follows. When you are standing on the edge and looking down, there is some part of you, a tiny part, that is wondering what it would feel like to fall; that is actively imagining falling. And then, there is a part of you, just a very tiny little bit, that is absolutely longing to try it. What you really fear is that the rest of you will act on that microscopic impulse, listen to that bitty little maniac in there…

“Stop it!” Jake roared in a panic. “Stop it I am going to climb on this table and jump off it RIGHT NOW.”

Maybe that’s ultimately just what gaming is for, to give us the thrill without the cost, to satisfy the urge to risk everything, anything, to fall, to drown and burn, to kill and be killed, to explore the dark corners of our own minds, to expiate the sins in our deepest and most frightening part.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.