Nice Guys, Stressed Ladies And The Things Video Games Let Them Do

A galpal and I are discussing video games over cocktails at a bar. Well, kind of. She's trying to tell me why she plays FarmVille, and in the course of the discussion I find out her life is a mess.

This new acquaintance of mine and I have recently bonded over our fondness for farming simulators. I'm trying to explain to her how my personal favourites, the Harvest Moon games – as much life simulators as farm simulators – are and aren't like her FarmVille favourite.

"It just feels really good to know that I'm on top of things," she tells me, chewing on her straw a little nervously as she explains why she's so into FarmVille. "I like to know my farm is in good shape and, like, everyone can see it."

I know the feeling; our motivations seem similar. I get really into Harvest Moon's evolving, character-based chronology. The act of progression is satisfying. You build your farm in a village of others who become your friends as you watch them fall in love, marry and participate in seasonal festivals. You yourself are a character who can choose a husband (or wife, if you're playing as a boy) and have a baby, family pets and a home that you can upgrade.

Rosie (not her real name) is a FarmVille junkie like millions of others. She's probably poured as many hours into her Facebook farm as I have into my Nintendo DS one. "It makes me feel like I have my shit together," she tells me after a pause.

But the way she tells me this is funny; she looks a little furtively around her, speaks a little bit softly. Guiltily, even.

I ask her, "You don't have your shit together?"

Silence.

Farm Junkies In The Facebook Era

Rosie and I aren't close, and it's uncomfortable for her to reveal the anxiety she feels about being unemployed. Especially in the Facebook era, where she alludes to a sense of insecurity that old classmates from her alma mater, or friends of her mother's, are continually privy to a social profile she considers unimpressive. She doesn't like how she looks in tagged photos.

She baulks at admitting that her status as a "total FarmVille addict", as she describes it, is a reaction to the sense of helplessness she feels in the exposed world of social networking – but I suspect I might have hit on something by the way she can't meet my eyes.

I am twenty-something, old enough not to want to specify the "something". I am aware of the passage of time and hypercritical of my ability to balance work, play and home life. I don't often think about why I play video games like Harvest Moon – to me, they've always been a way to unplug from the common pressures of living; most people, to some extent, use video games as a form of distraction or escapism.

"Pete", The Nice Guy

Wondering if I'm onto something, I phone up an old friend - let's call him "Pete". Pete's a quintessential "nice guy". Shy and retiring, he'd never hurt a fly. He's the kind of guy who holds doors open for women, pulls out chairs. He quit a job he loved so that he could move back to his hometown and look after his sick mother. Seriously.

Of course, the old adage about nice guys finishing last is true for Pete. Despite his unfailing gentleness, he has trouble with girls. Time and time again, he's ended up relegated to the "friend zone" while some big jerk swipes his crush. I remembered playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City with him when we lived in the same city, and feeling like his enthusiasm for crashing cars and shooting pedestrians felt just slightly out of character.

I ring him up to see how he's doing, and rather than explain that I'm kicking around an article about coping mechanisms, I just tell him I'm exploring people's most common gameplay behaviours. I ask him if he still plays GTA – he says he's played every iteration since Vice City, pretty much. I ask him what his favourite things to do in the game worlds are.

"I kinda make up these weird story things," he says, a little sheepishly. "Yeah, I think they're funny – like, I pretend I'm shooting a movie and then I have the characters do all this random shit that has nothing to do with the game."

Like what?

"Like… I'll pick up a whore and do it with her and then I'll drive the car off a cliff or something."

Or something?

"Or like, I'll drive around until she freaks out and bails, and then I'll chase her down and beat her and get my money back," Pete says. The way he laughs nervously is kind of unlike him.

He continues: "One time I drove a prostitute to my girlfriend's house [in GTA: San Andreas]and when she jumped out in the chick's driveway I beat her to death with the pink dildo, and then I gave it to my girlfriend as a present." Laughs. "She loved it. It was hilarious."

I get psychoanalytical again; I ask if he resents women, or resents his nice guy status, and if he's acting out these feelings through the game. I expect the same kind of embarrassed dismissal that Rosie gave me. Instead, Pete gives a strangely bitter laugh and tells me frankly, "Probably."

Control Freak

I think of Rosie's latent emotionality about FarmVille and Pete's repressed anger, and figure I should turn the lens inward a bit and think about the way I play Harvest Moon. In contrast to my real life, I am eager for time to pass in the world; I like the opportunities for new crops and new festivals that the changing seasons bring. Unlike my real life, I find it a burden to go out and socialise with the game's villagers, as one must do to gain certain perks of their friendship. I am obsessive about hoarding money (in real life it burns a hole in my pocket), and compulsive about removing weeds and stones from my garden (in real life, I can't be bothered to do dishes more than once a week).

I'm not living as myself in Harvest Moon; I'm not projecting a "fantasy life", as the series has often advertised. In fact, I'm using the repetitious organisational tasks within the game as a counter-measure to real-world activities. I'm not using the game for escapism. I'm using it for a sense of control.

Except one uncomfortable parallel: When playing Harvest Moon, I always choose the most unattainable, reticent bachelor. Time after time, I marry the mean ones. The game mechanic requires you to win over your future husband by regularly approaching them with gifts. I elect not to disclose some of my past dating habits here.

I tell Pete this, when I'm explaining to him all about the real nature of my article, asking his permission to write candidly (if pseudonymously) about him, and he was all for it. In fact, he seemed surprised that I'd address the topic.

"Doesn't everyone use games as a coping mechanism? You're gonna get a million comments saying, 'duh'," he suggested, only half-joking.

He says: "You really only pursue the jerks in that farm game?"

Yeah.

He laughs, "You're so totally the kind of girl that makes me beat women in GTA."

I don't think it's really that funny. But Pete really is a nice guy. That's his idea of a joke.

[ Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]


Comments

    This makes perfect sense. It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if it were absolutely true but I think it's also dangerous to think of it as the only reason people play games.

    I mostly play games for stories. I'm hopelessly addicted to stories in any medium and a good one will draw me in completely.

    Being a better or a different me might play a part in my choice to game but it's nowhere near the whole story.

    Well, it's nice to know I'm not the only 'Pete' out there who plays GTA that way.

    I know I'd not be alive now without games. They saw me through the worst of my depression and are presently helping me cope with the death of my sister last week.

    Games have always given you a sense of control, usually because they're designed for you to actually win (arcade bullet curtain shooters are obviously not designed this way) or have a continual string of success and the fact that success is actually possible is always in the back of your mind and are often more realistic goals than the ones you set outside of a game. "I can do this, I can beat up the Joker at the end of Arkham Asylum" is far more psychologically healthy than "I can totally score with Summer Glau". The fact that Arkham Asylum is specifically designed for you to win whereas Summer Glau is, rather rudely, NOT manages to keep the goal realistic rather than flat out moronic.

    You could take this further and probably find their is a corelation between the type of game (or activity within the game) with the person's state of mind.

    Will people using gaming to escape change their patterns when life turns a corner - of course. While the 'kids' are playing the latest blockbuster for 10 minutes and throwing it away once they have their 1,000GS, the people like us are looking for parrallels or escapes from life to help re-affirm our own existences.

    The hardest question of all is simply - do I show this article to my partner and (potentially) open the floodgates to her or just go on like every other day and pretend I only play games for fun.

      Just for the record I showed her and she flipped out. Had to explain this was a state I've been in more than once in my gaming life - and not necessarily my current situation.

      We're now working through some early warning signs so we can work out when I'm going into my gaming shell and she'll help drag me out again.

      If only all psychology was this easy to a) diagnose and b) resolve. I just hope all escapist gamers are able to find someone to help them get past 'coping' and onto 'living'.

      Oh and keep gaming fun. If it ain't fun you aren't doing it right.

        If she flips out to much just turn the mirror back on her. Ask her way see watches and enjoys romantic comedies, what is her motivation for watching her favorite TV show.

    good article. looking back, i can't say i play to escape, though I love a good absorbing story, that's a sort of escape..?
    GTA DS, only GTA i played, i tried to play less cruelly, kill as few as possible, out run the police, etc. And i mostly play when I'm feeling stable as i get over it quickly if I'm upset in any way.

    this was awesome!! .... great article

    The control I have in video games and the perfection I can achieve is so very satisfying, in my own life I cant control a lot, everythings done for me and I mostly live on cruise control. Playing through the game until I can ace it, Knowing every option, every scenario and beating it so completely is awesome to me.

    Eg. Skate 2, replaying a spot for up to 3 or 4 hours and getting it down pat. Or missions in COD, playing through them over and over until I know I mastered it.

    aha it seems pathetic reading that but its entertaining too.. so yeah :)

      Very good point Alex.

      I remember way back when the first Tony Hawk games came out, I would spend ages working out increasingly complex lines, trying to work out just how far you could take it. Pulling off a seemingly impossible run after hours of trying and seeing the massive score that would result from it could be very satisfying.

      I guess, unlike real life, we can choose our challenges, and then try them over and over again until we succeed...

    A great read - very interesting and insightful. I've often analysed my own reasons for playing games, but for me it seems to either come down to enjoying the challenge or enjoying the fiction.

    One thing about the section on Pete, though - it should be noted that prostitutes are the only non-allied game characters you can get into a car willingly, so things like driving one off a cliff may not necessarily be about his attitude to women... (plenty of people find that doing creatively nasty things to the game's civilians can often be hilarious, but the gender & occupation of the people is not necessarily relevant - the humour usually comes from the extreme nature of the act itself, and the typically unrealistic/improbable/absurd outcome that results from limitations of the technology)

    As Pete said: "I beat her to death with the pink dildo, and then I gave it to my girlfriend as a present. She loved it. It was hilarious."

    Having played San Andreas, I laughed my ass of when I read this - but I'd argue that it's funny because a) he beat someone to death with a giant pink dildo (as I recall, it's ludicrously huge) and b) his girlfriend reacted positively to being given a murder weapon. (which are both absurdities due to the freedoms and limitations of the game, respectively)

    I'm not saying that he definitely isn't using them to act out his frustrations, he may very well be (if he doesn't find driving a male civilian off a cliff as funny as it is when its a woman, then I'd agree), I'm simply pointing out that the limitations of the game also limit how much you can read into someone's behaviour within that space.

    Great article, nevertheless :)

    I kind of worry about guys like Pete. Coping mechanisms are one thing, and repressed anger towards women is another. It's the reverse of the "violent games make people violent" thing. GTA doesn't make people hate women, people who hate women get off on play-acting their fantasy in GTA (let me be clear that I'm not saying all GTA players are like that, by a long way, just that GTA can be a convenient outlet for people with those kind of issues).

    Games as coping mechanism, though, is healthy, and I agree with Aliasalpha... one of the best things about games as coping mechanism is they are designed to be beatable, to have achievements you can actually reach if you so desire.

    This would be the time for me to thank the original Diablo for being such a marvellous distraction at one of the lowest points in my life.

    I'm curious whether playing games as a form of escape begins at a certain age.

    As children, did we escape with our imaginations rather than video games? Are we pre-disposed to want to escape in this way? Are there personality types of people who do this more than others? and what are the circumstances of these behaviours?

    Interesting read... got me thinking.

    Andrew

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