Following the rules and doing what I'm 'supposed' to do in life are troublesome ideas to me. I'm supposed to acquire a comfortable career path that lands me a nice house with a white picket fence, a husband and a couple of kids?
Pursuing that manicured lifestyle requires certain drone-like beliefs. For instance, there is the idea that we have little choice in life if we want to be successful. There are also particular skills that are deemed crucial in the pursuit of success, such as skills necessary for office life. Maybe I'm a hopeless romantic, but that lifestyle sounds disturbingly neat, disgustingly sterile. I've tried living in a way that combats these 'perfect' ideals, but I feel that many of the popular games I play reinforce the idea that I am just a cog in the machine meant to live a complacent, meaningless life where I have little choice in what I do and why I do it.
Sometimes, I observe my friend playing Skyrim. I watch her play Skyrim, because I can't play Skyrim myself anymore, but I'd like to understand why others do. I originally had fallen to the hype — the incessant clamor that described Skyrim as The Next Best Thing — and bought it on day one. I spent forever creating my character — from the contours of her face to determining the intricacies of her skills — because I was convinced of her potential. I had high hopes for her: she had a vast, exciting world in front of her that she was ready to domineer. She was, after all, in very capable hands.
My excitement was rooted in the minutiae of Skyrim mechanics. The new skill system meant that I was not as deterred by background, since I was allowed to develop my abilities however I saw fit. The idea that race determined some innate proficiencies as well as intrinsic ineptitude troubled me, but the major determinant to my success was the time and dedication put into refining my talents. Contrast to my reality — where my race, sex and gender alone have dictated many things beyond my control, such as my reproductive rights, my education and the opportunities available to me growing up.
In Skyrim, the promise was that if I worked for something hard enough, the skill would naturally level up, regardless of class. This reminded me a bit of Malcolm Gladwell's ideas about success, described in his book, Outliers: if you put enough time (10,000 hours) and effort into something, then success is guaranteed. Looking at the stories behind high-profile groups and figures, such as the Beatles and Bill Gates, that's the constant between them: they all put 10,000 hours into their craft. There's asterisks, of course: they all had the right conditions and just enough luck to pursue their dreams, and they tended to be of, err, privileged backgrounds, but that sort of thing isn't an issue in Skyrim.
Skyrim promised me the oft-peddled and largely untrue myth of being able to pull myself up by my bootstraps, and it while it delivered on that promise, what I found myself doing was often depressingly meaningless and rote. Quests. A thousand quests, each broken down so specifically that I never had to think about what I was doing. Just follow the instructions, the quest marker to the latest inane chore that I had difficulty pulling myself away from for some reason.
I stopped playing after losing a few largely pointless, unfulfilling — but addictive — days to the game. I told myself I probably just wasn't in the right mindset to find Skyrim meaningful, which was strange to think about since it's not as if it wasn't engrossing. It was difficult to explain, then.
My friend kept playing, though — almost every day, for months. Most people I knew did the same. I didn't get it, but I became determined to understand. I asked her why she kept playing despite most of it seeming like busywork, and this question was met with a shrug. I asked her why she spent hours crafting armour despite not actively working towards anything, and she had no idea. I would ask her why she was undertaking a quest that day, and there was never a particular reason.
I remarked that watching her play was like seeing her check things off a to-do list, taking cues from how organised she tended to be in real life. Suddenly the robotic gaze enveloped in the world of Skyrim broke free of the glow of the screen. "That's exactly it," she said. "I like feeling like I'm checking things off a to-do list. I feel like I can take charge of my responsibilities and that's comforting."
I spoke to another friend, one who can be understood to be a "suit". We're talking about the type of guy who laughs when you say he's "sold out" because he considers himself one of the people who has helped make "the system" that one hypothetically sells out to in the first place. He told me how, in his world, projects are divided into tasks, milestones and resources meant to create a critical path toward project completion — "this," he explains, "is called a project management tool."
Management. I was doing a lot of task-management, wasn't I? The quest menu, like a digital "IN" box that was perpetually full....only there was no "OUT" box. Suddenly the discomfort I felt with the endless array of quests detailing step by step what I had to do, which continually regenerated as a means to keep me lost in the icy void of Skyrim's world, made sense. Suddenly it all felt a little sinister, a little sickening — especially when you consider that the regenerating quest system, a part of the "Radiant Quest' mechanic in Skyrim, is a feature meant to keep you hooked to the game.
I recalled the 9-5 job, I had office a few years back. I was playing Battlefield Bad Company 2 nightly then, obsessed with mastering large-scale warfare. Every day, I made the mind-numbing commute to my office; every night, the barrel of a gun guided me forward in the arid Atacama desert. Back in the office, the day-to-day always felt meaningless and unfruitful. Cubicles brimming with unfulfilled workers who didn't know what they were doing there, or how they got there at best. At worst, they were there solely because it provided a pay cheque. It was well-managed rote, but it was a job. "If you don't think about it very much," my co-worker tried to reassure me, "maybe it could even be fun!"
In some ways, there didn't seem to be that big of a split between my work-day and my playtime. The line between "work" and "fun" was fluider than I'd like to admit — it still is. I was repeating the same actions, over and over again, with no gain whatsoever. Superiors wouldn't notice discrepancies in the Excel sheets, if they were even read, but I had to keep writing them anyway. They'd give us promises of raises, of awards, of recognition. In Battlefield, there were systems on top of the game itself, meant to keep me chained to the game: ribbons, levels, experience points.
I had wrung everything I could possibly get from the game itself about 10 hours in, similar to how I had learned everything I was going to learn from that job about a week in. Yet there I was, hours and hours of playtime (297), doing the same thing. Why do any of us play a game well after it has anything substantial to offer us, or worse, pay money to scrape up an excuse to do the same things again with a slightly new coat of paint?
Games as services, built entirely around the idea of keeping us coming back for more of the same — that is the ‘service' — are the future, I'm told. And you can't put "FOUR HOURS OF MEANINGFUL GAMEPLAY, EVERYTHING AFTER IS REPETITION!!!" on the back of a box, now can we? That wouldn't sell well. Plus we we eat up everything after that ‘meaningful gameplay,' anyway. Games are good at keeping us engaged despite offering little meaningful or new, just like a secure job is good at keeping its unhappy workers drudging. I still know people playing Bad Company 2, and I know people still working at that office. The office workers tell me they have no choice, that they've sacrificed their dreams because security is more important. Others would tell me there was no reason to look for something better, that menial job was good enough.
My friends tried getting me into Rift. I'd never played an MMO before, they seemed largely uninteresting to me, but Rift marketed itself on how different it was from World of Warcraft. That ethos is expressed in the name itself: Rift, but also, similarly to Skyrim, in the class system. I was allowed to mix and match different classes to create my own special one. My friends and I ran around closing the many, many Rifts plaguing Telara, which threatened to....something. It didn't really matter why I was there, playing the game was largely an excuse to be social with a few friends. Eventually, though, we couldn't just charge forward. The newest boss in our way was beyond our level, and we had to grind. So I hunkered down, put on some music whose only purpose was to help me zone out, and grinded. When I got up, about a month of my life had vanished. Just, gone.
I started out wanting to gain enough aptitude to defeat a boss, and sure, I overthrew him fine, but not well enough. The annihilation wasn't total, it wasn't absolute. I had to try harder than I thought I needed to. My imperative, then, became making things easier for myself. Grinding would allow me to glide through obstacles with ease, with minimal thought to where I was going and what I was doing. All the enemies were dealt with the same way: click, dead, click, dead. I think I was happy with that, with not having to try.
I have a close friend. Had? I'm not sure. Thing is, I try to push people to do something with their lives, to lead a life worth living. Sometimes, that can be jarring — it's not that I want to lead people's lives for them, but I'm adamant about making sure I surround myself with people who are like-minded. After a long stream of unfortunate events, this friend found himself penniless, living in his parents home without a job or a future. Once, he had a dream. He wanted to have his own game studio, he wanted to make triple-A games. He had ideas, ambition, drive. That all disappeared with the stifling, deadening air of depression. Years have gone by, and there he is, still. Living in that same town, not doing much with his life. "You need to go out there and do things. Let me help you. You have so much to offer the world," I would tell him. "What's the point? What if I don't really want to do anything ‘meaningful,' what if I'm happy exactly where I am? Why try?" he would ask me.
I stopped playing Rift.
I've never wanted to take up a typical six-figure profession, much to the chagrin of my parents. That's what they sent me to college to do, to get a job and have the life they could never have. The expectation was law school, business school — something useful, something with promise. They were flabbergasted at my pay cheques while at college: how could I possibly be making less than they were? There are no room for dreams. If there were, I'd have been abandoned by a wide-eyed single mother who wasn't planning on having a child at fifteen. Instead, sacrifice. For me, for my future! Many times while at college, I've wanted to drop out. There was nothing I could see myself doing that would necessitate me staying there, especially with how unhappy it made me. How dare I, selfish brat, throw away the future so meticulously planned for me?
I was supposed to be out there, doing something with myself, saving the world maybe, but instead I was...writing useless papers? I, too, developed a mental illness. I would tell people that I couldn't do it, I couldn't finish, it was killing me. 'You're so close! Just finish!' they would say. Why wasn't I treating it like a game, where you grind — something nobody really likes, but we all do because we don't have a choice — in order to get what you want? Turn my brain off, shut up and 'just do it' to better cope, eventually I'd get that sweet, sweet reward — levels, items, a diploma. Everyone does things they don't like, that's an integral part of life.
"You think I like going to work and scrubbing toilets every day? " my mother growls, "I don't. I'm doing it so I can send my snot-faced kid to school, and she doesn't even appreciate it."
Sometimes, I'd ask my college friends why they were in school.
"Hah. What kind of a question is that?" "Shit, I don't know. I guess I had to." "My parents made me." "I'm not entirely sure, but this is what you're supposed to do...."
The idea that there was no choice involved in my life, that my future was practically decided for me, is exasperating. Imagine me, then, playing through Final Fantasy 13 and through LA Noire. Cole Phelps, ace detective in the latter game, is gunning for the top. He will rise through the ranks, he wants the prestige. Everything in the game serves toward that purpose: the propulsion of Cole's life, Cole's career. You are not allowed to fail — should you muck up an investigation or an interrogation, the game moves forward anyway. It's an existential crisis to play LA Noire: Cole has no choice, but he does have a destiny, and you can't fight that. The largely dead city of LA, almost an elaborate cardboard cutout, is only there to serve as a backdrop of your pre-determined life. LA is the box in which your career is meant to happen. The streets are full of cheerleader NPCs applauding you and your career forward, and the game feels as eerie as a permanent smile as a result. And then there was Final Fantasy, with its innovative class system that allowed you to swap roles on the fly, but still suffered from endless straight corridors. Long, gruelling paths that you could not deviate from until almost the very end of the game. Retirement is when you're allowed to do whatever you want, right?
I want to make choices — what we do in life is always a choice — I want to live a life worth living, I want purpose. I figure these are some of the fundamental ingredients toward approaching happiness. This desire for a worthwhile, meaningful life bleeds into games. I want them to mean something, stand for something or say something on top of being amusing to play. If I want to be bold in my demands, having both mechanical strength and thematic strength in games would be fantastic.
I want to brag more often about what a something taught me, made me feel, where it took me — something beyond the hours of gameplay a ‘good' title can offer me, something beyond what a pay cheque and security can give me. Games often don't come through because, to generalize, the design imperative seems to be to make players lose track of time, to get engulfed in repetition they can zone out to, and if done successfully, games can make you look past the fact that they didn't amount to much beyond how ‘addictive' and ‘fun' they were. And maybe that's OK for some people, just like some people think its enough to live unambitious, unassuming and comfortable lives.
It's not enough for me, though.
Patricia Hernandez is the editor-in-chief of Nightmare Mode, a site devoted to writing critically about games. She can be found on Twitter, typically ranting about SNSD, gifs and games, or emailed at patricia (at) nightmaremode (dot) net.