The following article is one of many published in a series on “escape.” You can find out more about the project and articles similar to this one here.
It’s easy to dismiss video games as shallow escapes from reality. The experiences games offer are low-stakes imitations of life’s most visceral and significant experiences: killing, dying, marrying, creating, destroying. A virtual setting is incapable of profoundly affecting the gamer. In-game dying involves no pain and is soon remedied by a save file. NPCs can imitate, but never replace, real human interactions. Games try to capture “realism,” but even a generous suspension of disbelief cannot overcome the basic unimportance of the virtual world; it’s just a game. The gap between the gamer and the avatar and the non-reality of virtual worlds render virtual experiences trivial, even hollow, compared to the real-life analogs. Thus, people are quick to dismiss games as shallow substitutes for real experiences.
But gaming’s significance lies precisely in its distance and triviality. Life is hard and gives no do-overs (permadeath=on). Games offer a low-stakes alternative. They relax the pressures of life. This relaxation allows people to explore their ideal selves, to behave as they want to behave despite the often-overwhelming realities of life. How would we behave if we weren’t afraid of pain? Of shame? If we could defy the state? Escape from reality’s unrelenting pressures allows self-exploration.
You might think a lack of consequences would result in terrible behavior. Games like Grand Theft Auto see players carelessly performing immoral acts. But other games, more story-driven games, see players engaging with the world and NPCs in strikingly principled ways. For instance, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead confronts players with numerous moral dilemmas. As a survivor in a zombie apocalypse, do you help fellow survivors at risk to yourself? The game records player choices, and the results show that players, on balance, prefer to make the moral choice, accepting risks to their avatars. Elsewhere, in Bioshock Infinite, the player is confronted with a choice: throw a baseball at the heads of an interracial couple to appease a crowd of rabid racists, or defy the crowd and risk death? Again, most players choose the moral path: don’t throw the baseball, face the danger. How many of us would have the courage to do that in a real situation?
Games create environments free from coercive external pressures. But it appears morality is often self-imposed. Freeing the gamer from the pressures of reality allows the gamer to explore his/her ideal self, someone indifferent to the dangers, unafraid to assert themselves.
But what do we make of these choices? In real life, people often wonder whether their actions have any meaning; it’s not always clear how one person’s actions affect the world around them. But in games, your choices matter. This is most evident in role-playing games (RPGs), but almost all games acknowledge the player’s importance. Even Minecraft, the video game equivalent of Lego, has a win condition, and Call of Duty multiplayer, although it has no story, has a system of achievements, vanity items and insignias, etc. These reward systems make player choices seem important. Obviously, there is an economic incentive for game designers to reward players. But designers’ economic incentives result in new experiential opportunities for players.
The ability to play into a narrative is particularly interesting. In RPGs and other games with strong plot elements, the player’s choices typically have clear consequences. Some games reward moral behavior, e.g. Dishonored, while other games present a trade-off, e.g. The Walking Dead. In the real world, moral choices often vanish into an impenetrably complex world without any apparent effect. The sun shines, and the rains fall, on the good and evil alike. Games which present clear consequences allow players to engage with both the initial choice to act morally and the consequences which follow. It’s a luxury not often afforded in the real world. In this way, games are like ethical thought experiments, taking moral dilemmas all the way to their conclusions. This is often not possible in the real world.
But at some level, this is all pretty obvious, isn’t it? Video games allow players to vicariously experience extraordinary events and enjoy normally unattainable levels of power. That’s their basic and transparent appeal. Doesn’t this talk about thought experiments, freedom of action, and ideal selves miss the point? The world isn’t ideal, and we still have to deal with it. Around the world, people, particularly young people, are isolating themselves from the real world to live as much as possible in virtual ones. Also, the existence of games like Grand Theft Auto throws a wrench into interpretations like the one above. Where is the value in cop-killing and virtual torture?
Briefly, I would suggest that vicarious living has great value. Ethical thought inherently includes adopting the perspectives of others. In acting in accordance with universal maxims, treating others as you would want to be treated, or however you choose to formulate ethical behavior, you create distance between your own situation to acknowledge the existence, importance, and wisdom of others. As vehicles for vicarious living, video games allow exercises in empathy.
Games which encourage immoral (or blatantly evil) behavior acknowledge the darker impulses in humanity. Such games have psychological benefits (“just blowing off steam”), but they also have the potential to inform us of the fullness of our beings. Above all, video games are storytelling devices; they tell us about ourselves and should not shrink from being honest and complete.
This has been a general and somewhat naïve account of video games. Even if it be conceded that video games allow exploration, the question remains: what help are video games in making that crucial step back into the real world? How do they affect us in real life? There is some psychological literature in that area. In this short account, I hope to have sketched the virtue of simple escape: away from distraction and coercion, we can discover ourselves.