View from behind of young man in gaming chair

Games Are Good, but Not as Nice as the Real World

View from behind of young man in gaming chair

(Photo by Florian Olivo on Unsplash)

By Edward Booth

The video game industry performed quite well in 2020, and will likely reach new heights this year, as COVID-19 restrictions continue to compel people to stay home. As someone who’s played games throughout my life, the activity seems to gel perfectly with the current moment: Video games are fun, immersive and a joy to experience, especially during depressing or boring times. They give people the chance to forget, temporarily, the stresses of life. And they offer up alternate worlds where effort is rewarded, where a player can experience the satisfying thrum of progression, of gradual mastery, which might otherwise be absent from their lives.

I’ve long found bliss in playing Mario Bros. games, for example, partially because of my extensive familiarity with them. It feels nostalgically freeing to fire up my muscle memory and jump the famous red-suited plumber around the whimsical Mushroom Kingdom while squashing goofy evildoers, all to satisfying sound effects and catchy music.

Video games, of course, have traveled far beyond Mario Bros. in complexity and variety. Gaming today can be a highly social activity, and the presence of esports and streaming on platforms such as has grown considerably over the past decade.

Given the vast world of games that exist now, and the reasons why games are so incredibly popular right now, It was surprising to me how little appeal they’ve held for me during the pandemic.

My experience with games hasn’t been entirely positive. I wish I could say I explored the great variety gaming has to offer when I was younger and had more free time. But instead I mostly became stuck in rabbit holes, playing addictive multiplayer role-playing games such as Runescape or World of Warcraft, or competitive timesinks like League of Legends. These games were initially a lot of fun, but over the months of obsessive playing, I felt a growing pit in my stomach, an expanse of emptiness.

With each game, I’d eventually come to feel like I was wasting my life, that the only reason I devoted so much time to those games was because I’d been manipulated by their design. I can’t help but feel as if the absurd hours I spent playing each of them would’ve been better spent elsewhere, even on other games.

These games demanded a ridiculous time commitment and eventually became a part of my schedule. I had to devote at least an hour or two to them each day so that I could keep up with my fantasy goals. Progression became glacially slow, but I could never stop playing until I recognized the fun had been sidelined by obligation, a commitment that had slowly emerged and come to reside in the place where excitement and exploration had once been.

I realize that having an obligation to those games was appealing to me in itself because it provided a sense of development that never ended. I was insecure about my ability to live in the real world, to earn good enough grades and be a good enough worker — and to be a person others genuinely liked. As a result, I had spent much of my time enmeshed in a fantasy of progress where I, for at least a few months, had much stronger control of who I wanted to be.

But even with the negative side, games certainly helped me weather tough times. Mastering gameplay allowed me a sort of creative escape from the pressure of high school: It was a way for me to relax after a long day, sometimes with friends, and not feel constantly burdened by the endless barrage of homework and tests and grades that, I felt, determined my worth as a human being.

After falling down those addictive rabbit holes, I resolved to only play games that respected my time better. I experimented and found that I loved various indie games, story-based games, games that were experimental and multifaceted. I took a break from playing games, for the most part, while attending college and graduate school. But I always thought I’d be able to come back to gaming, even if it was out of a more detached interest.

At first, I thought it’d feel natural to ease back in. But though I’ve had some fun playing games these days, it hasn’t become an obsession again. I think the main reason for this is the importance I now attribute to the real world, depressing or mundane as it often is. I don’t wish to understate how important escaping reality can be for people, especially now. But the process of vanishing into video games has felt less and less psychologically necessary as I’ve grown older.

I still appreciate games quite a bit. Games gave me an opportunity to learn on my own terms. I developed analytical skills by obsessing about game design and narratives, and I often found them more interesting to think about than play. I’ll never forget the way “Bioshock,” for instance, brings alive the utopian project of an underwater city through environmental storytelling, by having the player explore the wreckage and listen to audio diaries recorded by residents when the Randian political ideals that guided the creation of the city were just beginning to falter.

My passion for English literature, my undergraduate major at UC Berkeley, came about because books began satisfying my interest in analyzing stories and storytelling better than games could.

My overreliance on addictive games stunted my growth as a person during high school and my ability to exist in the real world. Perhaps I didn’t feel passionate about school, or much of life, because I never gave it a chance to inspire me. I didn’t explore any other subject for long enough to see how interesting it could be, that video games weren’t giving me everything I needed.

Today, playing games is less satisfying because I’m aware of so much else. When I play many games these days, I can’t help but notice how I’m being psychologically manipulated by aspects of game design or monetization schemes. I’m also unable to clear my mind of thoughts about the exploitation of workers in the industry.

It can be a boon, at times, that video games are so tied to gameplay, that players often don’t need to pay attention to narratives or the humanity those narratives draw from. But I do have concerns about how often the narratives or premises of gameplay tend to avoid the real world, despite pulling from it for inspiration.

I’ve learned much about people and communities, about the real world I used to avoid, by becoming a local journalist. I was motivated to become a reporter primarily for this purpose: I used to feel that tangible reality — including the perspectives and emotions of real people — was passing me by while I sat in my room reading books. And literature, inspired by history and systems of reality as it is, gave me a desire to know the real world in a way that gaming never has.

Now, back in my room, I can’t forget the real world, even if life as usual remains frozen beneath COVID-19 restrictions. Perhaps I’ll need the escapism of gaming again in the future. But at the end of the day, I want to keep in touch with how life is being experienced by people other than myself. Life doesn’t feel full otherwise.

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