The Value of Video Games

“Gamer” isn’t exactly the most prestigious of titles.  The word instantly seems to conjure up the image of a pimply teenage boy, face bathed in the sickly white glow of a computer screen, locked in his room on a beautifully sunny day.  Video games themselves also get a bad rap, blamed for everything from antisocial children to violent adults.  Despite all this bad press, however, I don’t hesitate to call myself a gamer (albeit a casual one), and want to work in the video games industry as a storywriter at some point in my life.  Why, though?  Why would I support and aspire to work in an industry that seems to do so little good?

First off, video games are just fun.  There’s something undeniably exciting about playing a game that’s well-designed and compelling.  Action and aesthetics are both engaging on their own.  Their combination, which can be seen in today’s video games, is wonderfully entertaining.  That fun, for me at least, is irresistible.

Second, video games manage, in a way no other mode of entertainment can, to instill a sense of accomplishment in us.  Plot-based games such as The Elder Scrolls or Call of Duty gradually get harder as we get better at them, ensuring that the games difficultly matches our experience.  Online games such as League of Legends or DOTA 2, where the action is based around player-versus-player competition, matches gamers based on experience and ability, so that no player is ever thrust into an unending series of games they can’t win.  No matter the game, players are immediately allowed to succeed, and those successes feel meaningful within the context of the game.  Because of this, it should come as no surprise that playing video game can actually boost children’s self-esteem.

Most of all, though, video games gave me what every person growing up needs at some point in his or her life: an escape.  Life is rarely easy, and sometime or another we all feel helpless and overwhelmed.  Video games give us a way to escape these feelings.  To a greater extent than even books or movies, video games immerse us in a story and let us literally become someone else, let us lice a life in which we are ultimately in control of our own destiny and success.  The agency we feel in conquering a particularly tricky level of navigating a challenging battle might be imaginary, but the comfort that illusion provides is real, and worth creating.

In other words, video games have a lot of personal value, and that’s why I play them: they give us pleasure, help our self-esteem, and allow us some form of escape and comfort when the world is too overwhelming.  What most people criticize them for lacking, however, is social value: they don’t make the world a better place.  However, this doesn’t have to be the case, and that’s the reason I want to one day write the stories for video games.

Novels and movies have social value for two reasons.  First, they force us to empathize with their characters, opening our eyes to the problems they face, problems in society that we often don’t experience ourselves.  Second, they can create worlds in which real problems are exaggerated to the point that we’re forced to recognize them, which in turn makes us recognize them in our own lives. Video games can do both of these, and are actually even better at forcing us to empathize with characters than books or movies are because their cares and worries quite literally become our own, so it’s not too outlandish to imagine a video game that has the same social value as a novel or film.  If this is going to happen, though, we need to be telling the right stories.

I remember playing Assassin’s Creed 3 for the first time, and being pleasantly surprised by the storyline, one that didn’t shy away from the moral complexity of early America.  It showed the violent relationship between colonists and Native Americans, and drew frequent attention to the hypocrisy of our founding father proclaiming freedom while owning slaves.  Imagine if more games were like this, if more games told meaningful and compelling stories. 

Imagine a Call of Duty game in which the protagonist was a woman or a gay man, and that accurately depicted the real struggles these members of the armed forces face.  Imagine a Grand Theft Auto game that took some time to meaningfully acknowledge America’s race problem, or that forced male gamers to acknowledge street harassment.  Imagine a science fiction game set in a dystopian future brought about by the triumph not of the Russians or Islamic extremists or some other generically evil power, but of Christian fundamentalism. 

Today’s video games are incredibly sophisticated in terms of their gameplay, animation, and art.  If we married them with stories just as sophisticated and meaningful, then perhaps we could create games that addressed real problems in our world and forced gamers to consider these problems, just as novels and films do.  Perhaps we could create games that teach as well as entertain.  Perhaps gamers could grow just as much by playing as the characters they played.  Perhaps we could really make a difference.