What is a video game? Yeah, that thing on the screen you spend all day wasting away in front of. How is it distinct from a tabletop game or a sport? It has rules, regulation, it takes skill, it can be played with others, what the hell makes a video game so distinct? After all, objectively speaking, all a video game is a bunch of lights flashing before you and responding to certain inputs from a keyboard or a controller. It can’t move you to tears. It can’t open your mind. They’re just toys, wastes of time! They’re not valid recreation, and they sure as hell don’t have artistic potential.
But you know I’m wrong. You know that’s not all a game is. You’re right in your intuition that what I just said was ridiculous: a video game is so much more. It is a visual and auditory simulation. It’s entertainment, but it also simulates what it’s trying to make you enjoy.
So what does that mean for you if it’s a simulation? It means you get the phenomenon of immersion. You get to sympathize. Well, maybe not sympathize, as Call of Duty sure as hell doesn’t make you experience the horrors of war: You don’t feel the pain of each bullet and there’s no real loss of life. But that doesn’t mean you can’t feel from a game, that doesn’t mean it can’t put you in a new pair of proverbial shoes.
Consider, if you will, the experience of a relatively silly game like Just Cause 2.
What? There’s no empathetic or artistic value in Just Cause 2! Look at the bloody screenshot! you’ve attached an leaning tower of explosives on the back of a bleeding motorcycle!
Shut up, italics.
Thanks, bold. I understand the larger point. Just Cause 2 is an absurd game with ridiculous voice acting. It’s something like an extreme version of GTA set on an abominable island specifically reserved for the habitation of those exiled for having annoying voices and a wonderfully childish focus on explosions. Even with all this nonsense, though, there’s still emotional heft in a simulation like this. To prove this, let’s look at one of my own experiences in the game.
I decided to hijack a plane, as one who stacks piles of explosives on bikes and drives around on them would, and ended up trying to fly directly into the sun.
So that didn’t work out. I’m a modern day Icarus. But I was confronted with something rather breathtaking.
After barrel rolling maniacally to the point of not knowing which way was up until gravity corrected me, I was faced with this view, the plane ripping through the air, smashing viciously through incorporeal clouds. While the still image doesn’t do my experiences justice, the impact was immense.
For a splinter of a moment I didn’t know which way up or down was, and I was reminded of an important fact: Once you get out of our atmosphere, there’s no such thing as up. Out there, in the universe, up is just a relative and trivial human thing.
And below, the entire island, its thick forests and razor-clean cities was reduced to a blur, a spit, an insignificant and tiny land mass. All of its politics, nationalism, culture and all of its geography simplified and concentrated underneath me. I was given a glimpse into time. The fictional Panau, much like all non-fictional countries, was less than a blink in history. Its borders will change, and its idiosyncrasies and culture will die, or change to the point of being unrecognizable. All its soldiers, all its anger, all its corruption and even all its beauty and horrors were nothing but fleeting, to be savored immediately in the short span of our lifetimes.
That inconceivably miniscule dot of time that is the human lifespan smacked me in the face and screamed there is more than just this world in the universe, let alone just some land-mass you stick a flag in and call a country. Everything you know and are is tiny, and everything bigger than you is still beautifully small and it is wonderful. I was experiencing something virtual, something altogether unreal, and here I was being hit with a hefty dose of reality.
Well, either reality hit me, or it was the building I absent-mindedly cruised into.
I probably should have paid more attention to where I was going rather than what this could all mean. The point, really, is that I wasn’t. I was wholly contained in an experience, immersed and emotionally moved. Even the most juvenile video game can display the most incredible things, can make you think in ways you’ve never considered before. Why? How?
It’s simple, really. While a video game is a recreational piece of software that’s there for your entertainment, it’s still a bloody simulation, and through immersion it holds all of the sights and sounds we could reflect on if only we paid them enough heed. The best part of doing so is that it gets you the most of out of your game. It gives you a far richer and resounding experience. As gamers, game enthusiasts and geeks, I think we owe it to ourselves to enjoy our games on every level we can.
In future editions of Under the Microscope, I’m going to focus on things like this, on the semantics and subtleties that can be fleshed out of a game through immersion, aesthetics, narrative – you name it. I’ll be calling out lazy pseudo-philosophy that some games try to pass with, and I’ll be getting back to you with the revelations and that my melodramatic travels through the world of gaming will give me. Through doing so, I hope to impart the method of extrapolation I use onto you, so you can spin around and tell me how wrong I am and it actually meant something else. And don’t worry, I’ll provide the rotten tomatoes.