Thursday, February 5, 2009

My gamer shame: gaming

How many times have I powered off the 360, yanked up the blinds and staggered backwards as if struck? Surprise, Rob – while you were chainsawing your way through the locust horde, the world continued its slow spin around the sun. People died, babies were born, and a billion other things happened that are of no consequence to me. But when I press my fingers to the glass I’m surprised to find it warm, or cold.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that whenever I game, I feel like I should be doing something else.

I recently plowed through Gears of War 2 in two days. It’s not the longest game, granted, and I played at night, but I still emerged from five-hour sessions feeling bleary and washed-up, like a dead fish. I would pour myself a glass of milk and be vaguely unsettled that I did so without a press of the X button. My mind would still be buzzing from hours of automatic gunfire and flashing lights. The simulated tactile experience of sawing through someone’s body still hummed in my nerves. The game’s brusque, utilitarian worldview – run here, take cover here, throw grenade, fire, heal – was too fast to enjoy a book before bed. I blazed through ten pages without absorbing a word.

I don’t hear propaganda in games. I don’t recoil at simulated decapitations. I don’t think gaming is responsible for whatever perceived moral decay Dr. James Dobson is sputtering about this week. But extended jags of gaming leave me with a feeling of disconnect from the physical world. The closer games come to providing a seamless, immersive experience, the worse this gets. Need I again reference the uncanny valley? After a while, I’m repulsed by the shabby, scoffing, hubristic mirror world shimmering on my television. Case in point: Fallout 3. Any given NPC will never break eye contact. Human interactions are broken down to an elementary dialogue tree. It was easier when games didn’t even attempt to suspend your disbelief; now, we talk about love, loss and vengeance with waxy-faced mannequins.

A friend of mine only ever played games that were patently ludicrous: Mike Tyson’s PunchOut, Serious Sam, or any button-mashing, arcade-style game. Those made sense to him – they weren’t real, the didn’t pretend to be real, and they entertained, sometimes inadvertently. He had issues already, so it’s probably for the better that he didn’t grapple with a virtual father voiced by Liam Neeson, but I see the logic in his choice of entertainment.

This isn’t an experience limited to gaming, necessarily. As a reporter, I cover a municipal beat, which often involves sitting through four-hour long town hall meetings. After paying attention to words, legal technicalities, moods and reactions for four hours, my mind feels like a dishrag wrung dry, and I stumble about in a stupor similar to post-Gears 2. But when I turn off Gears, it’s gone; the town commissioners, however, go home, eat dinner, and go to sleep. They do strange, inexplicable things, and make strange inexplicable decisions. They are governed by no code (though I have my suspicions). Even local politicians are strange and unpredictable.

As games advance, they need to be careful to remain games. Immersion is not always a good thing. Sometimes the gamer shuts off their 360 and surfaces into the real world as if from a sensory-deprivation, disoriented, their mind a chain of 1s and 0s.