Friday, June 18, 2010

On the Merits of Watching Others Play Video Games

I suppose I'm what you call a "casual gamer," though that itself has become a rather loaded term. I enjoy playing video games, and engage in the activity on a semi-regular basis. But I don't have the time, money, or inclination to own any of the current-generation consoles, and my computer gaming is limited to Flash games and the old copy of Civilization IV that's still difficult enough to keep me occupied. Apart from the Mario franchise, the Zelda franchise, and Bully, there are very few console games I have played from beginning to end.

But I am a chronic video game watcher. If you're on the couch playing something, I will sit down with a beer and a bowl of popcorn and watch you for hours. If you ask me if I want a chance to play, I will politely decline. For me, watching is just as fun as actually playing.

I spent last week on vacation with friends. Except for a brief bout of Time Crisis II on the beach boardwalk, I remained game-less. But the current talk of the town, Red Dead Redemption, was continually on the television screen, and I probably watched that game for more hours than any of my friends actually played it.

I'm not sure where my penchant for being a passive video game spectator came from, but it's actually turned out to be useful. Video games are now more important to our cultural landscape than ever, as seen by the nostalgic ATARI T-shirts donned by many a member of Generation Y. And despite the fact that I am not a "gamer," per se, I still like to be in on the conversation. I rely on eavesdropping on my friends and watching their gameplay to at least keep me somewhat up to date with the gaming world. I will never be an expert, but watching video games has kept me from feeling terribly out of touch with the twenty-first century.

Still, after watching my friends play Red Dead Redemption for hours at a time without ever feeling the desire to play myself, I wondered where my role as a spectator came from. Unlike other chronic video game watchers I know, I was the oldest child in my family, so I wasn't forced to play as Luigi or simply sit and watch until my older siblings were finished. And while I'm not a wiz at video games, I'm not so poor at them so that playing isn't fun for me at all.

So I sat back and tried to figure out why watching games is so pleasurable. Here's a few of the reasons:

1) You're Not In Control, and It's Stressful

Have you ever met someone afraid of flying? You can rattle off all the statistics that driving your car is statistically the more dangerous activity, but fear of flying usually boils down to one thing - you're not in control of the vehicle.

Lack of control is terrifying, and adds an extra level of stress when watching someone play video games - you never know what they're going to do next. The more difficult the game, the higher the stress level. I once observed ChargeShot's very own Craig Getting play Super Mario Brothers: The Lost Levels. I grew gray hair and lost years from my life. As I watched him bound from one demonic puzzle maze to the next, I became the worst kind of backseat driver - the kind who don't say anything, but surreptitiously presses down their foot when you should be braking. I jumped up and down as Mario did. I leaned back and forth as he teetered on the edge of death. I took a deep breath each time the Hammer Brothers appeared.

Craig himself played the game as cool as ice, but he was in control. For me, I had no idea what that little 2-inch plumber was going to do next. But that was part of the excitement. At a certain point, Craig was no longer relevant. It was like watching some sort of avant-garde movie about plumbers' deaths unfold. And it was a nail-biter.

2) You're Not in Control, and It's Relaxing

In contrast, there are certain games where the lack of control adds to your enjoyment in a completely different kind of way. In some titles, it means the choices are completely out of your hands. For example, I watched my old roommate play the entirety of games like Fallout 3 and Fable 2. Both games offer the player a myriad of difficult choices, which can affect the entire setting of the game.

But I'm not playing the game! Instead, I fill the role of court jester, offering humorous, oft-ignored advice.

When the choice came in Fallout to nuke a small city, I pressured my friend to do it. When the choice came in Fable to sell people into slavery, I pressured my friend to do it. Both choices meant, for him, a consideration of how this would affect gameplay and what he was trying to accomplish. For me, I was simply looking for the most absurd scenario to unfold on the screen.

Not all players fall prey to this kind of advice, but those who do are putty in my hands. After 30 minutes of constant nagging, I finally got my friend to kill and skin his horse in Red Dead Redemption. He was immediately attacked by outlaws, proving you should never trust your friends' advice in a sandbox game.

3) You're Totally in Control

This scenario is rarer than the other two, but perhaps the most rewarding. Find a suitable game and a forgiving friend, and go to town. The rules are simple: the friend must try and do whatever you tell them.

I used to do this with ChargeShot's Rob Kunzig and Grand Theft Auto. Rob called it a "spirit quest," and I tried to fulfill the role of religious adviser. I would concoct convoluted narratives that usually ended in Rob's character dying in fire and water in some sort of complex baptismal rite gone totally awry.

Rob was a good sport, but it's situations like this that bring out the strangest facets of games such as GTA. Our conversations usually went something like this:

ROB: What should I do now?

ME: Eat ten pizzas.

ROB: No. I want to do something else.

ME: Eat ten pizzas.

ROB: Ok.

(His character eats ten pizzas, grows visibly fatter and ends up vomiting on the floor of the pizza joint.)

ME: [Uncontrollable laughter].

There are some definite problems with only being a video game spectator. The biggest one is that I'm experiencing the game in a medium other than that in which it was meant to be experienced. Games aim to be immersive activities, and as I sit on the couch as the asshole friend, that sort of thing does a lot to break the immersion. I acknowledge that I'm experiencing these games more as movies than as games, which might explain why I'm so tickled by the most absurd scenarios, and why I'm still slightly hesitant to commit to the games-as-art camp.

But I think there's a certain beauty in watching video games that actual gamers themselves miss. Watching the picturesque sunset landscapes of Red Dead Redemption unfold while my friend was on the run was beautiful; my friend was too stressed out by the pursuing marshalls to appreciate it. And sit down and watch four friends play a fighting game like Super Smash Brothers - the ensuing brouhaha is so complicated and nonsensical that it's engaging to watch in a completely different manner than it is to play.

Am I missing out on a major part of the gaming experience? Yes, but I don't kid myself that I will ever be a serious gamer or completely on top of the culture. For now, I'll prefer to absorb what gaming knowledge I can while watching others play.