I think a person changing her attitude or emotional responses is one of the most difficult things to do, as evidenced by the various type of support groups. Yet, to listen to critics of video games and other media, you’d think becoming a cold blooded killer is just one video game away.
Those who criticize games [or movies, books, and other arts, for that matter] assume that language and images form who we are, almost without our assent or knowledge.
Unfortunately, much of our gaming conversations have focused on this debate of negative influence. When we talk about the positive influence of gaming, it is usually in terms of motor skills, senses, or cognitive abilities. But those who criticize games often focus on the ethics and morality of games, on the gamer as a person. In what way can gaming have a positive influence on gamers’ morality, on them as a whole person?
Meditation is one means people use to change themselves, to improve their attitudes. Meditation, like prayer, can take many forms and subjects. You can focus on others, on things you do well, on things you don’t do well, on things you are grateful for. It’s sometimes amazing how spending 5-10 minutes focused on such topics can do, just saying to yourself that you will not get irritated with coworker X today, that you are thankful for your health.
Reading is a common way to induce meditation, whether it’s poetry, a spiritual reading, or even fiction. But what about gaming . . . can gaming play any role in meditation?
You might think I’m talking about a serene game like Endless Forest or Endless Ocean. or Loops of Zen. I’m not. We don’t have to play stress-reducing games to gain meditative benefits. Palma has an interesting list of spiritual games, including Rock Band because it develops a sense of togetherness and cooperation over competition.
Instead, let me use a recent experience with Fallout 3 which I just started playing. Early in the game, while still in the vault, I was trying to get the key and choose a dialog option that forced me to kill the Overseer . . . I had become impatient and went for the expedient option, having some frustration in the game. When I met Alana afterward, I felt regret, not just for killing someone but also for losing a friend.
Now, in real life, I highly doubt that I will ever have such a choice, and, if I did, I don’t think I’d choose expediting a selfish goal over someone life’s. Yet, I do sometimes let my frustrations or emotions get the best of me, and I unthinkingly hurt those I love.
From that point in Fallout 3, I didn’t only decide not to take another life needlessly, but I also focused on being more in control within the game. I think my experience is something other than just playing the ‘light’ side or ‘good alignment,’ which can often be just a strategic choice, on par with choosing a class or a main skill. Instead, I was choosing something for my personal benefit, not for gaming benefits, and I was connecting at least some part of a game with my personal development. In this case, I believe that I was practicing a kind of meditation by playing a game, trying to focus on myself from a different perspective and to change some aspect of my personality.
Changing our behaviors isn’t just a simple switch: We have to practice those behaviors that we want to adopt. Games actually give us that opportunity to practice, and, perhaps more importantly, to fail without actually hurting a real person.
I don’t know or have any evidence that this works, yet I don’t have evidence that praying or meditating on my behaviors and thoughts have an effect either. But many do think these help. Gaming is possibly a more active means of meditation. At this point, then, we use games for our benefit, and we immerse ourselves for different reasons other than letting the game control our emotions.
Games are often tense experiences, providing us opportunities to model behavior under duress. I don’t have to make every game into some life changing experience, but it’s worthwhile to see the capactity games potentially have for personal involvement. I also don’t think we are required to play the entirety of a game as a pacifist or paladin: I know I will have to kill again in Fallout 3, but at least I have an overall focus for my choices. I can pick the learning spaces within games, even if not the whole game.
photo by a6u571n
Michael Abbott has an excellent post about his students playing Fallout 1 and 2, describing how they came to appreciate the game for all the games’ unfriendliness. And then he talked about why RPGs appealed to so many players, which came down to creativity and character development. I can’t disagree because I enjoy the idea of creating a character and playing the game developing that character and staying true to his or her core.
My brother and I talked about RPGs in general and Fallout 3 in particular as he tried to explain to me why he thought it was probably the best RPG he’s played in a long time. And for him, it came down to the difficulty of the game. Ammo is not plentiful, and neither is money. And the consequences of decisions and actions aren’t always immediate, but they’re there. RPGs are games of choice, and when you choose a strength, you invariably choose a weakness as well, especially in more strict class RPGs [as opposed to RPGs with hybrids]. In some games, like System Shock 2, choosing a skill and not another meant that you wouldn’t see some parts of the game. Or, more classic, you choose the strength and hit points of a warrior but an inability to heal yourself with spells as well as a weakness towards magic. Choose a spell caster, and you have great power, but you are physically weak.
To riff on Uncle Ben, with great power comes great weakness.
This weakness helped define characters and presented players with the challenge of playing around or through their weaknesses. One way is to group with others, which MMOs like Everquest play off of. In fact, it was difficult for any class to solo in the early Everquest.
corpse soup — a bad death in Cazic Thule
But the thing that many RPGs are missing, as I realized when I played Final Fantasy III last year or Etrian Odyssey is that these blockbuster RPGs like Mass Effect, Fallout 3, and especially action RPGs like Fable II don’t penalize failure. If you die, it’s a slap on the wrist effectively. No signficant loss of experience or gold. No loss of progress.
But I’m interested in penalties because I’ve got a masochistic streak. It’s because when you combine that fear of loss with the ability to create a character, it makes the game all the more enjoyable, particularly when you succeed. Some group RPGs require the optimum group to succeed in a quest, but in some, you can put together a less than optimal group but still manage to succeed if you adjust to both your strengths and weaknesses. That doesn’t mean you play with just any old group, like say 4 white mages. But you can play a less than perfect group and succeed.
But there’s another aspect of severe penalties, one that might be very difficult to see in anything other than an MMO or multiplayer game. When I played Everquest with my friends, we didn’t have the optimum group–we had a druid instead of the much better healing cleric. And we had a magician instead of an enchanter or a powerful wizard. And the ranger was an average DPS class, followed by a warrior. Two great experiences came from such imperfection.
- We failed and died a lot. In those days, not only did you lose your stuff, which all remained on your corpse, but you lost experience, a lot, which might mean you lost a really valuable skill or even the ability to wear some piece of armor. It wasn’t uncommon for corpse retreival to be the focus of the night rather than the original quest. Yet, those were among the most enjoyable experiences because the loss was real and it was imperative that we help our mate get his or her stuf before quitting for the night. Dying made us cautious but not afraid. Well, not so much that we couldn’t be talked into going somewhere that we shouldn’t.
- Through perseverance and strategy, we accomplished a lot that was very difficult for our regular group. Success became glorious and appreciated, never taken for granted.
Through the weaknesses and strengths of our characters, we approached the challenges and risks of the game in our own ways, which seems to me a greater depth of character than just choosing a faction or a backstory. Even more significant and perhaps the most elusive in a single-player or single-character RPG is that we learned to trust each other.
I remember many a fight as my warrior’s health dropped while my druid friend healed to the best of her abilities. There were times I could have run, but I didn’t because I believed in my friend. Certainly, you could say that I the gamer trusted my real-life friend, which is partially true. But I played my character, a fiercely loyal character that would rather die himself than run and let his weaker friends die, because it might mean the druid lost a level and couldn’t use the upgraded healing spell. That particular part of my warrior character was not something I could have developed in real life . . . it was something only possible in that game, only possible where characters are weak as well as strong, and where death is something to dread.
Great RPGs like Oblivion and Knights of the Old Republic do not come close to giving me that kind of experience, even with all the openness, choices, character development, and creativity that they offer. They are certainly enjoyable games, but I think there’s a certain type of relationship that can only develop and even flourish in the shadow of harsh conditions and great risks.