Most days, I merely hope to impart some lingering question on whoever these words may fall upon. Even if that question is how best to troll me, it feels good to know I at least somehow affected your day without being a giant asshat or raging philanthropist (I win! So take that, trolls!). I mean, I might still be an asshat and I would definitely prefer it if you walked away thinking about video games and the culture and industry around it differently, but I’ll take what I can get. No one’s gonna bat a thousand on that.
Today, though, I’d like to be more direct. How do you define your self?
Notice the space; I do not mean “yourself.” I mean how do you define your identity within a video game? I’ve talked about how identity applies to the game itself, but what about you? What about the player? Without you, the game loses all meaning, save for that given to its creators. Like most art and entertainment mediums, video games are bifurcated into two symbiotic halves: the consumer and the producer. The difference is that for a game to work fully, you must also produce for the video game to consume. So where do you fit into that as an individual, as a person?
Video games, for the most part, tell their one story and that’s that. It differs from game to game, but like a book, a movie, or what have you, that story is pretty much set. We’ve yet to reach that point where stories can organically and programmatically shift and mutate into wholly unique products for each and every player. Even games like Mass Effect and The Walking Dead are predetermined and merely mask the immutability with (mostly) inconsequential choices or the illusion of choice. Story-wise, video games are no more inherently potent or capable than books and movies.
And in books and movies, we speak on our experiences from the point of view from the characters. We say, “oh, Harry and Voldemort? They haven’t met yet,” and not, “oh, I haven’t met that snake-faced ragamuffin yet.” You may say, “I haven’t gotten that far yet,” or something, but that is a statement of your interaction with the story and not with world within it. We talk about those stories as outside observers, like a Greek chorus singing commentary with the characters none the wiser. You are looking from the outside in.
But in video games, we commonly say, “I haven’t gotten that far yet,” in a different sense, meaning that the character you control hasn’t gotten that far yet. It’s as if any story beyond where you are now doesn’t exist simply because you haven’t experienced it yet (though we know, as we’ve previously established, the story is predetermined). You’ll say, “I haven’t met Funky Kong yet,” or, “that damn witch tricked me again!” Now you are the character. Discussions and recaps happen from your point of view, as if you were that 15th century assassin or that ThunderCat.
The inclination, then, is to assume that the agency afforded to the player in a video game changes his or her perspective. Though you are still working within the confines of a story already told—immutable to any outside influence—the fact that you are able to dictate what direction and at what speed you walk is enough to make you fully inhabit the mind and life of the character. The ability to press X and climb buildings turns Nathan Drake from an Indiana Jones-ish rogue you’ve read about into a digital mirror of your own self.
The question, then, is why? Why does this happen? What makes that little wrinkle in the fabric enough for you to fundamentally (if briefly) alter your concept of your being? We know this story is the same story that everyone else in the world experiences, and yet we have found a way to convince (or, maybe more accurately, trick) ourselves into thinking it’s us in that story, that it’s us hiding from the cops in South America, that it’s us defending New York. We’ve thrown away our old identities and adopted a new one, only occasionally emerging from the facade with a merged tableau of reality and fantasy.
We are still ourselves but we’ve integrated these new lives into our own. “We” have met with aliens on strange planets. “We” have defied a king and won a war. “We” have done so much without having done any of it. It was not Solid Snake and it was not Mario and it was not any Belmont that did it but us. We have flipped the direction of assimilation and now in some alternate universe, they tell a story of a man playing a game and saving the galaxy/princess/whatever. We have gutted the self of old and folded in something new but intangible and nonexistent.
Do we call it a lie? Do we call it a fantasy? Question yourself the next time you talk about a game. Ask if this is your self or a new self, if this forms a new identity or replaces your old one. Go down that rabbit hole and stretch and break things until you find the truth. And then ask the other guy in there if it matters.