The last time I wrote about gaming, I wasn’t really playing anything anymore. Since then I decided to spend some more time with games again, because it was an itch that needed some scratching. I had been playing many games in the past (something I will get back to eventually), but because of my luxury problem of being interested in too many things, gaming was relegated to the back seat. Until now. Anyway, since I’m always so critical of anything, I still enjoy watching blockbuster movies and playing video games. I’m always aware of the issues hidden there, though, and I thought today I try to explore some them in more detail here.
FTL: Faster Than Light
This is mostly an exploration game, where you travel with your space ship through unknown territory, encounter alien races and other travelers in need for help, you upgrade your space ship, hire crew members and try to survive against an all-powerful alien invasion. That’s a pretty standard set-up for a sci-fi game, but it also provides an insight into our culture and many aspects that are essential to it.
Since the “agricultural revolution,” exploration of the “unknown” was a basic need for us because our growing population simply needed more and more space. Other species are often portrayed as potentially hostile, since every group of strangers is a danger to your resources. And it’s either “us or them,” the binary worldview that has guided us through much of our history, right through last century’s Cold War and the War On Terror. Resources themselves are part of any game like this (and almost any other as we’ll see), getting more of them, organizing them, distributing them. Even the upgrades are reflective of our desire to always get better, wanting to reach some perfect state that needs no improvements anymore because we’re just never good enough.
Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers
I mentioned my love for Magic: The Gathering already and the video game version of it is equally addictive. It’s pretty similar to the real world card game. You are a wizard (or planeswalker) that battles other wizards by summoning spells and creatures that fight each other. So far, so fantasy-conventional.
I don’t want to go into detail why I love this game so much, but the video version also shows me that one of its appeals is the collecting aspect. You play a game to win more cards, to improve your decks. So, again both getting more and getting better. Note too, that I’m not counting any of this as something negative, but I think some of its appeal is inherently cultural. We are shaped by our culture to like these things, which is why so many games cater to those needs.
Torchlight falls in the category of games following Diablo, in which you play with a character that walks through different landscapes, slaying all kinds of monsters with all kinds of weapons. The slaying is almost not the point of these games as there are two main reasons they are so addictive:
1. Collecting different items to equip your character, making the appeal almost materialistic. You collect stuff, you always want something better and you sell the things you don’t need anymore. If you know anything about Diablo, you know that people pay real money for special items, so the materialism is not just in theory. If you didn’t grow up in our culture, you’d probably ask: “Why would I want so much stuff?”
2. Attributing points to improve your character’s skills. You literally improve your character, again perfecting yourself, with the only limitation being that you need to decide which skills you want to make better. Just writing that makes the appeal obvious: who wouldn’t want to do that, as imperfect as we feel about ourselves?
I’m aware that I got to this game rather late, but I found it really fascinating and quite addictive. You control a virus and try to infect and ultimately kill off the human population before a vaccine is developed. Of course, you could wonder, what could be the appeal of something so scary and horrible? Well, first of all, doing terrible things is a component of many games, so that alone is not surprising. You are allowed to do things that you can’t do in real life, so in our culture of strict rules and moral paradoxes, it feels liberating for many to at least play out all of those things (which is why free-for-all games like GTA are especially successful). On top of that, you are here able to get into the mind of something that in many ways is impossible to understand even for science.
But of course, the idea of domination is one of the driving forces of our culture from its earliest days. Dominating the soil, food, other species, other tribes, other countries, space. So any game that lets you gradually take over the world is intrinsically intriguing.
And even here you get a skill tree, making your virus more infective and deadly, so that aspect again adds to the game experience.
Sim City Build It
Of course SimCity has been around for decades and has been one of the first games I owned in the 90s. And not much has changed, you still build a city with buildings, roads and resources. In a way, it’s the ultimate fantasy game for our culture. You actually build cities, something that happens all over the world all the time, with urbanization being almost a cliché when you talk about the future. You again gather as many resources as possible and try to make money at the same time, becoming a business manager. When you level up, you are able to build more items, so you always want to be bigger and better. I think especially with a game like this, you see how the desires our culture forces upon us are offered here. Even you can build your own, big metropolitan city! You become richer! You get more things! You can feel powerful! Who could resist that?
Again, I’m not criticizing these games because, well, I’m playing them myself. But I want to be aware of why the temptation to slip into the roles these games offer is so big. And I want to reflect upon how they serve to help shaping our mind to accept the way our culture works. I think that being aware of it enables you to be somewhat “safe” as reflecting upon the influence decreases it automatically. I don't want to be a slave to such desires, but I also don’t want to pretend that our culture didn’t have any influence on me, but avoiding the grasp of Mother Culture is something I never want to stop trying, because I sincerely believe this is our only hope.