No matter how you slice it, gaming is huge business. Over $10 billion annually in sales, and the vast majority of American households play video games. (For a bunch of interesting stats, check out this handy infographic from the ESRB.) An ever-increasing number of us could probably be considered gamers, whether it’s as simple as our Angry Birds addiction or the Wii Tennis Parties we have when there’s a family get-together, or a more serious habit like that fostered by the MMORPG fanboys (and girls). Even the music industry is getting in on the action. If you haven’t heard it before, good luck getting this song out of your head:
Gaming was a staple of my life as far back as I can remember. I don’t know if the memory is accurate, but I distinctly remember riding on my dad’s shoulders out of the mall at about age 3 while he carried a shopping bag with our brand new wood-veneered Atari 2600. I remember nights spent playing Stampede! and Air Sea Battle and Chopper Command and, of course, Pac Man. When I made it into school, we had educational games in the classroom. I was a huge fan of games like The Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego. When we got our first home PC (An 8086 with 640K RAM, CGA graphics, two 5.25″ floppies and no hard drive) the Christmas after I turned 10 years old, I started hunting for games everywhere I could find them. Shareware bins, friends houses, and the growing software section in retail stores. By the time I was 17, I had bought a much nicer computer, a Sega Genesis and Sega CD, and was reading gaming magazines looking for the newest and best. I had also by this time routinely begun to play games for 6-10 hours at a clip, immersing myself in the experience and tuning out the world. By college, I knew how to build and fix computers, run them faster, make them play better. During my senior thesis (which I did during Spring Break, because I was lame) I took a break and bought myself a Sega Dreamcast, and we had alcohol-fueled Soul Calibur tournaments into the wee hours of pretty much every night thereafter.
I didn’t know it, but I had a serious problem. My wife figured it out after I was let go from my job upon returning from our Honeymoon, only for me to lay around on the floor of our unfurnished condo playing Unreal Tournament all day while she supported us. Oh, I looked for jobs, too, but it was a half-assed attempt. I was much more interested in improving my Capture the Flag rankings. Games had been such a part of my life for so long, such a consolation from the disappointments of the world and my own inadequacies as a clumsy, non-athletic nerd, that I had come to depend on them as a coping mechanism without knowing that this is what I was doing. I was simply hot for the chase, the thrill of solving the next puzzle, shooting the bad guys, driving at breakneck speeds to outrun the cops, and in general just living out the exciting life and sense of purpose that I was ultimately lacking in the real world.
In “meatspace,” I was a loser. In games, I was a badass. It couldn’t be simpler. And so, during the times of my life when I was at my lowest, when I needed to be out busting butt and clawing my way forward to provide for my family, I would instead devote my considerable intellectual capabilities toward planning effective airstrikes in Command & Conquer: Generals.
This is the insidious thing about video games. They allow every washed-up, lazy, ambitionless slacker to feel the euphoria of accomplishment without ever doing anything in real life. This pushes an endorphin button in your brain so hard that you come back again, and again, and again. And if you were destined to really become someone and share your talents with the world, but you used video games to salve the sullen times when you were busy schlepping burgers so you could pay your dues, you may have in fact doomed yourself to become the washed-up, lazy, ambitionless slacker you were never meant to be. Because the allure of the game will always call you back. Just one more level. Just one more mission. Just one more…
I pretty much quit video games cold turkey a couple years ago. I started finding real, actual things to do that felt productive and pushed some of those same endorphin buttons in my brain. So I began replacing video games with these activities, and I hardly experienced any withdrawal. I’d plop down for the occasional tryst with Fallout 3 or Portal 2, or every now and then fire up my copy of The UrQuan Masters (which you can get for free and relive one of the best sci-fi action RPGs ever, and which really helped define the genre) for a bit of interstellar fisticuffs, but nothing that rose to the same level as before. I was free!
Then came this past weekend. I had come down with some kind of nasty, ache all over and feel completely exhausted cold that makes you just want to do nothing. With plenty of rain in the forecast and not much that needed doing, I gave in to the temptation and cracked open a copy of Mass Effect 3.
A word about Mass Effect – it’s just about the most well developed and interesting popular science fiction universe since Star Wars, and the whole series is a work of artistic and gameplay genius. Someone gave me a copy of Mass Effect, and I liked it so much I actually showed up at Target the morning Mass Effect 2 came out and plunked down whatever they were asking so I didn’t have to wait. I had more restraint with the third installment in the trilogy, but I knew I couldn’t resist forever.
So there I was, just giving it a little spin to see how it felt. I’d play for a little bit then take a nap. Maybe get some reading in or a movie with the boys. I would just get warmed up, catch up on the story, get a couple missions under my belt, etc. 10 hours later, I wondered why my body hurt so much, and why it was so dark in the house. And I did the same thing again on Sunday. I racked up at least 16 hours of gameplay in two days. I Could. Not. Stop. At one point last night, I actually heard myself saying to my wife, “I’m just going to finish this mission, and then we can do whatever you’d like.”
I’m just going to finish this mission? SERIOUSLY?!? AM I FIFTEEN YEARS OLD AGAIN?!?!?
I suddenly remembered why I had lost so much of my life to these games. They just take you away to another place, where you can have adventure safely, meet new and interesting people, and shoot them in the face with cryo-bullets that freeze their bodies and make them shatter into a thousand tiny pieces. Unless you’re Richard Branson, chances are very good that video games are a lot more interesting and exciting than your life is. And that’s why they will completely replace it if you let them.
I wonder how many amazing writers, composers, filmmakers, and artists we’ll never know about because their parents bought them an XBOX as a seemingly harmless Christmas present. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I can only imagine how much more I would have accomplished if I had pursued my fiction writing instead of immersing myself in the fiction of others. I’d probably have finished several novels by now. Maybe even gotten one of them published. When cyberpunk novelist and legend William Gibson was asked how he has been able to write so many books, he responded, “I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.”
What he says about TV goes doubly for games. They take longer to consume, and they lure you so much deeper in.
So, will I finish Mass Effect 3? Yes. I’m fairly confident that I will, because I want to know the rest of the story. And because it’s fun.
Will I pick up another video game soon? Probably not. It’s just not worth getting addicted. I’ve got some real-life leveling up to do, and I’d rather not let anything so purposeless get in the way.