Some Random Thoughts On Video-games

Recently the President showed a highlight reel of the sorts of intense violence in today’s video-games.   It’s pretty bad.  You can take a look at the reel for yourself.

I think the highlights speak for themselves.  Considering that’s what we consider entertainment, and others are arguing that it’s “art”, what does that say about all of us?  It’s not very good.  I find it embarrassing.

I’m more of a casual video game player these days, so maybe I’m not the one best suited to comment on all of this, but from my own experience, I will say that the level of violence in the highlight reel is pretty typical of what you’ll see in something like a first person shooter, or other games like it.

In those types of games in particular, gameplay mainly consists of violently killing things you have no emotional attachment to, over and over, often in bloody gore.  The objectives are normally very simple, asking you to do simple things like get from point A to point B in some virtual map, interact with a few simple objects in the virtual world (such as pulling a lever, pushing a button, etc), and kill everything you come across with guns, swords, rocket launchers, knives, magical spells, and other implements.

I’d blame all of this on our evolutionary past.  Our species lived as hunters and gathers, so is it any wonder why games are filled with hunting and gathering, whether it be killing animals and beasts in magical lands, or other players, or fetching items from the wilderness?  Just read our history.  That’s what humans do.  That’s what all animals in nature do, if you’ve ever watched a wildlife documentary.  It’s not all that shocking, but it’s not a pretty sight.

I personally don’t play those sorts of games.  Well, not anymore. I had a brief stint with them in my early teens, playing games like Doom and Quake, but those games haven’t really grabbed me since.  It’s strange, but when I reflect on playing those games as a teenager and young adult, it’s like I was “asleep”.  None of the violence registered in my mind.  The game was just something to do.  When I’d play Doom, the video game offered some sort of resistance, some challenge or obstacle to overcome, and I would practice the games I liked, and get good at them.  I enjoyed memorizing the maps and clearing the levels as quickly as possible.  But as the years have gone on, I sort of look at it all and am like, why?  It’s not something I want to be a part of anymore.

I think it’s because I started to get into meditation (I guess you could call it that).  I’ve been working at silencing my mind, and in doing so, I felt like I became aware of this inner witness I wasn’t aware of before.  This “something” would ask me to step outside myself, take a look at what I was doing as a dispassionate observer, and I’d find myself reflecting on what I was doing and how I was spending my time.  There was this inner voice in me, and it didn’t judge me, but it said, “Look carefully at what you’re doing.  Watch and interpret the events you’re seeing on the television screen as you’re playing this game.”  I was the judge of myself, but looking at myself with a clear mind, if that makes sense.  It’s been a kind, thoughtful, teacher.

One day it just sort of hits you like, wow.  This is how I’m spending my life?  My time?  Violently killing zombies, monsters, and other things?  It makes you step back and do some serious reflection.

While I don’t play first person shooters, or the other extremely violent video games, I’ve spent a lot of hours playing a different genre called japanese role-playing games.  They’re very fantasy’ish, but they too have their share of violence.  Like you may be some sort of magical warrior, running through beautiful, magical landscapes, killing the different animals that live there.  You burn them with magical fire spells, cut them with swords, and beat them with clubs.  Then after killing them, some numeric indicator pops on the screen and it says, “You’ve gained 200 experience points.  Your strength levels have increased 1 point”, etc.  As you fight these indigenous life-forms, over and over, and get stronger and stronger, you can go on to kill even bigger, stronger life-forms, and progress in the story, which often consists of resolving conflicts with other game characters through fighting them in magical settings.

As I got older, it all started to bother me.  It’s like I step outside myself, my mind is silent for a bit, time stops, and a presence asks me to reflect on the game I’m immersing myself in.  I step outside myself, like an alien, and I’m hovering over my computer chair, looking at myself and what I’m doing.  I learned a great deal about myself in the process.  I realized that what I actually enjoyed about the games had little to do with the games themselves, at least what the game was asking me to do.  I’ll explain.

This might sound bizarre, but what really grabs me in most video games I play are the magical landscapes, the music, and the architecture, which is often so different than anything I experience in normal life.  Running around slaying monsters is generally uninteresting to me.  I’m drawn to these video games as a source of creativity.

For example, you can take me to an art museum and I don’t get anything out of that.  There is some piece of fabric hanging from the wall with a cigarette burn in it, then you move to another display and there’s some sketch of some woman, and then another display with a random photograph of a woman standing beside a mountain.  I feel nothing from it.  It’s lifeless.  I’m certainly not impressed.

However, let’s look a clip from one of my favorite games — Xenoblade Chronicles.  You’re in this magical village, filled with these cute, strange-looking creatures, and they live in the interior of a giant tree; they’ve built this beautiful city that winds up along the trunk, filled with dangling bridges leading to the tree’s outward branches, which in turn leads to other trees, and so on.  It’s just really neat.

And listen to the music.  Do you ever hear anything like that?  How about on TV?  At school?  At the university?  At work?  Before I got into role-playing games, I had never heard musical scores like this.  I heard a lot of bluegrass and blues music growing up, along with gospel hymns, and 90’s pop music that played in the gym when I’d play basketball, but the music in these games was like an entirely new world to me.

Video games create an outlet for these artists to produce that sort of music which has no other way to exist otherwise, as far as I can tell.  There are these super talented people, and these melodies are flowing in their heads, but they have no way to make money producing it without something like video games.

Like take this track.  When I first heard it, I was floored.  I was playing Final Fantasy VIII on my Playstation, just walking through this little virtual village, and this amazing music starts playing in the background.  I’d never heard anything like it.

Games also are outlets for the imagination, in a world where we’re more and more constrained.  Like in Xenogears Chronicles, the entire story takes place on gigantic robot which has broken down, long ago.  Nobody remembers when.  The adventure is you are traveling all across the exterior of this robot’s body, which is covered in forests and magical realms, along with its strange mechanical interiors.  Eventually you journey into yet another giant robot which is connected to it via a giant bridge, which is actually an extended sword.  It’s really something.

Just to show you one particular area of that game, you’re wandering through this marsh, where these aurora like lights are shimmering everything, the trees glow, and there’s these glowing insects buzzing around everywhere.  Though the game is older now, if you let your imagination flow a little bit, it’s really quite beautiful, as is the background music.

Video games are full of really fantastic things, whether it be waterfalls, magical creatures, or stunning environments.  They can be very artistic and beautiful.  Artists are given free reign, and even encouraged to make things as magical and wonderful as they can imagine.  Where else does that exist?

Do you find that in the office where you stamp papers, aren’t allowed to even cut jokes because somebody may be offended, and everyone adheres to some dress code where we all dress alike; it’s boring.  This is why kids escape into video games, just as people in the past did in stories they’d write.

Like take where I work.  Our physics building is beyond drab.  The walls are just cinderblocks, painted some light bluish color.  We have these tiled floors and florescent lights.  My friend Greg and I call it “communist decorating.”  No carpet, no color, no artwork, no designs or paintings on the walls, no music playing.  You go into the offices and there are these green’ish steel bookshelves, along with these old World-World II era steel desks.  My job itself consists of calculating numbers, particularly transmission of waves through biological materials.  Just crunching numbers and producing charts.  No emotion, nothing.  It’s just lifeless and dead compared to these video game worlds.  Like take Macalenia Temple in Final Fantasy X, another one of my favorite games.

Take a look at the floors.  Look at those blues, greens, and the gold.  Look at the beautiful designs.  Look at how the light shines into the room, illuminating the art on the central floor.   Look at how there are statues, there are these urns with plumes of pink flower-like fire coming up, and the banners hanging down, colorful with designs.  Look at how the building is shaped.  It’s not boring and Euclidean.  Instead of being a big rectangular box, it has has a strange shape, with curved walls, all covered with art.  Then there’s this beautiful stair-case, with ornamented rails, and carpet.  See what I mean?

Or take the latest Final Fantasy XV.  You come sailing in on your yacht to this magical city, entering through this elevated waterway, surrounded by waterfalls, looking off in the distance to see this stunning city filled with palaces and grand architecture.  If I died and woke up on that yacht sailing through that waterway, I’d think I’d went to heaven.

Another thing I noticed I liked about games was adventuring with friends.  There was some meaningful thing to do for the world, and we took part in it together, working together.  That probably appeals to me because in my job, I work alone.  I only meet occasionally with my advisor for an hour or two, to basically show him my results.  Whether my work is meaningful or not, I really have no idea.  I’m told it is.  Mostly it’s just a really complicated mathematical exercise to me.  And I certainly don’t get to see any sort of tangible results, even if it is being used by some engineering team somewhere, someplace.  To me, it’s just a lot of tedious calculations, and then submitting the results in a scientific paper located in some journal (which I don’t really read) and on various websites.  Other than that, I get no feedback.  Then I go back to my desk and get back to cranking numbers.   Personally, my mind screams for something more.

In video games, after you adventure with your friends, bonding, saving the world, there’s often a giant, elaborate parade and everyone celebrates.  Maybe it’s because I live in a smaller town, but there’s nothing like that here.  Sure we have parades, but it’s mostly just some guy in his truck, with the name of his business plastered on the side, and his family’s in the back throwing candy.  It’s not very impressive or exciting.

In my reality, I work and work, find some solution to some really complicated problem, and then I produce some colorful charts and hand them over to someone else.  Then I go home.  No celebration, nothing.  I have no idea if anything I do means anything to anybody or not.  Such is life.

A lot of this post is just rambling, but I hope I at least pointed out that there is a lot more taking place in video games than just mindless violence, though I do think the violence is a problem.  If you actually play them, there’s a lot to appreciate, and some amazing creative expression, at least in some games.

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