Nearly everyone who plays games experiences moments that will stay with them for a lifetime. These precious gems of joy, genius, anger or heartbreak give our medium its character, a character that is highly personal, and arguably unique, in nature. What follows is not a banal ‘Look at how good video games are!’ piece, but rather a theory explaining gaming’s unequalled power over our hearts.
Consider the times when you have recollected great moments in TV, film, and literature. No doubt they have normally gone something like this:
‘Remember that awesome Adventure Time episode where Finn and Jake build a pillow fort?’
‘You gotta love that scene in Avengers when Iron Man gently mocks Bruce Banner’
‘Did you see who was gruesomely murdered in Game of Thrones this week?!’
Each of these recollections is about someone else, another agent’s story. There is a separation between you and the events transpiring on screen, or emanating from the page.
In contrast, video games get rid of this degree of separation by putting you in the driving seat, or – as is more likely – in the hands of a sweaty controller. Perhaps this is why, when they do it right, games can pack an unparalleled emotive punch.
Instead of observing Woody Harrelson or Simon Pegg fight off hordes of zombies, in a game the responsibility comes down to you, and you alone, to get your way out. The fear, the excitement, the impending sense of doom is all yours. There’s no room for emotive dilution. Contrast this with other art forms where emotions are delivered vicariously via relations to the experiences of a separate character i.e. someone else. We are not Pegg or Harrelson but we can, in a way, become Dead Space’s Isaac Clarke by controlling him through his nightmare.
Equally the sense of achievement you feel when, say, completing that final mission, or getting past 11 points on Flappy Bird, is elevated by one simple fact: you did it. Conversely though we can will our onscreen, or in-ink heroes and heroines to victory, and enjoy it when it comes (or despair when it does not), it can never be ours. Indeed as an equal number of soothsayers and dodgy motivational tapes have proclaimed: ‘The more you put in, the more you get out.’
The passivity of other mediums also serves to limit their emotive power relative to video games. When you sit down to watch a movie or read a book you are enveloping yourself in someone else’s tale. Yes you can personalise that tale by making your own inferences about its characters and meaning, but unless you have written the narrative yourself you ultimately have no control over where it goes. In essence you are a passenger. In contrast even the most rigidly structured games force us to carve our own, personal, routes. For example the campaign in Call of Duty is often described as being ‘on rails’ due to the fact that players must proceed through confined levels and carry out linear, pre-programmed missions. Still even here we get to make decisions: What weapon should I use to eliminate those enemies? How often should I take cover? Is this the right place to toss a flash bang? Though few, the choices given to us in one mission of CoD infinitely outnumber all those offered in the collective history of TV, film, and literature. It is unsurprising then, that some of the greatest moments in modern entertainment are ones we make ourselves in games. Just think about your most epic Grand Theft Auto Rampage or Zelda adventure. Each of these is made special by the free will being exerted. If you couldn’t control a crazed, heavily armed, Canadian in downtown LA then I doubt you’d be having anywhere near as much fun reading about it.
In essence video games are so powerful because they depend on you. If you don’t pick up that controller no one is getting out of that Necromorph-infested spaceship alive, no one is going to ‘Catch ‘Em All’, and most importantly, no one is going to tell Cristiano Ronaldo to deliver a personal, humiliating, 5-0 defeat to one of your best mates and fiercest rivals.