The Joystick is Broken: Well Met On the Ethereal Battlefield

2 Jan

When I was young, I had an idea for a video game: rendered in first-person, three-dimensional perspective, the player controlled a character that was essentially me. You’d wake up in a computer-generated version of my bedroom, walk down some polygons rendered as stairs, and enter the kitchen to get a bowl of cereal. You’d be able to interact with everything; theoretically you could make yourself lobster thermidor, if the ingredients were to hand, but doing so might preclude you from performing other tasks that morning. Ultimately, you’d get dressed, leave the house, and attend a full day of school, just as I might on an average weekday. You could interact with every character in complex ways and the object would be simply to live in a virtual reality with no fantastical elements, except for the amazing and likely impossible amount of video game coding required. I think this says two things about me: for one thing, I would make a really shitty video game developer. But it also implies that I was open to living on a non-physical plane, to commune with the same friends, acquaintances, and strangers I regularly encountered without having to smell them. Somehow, even in the days of 8-bit Nintendo sprites and 14.4 baud modems, I knew that this dream of a mundane online existence was a distinct possibility–perhaps an inevitability, considering how much more I enjoyed playing Golgo 13 than I did cleaning my room. I’m sure if I could have just dragged and dropped all offensive bedroom articles into an iconic trash can where they would magically disappear, I’d have been more likely to perform the chore.


Every advance in communication has made the world more accessible, and perhaps perceived a little bit smaller. Telephones made it possible to speak to anyone in the world in real time, television made it possible to see each other. Interacting online is the most complete form of transferring information yet, a stopgap solution before pure teleportation. We can see and speak to each other simultaneously over the internet, collude on projects and build on collective ideas, even remotely control devices and actuated machinery to create objects from halfway around the globe. We receive breaking news from Libya while simultaneously communicating with our own elected representatives in immediate, electronic fashions. It seems like almost anything can be accomplished while navigating the world wide web, and the possibilities are rarely exemplified as well as when people play video games online.


I don’t have any extended personal experience in playing video games online, but I am fascinated by its implications. Hundreds and even thousands of people from every corner of the world play these games at once, against each other or co-operating towards a specific goal. There are lots of kinds of multi-player games to play online (board games like Chess and Scrabble, and casino games being the most obvious and accessible), but by and large, popular online video game play seems to split into three basic types: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), First-Person Shooters (FPSes), and open-world sandbox type games where the users largely dictate their own functions and goals. Any one game can have elements of the other types, and often contain minigames, games-within-games that a player must accomplish alone to progress his character. Playing these games becomes a set of experiences richer and more rewarding than those offered on the physical plane, many of which seem to involve waiting around and being forced to watch commercials. A given game will appeal to a type of player for a variety of reasons, but the core impetus is our innate desire to interact with other human intelligences.


In an MMORPG, the player designs a stalwart, brave character and outfits him with the best possible armaments so he can sally forth and massacre woodland creatures for a few hours in order to approach a respectable experience level. This process is known as “grinding,” and it’s the dirty secret of the MMORPG world. Ostensibly, games like World of Warcraft and Eve Online would prefer a player begin their tenure in the game by joining smaller quests, perhaps requiring everyone to band together and kill an iguana, then assuming more and more challenging quests until you have gained sufficient rank to attempt the take down of a dragon. However, it is much more common that someone will hole themselves up in some secluded forest and murder Thumper over and over again for the meager experience points that each kill provides, emerging from the wood days later with a level score in the triple digits. Here’s where the shared virtual experience breaks down: since in-game “learning” is represented as an additive integer; it’s a simple numbers game to tweak the system and have the cumulative level experience of an old-timer, but the actual game experience of a newbie. Still, the co-operative questing in these games works well, and no matter how they got there, when players of like experience levels band together to complete an objective, they share experiences that forge actual friendships. It’s easy to discount achievements in the video game world, being that they aren’t tangible, but the accord between players is very real.


FPSes are probably the most popular type of game play today, and the name describes the gameplay accurately: you move around some virtual arena in first person and shoot other characters and objects. There are dozens of these types of games: in the last quarter of 2011 alone, Battlefield 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Gears of War 3, and Halo 4, the last one bucking the trend of that season’s trilogies but completely in line with the recycled scenery of FPS games. These games have very short lives when played alone, since repeatedly spending ammunition clips on the same fields of battle, against the same non-player characters with the same artificial intelligences, can quickly wear thin. It’s in the multi-player arena where these games shine, adding the challenge of other human brains that are constantly calculating the best ways to perforate your ass with soft-jacketed bullets while simultaneously protecting their own posteriors. It’s during these games that players speak to each other in order to coordinate strategies, and when you are most likely to be called a derogatory name by some acne-scarred kid with a voice like Minnie Mouse. FPS games leave me cold, for the most part: once the game play is mastered, the challenge–even in multi-player–can be facile. I also can never shake the sneaking feeling that these games are promoted and engineered with the help of various military agencies in order to recruit children. Whether they are turning our kids into Manchurian Candidates or slothful slug-a-beds, it’s difficult to deny that shooting the shit out of people with no legal or moral repercussions is a lot of fun, and when you can participate in this digital slaughter with like-minded friends, the fun increases exponentially.


The best-known line of sandbox-style video games is Rockstar Studio’s Grand Theft Auto series. The object in Grand Theft Auto, as it is in most sandbox games, is to move around a vast world, picking up quests by way of speaking to non-player characters (or NPCs) or simply being in the right place at the right time. The player then completes these quests to gain more experience, new and improved abilities, or just for the sheer fun of taking down a helicopter with a scoped 9mm handgun. The novelty of sandbox games is that while there often is an over-arching story, quests can often be completed in any order, and there’s lots of extraneous game play not related to the main storyline. An NPC can ask that you escort her kindly mother to church, you can agree to help out, and then spend the next ten hours on the complete other side of the map collecting golden flowerpots or jumping stolen motorcycles off of rooftops while granny theoretically waits patiently in her Sunday best. Theoretically, I say, because time never works normally in sandbox games. Plot points are triggered when certain combinations of quests are completed, so even though some super villain threatens to blow up the world in three hours at the outset of the game, he will actually hold off for as many hours of game play as you desire, until you decide to enjoin the final quest and face the main baddie.


Due to their open-world, multi-directional nature, most sandbox games don’t lend themselves to a similar type of online play. A sandbox game with true online play would behave more like an MMORPG, with players acting independently in different areas of the map. Because sandbox games have a narrative that is advanced by in-game triggers, you can’t rightly have someone moving the story right along at a rapid pace while you’re still at the starting gate figuring out how to open your inventory screen. For this reason, most co-operative game play for sandbox style games involve special matches of Capture the Flag or team-on-team assault. These matches can be fun and rewarding, but they are far from the open-world experience of a true sandbox experience. The only co-operative game I know of that offers such an experience is Minecraft, an independently-produced game of such depth and breadth that I will likely need to dedicate an entirely new essay in order to describe and define it.


Many people look down on co-operative online video gaming, as they probably do video games themselves, as being perpetual time-wasters with no redeeming real world value. However, when I remember my own childhood, I recall whiling away the hours watching television re-runs, or listening to the same album twenty times in a row, or doodling on every page of a notepad and then summarily discarding it in the trash. Most of our moments are not enriching life experiences, we spend a lot of time spacing out and standing in line. While it is true that slaying a video game dragon will result in no actual corpse, the shared experience of solving puzzles, discerning patterns, and gamers just bullshitting with each other is authentic and observable. Perhaps online social interaction pales in comparison with meeting in real life, but as the Information Age gains momentum, that might be less true going forward. The internet is a great equalizer, a point made obvious when you join a team of people from around the world, of nearly every age and background, and combine to annihilate a similar ragtag bunch on the same server. Then, some eleven year-old kid in Wheelies fires three bullets into your virtual cranium, in between contemplative bites of Lucky Charms cereal, and sends you to digital oblivion. And then, in his innocent, high-pitched voice, he calls your mother a slutty whore and suggests that you eat shit and expire.

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