The other day I played Dragon Quest V with the sole purpose of going to sleep. As videogame lullabys come, only Animal Crossing and Electroplankton can really give it a run for its money. This was the first time I had played a game for this purpose (as a sleep aid) and in that moment, about five minutes before my eyelids got really heavy, I realized the way I play videogames has fundamentally changed.
There was a time in my life when playing videogames was a kind of sacred ritual. The room had to be dark, the sound loud and outside distractions far away. Now I play games surrounded by distractions: the TV is on, I’m on the phone talking to my brother, alt+tabbing between a game and websites is a way of life. This past evening was no different. I sat playing Aquaria while my girlfriend watched The Real Housewives of New York scream at each other on TV. We talked about the program while my mer-person flitted about the game’s caverns. Tiring of that after a half hour or so, I logged onto World of Warcraft to talk smack at a few guild mates before logging back off to watch Chelsea Lately.
This is the way I prefer to consume videogames as of late, within the context of a larger and ever flowing stream of media. The days of descending into a darkened basement temple to partake in a videogame ceremony are rapidly coming to close, and not only because I no longer have a basement. Videogames are so ubiquitous in daily life, and the choices so many, that they’ve become commonplace, almost as disposable as a magazine. Now I don’t want this to conjure up images of me, Scrooge McDuck like, swimming through a pool of videogames. Although it does, at times, feel like that.
There was a point in the mid nineties when Electronics Boutique and Babbage’s, back before they merged into the mighty Gamestop, really felt like boutiques with a few people milling about and bored sales clerks willing to talk the day away. It was wise to actually reserve games because they really did sell out, and true triple-A titles were more like a biannual event. Now they are dens of nerd iniquity, overflowing with carefully chosen product and a phalanx of cashiers doing everything they can to handle the droves. XBLA, PCs, the iPhone and the used games market offer endless choices at prices everyone can afford.
In this environment, gaming isn’t an event anymore and there’s no defined way to play that forces me to treat them that way. It’s unlike the movies where, despite the enormous amount of films available from home viewing, we all still corral ourselves into a darkened public space and stay quiet for two hours. Console games are kind of the last vestiges of the idea that games deserve a special time and place, separate from all our other activities. Yet, with this generation that notion is also quickly crumbling.
Consoles offer choice now. There was commitment in putting a game into the system; now, playing my Xbox 360 feels a lot like watching TV. I can start it up remotely, choose to play the main event or think about a few minutes with my many side courses of games like Pac-Man CE. Congratulations Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, I now think of your respective systems as media hubs.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pining for the days of fewer games to return, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who dim the lights and get lost in them for a few hours. But I do think games are changing to reflect the fact that, while we play them more, our time spent deeply engaged with them is shrinking. It is for me, anyway. What’s interesting though, is that if they’re done right, like Dragon Warrior V is, with quicksaves and the like, I find myself actually playing games over a longer, albeit less affecting, period of time. Am I totally engrossed in the legend of Zenithia? Not really. But in only playing for thirty minutes each night, and in having the game only require me to play for that short period of time (so far), I don’t find myself with the usual litany of frustrations long games like JRPG’s often inspire. Quite the opposite in fact, as the game sprinkles it’s pixelated sleep dust over my head.
The games I increasingly find myself drawn to are, to use a truly heinous quote, a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll. Or in this case, a little bit casual and a little bit hardcore. Games like WoW, Patapon 2 and console games like Little Big Planet. It’s easy in and easy out; a little bit of fun on video2 during Lost commerical breaks on video5. I’ll always make time for the Metal Gear Solids and Final Fantasy whatevers, but like movies, the time I make for them will be less frequent; I can’t play them every day of the week. Nor do I have the desire to disappear for a few hours a night completely shut off from the rest of the media flowing through my apartment.
It’s all got to blend together: Rock of Love, the new Yeah Yeah Yeah’s album an And Yet It Moves. Fortunately, I’ve found that this new media amalgamation has the cumulative effect of making for nightly experience that is alternately trashy, tranquilizing and, on occasion, transcendent.
Tom Endo will be sleeping like a baby over the next 120 days or so.