Inside Job: A Love Letter to Video Games

Well, nearly a year has passed, and this column is winding down. It was an experimental undertaking, and perhaps it’s because I feel enormously privileged to have had this opportunity with The Escapist that I am also feeling the need to close on a high note.

One of the most difficult things about discussing “quality of life”, as any advocate will tell you, is that it means something different to every person you ask abaout it. That sense of ‘quality’ is elusive; it’s a huge Katamari composed of all kinds of factors from physical and mental health to a sense of fulfillment, creativity, challenge, camaraderie, innovation, security, investment, meaning – all in different measures depending on the particular alchemy of one’s personality. It’s a moving target, and it’s hard to hit.

Perhaps one of the most abstract, but most addressable, discussion points, then, is what we do like about this crazy business. Geeks in general tend to have a cynical outer shell, usually to hide a hidden idealist from the brutalities of the outer world, so it can be a challenging conversation to start. But an important one.

Most importantly, we need to remember why we’re here.

Why I Love Gamers

In 2004, I almost left the industry. I was in final round interviews with Qualcomm, in fact. After Black9 (and after Shadowbane, which is another story), I was exhausted and disillusioned. My simple anger painstakingly fermented into a robust and complex beast suckled on office politics, publisher extortion, and plain old-fashioned ineptitude. But most importantly, I was out of cash and needed a job. I had less than five years’ full time experience and the industry was going through a dry spell. But before Qualcomm finished its hiring process, my husband Lan got the job at EA; the fate that led us to Los Angeles was as simple as their hiring speed exceeding the telecom giant’s.

The rest is history. After EA, I would have been well and truly done if it weren’t for one thing: the gaming community.

When I wrote the ea_spouse essay it would have been simplicity itself for the community to ignore it, to respond with disillusionment, or apathy. It would have been as easy as inaction.

But they didn’t. You didn’t. Gamers – and make no mistake, this response came from the game fan community, not from developers – called newspapers, forwarded links, posted blogs, banged on doors. The developer community whispered it faster than the public did, passed it more rapidly; but the fan community acted. I did nothing; I posted one link to the essay on the “gamedevelopers” community on livejournal (which at the time was composed largely of students; in 2004 it had 350 members, and today has about 870), and then I let it go.

I think subconsciously I was testing the community. I wanted to see what would happen. I needed to know if anyone cared.

And they did. They cared a lot. It took less than 36 hours for the LA Time to call, and that call was a direct result of another phone call made by a fervently infuriated gamer.

Gamers have bigger hearts than they’d like to admit. And they have far more power than they know.

That’s why I’m still here.

The Tribe

Gamers are a fractious lot; it’s hard to figure out what it is that unites us as a community. For one thing, most of us are flat-out too smart for our own good, and as a result, dairy cows are, by and large, happier creatures. Give them grass and sun and water and they’re good to go.

Not so, gamers. Gamers need to be challenged, and this persistent pursuit of challenge is the essence of heroism.

When we philosophically inspect the roots of thematic resonance in videogames as a whole, what we find is active heroism. We find epic storytelling and high adventure, the brave defending the innocent and the righteous overthrowing the corrupt. I assert that this is more than the inevitable propagation of a simple mechanic (Defender taken to the nth level); it is the essence of a generation, the essence of a subculture.

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It’s about being a dragonslayer and a WW2 war hero, a vigilante and a rock star. It’s about leading a team of warriors into battle to save the world. This is the context of our passion and our violence. It’s because, god damn it, something matters to us, and if that’s unacceptable to society, that’s society’s problem. The essence of public videogame misunderstanding comes from outside judgment on what a player appears to be doing without asking them what they are experiencing, what drives them to passionate action. In a videogame, it’s usually an act of heroism. Break into a building and abscond with a sleeping infant and you might be engaging in burglary and abduction, but if the building’s on fire, society’s judgment is going to be different. Context is king.

But passion of any kind is a frightening thing. It’s scary to a society that doesn’t understand you. But we should never, ever apologize for it, because we all have it in us to be heroes.

That is what unites us as a tribe. Some call it escapism, as if that word should be spoken with disdain – without asking what it is in the world that so many millions of people apparently desire to escape. Gamers, and game developers, whether they like to admit it or not (it isn’t, after all, macho), possess as a subculture a unique empathic intelligence that gives rise to a desire for heroism. And in that heroism there can be vision.

An Age of Vision

“After centuries of dreams and prophecies, the moment had come. Man had broken his terrestrial shackles for the first time and set foot on another world. Standing on the lifeless, rock-studded surface he could see the earth, a lovely blue and white hemisphere suspended in the velvety black sky. The spectacular view might well help him place his problems, as well as his world, in a new perspective.

Although the Apollo 11 astronauts placed an American flag on the moon, their feat was far more than a national triumph. It was a stunning scientific and intellectual accomplishment for a creature who, in the space of a few million years – an instant in evolutionary chronology – emerged from primeval forests to hurl himself at the stars. Its eventual effect on human civilization is a matter of conjecture. But it was in any event a shining reaffirmation of the optimistic premise that whatever man imagines he can bring to pass.”

– Leon Jaroff, Time Magazine, “A Giant Leap for Mankind”, July 25, 1969

Throughout the odyssey of the quality of life ‘general mission’, I have always maintained that the reason why we must demand better treatment is because we are capable, as a community, of better. We are deserving of better. This community as a group possesses enough vision for a thousand countries, enough dreams and passion for a world unto itself. There is what some might call a peculiar correlation between game developers and space program aficionados; from the perspective of future vision, it makes perfect sense. Those who can envision and desire to enact fantasy and science fiction, to mold these visions out of digital paint and code, are fascinated with the stars, and with the future ascent of humankind.

We stand on the threshold of an age of vision. The signs are all present that we are witnessing videogames’ greatest growth period, its final and triumphant breakdown of the barriers into the mainstream. Games are being picked up by seniors and toddlers, by housewives and scientists. As Richard Bartle says, we’ve already won. But with that victory comes vast potential, even vast responsibility, and the ride’s not over yet. This might be the most exciting time to be working in videogames – and it might also be one of the most influential.

This month’s Inside Job is about vision. It’s about why we’re here, and what we have that’s worth fighting for.

If you ever stay in a job, anywhere, because it’s what you can do, not what you want to do, it’s time for a break.

I’ll stand up for you. You stood up for me.

Thank you.

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