As anyone who’s ever dropped in on a particularly intense session of gaming can tell you, there are many types of gamer frowns. First, there’s the sort of grimace provoked by extreme exasperation, typically characterized by clenched teeth and twitching facial muscles. Keen-eyed observers will also be familiar with the expression which I dub “the mask of intensity”: eyebrows scrunched together, lips stonily unvarying for the duration of the session. When a player assumes the mask of intensity, you know that disturbing her will bring you a fate worse than death.
You won’t find many gamers who giggle with glee as they click and tap their way late into the night – but that is easily explainable in the context of other, similarly engaging pursuits. Did Leonard Bernstein smile as he stepped up to the conducting platform with baton in hand? Or that great philosopher, Plato, who is said to never have smiled once in the presence of others, let alone give way to unbounded merriment? Gamers rarely smile because they know the gravity of the responsibility conferred upon them. Every day, at every hour, some great danger threatens the world, looming darkly over the horizon as the populace mills on, unconscious and unawares. Thus, gamers sacrifice their time to honor their greatest and noblest obligation: to become enlightened and find peace and resolution. The vicarious aspect of the experience doesn’t make it any less real. Did anybody, after reading the untouchable classic Flowers for Algernon, willingly finish dry eyed? Females, recall the climactic moments of Titanic. Admit it – your hearts fluttered, your breath left you and you staggered from the theater as dazed as the film’s hapless heroine herself.
“Gaming” is a rather misleading term. It summons to the mind images of lighthearted, frolicsome merriment, of dancing and laughter and joy and the carefree things in life, of merry-go-rounds and ponies and frivolous entertainment. Gaming is an exertion, and its effectiveness resides on two levels: its external purpose as a form of entertainment (that is, as a way of spending one’s leisure hours in pleasurable occupation), and its internal objective (or the purpose set forth by the game itself, the mission the player strives to accomplish in order to progress further). We all know “it’s just a game” – that’s the external purpose, the ostensible rationale for spending a couple of hours straining wrists and eyes in front of a screen. However, at some point during the game, the external meaning imposed upon the experience recedes to the background, and the player is only conscious of the immediate here-and-now of the game’s internal objective. She slips effortlessly into the role decreed by the game, and the game takes on a greater meaning than what the real world has determined. At this critical juncture, a gamer never smiles, because she has ceased to become a gamer.
I remember my first encounter with BioShock, and with a shiver I recall the tossing seas, the sense of impending doom that accompanied the decisive clanking-shut of the door of the bathysphere as I descended the icy depths of the waters to enter a fading dystopia littered with eerily cheerful post-war artifacts. Something unidentifiable but appropriately mirthless played in the background: I catch a hint of cellos. The grimy walkways and fading paint all bespeak years of neglect. And of course, the sole living creatures within easy reach are all victims of a social experiment gone horribly wrong. Naturally, it was necessary to take up the mantle of the intervening role. What better reason did I need to linger in front of the computer far into the wee hours with bloodshot eyes?
Games must be violently tragic to qualify for an all-nighter. The very moment your eyes are scanning these words, an atrocious number of humans scattered across the planet are leaning intently into computer monitors, their faces lit by the glow of the screen as they battle deep into the night against some evil power. I’ve been guilty of more than my share of gaming marathons, emerging haggardly but triumphantly from the fray as daylight crept in. Some of you might smile furtively as you vaguely recall some episode of gaming mania that struck you and held you fast in its grasp until you vanquished the final boss, looked up at the clock and turned in for a few hours’ worth of shut-eye. Others will shake their heads in incredulity at such single-minded devotion to the gaming altar.
Yet there is nothing more gratifying than being cornered by a gaggle of bloodthirsty beasts with the solid reassurance (in the form of a serviceable bullet-spraying device) of being able to do something about it. Every time we sit down to a good dose of guns, doom and gloom, we make up for all the hours, days and weeks of everyday life. It might seem odd to some that such pleasure could be found in gloom. Gaming is supposed to divert us from the tragedy of our own lives, after all. In truth, however, gaming isn’t about diversion – it’s about diving into the deepest part of our consciousness, the unexplored regions of humanity which our mundane existences foreclose. Gaming is an outlet for the imagination that finds itself frustrated by the exacting demands of a conventional society sterilized of risks.
Let’s visualize the alternative. Imagine, for instance, sneaking to your computer in the dead of night. It was too much to have left Diner Dash alone – you were on the nth level and virtually moments away from a high score. Fingers twitching, you slide into your seat, where you remain until the crack of dawn.
No, assuredly quite impossible. I would blush to admit having succumbed to a caper like that. Yielding once or twice to the lure of lighter fare is forgivable. But regular playing of happy, deliberately smile-inducing games? The very thought is unwholesome.
As Leo Tolstoy wisely remarked in his novel Anna Karenina, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but happy families are all alike. Tragedy naturally gives rise to variety. Can you imagine how much of a dearth of excellent games there would be if guns and doom were banned? No doubt there are those who point to the predominantly male portion of the gaming population as the primary reason for the popularity of gloomy, gun-driven games. Those same people would do well to note that the conceptualization of the testosterone-driven player swilling cans of beer as he pilots his gun-toting avatar through successive waves of enemy soldiers is rapidly going the way of the gramophone and the VCR: something that nobody would remember but for your great-aunt Sophie. Instead, I’d argue our preoccupation with aggression and melancholy reflects the fascination that such subjects have always held for humans. Shakespeare’s most popular plays are his tragedies; thus, we remember Romeo and Juliet but not Orsino and Viola of the comedic Twelfth Night.
Gaming must be oppressive. Tetris, while thoroughly amusing, is not a serious extracurricular pursuit. We are in a continual struggle against our baser instincts. Gaming gives us a way to get into touch with our profounder selves, to access that deeply buried part of our personality which longs to break free of the suffocating confines of the routine. Casual games, with their eagerness to amuse and painfully diligent efforts to reward the player with points gained and bonuses earned, lacks the dignity of tragic heroism. Thus, I embrace the doom and gloom. My conscience wouldn’t be able to answer for it otherwise.
Christina J.C. Hsieh is currently marooned on a small mosquito-ridden island in the subtropics off of continental Asia.