Diary: Gaming and the Psyche

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Recently, I’ve been playing a game called Bioshock.

In gaming parlance, it’s an “FPS” — a “first person shooter” — which basically means that the screen shows what you’d see from the protagonist’s eyes, i.e. in first person, hence the term. You’re given a variety of weapons and abilities — in the case of Bioshock, genetic mutations called “plasmids” that do everything from shoot lightning bolts to creating sonic booms — and given a mission to complete, often involving your survival and other heavy themes.

It’s a lot of fun. But something I found even more interesting is the way it manages to draw you in. Because you see, for the few minutes that occur from the moment I boot up the game to the moment where I click the “exit to Windows” tab, I am transformed into the game protagonist. I share his goals, his ideas, his values. My real-world goals are replaced with “I need to find additional plasmids” or “I need to progress to the next area”.

While some may find this troubling, I find it extremely fascinating. No other form of mass media has this much finesse in exploiting our pathos to this degree; in movies, we are the audience, sitting in a comfortable seat, watching a third person living his or her own fantastical story. Not so in the game world; you create a character, you live a character, and you die (and get reborn) as a character. And this leads us to identify with “our” character in ways that films, or books, never can. We escape into the mind of a different person entirely, with completely different goals, means of survival, and atmosphere.

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Going back to Bioshock, the game features an intricate setting rich in atmosphere and detail. There are many nooks and crannies that “I” can explore; pick up diaries that tell me more about the backstory of the setting; and even determine the progress of the story as I see fit. In movies, we are but passive watchers, simply following; in books, we read the exploits of the characters — identifying, yes, but never interfering. In games, the objective is to interfere; to be active participants.

That is partially the reason, I believe, why games are so — quote-on-quote — addicting. Games get a bad rap. Many horror stories exist about how fine, decent men and women had sucked themselves in to a fantasy world, re-emerging only intermittently into the real world. However, I believe that speaks more about the sheer magnitude of compelling games that exist, more so than the addictiveness of games as a medium. As with any other form of entertainment, it is up to the user to determine how far he or she wants to invest in a particular form of leisure. With games, the fact that we become the protagonist is enough to get us invested. A compelling story, a vast world to explore, a satisfying stress relief system, and a chance to escape reality are only bonuses. Films give you 2-3 hours of entertainment. Games can offer so much more.

I’m off to play some more Bioshock.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jake Was Here says:

    The great thing about Bioshock is that it actually ADDRESSES the issue of “becoming” the protagonist. I don’t know how far you’ve gotten in the game, so I won’t say any more about it than this: How sure are you that you’re an ACTIVE participant in the story?

    1. I just finished that part! Really came as a shocker. But then what about all the Atlas posters, and the guy in the submarine area?? Questions, questions…

      1. jakesbrain says:

        Oh, “Atlas” has been working his scheme for quite some time. If he can’t overthrow Ryan in one way, he’ll do it another — no matter who he has to lie to.

        But the real meat of it is: I suppose all those text boxes listing your objectives and the arrow pointing you in the proper direction look significantly different to you now.

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