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.
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.