Why would any halfway sentient person still play video games as an adult, and even take them seriously? (And it should be person, not man, of course — the preponderance of dudes and dude-oriented nonsense around video games is just an accident of history and sexism and ingrown stupidity, and is on the wane.) The best answer I can come up with is that the world is a terrible place, and it certainly doesn’t get any less terrible when you stop being a kid. Playing a video game is taking a vacation in a world that’s a little less terrible, and in a specific way.
One of the worst things about the real world is the uncertainty, the constant, niggling, grating awareness that we don’t quite know what’s going on. It is, in a sense, just a nightmarishly terrible game: We know there are rules, of a sort — we know there are things we probably should be doing and things we shouldn’t, and better and worse ways to do those things. We know that the choices we make — from whom to marry to whether to yell at a stranger in the street to, I don’t know, whether to mansplain video games — will have consequences, of some kind, at some point, somewhere, in our lives or the lives of others. But that’s it. We’re never told if we did the right thing, or what the right thing was, or anything else. We keep playing and playing and the score never comes.
A video game is a tiny, stupid world. Even in the most sophisticated there are only about five things you can actually do, and it’s usually some mix of killing things and preparing to kill; half the time it feels like you’re staring at some twitching hybrid of a spreadsheet and a snuff film. If you play too long you end up feeling awful — crampy, grit-eyed, obscurely guilty. But the tiny, stupid world of a video game is suffused with meaning, and with clarity. Each one of those five stupid actions was put there, on purpose, for you to do; when you do one of them, you know you were supposed to do it — you’re told that you did it, you’re told if you did it right, and then you’re told to do it again.
For example: Off and on for the past year, when feeling especially dire, I’ve been playing a game called Bloodborne. It has a convoluted plot involving werewolves, plague, witches, werewolf priests, various cribs from Lovecraft, and a whole bunch else — but when playing it, all you do is hit a few buttons to walk around, and hit a couple others to swing a weapon at various disgusting monsters. If you walk and swing correctly, blood gushes rather nonsensically from the monsters, various numbers go up, and you get to keep walking; if you screw it up, the words YOU DIED come up on the screen, some numbers go down, you wait a few seconds, and you try again. Every now and then you take a break to look at some other numbers and maybe switch hats (your character’s hat, I mean).
That’s really it. Sometimes when I’m playing I can hear my books making fun of me. But I keep playing, because playing it feels great. Everything in it has meaning: each bit of corridor my character walks down was placed there for me to see; each monster moves according to its own little set of rules, for me to interpret and respond to. The whole silly conglomeration of computer-rendered zombie-birds and axe-hit sound effects moves in unison, and in unison with me. It’s limited — horribly limited — but not just by current technology, by its designers’ imaginations, by the ingrained idiocies of the form. It’s limited the way a glove is limited by the hand that’s meant to wear it.
It’s not that you’re important in the game, that you’re the hero or savior or whatever (though in most games you are); it’s that you fit. The game is a machine, and while you play it you are a part of that machine. Not an anxious, uncertain human being, but a peacefully whirring component.
Some games use this solid base of purpose and clarity to build some larger structure of meaning — to subvert the player’s comfort, say (there have been a number of recent games that attempt to make the player feel bad for participating in simulated violence, for instance, even while the whole game is built upon that same violence), or to use that comfort as a base for empathy or creativity. Bloodborne, at its best, twists its pulp-collage plot and general mood of icky horror into a mirror of the player’s own predicament playing the game: a strange mix of persistent failure and perverse persistence, of exhaustion and elation, dread and joy blurring into each other.
I’d love for more games to do that kind of thing, and do it better. But I don’t think any of that is why people play games, deep down. The Austrian novelist Robert Musil wrote that, whether we realize it or not, we are all always aware of our “strange cosmic situation,” of the unanswerable questions of being alive: “Death, the tininess of the earth, the dubious illusion of the self, the senselessness of existence, which becomes more pressing with the years: these are questions at which the average person scoffs, but which he nonetheless feels surrounding him all life like the walls of dark room.” I think people play games because they let us spend a little time in a different room: smaller, sillier, uglier, but with the lights on bright.