Why Play Video Games? A Story.
Author’s Note: I wrote this story a long time ago when I was in a really dark place. I used to read it whenever I felt discouraged about writing or just in a rough patch. Reading it again, I felt like this was something that could brighten up someone’s day so I’m sharing it here. Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy it.
A few years ago, I went to my writing class with a piece I was pretty confident about. The story had solid characters and the themes really came to life as the plot developed. Once I got to class, I volunteered to have it critiqued.
From a third-person point of view, it was pretty tame: “Work on breathing more life and character into your characters” and “you didn’t establish how this character functions” were the most common criticisms. My reaction was a simple, “Oh, I didn’t see that. I’ll work on it.” While I didn’t show it, those criticisms put me in an existential crisis. Not because they were criticisms, I’m used to taking and improving from points like that, but because they were the most recent additions to a long line of doubts I’d been having about my life.
What am I doing with my life? Am I happy?
While I didn’t show it, the criticisms made me take a step back and wonder whether I was actually a good writer.
Should I even continue down this path?
That night, I drove back to my place and just laid in bed. I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t. I just laid there, eyes boring a hole into my ceiling. I hadn’t even changed out of my day clothes.
What should I do with my life? I asked myself again. I could keep working on this story and perfect it. I could prove to myself and to everyone else that I’m not terrible at this. But why? Why do that when I could be doing something I enjoy more? I sat up for a second and asked myself, “what do I enjoy more than writing?” I turned my head to the bed stand. Luckily the answer was right next to me — It was my blue 3DS with Monster Hunter 4.
See, I’ve been having this problem with video games that goes hand-in-hand with my crippling self-doubt about my writing. Whenever I play a game, all I can think about is that I should be writing. Every minute I spend wasting my time moving pixels around a tiny screen is a minute I could be writing something useful to someone.
Which brings me to this simple question: “Why play video games?”
What’s the point of it? Why bother spending hours of your day on something like this when you could be out doing something productive? After all, “normal” people spend hours of their day going to sports games, throwing around cash for car upgrades, or spending ludicrous amounts of money on drugs, sex, concerts, and impressing their preferred gender.
But what do games do? Are they a smarter way to spend your money? After all, some games encourage socializing with people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. But, after enough time, they’ll cost as much money as an upgrade for a car with less utility. A console alone is worth practically several nights worth of partying and they don’t usually impress your preferred gender very often. If anything, video games create this strange sense of unity with people who play it and alienation from people that just don’t understand it. Is that worth it?
My thoughts spiraled around these questions. While lost in thought, I decided to pick up my 3DS and open it up. It snapped on and showed me where I left off — I had just begun hunting a dragon called a Seregios. It looked like a chicken that slipped into a pool filled with cutlery. The resulting nightmare was exactly what I had to hunt in order to continue with the game. I accepted the quest and surged forward with some sense of purpose. I may suck at writing but I know I’m at least good at this.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Shit. That stupid bird is hard.
I died time and time again. I’d get close to ending the damn thing, but then one small misstep would send me tumbling backward, bleeding and beaten, back to base. During one of these attempts, I had to return to camp and my character had to take a nap to recover some health. As he laid there, staring up at the ceiling and sleeping, I realized he was in the same position as me. He was stuck against a frustrating wall that seemed insurmountable, recovering from the bruises and beatings life had inflicted on him. The difference was that he shuffled out of his bed, wiped the drowsiness from his eyes, and rejoined the hunt. I on the other hand was still stuck in bed, wondering about my life within the next few years. I failed again against that stupid bladed chicken and, as frustration reared its ever-hated head, I noticed something else. Every time I tried, I was getting closer and closer to perfection. I was able to see myself learning and improving with every run, and every single time I tried, even if it would end disastrously within the first few seconds, I knew I was getting better.
Is the bird on the ground? Awesome, put in two slashes then dodge past its talon swipes and tail. I’ve died from this mistake at least 4 times. Shooting blades at me? Shields up, block and dodge. If I got hit, pick myself up and stop the bleeding. I’ve died from this 3 times. Flying forward for a double kick? Stay to the side. That lesson is supposed to be dragon hunting 101 — never face a dragon head-on unless you’re ready to take the hit. I’ve died from this 8 times.
The entire fight ceased to be a hopeless struggle and instead became an elaborate dance. Sometimes the dragon gave me a tell and I would just react — rolling out of the area it was striking at and replying with my own flurry of swings without a thought. Other times, I would make a mistake, but recover faster than any of my previous attempts. This frantic waltz of blades wound to an end when my foe collapsed to the floor.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, I’m done. I did it.
In my euphoric celebrations, another realization dawned on me. The fears I was facing that scared me from improving my writing and my own journey about validating my self-worth through my strengths — it was just like this entire hunt. It didn’t matter how many times I would be beaten or how many times I was forced to face my own flaws or even how impossible the dragon looked. What mattered more was the number of times I picked myself up, learned from my mistakes, and accepted the challenge. After all, I was able to slay a dragon with a few hours worth of persistence. What would happen to my writing with a years worth of persistence?
Much like the dragon I had just slain, the obstacles in my life were nothing more than stepping stones leading to a better me. In this same sense, carving up the damned thing and wearing it as armor served as a reminder that I had not only conquered these obstacles, but I had accepted them into my life, mastered them, and become stronger for my troubles. Video games in this sense are no longer just tools you can escape reality with, but metaphors for life that you can interact with and truly feel. The final message will vary based on what game you’re playing, but that’s where the beauty of interacting with these fictional universes lie. Once the console is turned off, and the controller is no longer in your hands, that final message will always be something you’ll carry in your life.
The late Terry Pratchett touched on this idea when he once said, “Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can.”
Or in the words of Neil Gaiman: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”