Magic Carpet (1994)

On gaming as escapism

Every day, people more ambitious and motivated than myself are thinking up new and exciting reasons for why people should be playing video games. A hobby once derided is now a way of teaching people about the world. Theorists like Jane McGonigal dream of applying game design principles to meatspace problems both urgent and mundane. And as the tools of the trade become increasingly accessible and powerful, creators are turning away from the idea of video games as mindless entertainment, and towards the notion of the game as a thoroughly modern medium of self-expression.

It is no longer totally implausible to catch a glimpse of Kevin Spacey’s sleazy congressman Frank Underwood playing a little Killzone 3 in between visits to the ballet. We are beginning to acknowledge that what goes on in a player’s mind might not be so simple as their mesmerised expression might suggest. Games (so we’re told) can be a kind of mental gym, bringing actual personal and social benefits that outweigh the old stereotypes about sad, overweight men living in a basement not their own.

And yet I find it difficult to relate to many of the serious arguments mustered in defence of video games. It’s not that I think they’re wrong; it’s just that they bear very little resemblance to how I feel about the games I play and love.

Somebody — a non-gamer — recently asked me recently what kind of games I like. I play by myself, I said, and not often with others. I like a curated experience. I like to be told a story. I like to go to a place and be there and do things in another world for a while. And I thought afterwards that all of this adds up to something pretty simple: I want to be somewhere outside myself for a while.

Is this all right?

It feels like a child’s argument, as though I were saying: I want to get away from here because the world is bad. And perhaps it was bad, once. I recall how, in my younger and more vulnerable years, I would hurry home from school thinking only of that brief window between my return and my parents coming back from work when I’d be alone with my game. In my mind I was actually plugging myself into the computer, journeying inside it like in the movies I’d seen…

I couldn’t talk about video games in this way now and expect to be treated like a serious person. That way lies the old stereotype of the sad man in the basement. To express an urge to escape adult society is to admit that something is wrong with your world, and that you might as well have given up trying to fix it.

But in truth, I’ve never really believed in ‘growing up’. People don’t somehow evolve into a better creature once they leave their teens: they just build on what they already have. They might accumulate more experience, but the essence of their personality contains an unchanging default to which they will forever return if given the opportunity. Perhaps we ought not to be ashamed to nurture this default from time to time.