I’ve just finished reading Tom Bissel’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, in which Bissel simultaneously lauds games for their benefits and foils them in a following sentence. Even through to its conclusion, there’s never a single moment where the titular statement is followed by a colon and plain answer. Which to me, a gamer constantly tugging at any ears within reach to talk about how important this or that game is, is actually quite comforting.
Games cannot be equated to lead in your water. Neither are they like getting good sleep. Just like any other medium, asking “Why do books/TV/film matter” poses a colossal question to the unprepared and can feel a little silly to answer. We can consider their high-brow cultural implications, their destructive lessons, or talk about how downright fun they can be. To get into the nitty gritty, we’d really need to define what it means for something to “matter” at all. But for the sake of brevity, let’s say we’re not going to go down the nihilist’s rabbit hole for a moment, and instead presuppose that we can derive meaningful, and negative, experiences from media - books, TV, film, games - all of it.
I’d like to step up to my soapbox and offer a slight modification to Bissell’s titular statement: “Why video games matter” to “Why video games matter (more).” The “more” I’d like to explore are games’ untapped capability and potency to teach the humanities through their most interesting narrative quirk: input.
Barring oral storytelling and participating in theatre, other mediums are structurally regurgitory, offering their content to whomever comes across its page, screen, or canvas. Input allows us bring the observed experience closer to personal experiences. Input also makes games a little scarier too - there’s less distance to place between consumer and author; players actively punch in input to make things happen. With input, we own the experience. All the same as observing versus doing, a player committing a high-octane genocide against nameless hordes of grunting enemies can be a bit disturbing, and even perhaps invite polarized arguments regarding to what capacity video games “matter.”
The scene above plays a bit into the banal at this point, but it still achieves the power fantasy that humans ubiquitously crave (format may vary). I’d argue that making players act as unstoppable powerful soldiers a la Call of Duty is easier (and therefore more frequently) designed than games that ask you to act as a good wholesome human of the earth. To clarify, I don’t mean games that ask you pay your taxes on time and be kind - no. I mean games that point straight back it its player and ask difficult and slippery questions; questions like “Who am I?” and “What’s my purpose?” Questions that are constantly shaping how we see ourselves and the world around us.
Take a game like The Stanley Parable in which the player plays as Stanley, an office employee who one day gets out of his office chair to discover everyone in the office is gone, save for a narrator constantly trying to verbally nudge Stanley towards an answer to the mystery. Its input is simple, players can only walk around, look, and perform some basic interactions like push buttons or open doors. The game isn’t about solving some mystery of what happened though, rather it’s about the player constantly trying to work against the narrator.
The game opens with only one path for players to go down, and the narrator casually commenting on what the player is actively doing. Eventually arriving in a room with two open doors, the narrator simply states that “Stanley went through the door on the left,” before the player has a chance to walk through it. Being in control of Stanley, players can walk through either door. Throughout the game, choosing to disobey the narrator often spins the story into numerous dizzying directions that often conclude in morbid consequence, while following the narrator completely leads to a very stock-feeling “happy” ending.
Curiously enough, the stock happy ending also takes control away from the player in the final sequence, only allowing players to watch as Stanley is told he found true happiness by the narrator. In all other endings, the player has full control right up to the (usually) catastrophic end.
To my interpretation, The Stanley Parable asks the player to grapple with two schools of thought:
Can we be truly happy if every action is prescribed to us without chance for failure?
If free will involves failure, is making a choice itself more satisfying than no choice regardless of consequence?
The implicit question then being, what balance of these two ideals do players find satisfying? How much is too much free will? How much is not enough? How far will a player go to foil the narrator before they begin to pity him somewhat (though he is a narrator, he frequently emotes his distaste for Stanley’s disobedience)?
Players aren’t watching the events play out. They don’t experience philosophical conundrum via another character - games are affecting because they are owned. I chose to abandon the narrator countless times. I chose to follow his instructions. I chose to trust him when I entered new territory. I chose to just close Stanley’s office door, after which the narrator suddenly calls me out and pouts that once again, I ruined the story. By choosing to manipulate simple inputs, players organically arrive at the numbered contemplations above in a fashion no other medium could provide.
In the right hands, The Stanley Parable could be a powerful teaching tool that pries open an introspective window otherwise shut or unseen. I’ve had my fair share of highfalutin far-out talks with friends (and people I’ve bought the game for and demanded discussion), and though the game doesn’t resonate with everyone in the same way it does with me, it unfailingly offers up sharp conversation. Whether about the personal experience or its raw game play, The Stanley Parable seems to always set the foundation for some clever topic.
This depth isn’t omnipresent in games unfortunately, but just as every writing does not make for great teachable literature, there are games that make better lessons than others.
Thankfully, this game isn’t alone. Games that point back at the player to discover difficult questions are rare, but not necessarily numbered - as the medium matures, more continue to emerge. Games like Undertale, Night in the Woods, Journey, SUPERHOT, NieR:Automata, Transistor, and Bioshock all offer spaces for player to seek out those gnarled questions of the humanities. Not just through the stories they tell in cinematic cut scenes or with text, but through the very nature of the player providing input.
Input can be tricky though. I’ve seen many shy away from great experiences due to feeling overwhelmed with managing input. I would assert that just as someone who has never read a book before might pick up Hamlet and perhaps feel lost, jumping head first into games is equally, if not far more, challenging. After all, games are designed to be difficult to get through, and so with an incredibly complex tool like input to master, a portion of what games offer is lost. Which is and ought to be considered more of a shame.
Input allows us the opportunity to peer more personally into the quagmire of our brains by asking players to actively carry out actions for better and for worse. Games can call into question our own actions within meaningful simulations, often crystallizing personal memories rather than ancillary recollections of some other character.
Input affords games the unique ability to create owned experiences. Players have the chance to not only reflect on an observed character’s actions but can also reflect on their own. As Bissell summarizes “I do know that video games have enriched my life. Of that I have no doubt. They have also done damage to my life. Of that I have no doubt... So what have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories.”