Tales of Old Warcraft
For the past week, I’ve conducted the same ritual. Every evening I would dig into my personal files and hunt down threads of projects that I’ve either finished or left incomplete. I found old essays written for my high school newspaper, scripts from plays, and a trove of narratives or poems.
Yet perhaps the most charming of all these artifacts is my work in game journalism. I was successful blogger for a very niche market: Warcraft 3 maps. I wrote over 20 formal articles, conducted high-profile interviews with the best map makers, and wrote many more paragraph-length comments critiquing custom maps built by the community of ten thousand users. The data alone was about 200 hundred single-spaced pages. I had the highest reputation points among all the users who hadn’t been promoted to moderator until I too became a moderator for the writing forum.
The writing forum was where I was able to write my own prompts. And others would write from those prompts. I think I was pretty good at it. And I still am impressed with how interactive my medium seemed. One day the prompt went like this:
You enter a small room and see two exits. One leads outside into a pine mire. There are birds singing, and fresh snow melting in late winter. The door adjacent leads downstairs. It’s dark. And something might be hiding there in the shadows. Are you brave enough to descend? [y/n]
You take the dark path. You’re led by a twisting pathway. It extends deeper and deeper into the earth. You fight monster after monster until you too meet your fate. This is the tale of a common dungeon crawl.
Many programmers also participated. They enjoyed the focus – as I had been following the Vonnegut method which was a heavy focus on verbs and a relaxed focus on nouns. Whenever something is introduced, it does an action or leads to an action or a scene of suspense. This is how video games work – each scene leads up to something else, and context gives us clues on how to solve the next problem, defeat the next boss, or find the lost key.
My rediscovery of this past-time compelled me to talk to an old friend who was a much better programmer than me. I asked him if he misses playing Warcraft 3 with the others. He said, “Not really. Video games were rather childish, and I cannot seem to find time to enjoy anything.” That’s fair, I thought. But then I began to talk to others – not just past friends but current friends. “What games do you play?” I asked. Few admitted to anything other than Call of Duty at a friend’s house or maybe Mario Kart. All games described were multiplier games.
And at first I thought perhaps it was an age thing. When we get into our twenties, we want to talk. Sometimes we talk to people because we want to date people. Other times we just feel lonely – because no one is with their parents anymore and post-graduation leaves us alone most of the time. It’s better to enjoy entertainment with others. Build relationships. Construct social networks. So when everything comes to ruin by the time we’re middle-aged, at least there’ll be someone to make fun of us when they see us at the next social convention.
I had thought I figured it out until someone let me know a secret. Video games are considered childish – because they’re fundamental made for children. This was something my parents told me when I was very young. The same parents who could watch many hours of television but couldn’t sit down to play Super Mario with me. Then too I thought it was childish thing and that people of a certain age could not or should not enjoy playing video games. I believed this – and entering college, I stopped playing video games. Yet sometimes I would play a round of Warcraft 3 just to remember how it felt. I couldn’t describe what I felt. And it took me until I read Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle to start to think that maybe playing a single-player game is not too far from reading a novel, gardening, or playing multi-player games. Perhaps it heals us. Perhaps it can tell us about how to live. What to think. How to think it. Sure, each activity focuses on a particular way of thinking and analyzing – yet the activities aren’t necessarily good or bad. They simply are different ways of interacting and sand-boxing with life. Video games are no-less good than crime novels.
However video games are drastically different from the conventional models of entertainment and art. First, they’re interactive. That doesn’t mean a person solely plays a game. He or she witnesses the game, the players, and the interactions. It’s a lot of things. Video games are pop modern art.
Particularly in dungeon crawlers or role playing games, the character is born into a world without much context. Every time a person starts a new game, they’re starting a new life. It’s very similar to opening any stream-of-conscious novel and just reading. Like any hardened English literature scholar, regular gamers understand the introduction, its tropes, and the muted ceremonies: in almost every opening, the player is given visual or dialectical context, the player chooses how to interact in that context. The game medium is something authors like Faulkner would’ve explored for its ability to explore not just visual sensation but sound and interaction. You do not get that in a book. You cannot interact with a movie or talk to people while it happens. Fundamentally books and film are mediums of solitude and reflection. Not mediums that bring people together to interact.
Narration inside a video game is often the game itself. Nothing hidden besides that which is intended to be hidden. But gamers tend to break games to discover these hidden attributes. Unlike stories that have messages, the message the game has is the game itself. Even the broken parts are part of the experience. The joy or the excitement that comes from finding something not meant to be seen is how games should be enjoyed. How they’re beaten. I could not imagine playing a game without our long history of modernism and post-modernism. Video games are definitely a product of such a history.
Like books or television, video games have a way to shape how we perceive life. How it should be. How to interact with it. When I was very young, I wanted to see how life inside Super Mario was compared to the life I lived. “Can I jump over buildings? Why not?” I didn’t distinguish realities all too often. One reality was outside world. The other was in game. Life is just meta-game. It sounds delusion and perhaps it is. But that sphere between reality and imagination is where learning can take place.
The tired argument then is that this delusion leads us to roads of suicide, self-harm, and harm towards others. Perhaps. But couldn’t books do the same? And are the mediums alone to blame, or should we find blame in a much more systematic societal ill? We ban books more frequently than we ban video games. The difference is that people understand that books affect people’s thoughts and beliefs, but we do not fear the same for video games. It’s because we do not take video games seriously that we don’t realize their potential, rhetorical and artistic power.
Yes, many games are violent in nature, but life itself is unavoidably violent. Think about it – the act of eating is an act of lethal violence. A player in a game is exposed to a context that may or may not be immediately hostile. At least games have the possibility of not being violent. The game could be completely passive. The player must use critical thinking to determine how to carry on with the next task. Progress gives us some feeling of a conventional meaning to this context. Since we read our books left to right, American gamers generally want to progress in a linear way.
When a player plays, they most often want to be exposed to a context and learn how to survive within its confines – excel, advance, and find success there. And like life – virtual success is subjective. We define success on what it profits us. If we experience pain, sometimes we say that we’ve failed. But you can still fail and be a success. Do we play games to win? Do we live life to win? Isn’t any concept of winning essentially valueless? And should value be the currency we use to judge how successful we feel or how happy we are?
Why do we play video games? Why do we read? Readers tend to read to understand a point of view no matter how complex. You can fail to understand. But it’s difficult to fail at playing games. People play games to progress and experience something. They want to change it or interact. We play to exist. Existing in a world that doesn’t seem to want to accept us either because we cannot accept ourselves or cannot accept the world – or whatever internal strife we suffer if only briefly – escaping the challenges of real life and accepting the immediate challenges of the virtual world is escapism and the search for the inner good amongst external strife of the world outside of our grasp.
We play games to explore existing. What does it mean to exist? And how do we deal with it? That rebirth in the dungeon. That’s us. Being born into a world that we couldn’t have imagined because we weren’t conscious – or at least weren’t conscious in a human way. We descend the staircase not to find treasure but to control the shadows and find the courage to face the unknown with confidence.