If you want to write the great Mormon novel, or the great Mormon dissertation, don’t play video games.
That I don’t have such lofty aspirations does not make me any less a hypocrite, though. For the last couple decades, my poison of choice, whenever I could get it, has been fantasy computer role-playing games, from Ultima III to Darksun to Might and Magic VI to Morrowind (twice, once to play the main quest, and once to win the game without completing the main quest). Give me an RPG with a mostly open-ended plot and a spacious virtual world to explore, and I’ll be happy for weeks at a time. My computer upgrade plans are largely driven by the prospect of playing Oblivion, sequel to Morrowind, an RPG that overwhelms the computing power of most currently existing PC’s.
I’m not specifically concerned by the content of video games, which span the same range from venal to toxic as found in movies and television. When I was 14, a guest lecturer came to our stake. I introduced myself afterwards, and he gave me a lengthy discourse on the devilishness of Dungeons and Dragons, although I hadn’t mentioned gaming at all; looking back, it’s pretty clear the guy was nuts. But pencil-and-paper gaming was never an attraction for the same reason that online multiplayer RPG’s are not a temptation: they require you to interact with other people. But the whole point of video games is to avoid all human interaction for a few hours, isn’t it? Taken to extremes, computer gaming can be as isolating as locking yourself in your room and reading T.S. Eliot to yourself while listening to the Doors, if not necessarily any worse for your social life.
The time you can waste on computer games is one part of the reason anyone who hopes to accomplish anything significant should avoid them. Art and scholarship require time; if you waste it on computer games or anything else, you won’t get anything written. But this by itself doesn’t make computer games any worse than napping or gardening, and we all need a break from our labors every now and then. Sometimes computer games can even provide useful insights about the Gospel, and Orson Scott Card was inspired to write a novel by Civilization.
But why take a year or two to write a whole novel about the Aztecs taking over the world when it’s much more immediately satisfying to play Civilization and watch the whole thing unfold before your eyes in a matter of hours? Or, rather than merely watching, why not guide the unfolding of History with your own hand?
And that is the problem. Most adults can reliably distance themselves from the words in a novel or the scenes in a movie, but nothing appears to happen in a computer game without the consent and action of the player. The illusion of video games is that the player is the author driving the action. It’s only an illusion, of course; the rules of the game are coded into its fabric in advance. If you play Civilization, for example, you canâ€™t escape a world in which religion is no more than an opiate for the masses. A movie might make us happy or sad, but only people with an unhealthy susceptibility to suggestion will walk out of the theater feeling like they themselves have accomplished something. With video games, however, the chemical byproducts of achievement that wash through our blood after beating the level, completing the quest, or conquering the world are very real. Why bother to write a novel when it feels just as good to play Civilization for twelve hours?
What the game player seeks, and what computer games excel at providing, is mastery, the feeling that we are overcoming obstacles, overpowering enemies, increasing in power and glory. Video games must strike a balance between providing an apparent challenge and the means to overcome it, between novelty of hindrance and monotony of successful outcome, but game publishers have become quite proficient at achieving this balance. To play video games is to engage in self-medicating oneself with miniscule doses of mastery. The reward system in Diablo II, where slight enhancements to weapons and armor are arduously gathered in order to more effectively combat enemies that gain in strength at much the same pace, strikes me as nearly sado-masochistic, with the player as the willing victim. Playing RPG’s also indulges our consumerist fantasies of access to constant life upgrades, while presenting a distorted simplification of meritocracy. Getting ahead in life takes years of hard work. Achieving godlike supremacy in Morrowind takes maybe a hundred hours of your time but is nearly unavoidable. I can think of no other activity where the gulf between perceived and actual accomplishment is so vast. Almost any other activity you can imagine has more real-world value than playing video games.
Also, my wife points out that there are few less sexy things a male can do than sit on a couch, game controller in hand, rocking from side to side as he blasts aliens in a virtual world. Cooking skills are sexy. Conversation skills are sexy. Showing your date how you got that high score is the opposite of sexy.
But I would really like to feel good about playing Oblivion. Somebody help me out here.