I was having a crap day. I burned my oatmeal, I was late to TWO meetings, I got stuck in traffic, I forgot to put on deodorant (a fact I realized about four hours into my day), and I dropped my phone a million times. Crap day. When I got home, I parked, sat in my car, and started playing Plants vs. Zombies on my phone. Plants vs. Zombies, for the uninitiated, is a basic tower defense game in which you plant rows of weirdo attack plants in hopes of fending off the zombie apocalypse. It relies on strategy, patterns, and figuring out the best plant for the enemy at hand. It is silly and formulaic and its graphics wouldn’t win any awards, but it was exactly what I needed. Perhaps a younger Emily would have had a few drinks or just watched some mindless TV, but today-Emily needs interactivity in her distractions.
I have loved video games my whole life, and I’ve had the joy of watching them go from being a thing that “kids” do to being a thing that EVERYONE does. They’re enormously lucrative, they’re fun, and—I’ll say it—they’re an art form. I spend a lot of time playing, writing about, and talking about them, and I like to encourage people to think about what they’re getting out of the particular games they choose to play—there’s a hell of a lot of difference between playing Tiny Wings on your phone and grinding through Borderlands 2. It’s not that one is more of a “real game” than the other, but as games have become more diverse, so have the motivations for and benefits from playing them. Gliding a baby bird up and down hills lights up different parts of your brain than teaming up with friends to take down skags does. So: let’s talk about why we play.
Turning your brain off
We’re all busy. Being busy is the new being popular, it seems. Everyone has about a million projects going on at any point in time, and with all that action, sometimes our brains don’t know where to look anymore—which is exhausting. Some games can occupy our brains without requiring us to really use them. It’s zoning out, it’s distraction, it’s all the things that are not thinking, and not thinking is a precious resource that we seem to forget is important. I achieve this state by playing The Binding of Isaac, by completing a LEGO game 100% by doing all the extra puzzles scattered around, or by playing Bejeweled, and it feels almost as good as a massage.
Power and control
Some days you feel like everything you do matters, but then there are other days. Days when you’re not sure how you’re making a difference or affecting the grand scheme of things, days when you feel like your wellbeing is way too wrapped up in other people and other things. Those days aren’t the best. It’s on those days that I turn to a game where I get to micromanage the hell out of things, like The Sims or Minecraft.
Back in the day, people were bakers or hunters or builders, and when they woke up in the morning, they knew “This is what I need to accomplish today.” Then they did it and looked at it and boom, it was accomplished. Some of us still have that (there are still bakers and hunters and builders and hairstylists and artisans, etc., after all), but most of us have ongoing projects happening all the time, without much in the way of tangible results. I’m a writer, primarily, so I work with my brain and not so much with my hands. Video games are great at setting up an obvious goal (go kill that thing) and giving you a clearly defined path to that goal (train and organize people to fight that thing). Plus, they make you feel boss when you reach those goals by doling out skill points, better equipment, and so on. (Jane McGonigal writes about this brilliantly in her book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.) Today I’ll go to a meeting and leave wondering if anything will come of it, but at home, if I mine for days and days, then heat up what I mined, I can create a castle made of glass all to see and enjoy.
And then there’s the darker side of power and control, which is that sometimes, you just want to make mayhem and tear shit up. A lot of us—particularly the girls among us—try and ignore our anger. We don’t acknowledge that it is, in fact, a valid emotion. Some of us are ashamed of our anger. Well, let me tell you this: your anger is a gorgeous, motivating, valid, informative thing, and the problem is that we don’t always know how to express it appropriately. Which can lead to our unleashing hell upon someone else. Video games are tremendous at giving you an outlet for that hell-unleashing rage and bringing you back down to your rational state so you can dissect your anger and figure out what it’s trying to tell you, then express it clearly and proudly. Plus, it’s amazingly fun to just break bad on Horde Mode in Gears of War 3 and annihilate wave after wave of disgusting monsters. It’s stress relief, and then maybe you don’t yell at your significant other. Note: it is not my belief that video games cause violence. Sure, there are violent people who use video games, but there are more nonviolent people who use video games.
Video games can plop you instantly into a fully fleshed out and completely new world. I love being hyper-engaged in this way. Immersion games are perfect when you feel like you need a holiday from your own life, but you haven’t got the time, money, or means to take one. Games like Journey, Portal, and the Mass Effect series allow me to become someone else entirely, and stop thinking about my own day-to-day life because I have to put my entire brain into solving a puzzle or absorbing the landscape. I may not have any paper towels at home, but I can help stop the Reaper invasion and save multiple planets. A good story-driven game can be just as good as any book, plus you get to interact with it.
I grew up in a tiny town in North Carolina where I could count my friends on one hand and I was frequently called “freak” or “communist.” It wasn’t super fun. The technology to play video games with strangers online wasn’t really a thing back then, but I can imagine that if it had existed, I would have absolutely thrown myself into it and wallowed around in online gaming communities like a happy pig in the mud. Playing games with other people bonds you to them in a very specific way. Whether it’s playing Words With Friends with your mom, or teaming up with friends in Halo, or playing the massive universe of World of Warcraft, knowing that someone is online waiting for you to log in and do your part to help the cause is wonderfully sweet.
When we’re little, play is what helps us explore, figure out who we are, be imaginative, and express emotions we haven’t figured out yet. Nothing’s so different when we’re grownups, we just think that we shouldn’t need that kid stuff anymore. But we do. This is why I play; why do you play? ♦