Monday, April 29, 2013

Appeal of Video Games.

The hardest thing about writing anything down is trying to break from the idea that I'm writing a paper for school. I meticulously go over everything I write in efforts of making it have perfect grammar and spelling and essentially sounding like something I will get a good grade on. This is especially ironic because the highest grade I ever got on a paper, or at least the highest grade when professor wasn't so hopped up on coffee that he couldn't even stand still, was a 90%. For that matter, the only reason I managed to pull off that grade was because I decided not to worry so much and just wrote what I felt passionate about. With that said I would like to speak a bit today about video games as a psychological and philosophical medium...
For starters I want to explore gaming preference and what it means psychologically. Often we will hear in the news of some violent event occurring and unsurprisingly some lawyer or politician ends up blaming violence in media, including games However to write off violent video games appeal as a means of expressing violence and therefore merely a means of desensitization and glorification seems to only simplify something that is far more complex, I'll discuss my own preferences as an example
Today especially I want to discuss the ideas of development and progression. This can be seen in games with leveling up a character, watching a city or empire grow, or even an increase in ones own personal skill at a game, similar to practicing a sport. Desire for progression is simple enough, mankind has a desire to grow beyond what they currently exist as, to constantly grow until they reach some point. This can be described as ones peak, but the term peak denotes that that is the point where one cannot grow any more and will inevitably shrink, which is in turn depressing. Games allow one to progress quicker than one would in this real life and allow progression towards a peak without a fall. Few games factor in a mechanic where you get weaker after a certain point so the peak is seen as the beginning of a sort of end-game, where the game changes from progression of self to progression of the story. It is likely to see far greater challenges that test the strength that one develops over the course of the game. I once read an article that mentioned that the main cause of video game addiction was the Skinner box effect caused by quick progress at the beginning followed by slower and slower growth as the game goes on. This is very likely the case\, however the best games are so well made that we don’t even notice them. Indeed the addictive nature of these games is starting to be in some cases an advertisable feature. Perhaps due to a desire to get past ones own painful emotions, a common cause for most addictive and compulsive behaviors, people are actually finding themselves drawn to games that utilize this rule of progression so well that they are able to occupy all ones free time and therefore free them from thinking about whatever may be causing their emotion.
Some especially good examples of this progression desire come in the form of MMORPGs, always online interactive game worlds where one actually takes on the role of ones character far more readily than single player game. I have speculated that this is probably due to the people one interacts with addressing them in the only way they know how, by way of the character that they play as. This is different than when someone is addressed by a random character in a single player game because one knows (or at least thinks that they know) that behind that character is another person. This depends also on the MMORPG as certain games are far more involving than others.
For example the mechanics of Final Fantasy XI (the first online installment in the increasingly misnamed Final Fantasy Series) make creating alternate character for purposes beyond item storage almost pointless. Different races have different stats to some extent, but the difference is easily compensated for and at higher levels seems to even itself enough that aside from matters of HP and MP, one hardly notices. Even with HP the difference having the extra few hundred makes is only a matter of a hit or two, and the job that has the most shouldn't even be getting hit in the first place. Because of this as well as the ability to change jobs at will, one will usually spend most of their time on one character, as a result they will essentially become that character. In the real world I was a lanky and clumsy 25 year old with bad eyesight who was more often than would be preferred mistaken for his father, except that Dad could actually grow a mustache. In FFXI's Vana'deil I instead became a short, baby faced but powerful wizard with bushy hair and long thin ears that stuck out three inches from my head. Many of my friends only knew me as that little fellow, and who was I to argue with them when I only knew them as similarly strange looking individuals.
On the other hand there are games like World of Warcraft where characters are locked into their class and classes are very different from each other. It is common for someone to fall victim to an affliction known as alt-itus, where they create so many alternate characters and desire to play as all of them to the point where they often don't progress at all. There are also those that have a few characters at max level and relatively few other alternates, but they change between them at will, taking on a different name and appearance whenever they switch. Either way they is a stark, noticeable difference between player and character which allows one to keep each idea separate. This doesn't make it any less involving, the personal bond with your character is just less apparent. You would still likely be upset if that character was to disappear without your knowledge, it would just be more like loosing a pet rather than a part of yourself. It would suck, but it wouldn't be the end of the world. Or perhaps it would, I really can't say how others would react, I can only speak from my own experience.
Despite these differences between the two types of MMORPG they have that Skinner box type of progression mentioned. Just looking at levels gained, in Final Fantasy you can go from 1-10 in around 3 hours, but it take 12 more to get to 20, 16 more after that to get to 30, and so on. By the time you figure in amount of experience needed, you are about half way to max level (level 99) around 80. Luckily the level progression also improves due to the apparent ease in gaining experience, made all the easier by some game expansions released around two years ago. There's still a lot of challenge getting to max level, including a quest that I've only heard is difficult (I quit playing when the cap was still 90)
The most important question we need to ask in regards to this is what do we have to learn from this appeal towards character development, and what are the limits to that appeal. I have already mentioned that we have an innate desire to reach a peak, but beyond that peak is something far greater than we can imagine ourselves being. Some people take solace in believing that if it is not attainable in this life it may be so in the next, but that seems to count on notions that not every comprehends or desires. Sp the real question is what is the appeal. Perhaps we strive towards this in order to be all we can be based on the idea that unless we reach the best we can we cannot really say we have lived. That certainly sounds like a good way to think about it, but how does that explain people who for one reason or another don't appear to care about social progression. Perhaps with people like that they have decided that true progress is far too difficult to achieve, and indeed few people would ever say success is easy. This perhaps leads to them finding an easier way to find success, which is why video game have become such a popular medium.

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