It’s been over a year since I spent any real time playing a video game. Video games have always been a force in my life - sometimes positive, often negative. I got obsessed with video games early; my parents are convinced that I learned to spell through the King’s Quest franchise, the early entries of which required you type out the action that your character is doing. I was a very motivated 6 year old.
In grad school I was one of the many who spent entirely too much time in World of Warcraft. I was seriously depressed in graduate school, for extremely typical reasons. Graduate school gives you very unclear goals beyond “finish your thesis” and the sense of progression was not there for me in my last two years. I would be submitting papers to conferences and if the paper got in, I’d be closer to finishing my thesis … but if my paper didn’t get in, we’d have to retool it and submit it to a different conference. Maybe it would get in there and then I’d be able to finish, but if not… another six months. I escaped from this hell into a world with clear systems and a sense of progression, where I got pretty good at pumping out a bunch of damage to raid bosses. This made me a lot more useful to my guild than whatever I was doing for my thesis projects on a week-to-week basis.
My most recent (last?) obsessions were with the Souls games, primarily Dark Souls and Bloodborne. These games present you with large worlds where you spend a lot of advancing your character’s stats, exploring the world, and learning the attack pattern of some absurdly difficult bosses. My real joy with these games came from achieving a familiarity with their systems that let me just glide through the world and, for lack of a better term, ‘dick around’. Use a weapon you’ve never used before, emphasize a certain set of stats that you’ve never tried, take the fastest route to get all the items you want, and so forth. These games weren’t just fun to play, they were also fun to replay, with the goal being achieving a kind of zen perfection with them.
With an actual job I’d had less time to pour into video games, and my ‘game time’ has receded for the last ten years. After the hours upon hours I’ve spent hooked to a screen, I feel a kind of physical revulsion after playing time now. I would sit down and then stand up hours later - the time would disappear. Looking back, the pattern has been to escape into these virtual worlds when something isn’t working in my life. Maybe I’ll need to escape again at some point, but gaming is no longer a healthy activity I want as part of a balanced life.
The only reason I have the life I do is because of video games. Watching my dad play Infocom games and ADVENT made me want to learn how to make those kinds of games myself, and I spent hours and hours in junior high filling notebooks with worlds I wanted to create, which I eventually did - I must have created at least 20 distinct text adventure games in QBasic which used a primitive event loop that let your character move through the world, take items, and fight enemies. (I even figured out how to implement a save game state - good job, 13 year-old Dave). In college I spent hours building systems in MUSHCode, including a vast amount of work into a space system that didn’t end up ever getting used out of internal tests. (It doesn’t matter, it was super fun to code.) My career nowadays uses the skills that I grew out of this crazed obsession.
Looking at the games that dominate today’s landscape, that sense of accessibility is gone. Game studios are larger than movie studios now, and no 13 year old is going to be able to figure out how to build something with the complexity of Fortnite from ‘first principles’. Yes, tools like Scratch allow kids to create games, but I don’t think this is the same thing. When I was a kid, Logo was our version of this same concept. You’d tell the turtle to move, and it would move. I certainly didn’t care about that. I cared about making games that looked like the games I could play at home. Today’s youth won’t have those opportunities now because the industry has changed, and that’s unfortunate.