I spend a meaningful amount of time most weeks thinking about culture and how things within culture, produced by culture, helped to shape culture. This isn’t a profession of mine or something I’m formally trained in—it’s more of a hobby, something that commonly swims about in my consciousness.
I’m writing this in the summer of 2020 when much of the world, including the United States of America, where I live, has been in various forms of lock down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our “ordinary” lives have been uniquely interrupted very suddenly. For many this has been a very stressful time—and for many video games have been a source of reprieve. This has brought some longstanding conversations about the role of video games in culture to my mind.
I have often heard video games referred to as escapism, or that video games serve the desire to escape. Video games offer alternative worlds, other realities, where we, the players, can take on new identities removed from our circumstances. A prime example for the spring of 2020 is the peaceful, social life full of opportunity presented by Animal Crossing: New Horizons. In March 2020 we were told we could no longer see our friends. Some of us lost our jobs. Our travel plans were cancelled. Schools were closed. Modern, typical life, was put on pause. Yet, within Animal Crossing: New Horizons, within a video game, we could go wherever we wanted. We could still meet one another. We could be in control of our destinies. And in video games, if we don’t like the way things are going, we can quit and play another game. There are endless possibilities.
Even in my work we talk about offering our game as an escape for our players. Life is hard, it’s stressful, it’s difficult. Sometimes it’s good to have somewhere else to go, to move our heads out of the overwhelming mire of daily life, to have a reprieve. Our games can offer that to people. We can give them a vacation of sorts, a place away from it all.
Yet, vacations don’t last forever. Most of them are short. The premise of getting away from it all is anchored by the understanding that you will, eventually, go back to it all. Whatever escape is being offered or claimed is a temporary escape and when it ends the traveler is back in the same reality as before.
So what if we leaned into the temporary nature of our vacation and sought more than merely an escape? What if our holiday in Rome broadened us, changed us even? What if we embarked on our journey intent on returning again? Think of a tour to another country. You go for an experience, for a change of pace—the markings of an escape—but also to see and to learn something. By definition a tour sends you out and brings you back to where you started, but, if it’s a good tour, you have been taught something along the way. You have seen things which you had not seen before and thereby broadened yourself even if only in the smallest way.
This brings us to what has been on my mind: what if we talked about video games as tourism rather than as escapism? What if we designed games with the intention of not only bringing our players into another space but sending them back to the space from which they came? You can come as often as you like but you cannot stay.
There is something exilic about escapism, as though the individual looking for escape is wandering away from home. Perhaps the person is settled down with a life but that life is superficial and will not last. It is not a true life and so it does not fully satisfy the longings of the exile.
I think of Narnia from C. S. Lewis’s book series. The children in this series are welcomed to a land unlike anything they’d seen. They are given new identities, meaningful roles to play which they had only dreamed of before. They make friends and overcome challenges. They help shape Narnia, even being involved in its politics. Yet, they cannot stay, regardless of what roles they have played. The children must go back and some of them cannot ever return, at least not until they are specifically invited. Now, we’re not told much about their lives outside of Narnia but we see very clearly that they must be different after coming and returning from Narnia than they were before ever coming there. Think of Edmund and his journey as a young boy both in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. His visit to Narnia changed him.
This reflects a pilgrimage rather than an exile. The individual leaves a station to visit somewhere else to be affected in some way.
As players, our visits to virtual worlds can change us, too. Stories, by default, change us. Challenges shape us. Walks in others’ shoes stretch us. I am who I am today—with all of my thoughts, principals, self-esteem, and idiosyncrasies—because of The Legend of Zelda, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Metroid Prime, Kingdom Hearts, Age of Empires, Batman: Arkham Knight, and the list goes on.
Who do we want players to be when they quit playing our games?
One more comment before I conclude. There’s a side-effect to our traveling when done with others: community. I made friends playing the games listed above. When we walk the paths of those who have gone before us, when we walk paths with others alongside us, and when we help others walk the paths we have already tread, we build community. Through shared experiences, we build commonality, we build friendships, and we build trust. Trust within community builds love. What we love, and how we love, defines culture. If you want to build games that change the world, or at least leave an imprint on culture, you do by shaping love outside of the video game. So, I think—or at least, I wonder—if it would do us well to craft worlds that draw in, teach, tell, shape, and send out.
This isn’t about moralizing games. This isn’t about every video game making a statement. This doesn’t say that all games should be linear. Games don’t need to try to make statements to be meaningful. It’s about understanding that a video game experience is far more temporary than the lives that enter into them. Even non-linear games, online games, and multiplayer games come to an end when the player logs out.
I will spend more time thinking on this topic, I am sure. I hope you do the same.