The Seduction of Video Games

Video games offer the ultimate escape from reality as we get sucked into an entirely different, and today, all too realistic world of interesting characters, possibilities, and majestic landscapes. Video games have transformed a great deal since I was a kid. Back in the day, the processing power of computers and consoles was much less, so that games were more cartoonish and didn’t provide the realism that they do today.

Compare a popular game of the 90’s, Final Fantasy 7, to its remake today in 2020. The 90’s original features an overhead view of blocky, cartoonish characters. The landscapes and features of buildings are 3D, but lack detail. The objects you see are like a rough sketch; a blurred vision of the real thing. Compare that with today’s graphics where you have a first-person view of a fully fleshed out 3D world where you can see the scratches in a table or the rust on a barrel–intricate details of the object in full 3D vision, close up in your face. You can see the individual blades of grass as you walk, which sway as you pass by. Everything in modern games is more lifelike. The characters look like real people with life-like facial expressions as they talk. You can see the wrinkles in their skin, moles, freckles, blemishes and all.

The company that arguably does this best is Rockstar, with games such as Grand Theft Auto 5 and Red Dead Redemption 2. As you play these games, you immerse yourself into the character you control. You become that character living out a fantasy life in a rich new world. It’s as if you were a child again and everything is new. The map sizes keep growing larger making for ever bigger worlds to explore. As you go to a new area, you find new things and meet new characters giving you a sense of excitement and wonder.

Besides the awe and excitement of just exploring and finding new things in the wide open world, the game gives you objectives to work towards. You work towards goals and accomplishments in the game, giving you a sense of achievement as you progress towards that goal. You want to work in the game to get enough money to buy that faster horse; you want to kill and collect the animal skins that allow you to craft that new satchel. Once attained there is a great sense of achievement knowing your hard work has paid off. Then it’s on to the next goal, the next objective.

The stories, too, are rich and engaging. They feature a cast of characters, each with his/her own personality and backstory. A rich drama unfolds as you play out the missions. Characters develop and show new sides of themselves. You begin to understand each one more deeply and with it the affection for them grows. This makes ending the game ever more sad. It marks the end of a developing relationship with the characters. Now all lies in the past.

But then there comes a time when you’ve achieved all the goals, been to the far corners of the map, seen and done basically everything there is to do. Then the joy is lost. What’s the point? Further play seems pointless. It’s boring now–on to the next game. Sometimes you’ll just start a new game trying a different approach, doing things differently. But there always comes that time when the excitement and wonder of the new becomes the boring repetition of the old. Been there, done that.

Before I buy and play a game I always google the question: How many hours of gameplay? I want to play a game I can get lost in for hours upon hours, a huge game that is filled with content. It has to be at least 60 hours long to be worth it. I like games that feature 100+ hours of content, both story and extras. Then I know it will be a deep and enriching escape from reality.

With these games, you enter the world and it becomes your world. I remember being a kid and being amazed at little things, like a little toy music player. I remember being in awe of my dad when he typed out sentences on a computer without looking at the keyboard. He would look over at me as he was typing. At the time it seemed like a magical feat. That’s what we get from today’s realistic video games. It’s a new world experienced for the first time where we can feel that same joy on discovering things and progressing in the game. You never know what’s around the next corner, beyond the next mountain. What surprises lie hidden in this cave?

In RDR2, you never know what interesting character you will run into while riding your horse out in the wild. It might just be a religious fanatic or schizophrenic babbling on about God, it might be a man dying on his last breath who gives you a treasure map just before he dies, or it might be someone who gives you a mission to complete. Each time, it’s a new and interesting encounter.

You wake up each day thinking about what you need to do to attain your next goal in the game—get that good sword, buy that good horse, whatever. Or you think about what’s going to happen in the story next or which unexplored area you might check out that day. The thoughts fill you with excitement and you can’t wait to play.

The real goal of playing video games for me is getting into the “flow state”. This happens when you’re totally immersed in the game, when actual reality disappears and it is just the game. A feeling of bliss, being in control and having things flow in the game and go your way. You work through the missions or achieve your goals in the game and everything is going right. A great sense of satisfaction comes along with that. It can also be just moving around in the game landscape and enjoying the little things. You could just ride your horse around in RDR2 taking in the sights and saying “hi” to passersby, or drive your car around, taking in the sights and sounds of GTAV. And it’s just blissful being in the game.

I combine games with alcohol to try to achieve this state. The alcohol relaxes and activates the right neurotransmitters to help you get into the blissful state of just serenely enjoying the game.

The ultimate escape from reality. Not passively watching, but interacting with the press of the mouse, keys on a keyboard, or buttons on a controller. It is a fuller immersion into the world. A complete immersion would include all the senses, like actually having your mind enter the game world for a time before ending the game and coming back to this world. I can imagine such a time, when we lay down in a machine which then transports our consciousness into the game world. We are the character! We can feel, see, think, smell through the character’s body. When we are shot in the game world, we can feel the pressure and a pain sensation. If the character dies, we wake up in the machine—back to normal life.

And this leads to the question of this reality. Could it be like a video game? Could these three dimensions and the passing of time be as unreal as the world and passing of time in the game? Do we wake up to our true selves when we die? Maybe this universe is being “rendered”. Ever wondered about quantum collapse? That’s the theory that physical particles don’t exist apart from consciousness. When we’re not looking they exist as “waves” of possibility. Look, or take a measurement, and the wave collapses into a finite particle located conveniently in a particular place in time and space. The same occurs in a game. Your character is at one location on the map and can look all around and see the trees, rocks, people, etc… But what about other portions of the map that are currently too distant for your character to “see”. Quite simply, they are not being “rendered” at the moment because there is no need to. Those areas exist in an ether of possibility, waiting for your character to get close enough to “collapse” into an actual image.

Why have we become bored with this life and feel the need to escape into another domain? Why do so many young people spend hours upon hours engrossed in another world. Doth this world not contain innumerable wonders to keep the mind alive with excitement?

To some it does. To those willing to take risks; to break free from the comfort of the normal—to them life holds treasures. Too many people are just too scared to dream, to break free of their current life pattern. Doubts creep in. Oh, I can’t do that. That’s too hard. What if…? What if…?

The familiar isn’t scary. We become comfortable and complacent in our lives. But what if you decided to sell everything you own and go hitchhiking across America? Think of all the interesting people you would meet, the new places you would get to see. Every day would be an adventure, not knowing what’s going to happen next. What interesting stranger will pick me up today? It would be a whole new life of excitement. But what if….? What if I get kidnapped? Run out of food and money? What if…? Oh, it’s just too scary. Too many unknowns.

It reminds me of a friend I know who had a gambling problem. There were times when he literally gambled away all of his money, forcing himself to have to eat ramen noodles for a week until his next paycheck. However, I went with him to the casino a couple of times and he won big. The first time he started off losing. He even gave me his debit card and told me to not let him take out any more money. He must have lost a thousand dollars at the start. But I was intrigued by his risk taking. I was way too scared to gamble like him. I played it very conservatively, betting little amounts, and quitting if I lost even a couple hundred dollars. Not him. Take a risk—all in on this hand. Lose. Go back to the ATM for more money.

After losing maybe a thousand dollars, I gave in and gave him his card for him to make one last withdrawal. You could say I wasn’t a good friend that night, as I should have whisked him out of there then and there. But I enjoyed gambling with him too much. He was the exact opposite of me. Me—conservative and fearful of losing too much. Him—acting like it was his last night on Earth with the attitude that the next hand is going to be the one. Bet Big!

Not that he was betting big every hand. Intelligence and knowing when you’ve got a good hand plays a definite role. But that ability, that willingness to go big, to take that risk—that’s what I lacked.

So after the final withdrawal of a few hundred dollars, the tables turned. He started winning and betting big, and winning some more. We played until morning. I walked away with a few hundred dollars thinking that was awesome. My friend, on the other hand, walked away with nearly twenty thousand dollars. His mind had been focused on the goal of winning lots of money. The doubting mind never came into play: What if I lose? How will I pay my rent? These thoughts may have played in my mind, but not his.

Another story comes to mind, told by Tim Pool1 who worked as a journalist covering stories for VICE and now has his own successful podcast. He told the story of people contacting him and wanting to do the same thing he does. Man they wish they could travel the world and cover stories like him. How do you do that? they asked. His advice involved taking a big risk. He would tell them, if they didn’t have a job, to get a job and save up some money. Then use that savings to fly somewhere and cover a big story that they’re interested in. One guy said he had money saved up already. So Tim said “Great”. There’s a story right now in Turkey. Fly there right now and film it. Tim said he would even see if he could make any connections for him based on what he found. However, the man said the money he had saved was for his apartment in Brooklyn. So Tim asked him, “What’s more important? Having your nice Brooklyn apartment, or being a journalist traveling around the world?” The man responded that he liked his apartment. Tim told him that when he was working for VICE, he slept on a couch, saving all the money they paid him. He continued living frugally while saving as much as possible, so that he could live his dream of being an independent journalist. He used all his money to pursue his dream. The man who wanted to be like him and asked for his advice, however, was too afraid to break out of his comfort zone. That’s risky. What if I spend all my money and it doesn’t work out? Then I lost my apartment, have no money and am homeless. Ahhh, shake that thought. Better to stay in my simple life of the known, even if I don’t particularly like my job and wish I was doing what Tim does. Best not to risk it.

This is where games merge from actual reality. In the game, we know it’s not real! There’s nothing to lose. If I die, who gives a shit? I’ll just reload my save, hahaha. Taking a risk is easy in a game because there isn’t any actual physical suffering that can result, and we have the luxury of simply redoing things if they don’t work out by reloading a previous save.

This life has far graver consequences—the threat of pain, suffering, and death that cannot be undone. Maybe we shouldn’t worry so much because this life isn’t the “real” world, but damn it sure feels like it. There could be life after death, but we don’t know. We don’t experience anything but this physical world we live in.

That being said, if we are able to take that leap and venture into the unknown of uncertainty and risk, the potential to greatly improve our lives is there. To dream and go for it. To not be afraid to experience a little discomfort along the way. To release the fear of not making it—for if you have that fear you probably won’t anyway. Unquestioning dedication and a belief that the universe has your back and no matter what happens, it’s all part of the plan.


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