Dear Video Games; It’s You, Not Me

Video games.  I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember.  I have other posts on this blog sharing how they taught me and changed my life.  My desire to explore new worlds while sitting on the floor with bronchitis or drive a car 200+ miles per hour without the fear of death.  They have provided entertainment and countless hours of thought.

The wonder of what’s around the corner or what the next level will look like was something that drove me as a kid.  Going to school and thinking about what the next sword would look like in Secret of Mana.  Would it be yellow?  Maybe blue?  Simple pixel patterns mixed with beep-boop music and a ridiculous story line kept me excited and eager.  And I’m not alone.  The impact on these earlier games still sits deep with my generation.

I think that is part of the problem that I’m having now.  I still love the wonder, the what-if, the experience of diving deep into a world and having my own experience.  Unfortunately, games are less-and-less this and more always-online-services-multiplayer-tracking-gambling-hundred-million dollar “experiences”.  Things have changed so much.

Before you jump up and say “but Jason, those intimate smaller experiences still exist – there are tons of small developers who want just what you want”…sure.  That’s true and it makes me glad that there are a pile of thirty-somethings who have the passion and the drive to create something that they want to see while handling all the stress of running a small business.  Some of these small experiences make amazing passion projects and each time I see a YouTube trailer for the latest pixel art JRPG that has no interest in multiplayer, I smile.  I miss those days.

But here’s where we step into where even those games mostly falter.  With few exceptions, they will depend on some other platform or distribution network to get it into your hands.  Inevitably you will be watched, tracked, ranked, and all but forced to participate in something social and unable to opt-out of data collection.  I feel anxious with each website, app, and service I use.  When that creeps into me searching for a new sword in some lovely pixel forest, the magic fades.

Few developers will give you the option to download an executable and walk away with a purchase.  This is impossible on a purpose-built console.  The DRM-free website GOG will help you get started with all sorts of old games that you can have the old experiences with.  This is wonderful if you only want to play old games (and some very rare exceptions for new games).

But this is the old, unique, niche world.  I have no problem being part of this world but I never sit in a social circle in 2018 and hear a group talk about “tiny game X” – it’s all “what’s your profile name so we can join a massive party and play online”.  What happened?

Online stuff is great but when it took over it was paired with anxiety for me.  The younger generation grew up with this as a default.  Some people have only played games that, either on a console or a computer, require some sort of internet connection.  Some leaderboard, some ranking, something needed internet connectivity.  There was some set of servers that handled this.  As things got big and really good, they became services and social experiences.  It was the downfall of on-the-couch, personal gaming and the beginning of the ranked, social, public persona that you attach to your virtual self.

Emphasizing how important the virtual self has become is the prevalence of cheating in online games.  There are ways to intercept network traffic to post better times to a leaderboard or even tools that will play a game for you to give you better statistics.  Not only does this ruin experience for those who really want to play, but it cheapens the service.  Why even bother to pay for a service when you know that career cheaters exist?  Is winning at a video game worth all this work?

I’ve struggled through the last five years or so with this.  I want to play big games.  It’s exciting to see a trailer where some space ship explodes or a vastly detailed forest with creatures running around.  I love playing racing games but still almost exclusively play private races against computer AI.  I don’t care to “rank up” or show off…I just want to race my cars.  It’s personal.  I like taking in-game photos but that’s similar to saying “hey, this is cool” not “look at my stats”.  Every console tracks usage within an inch of your life.  Even your smart TV keeps you under a microscope.  Your computer, your gaming profile, your network, everything is watching and analyzing.  Sure, you get to flex your “stats” and say “look how great I am at this…and it’s official!” but at what cost?

I’m still drawn to these private little games.  Nintendo still does a great job making games where online play is completely absent or not even a focus.  I wish that some of the other games I played would drop any online capability, let me unplug the network cable, and just focus on making a really good experience for me.  I don’t want you to watch what I’m doing.  I don’t care to get “points”.  Leave me alone and let me have some fun.  Unfortunately, there’s very little money to be made in that world.

So, modern video games, I hate to say it but it’s not me, it’s you.  I miss the days of old.  Not the old games, necessarily.  New games are spectacular but the stress and anxiety of a living service is just too much for me.  You want me to give you real money so my character can dance when I win?  I need to pay you to change the color of my vehicle?  If I even attempt to play with the public, I will hear endless racist and sexist remarks.  All of my movements are being analyzed?  This isn’t what a “lifetime gamer” wants to bring his children into.

I’ve said this before and it’s worth saying again.  Passively accepting this sort of thing as “the norm” is shallow, lazy, and in my opinion, wrong.  Many people don’t agree with this and it’s obvious because these are growing billion-dollar industries.  Don’t even get me started about social media’s handling of your information.

I doubt we will ever go back to the way things were.  If that ever does happen, I will be ready with a pad of paper and a pen to draw out my map in a new, exciting world and talk about it with my kids and co-workers.  Each exciting discovery will be a rumor instead of posted to twitter and known around the world within minutes.

I haven’t had a PC capable of playing modern games since around 2002.  I’ve kept a modern console around to play a specific game or two ever since.  I don’t know if that will be the case moving forward.  I’m not “growing up” or away from my love of games, what is happening is the definition of game has changed and it’s very clear that I’m not invited.

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