I’ve been talking a fair amount with my parents as of late about video games; what I’m currently playing, what really excites me, what they should play with me (but I know they never will). It’s usually met with polite, bemused, and confused expressions, and of course, the ultimate response:
“I just can’t imagine spending all that time on a game when you could be doing ANYTHING else.”
My response has been, basically, “Uh, yeah, with all that time, I COULD BE PLAYING THIS AWESOME GAME.”
Gaming, as a form of entertainment, has never been more mainstream. I don’t mean the light, housewife entertainment games of Pop Games and Wii Sports But Now We Also Feature Lawn Bowling, How Awesome Is That, Though In This Case, You Really COULD Be Doing Anything Else, Like Actually Playing the Actual Game. Outside. With Other Humans.
While it is true that “hardcore” games are reserved for “hardcore” players – games that take a hefty investment in equipment, practice and skill – it is safe to say there are more “hardcore” players than there have ever been before. Yet if you tell an older co-worker, “I spent my weekend kicking ass in the new Zelda, and I upgraded my bow and now I’m a fucking sniper,” you’re most likely going to get a look of “Are you a mouth breather and live in your parent’s basement? Who am I talking to?” There is an element of truth to the stereotype. I certainly know people to whom I say “Dear God, how can you LIVE like this, put down the controller for ten minutes!” But I know far many more who are just like any other person on a Saturday afternoon, only they’re shooting Geth, instead of catching up on “Private Practice.” (And just so we’re clear, shooting Geth is WAY more fun than watching rich people cough in the Hamptons.) Rich, successful, handsome and accomplished people are gamers. Comedians and actors are gamers. Politicians and pundits game. So why, dear parents, are you tutting your twenty-eight year old son when he’s in his pajamas at one in the afternoon on his day off, about ready to assassinate the Pope?
Obviously it has a little to do with all the things I’ve just mentioned, but I think the huge disconnect between gamers and non-gamers (and I don’t mean the casual variety) is the recognition of this as a form of storytelling. I mentioned the topic of this blog post to my dad, and he was all for labeling gaming as a legitimate form of entertainment, he got that! I didn’t bother re-launching into the parts that have always confused him: the epic, complicated story lines worthy of Tolkien and – here’s the crucial part – their interactivity.
A good video game has you invested in the characters and the world around them. You may like them, you may hate them, but you want to know what’s going to happen. At least in the case of RPGs (by which I do not mean Rocket Propelled Grenades), a GREAT game will fool you into being your character. And as long as you keep a sense of proportion and don’t start shelling out hundreds of dollars to go to every con in the continental U.S., there’s not really anything wrong with that. We all view ourselves in the place of James Bond, pleased with his successes as if they were our own. We root for Indy and not the Nazis, because we identify with him, and screw Nazis, man.
I’m briefly touching on the differences and legitimacy of video games as, really, a new art in our cultural discourse, but I’m probably mainly rambling. I’m going to ramble a little bit further and bring in anime enthusiasts (what is the proper wording there? “Wapanese [wannabe Japanese]?” I think both it and “Otaku [which my limited knowledge tells me is a horribly misapplied term]” are really reserved for middle school girls who are completely out of touch with the reality around them, as well they might be as their genitalia spontaneously bleeds).
Anime and manga was something I was never HEAVILY into. I was pretty into it in middle school and early high school, as I had friends who were, and I used the requisite fan-girl Japanese that makes any sane person wince. But it was never something I was really passionate about. For one thing, it’s a HORRIBLY expensive hobby, I think in many ways more expensive than gaming. You don’t need any expensive equipment to go down to your local Borders (which is where we bought our manga “back in the day”), but you’ve shelled out $10 when you’re fifteen and therefore have no job, and have only gotten one afternoon’s worth of entertainment, as a good manga is pretty easy to tear right through. Sure, you can re-read it. But it’s still not as long as, say, the next Uncharted Game, which is $60, but offers at least 60 hours worth of entertainment and therefore is, dollar per dollar, far cheaper. My spare funds, even when I had a shitty job, were spent on more practical things. And also Star Wars. So I had enough other stuff going on in my life I was just never quite on the scene.
And then I got into college and through series of events, met all my adult, successful, and mature friends who are MAD for the stuff. I know at this point you’re scratching your head and wondering at the disconnect between the group of early teen girls and forty-year old men who certainly DON’T hit each other, giggling, and call each other “baka.” (Psst. That means idiot.) Alright, here’s one big problem that we in America are only starting to get: the anime these men are watching (and really, even those girls were watching) was NOT intended for children. Yes, it has beautiful colors and sometimes some whimsy, but it is often gritty, dark, violent, and certainly sexual (you can see why we teen girls loved it so much). We’re finally starting to get that here in the U.S., after twenty years of exposure to shows like The Simpsons, South Park, King of the Hill, and the now veritable onslaught of shows that say “Yes, we’re animated, but we’re on after ten, so don’t stay up to watch it with Jr.” Anime certainly has its child genres. But one of the HUGE faux pas in bringing Sailor Moon to the States was in marketing it to five year olds – a show that at the end of its first series, ALL THE MAIN CHARACTERS DIE. Didn’t expect that part? Yeah, it was crazy popular, so they get magicked back to life. But in the second series, they’re all crucified. Yeah, DON’T show that to your kid to make them stop bugging you while you’re just trying to clean the den.
Alright, let’s seriously get to the point. I don’t read a lot of manga or watch a lot of anime, but tend to enjoy it when I do. I play a fair amount of games, adore watching other friends play, and find that to be one of my major pastimes. Why? Finally, the point: the extra level of storytelling. It’s surely the same reason popular books are turned into films. You enjoyed visualizing it in your mind, now you get to see someone else’s interpretation.
With manga and video games, that level is really already there. In manga, you get a (hopefully) great story with great characters, and now you get that wonderful extra level where the artist helps to interpret the events around you. That smokey-eyed glance from our dark and brooding hero says volumes that would just be too wordy in any novel. Some Western audiences have a hard time understanding and appreciating this form of Japanese art, but those who do find really astounding beauty therein. Anime adds yet another exciting layer: voices you previously only imagined, full-motion action (where you admire the story as much as you do the incredibly detailed actions by hundreds of artists), a soundtrack to heighten the tension.
With video games, for me (at least in RPGs, which is 99% of what I play), I have all of that, plus my anthropological curiosity. One of the things I really loved about Persona 4 was how it immerses you in Japanese culture. My first play through would leave me confused and running to Google (which I never think is a bad thing), but I now know exactly what yaki soba and takoyaki is, and appreciate the nuances of a word like Senpai, of which there is no real English equivalent. The same is true for non-JRPGs: surely some of Dragon Age’s popularity is the sudden existence of a completely other world, fully populated by real people with real problems, all voiced and active, and you must navigate this new environment, but also actively manage a strangely multi-cultural adventuring party. And their cultures are JUST as fleshed out and fascinating/confusing as anything you were finding in Persona (the only major difference being that’s a real place of which you have preformed opinions, and therefore perhaps that much more confusing).
This has really gone on for far too long, but I certainly tried to make a comprehensible argument for why your adult children aren’t wasting their lives on their couch, and are perhaps even beating you in how they entertain themselves in their off hours. So, middle-aged parents, join in! But maybe sit on the couch for the first few rounds, because you’ll end up firing on them accidentally in your n00bishness, and that’s a quick way to end any budding relationship.