Thursday, November 10, 2011


Let me tell you about a problem I have. It’s been an issue for about as long as I can remember. I enjoy playing video games. I enjoy the challenge, the distraction that games provide. But this enjoyment comes with a price.


Call it an addiction. I don’t mind. It’s not a drug. Playing video games I don’t believe counts as a sin. I still manage to bathe and go to work, spend time with my wife. I still try to read and write, but … well, now we’re getting to the problem.

A little more than a year ago I stumbled upon this article over at David Wong did a more-than-effective job commenting about 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted. It depressed the heck out of me. The background and examples he cited were convincing and convicting.

He talks early on about the work of B.F. Skinner, a 20th century behaviorist who discovered a means of controlling the behavior of small animals by placing them in a small box with a lever that, when pressed, would reward the animal with a food pellet. The article continues on but maintains this “Skinner Box” idea as a model for videogame addiction, an illustration of the instant gratification of game playing that traps its subjects in a metaphorical box.

Wong concludes:

“The terrible truth is that a whole lot of us begged for a Skinner Box we could crawl into, because the real world's system of rewards is so much more slow and cruel than we expected it to be. In that, gaming is no different from other forms of mental escape, from sports fandom to moonshine.

“The danger lies in the fact that these games have become so incredibly efficient at delivering the sense of accomplishment that people used to get from their education or career. We're not saying gaming will ruin the world, or that gaming addiction will be a scourge on youth the way crack ruined the inner cities in the 90s. But we may wind up with a generation of dudes working at Starbucks when they had the brains and talent for so much more. They're dissatisfied with their lives because they wasted their 20s playing video games, and will escape their dissatisfaction by playing more video games. Rinse, repeat.”

The problem I encounter with my predilection for video games is the time and dedication they displace from other pursuits, namely writing. Good writing requires strong focus and practice. It’s a frustrating and taxing affair, and there are no guarantees of success. Some games—in their own way—require similar practice, but the end result is essentially programmed for me. All I have to do is press the buttons.

Here’s the plain and simple. When talking about writing versus playing video games, games simply demand less effort. Which is why, after a long day at work—or even on a day off, for that matter—I have often chosen games over writing. Pure conflict avoidance.

I’m interested in the idea of conflict. Some people, like myself, try very hard to avoid most forms of it. Billions of marketing dollars get spent each year advertising products and services that promise to alleviate the conflict in our lives. Most conflict, in fact, probably should be avoided. And yet, the great irony is that great things are born of conflict. It’s the essential element of any memorable story. Conflict, if managed correctly, can be the crucible of accomplishment.

Prescribers of the Christian faith may point to the seemingly backwards but encouraging letters of the apostle Paul—at the time a prisoner of Rome—when he says, “And not only this, we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.”

Let it be said, as I sloppily meander toward my hopeful conclusion, that this blog is an experiment born of conflict. Perhaps it’s an attempt at compromise. I don’t really see myself giving up on games, at least I’m not convinced that I should. I’ve been encouraged in recent weeks and months to discover some great sources of games discussion and critique.

Like other forms of creative expression, video games have things to tell us. They are artifacts that have, for better or worse, dug their claws into our collective, cultural psyche. The past four decades of developing this amorphous construct we currently call video games—which itself has its roots, clearly, in the ancient construct of games sans video—has laid the bedrock foundation for the innovations yet to come. Now seems as good a time as any to begin drilling back into these first layers, so to speak. What simply got buried? What has flourished?

I think also there is ample room for the intellectual and thoughtful discourse of video games to expand. Yes, we can still wax on about the fluid mechanics and jaw-dropping graphics of the latest and greatest commercial release. After all, these can be vital elements in shaping our experience playing games. But I think we can go deeper than that. What themes and ideas are being expressed in the proverbial subtext? What messages are these games reinforcing? What stories are games trying to tell? How are they succeeding and, perhaps more importantly, how are they failing? My personal hope is to devote some of my time and effort to these questions. If I’m going to continue playing games, I might as well push myself to try thinking and writing about this personal interest as well.

What follows from here may relate to the games I’m currently playing. I may provide some brief retrospective accounts of past games I’ve enjoyed. But lest this inaugural post portend a future of dry, pretentious essays, I should at least say I hope this blog will be fun to read. If video game writing can’t be playful, what’s the point?

Welcome to the Knee Deep in the Game blog. Let’s just see what happens.

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