My introduction to gaming began with an Italian plumber wearing a red hat and blue overalls. He and I traveled the virtual world together accompanied by his slightly taller and lankier brother. Our mission: to rescue a beautiful blonde princess from the clutches of an evil dinosaur-like creature and thus restore peace to the kingdom. I am talking about, of course, Super Mario World for the Super Nintendo, truly one of the landmark games in the history of gaming. Like most millennials, video games have been a huge part of my life. As a matter of fact, I grew up alongside the gaming industry. As I got older, the consoles got more sophisticated, the graphics more life-like, and the stories more epic. Eventually, my siblings would join in the fun as we raced one another in Need for Speed on the PlayStation, fought side-by-side to defeat the evil demon Skorne in Gauntlet: Dark Legacy, and beat each other to a pulp in Super Smash Bros. (the game in which I still hold the championship title in my family, much to my siblings chagrin).
Besides entertainment and fun, some video games also offered sentimental and treasured memories. For example, I remember well the moment I completed the first Kingdom Hearts for the PS2. My brothers, sister, and I worked very hard to finish all the levels and defeat every boss. It really was a group effort. It took us several months to beat the game since we were only allowed to play on weekends. Then, when Ansem was finally defeated and the ending cinematics came on the screen, my siblings and I all looked at each other and started to cry. I know it may seem ridiculous, but those who are gamers will know what I am talking about. We did not cry simply because the game was over; it was more than being upset about the ending of a certain form of entertainment. We had invested a lot into this game. Our imaginations and hearts were tied up in Sora’s story. Indeed, we had become part of the story. On a deeper level, it was also a shared experience between siblings which was now over. We stayed watching the closing credits until the very last name glided across the screen. A great adventure had ended.
I believe my personal story about Kingdom Hearts is not an isolated case. I also believe it is indicative of what makes gaming a truly fascinating human phenomenon. Unlike stories or movies, video games possess the unique quality of inserting the player into the narrative as an active participant. It becomes (or appears to become) the player’s story. The avatar is simply a vessel by which the player can enact his or her will in the virtual world. This is especially true in the more modern games, particularly those which belong to the RPG (Role Playing Game) category. Exemplified in games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, World of Warcraft, and Final Fantasy with their massive worlds and seemingly limitless potentials, the player can move about freely to complete tasks, unrestricted by boundaries. There are also some games that provide various possible outcomes in regard to game-endings or multiple ways to complete the game as opposed to having one set storyline. This allows for a more life-like feel, granting the player options in choosing his or her way of beating the game.
One of the most popular games in the world right now is Fortnite, an open-world combat game where players are dropped onto an island to duke it out solo or as a team. You collect weapons, build defenses, and can access a series of “skins” (character costumes). If you do really well, you may even want to make your character bust out one of the 96 different dance moves and emote options (the floss and the dab are both available). The game is also inter-connective—meaning, you can play with people throughout the world if you are hooked up to the internet. This game has taken the industry by storm. Since its release on July 25, 2017, it has amassed over $1billion in revenue. Needless to say, many of the children from my parish school are avid subscribers to Fortnite and even my own brother has become quite masterful winning the game in solo-mode over fifty times (even while in medical school…now that is impressive).
If one were to observe the gaming industry with an anthropologist’s eye, they would immediately recognize several key human desires manifesting themselves in video game culture. These virtual worlds become places to actualize the longings of the human heart. Our yearning for communion, our need for mission, our hope for self-realization—all these innate human qualities are on full display in the world of gaming, even if it is unbeknownst to the gamer themselves. For example, according to the gaming website Polygon, there are several factors that make Fortnite so popular, the first of which is “sharable moments”:
Obviously, the game is fun. But what makes it enjoyable? First and foremost, Battle Royale designed to be a blank slate for vivid personal stories. Once inside the game, it’s easy to be swept up in the travails and adventures of your avatar. Every time that bus cruises over the island, a hundred narratives unfold. Some of them are as forgettable as “I opened the door to a house and someone blew me apart with a shotgun.” Others are more textured. “When I achieved my first Victory Royale, I couldn’t stop myself from recounting the whole story to my entire family.” (Colin Campbell, “Why Is Fortnite Battle Royale so Wildly Popular? Our Reasons Why Epic’s Game Is a Cultural Phenomenon”)
Thus, in the case of Fortnite, the video game taps into the desire for communion, to “being-with” an other. As we read the different narratives being typed on our screen or spoken to us through our headphones by other players, we are immediately drawn into a society of which my personal story is an integral part. The “I” of the self finds a way out of the self and into relation with the “other.” The same can be said of other games such as Skyrim, a virtual world filled with quests, dragons, magic, and courageous battles, a veritable playground in which to feel my human longing for magnanimity, a yearning to soar into heroism. Then you have the category of “Indie Adventure Games” such as Journey, Flower, and Abzu. These games are among some of my personal favorites. They are simple games moved more by their artistry than their activity, being composed of beautiful soundtracks and deeply sophisticated plots.
In the upcoming articles, we will be addressing various aspects of video game culture and how it reveals the multi-faceted desires of the human heart. Likewise, we will discuss the importance of recognizing these desires so as to bring them out of the virtual world into the real world. For, in the end, God lives in reality. We encounter him in the real. It is not enough for us to defeat Bowser, win solo-mode in Fortnite, or slay the elder-dragons of Skyrim. Our humanity aches for real experience and the most exciting thing of all is that this experience can be received. There is a real-life adventure we can live greater than any virtual world can offer us. But first, we must know and understand our own humanity and that for which it yearns.