A Lonely Heroism: The Fundamental Importance of Single-Player 1


Cool breeze flows in through the screen door, the glass part­ed to allow the air inside the liv­ing room to stir. It’s just the right tem­per­a­ture: 55 degrees Farhenheit. No more, no less. My ideal. The smell of slight­ly stale pizza com­min­gles with the lin­ger­ing scent of friend-who-has-been-in-my-house-recently. It is October of 2006, and I am alone. Alone in my par­ents’ home, and alone in the Rogue Encampment, a few miles out­side of the fal­l­en town of Tristram. I am happy.

For me, gam­ing has most­ly always been a soli­tary activ­i­ty. Meant to be shared with friends when the time is right, cer­tain­ly a favorite social entan­gle­ment of my peer group.

Videogames are kind of like booze to an alco­holic: usu­al­ly con­sumed in tem­per­ance while with com­pa­ny, and taken in great, bliss­ful­ly melan­choly draughts when alone. Just like the bot­tle, though, games don’t ever make the lone­li­ness go away. They make soli­tude tol­er­a­ble for mis­placed socialites, for sure. But at cer­tain times, with the right game, in the ideal envi­ron­ment, with an amenable per­son­al­i­ty (I con­fess that I do rather well by myself; I’m lucky in that way), they can make lone­li­ness sub­lime.

The most impact­ful moments are frozen, locked in mem­o­ry by par­tic­u­lar­ly brac­ing rush­es of dopamine through my trou­bled ado­les­cent brain, one already packed full of enough rag­ing pitu­itary hor­mones to stun a Kilwala.

I have my favorites of these immor­tal­ized (though not immor­tal) tran­scen­den­tal moments of soli­tude. I can remem­ber that sen­sa­tion, the tin­gling in the chest, my total cap­tiv­i­ty in the moment.

That haunt­ing riff that plays as you depart for the Den of Evil.

The video from the future, reveal­ing the apoc­a­lypse which was, and is to come.

Catching Mewtwo with an Ultra Ball (I actu­al­ly accom­plished this feat in my child­hood. My par­ents wept for my social life.).

I used the word “tran­scen­den­tal,” not in a lit­er­al sense, or even in the strict­ly metaphor­i­cal. Even now, as a fair­ly entrenched sec­u­lar­ist, I’ve had my share of what might be called “reli­gious” (I’d rather say spir­i­tu­al) expe­ri­ences. Most of them out­rank, by a com­par­ison of per­son­al grav­i­ty and emo­tion­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, those “peak expe­ri­ences” (as neu­ro­sci­en­tist Sam Harris is fond of call­ing them) obtained through game­play. But the same mech­a­nisms are at work: the heady dopamine shot to the appro­pri­ate cra­nial recep­tors, the sub­se­quent flash-camera inscrip­tion of the moment in per­ma­nent mem­o­ry.

There’s a dis­tinc­tion here, though, in the envi­ron­ment of the expe­ri­ences. See, most of the religious/spiritual/whatever moments I’ve had have taken place social­ly. As in, among a crowd of peo­ple. These were cor­po­rate jour­neys. Rather than find­ing myself indeli­bly immersed in the fic­tion­al world of a game, I was drawn in to the com­pa­ny, the cul­ture, the con­for­mi­ty. The sym­bols of these com­mu­ni­ties were most impor­tant; they pro­vid­ed that cru­cial feel­ing of being a part of some­thing greater than myself, los­ing my mor­tal­i­ty by sac­ri­ficing my iden­ti­ty. Whereas, though the “peak-ness” of the expe­ri­ence was in every case only slight­ly mit­i­gat­ed, my most impor­tant gam­ing moments have all taken place while I’ve been alone.

Stranger still, even in the midst of a great bat­tle with an ogre, a heart-wrenching denoue­ment of a cliff-top show­down, or the dan­ger­ous­ly dis­ori­ent­ing clam­or of a Reaper inva­sion, I never lost the aware­ness of soli­tude. Somewhere, in among the noise and the lights, I still felt lone­ly. The weight of lone­li­ness wasn’t at all unpleas­ant, either. I was fac­ing tri­als only I, through my unique expe­ri­ence of the game­world, could ever under­stand. I have been a hero in my own mind. And I have known peace.

Pictured: Zenlike calm.

Wild, ain’t it? Hidden trig­gers of med­i­ta­tive moments enscon­ced in a vir­tu­al hero­ism. Bizarre.

Then again, per­haps it’s not so sur­pris­ing after all. Turns out that sci­ence has some­thing to say about it.

Here at the Ontological Geek, we love invok­ing old dead dudes to jus­ti­fy our per­son­al philoso­phies. And of course, I can’t help but do just that.

Ernest Becker (whom those of you with a back­ground in psy­chol­o­gy may have stud­ied), in his book The Denial of Death (high­ly rec­om­mend­ed, if ever you feel like invok­ing a good ol’ exis­ten­tial coma), frames human behav­ior in the con­text of death aware­ness and death anx­i­ety. He argues that, since we are the only liv­ing crea­tures capa­ble of con­tem­plat­ing our own immi­nent demise, we deal with a con­stant, uncon­scious anx­i­ety about its inevitabil­i­ty. We lit­er­al­ly, accord­ing to Becker, spend our entire lives try­ing to repu­di­ate, con­tra­dict, for­get, and chal­lenge this latent ter­ror. Therefore, all of human behav­ior can be viewed through the lens of an immor­tal­i­ty project (which he calls casua sui). Without being able to keep our­selves occu­pied in this way, we will become over­whelmed by the ter­ror of real­i­ty, and be unable to func­tion.

The empir­i­cal school sprung from his work, called Terror Management Theory (or TMT), attempts to test Becker’s explana­to­ry claims about human behav­ior, and apply it to the phe­nom­e­non of self-esteem. TMT defines self-esteem as a tem­po­rary suc­cess of the immor­tal­i­ty project. In other words, the more that you’re able to deny or sub­vert your death anx­i­ety, the bet­ter you’ll feel about your­self.

There are many ways that we go about doing this: cul­ture, sym­bol­ism, reli­gion, cer­tain func­tions of lan­guage. The one that’s most impor­tant to this dis­cus­sion, how­ev­er, is hero­ism.

It doesn’t take a lot of imag­i­na­tion to see that, in light of death, asso­ci­a­tion with the human species, and self-identification as but a sin­gu­lar indi­vid­u­al there­in, is a threat. To feel spe­cial, unique (in a sig­nif­i­cant sense, alone) is a basic human need. We all must strive to become heroes in our cul­tur­al envi­ron­ments: our schools, jobs, reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions, hobby com­mu­ni­ties. Not least, we also need this sense of hero­ism in our imag­i­na­tive play.

Let’s face it: mul­ti­play­er, though increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar, is usu­al­ly seen as an addi­tion­al func­tion of a game pro­gram (an excep­tion may be made for MMORPGs). The main, core expe­ri­ence – even if played less often – is single-player. The mul­ti­play­er capac­i­ty is most often born from that, in terms of both story and game­play.

Armed with this infor­ma­tion, we can hope to explain what makes gam­ing so attrac­tive.

By its very nature, the single-player game­world gets us right into the “hero” frame of mind. When you begin a single-player game sce­nar­io, you’re a lone oper­a­tor, in a world whose threats only you can com­pre­hend well enough to com­bat effec­tive­ly. Generally, every­one and every­thing that isn’t scenery (here I’m think­ing of NPCs and even the UI) serves to help or hin­der you on your quest. It’s all about you.

Selfish prick.

Those peak moments that you remem­ber for decades, that feel-good chem­i­cal rush? That feel­ing of “this is some­thing extra­or­di­nary?” That’s your brain telling you “pay atten­tion, this is real­ly impor­tant!” And it is. You’re achiev­ing hero­ism. You’ve tran­scend­ed your­self. You’re fear­ful­ly and won­der­ful­ly awe­some. You’re spe­cial.

And you’ve achieved your break with the rest of doomed human­i­ty. You can sep­a­rate your­self from the mass­es now. You’re free.

There are those who say that single-player is on its way out for good. That multi-user vir­tu­al real­i­ties are the wave of the future, and there’s no stop­ping it. Those peo­ple may be right. But there will always be that yearn­ing inside every gamer, young and old. The need to stick out, prove one­self, build and bom­bard, achieve and ame­lio­rate. Doing it all by your­self.

Already, single-player fea­tures are becom­ing more and more mud­dled, inun­dat­ed with frus­trat­ing and illusion-collapsing breaks from the nar­ra­tive. Those who will notice these advanc­ing breach­es, should they con­tin­ue, in the new world of per­sis­tent con­nec­tions and com­pul­so­ry social net­work­ing, will be us. Those who recall the days of secret sto­ries, thrills of dis­cov­ery, and mem­o­ries of those per­fect moments in which we felt we became our­selves.


Aaron Gotzon

About Aaron Gotzon

Aaron Paul Gotzon is a beguiling ne’er-do-well, prancing about the stage by night, and hawking shrimp and cheap alcohol by day. He’s about as qualified to write about games as the average squashed cockroach. He does, however, run an extremely successful male escort service and bait shop out of his grandmother’s basement. If you’d like to send him a message, put it on a piece of paper, and throw it away.

  • Very inter­est­ing arti­cle! I’ve never been one to see gam­ing, and single-player is all I do real­ly, as “escapism” and I’ve always found that to be a strange and weird way to look at things. “escapism”? Really. I play a game most­ly because I want to expe­ri­ence its story (Resident Evil, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Silent Hill) or game­play (any­thing Nintendo). I hate choic­es and I don’t like cus­tomiza­tion. I love lin­ear­i­ty. I do not want to name my char­ac­ter or cre­ate my char­ac­ter, I want to play as Squall and find out how he falls in love with Rinoa! Dammit! Is that so hard to under­stand? Alas, it seems like more and more games are head­ing into that “sand­box” zone. Good thing we have Nintendo.… The whole sec­tion on death is quite fas­ci­nat­ing as well I must say. Good job sir!