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.
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.
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.
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.