Are video games a band-aid for our busted souls, or a tool for enlightenment in the digital age?
I wanted to share this post from my main blog GamerThink, let me know what you all think!
A couple weeks ago a friend of mine recommended I pick up a copy of David Deida's The Way of the Superior Man -- it's a self help book on better understanding masculinity, being a good lover/partner (oh la la), and, most interesting to me (sorry lover), discovering and following one's deepest purpose. Deida argues that for a person with a masculine core (90% of men he says) to achieve fulfillment in life the most important factor is aligning oneself with their deepest purpose. I've spent the past few days thinking on this idea, especially considering the ways this drive gets expressed in gaming.
Deida's instructions are pretty simple, basically remove distractions and use meditation as way to unlock one's sense of purpose:
"You stay open to a vision of your deeper purpose by not filling your time with distractions. Don’t watch tv or play computer games. Don’t go out drinking beer with your friends every night or start dating a bunch of women. Simply wait. You may wish to go on a retreat in a remote area and be by yourself. Whatever it is you decide to do, consciously keep yourself open and available to receiving a vision of what is next. It will come."
My first thought after reading this passage was "Wow, is there an inverse relationship between video game usage and having a sense of direction and purpose?" I know for myself, when I get frustrated with a project or am feeling kinda lost in life, that tends to be exactly when I get obsessed with Fallout 2, or SimTower, or whatever I can dig out of my game archive. Sometimes it feels like my purpose is to play video games, but unfortunately that illusion fades pretty quickly under a little introspection. The truth is, most of us struggle with understanding what our deepest purpose is, and many of us haven't even spent much time thinking about it...
Interestingly, video games (narrative ones especially) are awesome models for a purpose driven existence. I'm hard pressed to think of a major game protagonist that wasn't essentially mission driven -- from the perspective of the avatar, there are rarely moments when what to do next hasn't just smacked you in the face. I think this is possibly why video games are so engaging for individuals who may not experience a strong sense of purpose on a daily basis. If it's true that we all (men especially) long for the feeling of having a purpose and following it, it makes perfect sense why video games would be an ideal surrogate for the real thing.
Video games are of course not the first medium to offer this kind of engagement. This process of temporarily adopting a fictional purpose as one's own has been going on since the first story tellers. We do it for entertainment, for distraction, but also for growth. In virtually taking on the identity of a hero, whether through Halo of Homer, we simulate the emotions, thoughts, and beliefs that emerge out of embodying a deep sense of purpose. Video games are arguably the best medium for this process yet invented, so why isn't all our playing turning us into fulfilled purpose driven real world humans? What's the missing link? (No... it's not LARPing).
My theory is that the missing link is self-reflection. Video games invite us to forget our primary identities and needs, and fully take on those of a fictional character. In this way they serve as a diversion from a gnawing truth that haunts most of us: "I am unfulfilled because I am not in touch with a deeper personal purpose". I believe video games could serve as a pointer to this truth as opposed to a distraction from it. The very best storytelling works this way, like a instruction manual for discovering the meaning of life and pursuing it. This exactly how many spiritual texts and myths have 'operated' for thousands of years.
The key element in achieving this positive effect is to incorporate a process of self-reflection into the narrative or game experience. The problem is, when we play video games they become fully subjective experiences, and usually we forget we are playing a game (just like real life). In fact, they are designed with that effect in mind: immersion. And with good reason, it's damn fun to lose yourself in a more fulfilling existence. However, self-reflection, or in other words the process of transcending the subjective and coming to see one's experiences, emotions, and beliefs as separate and distinct from a truer self, is the universal core of spiritual growth and self discovery. It is out of this truer self that the all important sense of deepest purpose emerges.
I deeply believe video games have the potential to engage the player in reflecting on their life (real and virtual alike) by transforming once subjective experiences into something subjective and mutable. In essence catalyzing spiritual growth. In fact, video games are ideally suited to this purpose because of how simple it is to manipulate a player's sense of 'what is real' within the game.
Let me be clear, this is not an argument against designing awesome immersive virtual experiences, rather, it is an invitation to engage the player's awareness on a fundamentally new level. Tibetan Buddhists have trained and used the technique of lucid dreaming for more than 1,000 years in order to achieve this very goal. In a lucid dream, the 'player' is simultaneously immersed in a perfect virtual (biologically, rather than technologically derived) reality while remaining aware that the entire experience is an illusion. This practice is intended to reveal the illusory nature of reality, allowing the player to transcend, what is in truth, a very consistent and persistent dream. By stepping outside this dream individuals connect with the part of themselves that is most real, and in in doing so illuminate their deepest purpose. There are countless practices (meditation, yoga, study, entheogens, prayer) that individuals use to reach this goal, but across many spiritual traditions this process of self actualization is the essence of enlightenment.
The majority of people never 'wake up' from this dream, but I believe video games, as unsophisticated as they might be today, are the ideal platform for catalyzing "enlightenment" on a mass scale. Of course the question remains, how specifically to 'wake the player up' through game design. Thankfully, a number of great games in the past have achieved this 'effect' to some degree, and I don't think it's a coincidence they are some of the most loved game titles of all time. An analysis of those games, along with some fresh ideas are on their way in future posts.