Meaningful Experiences

I was browsing Kotaku the other day, and a paragraph struck me:

Nobody ever asks why anyone stopped playing Halo 2. No response would merit it. The game came out in 2004, and three years later, there was Halo 3. At some point, it got old. Another game came along. Friends moved on. It was just a thing you did, and then you went and did something else.

This is something I struggle with, internally. Not Halo 2, but with the general concept.

I used to play a lot of Counter-Strike back in the day. So much so that I was extremely bitter when version 1.6 came out and changed the way a lot of the guns fired (1.5 for life). I transitioned into Warcraft 3-modded Counter-Strike servers – Night Elves went invisible when they stopped moving, Undead had low-gravity and regain health when dealing damage, etc – before finally moving on entirely to Battlefield 2. I played that damn near daily for like four years. Then Magic Online for a while, then World of Warcraft for a decade.

Looking back, what can I even say about any of those decades of gaming?

“I had fun playing Counter-Strike.” Maybe someone else can say “me too,” and then commiserate about X or Y change in the intervening years. But that’s it. We can’t really share our experiences in any further detail – you had to be there in that moment, else it’s just a vague sentiment, if one tries to communicate the feeling at all. WoW is different in the sense that I eventually met my guildmates in the real world – and invited each other to our weddings – but I can’t imagine meaningfully talking with some random WoW player on the street.

Contrast that with, say, any of the Final Fantasy games. Or Silent Hill. Or really any single-player, narrative experience. If someone says their favorite game is Xenogears, I could meaningfully talk with them for hours. We could discuss our favorite team compositions, how shocked we were about X revelation, how funny the mistranlations were, and so on. That means something in a way that “This one time on de_dust…” does not. We played the same game, but had different experiences.

At the same time, I don’t want to denigrate other peoples’ experiences. I wouldn’t suggest that someone hiking in the woods or fishing is wasting their time, despite those discreet events being equally ephemeral and unrelatable. There are people who simply enjoy wandering around virtual worlds, like there are people wandering around the real world. If that’s what you like, keep doing it.

I worry about myself though. I started Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice the other day, and enjoyed the play session. After that, it’s been days and days of Slay the Spire (Ascension 12 with the Silent) and 7 Days to Die. The latter is especially egregious, considering it is in an unfinished Alpha state. Why not put it down and go back to Hellblade, which is – by all accounts – a much deeper experience? Because, in that moment, these other (potentially vapid) experiences are 5% more pleasurable.

“If you’re having fun, what does it matter?” Well… wirehead. Also, having fun, in of itself, is not relatable. Which, I suppose, belies an underlying desire of mine to be relatable or at least capable of conveying relatable experiences. Even if there were people who wanted to read “I had fun playing videogames today,” I wouldn’t want to write just that. There should be something more.

I dunno. It would be one thing if the dilemma was between playing videogames and completing some meaningful task IRL. It’s not. There is nothing more #firstworldproblems than angst surrounding which two leisure activities provides the most long-term utility. Nevertheless, the worry exists, alongside a deeper one as to whether wirehead experiences have increased my fun tolerance beyond the reach of narrative games altogether. Or perhaps I am simply playing the wrong narrative games.

Posted on January 30, 2019, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I have mentioned a few times the conflict between what I might call the logical, higher order part of my brain which often comes up with games I should be playing, complete with logical arguments, and the more instinctual, emotional part of my brain that knows no logic, only what it wants to do right now.

    So the logical part of my brain says I should go play WoW, go finish off the story line for Battle for Azeroth, do some pet battles, go through the story with a Horde alt to see the other side, and maybe work on trade skills or something. I know that I will want to have done all of that before the next expansion comes out and I am paying for the subscription still.

    But then I sit down at my computer and, instead, I bring up Steam and play RimWorld, or jump on to LOTRO, where I have pretty much wrapped up the current content on the legendary server, or get into a fleet in EVE Online to shoot a structure… with RimWorld running in the background during dull bits.

    There is clearly what I think I should be playing and what I actually end up playing and the two don’t always match up.

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  2. Funny, I find “same game, different experiences” a lot easier to generate content for. Simply telling the story of your unique playthrough – a Dwarf Fortress town, a chance MMO encounter – becomes novel and interesting to read about or pay attention to.

    I get what your overall gist is though. I get that worry when it comes to going through the motions or playing the exact same content as everybody else. If everyone can log in and read the same quest text, or if the main descriptor is “I hit a bunch of mining nodes, I leveled to X level, I played through this singleplayer game and went from chapter 1-8,” it’s easy to question if it’s even worth doing or if it’s just a lingering Skinner box habit.

    Still, I think a lot of it is if one can come up with the proper perspective and lens angle. I worry that discussing the exact same storyline is pointless; you find a way to highlight unique differences in team composition and potentially different responses and emotional reactions to the same occurence.

    So maybe the deeper level is to go into the “why”s and “how”s. What’s the attraction of Slay the Spire? How has one been playing 7 Days to Die?

    It takes a better writer than me to make node harvesting interesting though. Beyond the angle of the industrial alt log-in log-out efficiency chaser and the ambling from dot to dot flower picker, I can’t think of much more to expand the narration of that experience.

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  3. Both the the travel literature and natural history sections of the bookshop where I work refute your assertion that “hiking in the woods or fishing is… ephemeral and unrelatable”. Entire publishing houses and some very successful author’s careers are dedicated to littele more than “what I did on my holidays” and “I went for a nice walk in the woods”.

    What’s more, as I write this at 7.30 in the evening, there will be thousands of people sitting on folding chairs in draughty church halls and community centers around the country, listening to amateur speakers droning on about the very same topics. Ort there will be when the weather gats a bit better and the evenings draw out, anyway.

    Similarly, at conventions all over the world, year after year, bunches of people are going to sit around telling each other at inordinate length what they did in World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV and the fact that they did the same things on different servers in different years isn’t going to slow anyone down for a moment.

    I wouldn’t have thought people would want to read a thousand words on “I played an MMO I’ve played for years and I did some stuff I’ve done loads of times before” but apparently they do. I literally posted that a few of days ago and got plenty of positiv feedback. Indeed, rambling posts about quests and leveling in ancient MMOs are almost guaranteed to get a response where well-researched pieces on current topics frequently go unremarked.

    As well as that there’s the issue of talent in the speaker or writer to consider. Some people can make the story of how they buttered a piece of toast into a hilarious monologue that has listener’s gasping for breath because they’re laughing so hard. Possibly there aren’t too many of those playing MMORPGs but as source material, mining nodes is as good as anything if you have the wit to make it so.

    As for fun, well if you feel uncomfortable about having it, you’re not doing it right.

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    • There are certainly a lot of books on shelves about hiking and camping. A talented author could possibly transport you there, into his/her memories (or imagination). Or perhaps simply remind you of your own past camping trips, and drown you in nostalgia. But the fundamental truth is that the author’s camping trip is wholly different from your own (if any). While they may elicit similar emotions – the peacefulness of unhurried nature, etc – they are proverbial apples and oranges.

      Contrast that with, say, two people who have read the same novel about camping. Maybe they enjoyed the same passages, or maybe they interpreted the theme in wildly different ways. Regardless, they have the same basis upon which to compare their experiences. Chapter Six followed Chapter Five, and the bear attack happens every time on page 138. One person may have loved it and another hated it. Regardless, you know it’s apples vs apples.

      I have played 78 hours of Rimworld. It is a fairly open-ended sandbox in which (morally ambiguous) emergent stories flow like wine. While it can be entertaining reading others’ misadventures with their colonists and the sudden cruelty of RNG events… well. I don’t really care. It’s like when someone IRL talks about a dream they had last night. If they are an especially good storyteller, it can be fun, like with your toast example. But at that point it’s not about the toast or the dream or Rimworld anymore, it’s about their talent of speaking or writing or my own personal interest in them as a person. The subject is immaterial.

      Most MMOs have a lot of single-player content, such that there opportunities to compare how one felt at Wrathgate to someone else. But other times are nigh unrelatable, such as a guild finally downing a boss they were struggling on for weeks. We can swap struggle stories perhaps, or if I were a gifted writer I could cause you to empathize even if you never played the game at all.

      As you know though, that gift is an uncommon one, and expressed consistently even more uncommon still. And so, I sometimes feel it more meaningful to stick to experiences in which we can compare directly.

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  4. Sunburned Albino on youtube calls games you play when you have better games to play “crutch games”. His example was a Yugioh game where he just does the same unmemorable things over and over.

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