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Why We Game For Hundreds Of Hours

Nintendo and Sony have officially entered their prize fighters into the next console generation championship bout and we all await the specifications of Microsoft's champion.  Personally, I am not a day one console buyer.  One day, in fact hopefully in the next console generation, but this fall 2013 I will pay my gas bill (my highest utility bill) and delve deeper into my Xbox 360's backlog. 

With the new console releases, after the initial hubbub calms over hardware specifications and peripheral support our attention turns to the available games.  New consoles infamously have a gaming library famine whereas the previous console generation ends with a gaming buffet.  We sink tens and hundreds of hours into our games exploring worlds and progressing through stories.  We may debate the most seminal aspect of gaming from the narrative to gameplay to combat to level design to audio design and more but we all agree on the inherent value of our cherished passion.  How we identify with a game and devote our precious hours towards any given game is a personal decision. 

I considered the games I have left to play in this generation before adding next generation titles such The Witcher 3.  My current generation backlog is overwhelming when considered solely as the hundreds of hours required to play the titles before purchasing even one next generation game.  I thought back on the recent games that I have rotated through my disc tray and I wondered why, what hook, kept me powering up the same game for hours on end. 

Gaming dedication resulted in this photo.   

Games must balance their purpose as artistic expression of the developer with each individual gamer's need to own a gaming experience as "my" playthrough.  Perhaps the developer creates an emotionally taunt narrative but the emotionality of a narrative choice stems from the hours I spent with the game even outside of the narrative and that such a connection is possible without a strong narrative.  For example, currently, I am alternating my playtime between Assassin's Creed 3 and Far Cry 3.  I am nearly done with both and both as designed under the Ubisoft umbrella play remarkably similarly.  The open worlds are mostly open for exploration with key areas locked by storyline progression.  With a predetermined character I run amok on the map embroiled in side quests spending the majority of my time outside of the central story.  All that time spent in the side quests and causing general mayhem, notably be making horses glitch on purpose and experimenting with the explosions an RPG launcher can cause, contribute to the emotional pull of the central story when I return to the central narrative.   

I realized that the value of my time spent playing, my impetus for returning to these digital universes, ranged from holding my characters' fates in my hands to custom paint jobs to skillful takedowns to vehicle control and more.  Gaming narratives range from the interactive story to the threadbare explanation of gameplay mechanics.   Stories are beset with the idea of a developer gifting us with their artistic storyline.  Yet, we sink hours upon hours into games playing within these digital worlds.  Sometimes merely a character's nuances remind me that I am indeed in charge and playing through my game. 

Make your choice.  Just remember that everyone is depending on you.  No pressure. 

Sure, in a discussion about meaning in video games Telltale Games' The Walking Dead is an obvious example.  Personally, after the game ended I was conflicted feeling both an enjoyable experience that I am eager to continue in season two versus a sense of trickery that I, at best, marginally impacted the overall narrative.  I was intrigued at what exactly in The Walking Dead left me excited about the series because at the end of the fifth and final episode, for me, the narrative's smoke and mirrors faded away and I felt duped.  I chalked up my minimal narrative impact to the limitations of game development. 

Quick make a decision!  Wait!  Make the right choice!  You waited too long!  Everyone is dead.  Good job. 

After some thinking, I considered that the time limitation for the narrative options turned an interactive story into "my" story.  Pivotal narrative choices are presented with a timer with no response a valid option.  The real time conversation rather than my character staring idly for an indefinite period while I grab chips or look up the response outcomes on my smartphone forced my response.  Such a mechanic imitated the decisions we make every day with little to no time to thoroughly weigh our options.  We must choose and abide by the outcomes of our decisions.  Innovative gaming removes the pause ability, such as Dark Souls with no pause feature whatsoever, and The Walking Dead moves forward dragging the player along disallowing the ability to feel safe.  Suddenly, rather than the "big decisions" dictating a sense of ownership I felt that the constant smaller moments fleshing out how to raise Clementine in a post zombie apocalypse world and interactions with others shaping how our group acted within the world's chaos allowed me to shape the story.  The constant "live or die" choices became irrelevant because, assuming that I survive the initial apocalyptic event, the narrative becomes how I live my life in this post civilization world.

Action shots are hard.  Master Chief enjoying the ride and Master Chief a mere few seconds into his trip around the battlefield. 

However, gaming investment does not require a narrative pull.  Currently, I am sporadically playing through Halo 3's campaign.  On one hand, I am apparently a perpetual Halo noob because I continually become stuck in a large firefight that requires a substantial effort to get past only to land in another one.  On the other hand, the Halo franchise from Bungie to 343 Industries is notoriously inaccessible for the disabled, including myself.  The increasingly subpar captions in Halo 3 cause me to resent the franchise each time I must endure uncaptioned in game dialogue and wonder what my objective is.  Somehow, I keep trying because I want the "Halo" experience and a particular mechanic sticks with me.  The ability to commander nearly any vehicle is great fun but I nearly gasped when realizing that I get to choose where to sit in said vehicles when multiple options are available.  As the heroic Master Chief I can choose to sit in the passenger's seat and enjoy the ride leaving the driving to the driver and the gun play to the soldier in charge of the mounted weapon.  Granted, the AI may not be geniuses but the option to sit back in the passenger's side always elicits a grin from me considering my Master Chief as a galactic savior who does not mind occasionally relinquishing the driver's seat.  Inevitably after several deaths I take over the wheel driving around the battlefield just to pick up wayward soldiers as if I am a taxi service.  I note that perhaps my playstyle is not conducive to completing the campaign.      

Despite incredibly creeping looking children the choice that never became easy.

With BioShock Infinite's release nearing, BioShock 2 has climbed up in my backlog.  Granted, BioShock Infinite is not a direct sequel or even from the same development team but playing the franchise in order allows me to witness the game design's evolution.  Initially, I avoided the original BioShock on the sole premise that its main characters were dubbed Big Daddies and Little Sisters.  I was unsure what creepy Freudian experiment was occurring in the game and I wanted no part of morbid family dynamics.  Thankfully, these are allegorical labels for mutated humans.  The Little Sisters harvest plasmids, a chemical used for leveling up, from bodies while Big Daddies stand guard.  This character dynamic is the basis of BioShock's morality system that distills into "harvest and kill or let live" the Little Sisters upon a successful takedown of her Big Daddy.  This "kill or let live" option occurs repeatedly throughout the game establishing a black/white morality system that determines your ending scenes.  The choice is presented continually long after we, the player, determined our playthrough type for our preferred ending.  Yet, the decision never became rote because each instance forced a visceral reaction.  The animation of a Little Sister never let the harvest decision come easy as we must witness the act of harvesting a child and its consequences or know that a deadly enemy is around the corner but watch our ability to level up run away.  This interaction with often nothing but a repeating animation sequence imbued the Little Sisters as an aloof NPC with such meaning that in my opinion the "good" BioShock ending is one of the best of this console generation. 

One second you don't see me, the next second I took over your mind.  Carry on guard. 

Assassination games tend to suffer from a lack of personality.  The targets quickly become far removed from the initial act of violence that spurred our lone wolf hero into action until the why behind each target is buried under hard to follow layers of political intrigue.  For all of the praise, this occurs in the celebrated Dishonored which instead specializes in a highly effective assassin toolset.  Dishonored features many available options for assassinating, not so much for sneaking, but I most enjoyed possession.  With a minimal narrative that requires intense exploration to fully flesh out, a successful and skillful takedown provides a sense of satisfaction.  Possession added a personal touch to one digital avatar taking out another.  Gaining temporary control of a guard with NPCs commenting on the guard's changed persona and interacting with the environment in the new guise allowed for the setup of any desired takedown from a chokehold to a one hit kill.  During possession takedowns I felt the most like an assassin with supernatural powers slipping out of the shadows emptying an entire area without being seen.  Each return to Dunwall left me looking my next opportunity to make the world shift into an eerie green/gray palette as I looked out from another's eyes.  Plus, swimming and crawling as a fish and a rat provided an entire new viewpoint for first person/animal perspective. 

I made these myself or stole, same thing.

After roughly 118 hours my wood elf in Skyrim is only level 35 and my recommitment to the central story somehow devolved into the thieves' guild quest line.  Surely, such a nearly fully customizable game allows the player to own every facet of their game time.  Still others criticize Skyrim for an openness that dilutes player choice into the choice to do nothing meaningful.  When I booted up my save file that I neglected for months, in order to get a grasp on my game I visited my house in Riften, ran down the stairs, and checked out my displayed weapons.  The time and energy spent leveling up, looting the bow, learning how to enchant, discovering the enchanting spell and ultimately obtaining the ability to gain an even better bow was all encapsulated in the bow unassumingly displayed on a plaque.  For a while after I bought my initial house I was unaware of the availability of the plaques for displaying weapons.  Eventually, noticing the mannequins for showing off armor and clothes tipped me off that a weapon option must exist as well.  Now, rather than cram my once beloved gear in an overflowing loot chest each goes on display while the bigger and cooler gear is equipped.  Maybe the narrative delivery is wooden and quests end with the sensation of "Now what?" but all of those hours spent in Skyrim are embodied in proudly displayed weaponry showcasing the skills and adventures I had pursuing my next level up.       

Follow the message and all will be well. 

Every morning, except on Saturdays, I turn on my console and choose one of the three to four ongoing games.  Sometimes I am in the mood for a run and gun experience, or for walls of text, or for brain hurting puzzles or for memorized combinations or for a multitude of other gaming types.  Games are not only experiences built by another but my own design from level editors to narrative choices to weapon customization to co-op with friends and strangers and more.  Each reason is a valid foundation of individual ownership and meaning into built digital worlds compelling s us to devote hours into these creations made by another but shaped by us.  As new generations of games are developed we will sink our time and energy into these games asking the developers only that we are provided a sense of ownership in their designed universes. 

Thank you to all readers who stopped by. 

What gaming mechanic has made you feel a sense of ownership in a game?

What game do you feel that you shaped the most?

What game have you sunk the most amount of time into?

Do you have an opinion or thoughts about spending so many hours gaming?

Have a great week out there in the big wide world and enjoy the valuable time that you get in the digital realm!  

 

 

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