Shrinking Universe

Last year I made a New Year’s Resolution. I needed to do something about my very real addiction to video games. I went through my hard drive and wiped it clean. My collections of NES, SNES, and N64 ROMs, my stack of virtual disks for the Tandy TRS-80, my Boot Camp partition with Steam installed. Everything had to go.

I was mostly successful. I kept some LucasArts and Sierra adventures around for research. I installed a few classics I missed a lot. But, I allowed myself one indulgence at a time. If I wanted to enjoy some game or other, that’s all I allowed myself, until some time at which I could say I ‘finished’ it, then I had to put it down.

This worked, to a reasonable extent. Since moving to Germany I’ve loosened up a bit further, and I’ve allowed myself to play things that don’t require too much thought, that can be picked up and put down easily: the peerless Hotline Miami, some of the latest work from the Doom community, the excellent Don’t Starve.

When I was younger I would put hundreds of hours into a game without a second thought. I have no doubt I’ve put a thousand hours or more into Morrowind, for example, and probably five-hundred hours into all of the GTA series. That kind of enormous, open world beckoned me.

But I’ve noticed something. As I get older, as my New Year’s Resolution constrains my choices, I find myself gravitating towards a certain kind of game. I play Minecraft less. I play Don’t Starve more. I play Skyrim less. I play Fallout more. So what’s the difference?

Minecraft doesn’t end. Don’t Starve does. Skyrim doesn’t end. Fallout does.

We have the ability to create and hide in worlds of enormous—sometimes effectively infinite—size. All to ourselves. Like mischievous little gods and goddesses.

There is this tiny point of sadness whenever I come upon some digital village, and make my way around it, I just feel insanely lonely and cut off from the rest of the world.

You’ll never meet another soul in this place, unless, of course, you’re playing SA-MP.

We have one shared experience, the world around us. The closest to reality that we can perceive, the signals our senses intercept. There’s a tradeoff. You can have the entirety of a digital world to yourself, and have dominium over every voxel in it, but it’s lonely and empty. And then there’s the world we share, but everyone has a vested interest, and everyone is scrambling over everyone else to get to the top, and there’s limited resources, and it’s not a game.

Sure, there’s shared digital experience. Minecraft servers. World of Warcraft. These things are important because up to a certain point, they can be made indistinguishable from the real world. Our senses can be tricked into immersing into them. As I get older, I find this isn’t a trick I enjoy playing on myself.

I’m not quite sure how to wrap this up. I don’t know how to reconcile this conflict: having played video games my entire life, and wanting less and less to find myself in them. Having spent countless hours in front of the screen with friends playing San Andreas, Mario Kart, even audience-participatory Fallout. Now, making my way across the globe, with the living, visceral cast of characters, sights and sounds, around me.

I want modern games that I can put down, and still appreciate. I want multiplayer games that allow me to enjoy time with friends, and then give me my time back when we’re done.