First-Person Understanding: Interpreting our Reality through Gaming
Kevin Kennedy (Theonekk)
When discussing video games, there seems to be a fundamental understanding that the world of the game exists as it is produced by the game’s creators. Yet, if one starts to think about it in a more complex context, this is simply not true. For example, when I play a game like Skyrim, can anyone argue that their experience of the world within the game is the same as mine? I think not. Even if another person were to do the exact same things in-game, his or her impression of the world would vary greatly. Individual experience and perception shade the interpretation of a game, as our reality creeps into what may ostensibly be called our escape. Furthermore, I believe an argument can be made that our very experiences within this other world, itself shaded by our outside understanding, can bleed back into our outside world, changing some of the ways we think about our outside reality.
In discussing poetry in his essay titled, “Language,” Martin Heidegger states that: “The dif-ference for world and thing disclosingly appropriates things into bearing a world; it disclosingly appropriates world into the granting of things” (1123). Now, while it may be said that an essay written in the early twentieth century, before something as simple as Pong was even thought a possibility, can bear no relevance on modern gaming, but I would beg to disagree. In his essay, Heidegger discusses how language can be used as both a means of reflection and creation, illustrating pieces of our world while creating something entirely new. The above quote comes from the part of his essay where he discusses how, in essence, a new world is created by the interactions of a reader and a text. Heidegger argues that the space between the text and the outside world is where something new is created for the reader. Thinking about this, it can be argued that gaming is another form of communication and language that, while perhaps less subtle than poetry, creates for a gamer a new reality in the space between the screen and the reader’s outside world. As a person plays a game, he or she takes personal experiences and knowledge from the outside world and feeds it back into the gaming experience. The way I understand my odd travel in Journey, for example, is shaded by how I perceive the game, which is in turn determined by my outside experience. The new world, therefore, exists not in the game itself, being played out on the screen, but in my own mind, where I create a new world with each individual experience.
Now, then, if the value of a game exists not in the thing itself, but in the mind of the gamer, how can one possible evaluate the substance of a game? The short answer would be that one cannot, but that is an incomplete truth. The answer to this question parallels the answers discovered by scholars of literature and art throughout the course of history. For the scholar of more traditional mediums, the question is a bit clearer: how can one evaluate something that can only be described through the senses of an individual? If I am looking at a painting, how can I say with certainty that my perception of an overall brightness will be the same perception that another person has? Once again, the short answer is that I cannot be sure. Yet, despite this uncertainty to anything universal, critics and gamers can speak with a fair amount of certainty about some things. For instance, it can be nearly universally agreed that some gameplay is boring, or that a game takes a new risk. But at the same time, a lot of leeway must be given to the individual. For example, while I loved Bioshock Infinite’s late game, no one else experienced the game the same way I did, and for many the world created just didn’t work. Some people might get upset, and might criticize people who do not feel the same way about a game, but ultimately, it is the beauty of art that everyone creates for him or herself a different world with each experience of the piece. Maybe next time I play Bioshock Infinite I won’t interpret the game the same way. I’ll be a new person in many ways, and maybe the new world created in my mind will seem less genuine than it did the first time. As many people may love one author or painter, and may grow out of it, so to will gamer’s experiences of the games they play.
The more difficult aspect of gaming to discuss is how games affect our outside world. If it is agreed that the experiences from the world outside the game bleed through to the experience in-game, is the opposite true? Can it be said that my reality is shaped, in part, by the games I have played? To this, I answer a resounding yes. Of course the outside reality is shaped by games. Games interact with an individual through his or her senses, and therefore constitute a piece of that person’s individual life narrative. Just like a great book or painting, a great gaming experience can leave a lasting impact on how a person views the outside world. Yet, with this bleed-through apparent, it is very difficult to find words to discuss exactly how reality is changed by a gaming experience, and a lot of that has to do with the often subversive nature of the change. While some changes may be apparent (for instance, my experience when visiting Washington, D.C. for the first time was definitely altered by playing Fallout 3 first), many are much more subtle, with a much wider impact. Since most gamers play for fun, ideas about politics, morals, and the nature of the world around us seem to just be a part of the game. For instance, the ruthless nature of morals in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Fallout seem far removed from our twenty-first century lives. However, it is in thinking about the differences, or lack thereof, that the gamer starts to see our reality in a new light. While the choice of whether or not to destroy Megaton in Fallout 3 seems far removed from our reality (I mean, after all, how many of us will ever have to decide whether or not to arm a nuclear weapon?), the act of making the choice forces the gamer to consider exactly how far removed the game’s world is from our own, and in doing so the gamer must consider how different, or perhaps how alike, our world is.
With all of this discussion of individual reality in gaming, the topic may seem heavy and the very idea of discussing a favorite game may seem daunting. Yet, really, the point of this short discussion has been quite simple. The next time you play, think about how your gaming reality differs from others, and you disagree with someone about a game, realize that no one else could ever possibly play the exact same game you do. When you turn off the game, don’t think that the experience ends there. We are all, after all, a collection of individual experiences, and a game is just another experience.
Images from Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Copyright Bethesda Softworks
Image from Journey, copyright That Game Company
Heidegger, Martin. “Language.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001: 1121-1134.