Toward virtual utopia: In conversation with gamers

April 19, 2021, 9:07 p.m.

“Quarantine,” muses Jared Poblete ’23, “is this weird liminal space where I’m alive but I’m not living. But in Animal Crossing, my character can run around and catch bugs. And I’m my character — I’m the one running around and catching bugs.”

Armaan Rashid ’22 hums in agreement. Armaan can’t fully understand Jared’s experience — he doesn’t play Animal Crossing, a video game that allows users to explore a cartoon village populated by anthropomorphic animals — but he sees parallels between their virtual lives.

“I’ve been playing Persona 5,” Armaan says. “The character is not you. You’re a 17-year-old Japanese high school student — there’s no deviating from that. The most you can do is change the character’s name. The game is about scheduling, and specifically about managing your time. It’s extremely immersive. I just don’t get tired of taking the subway around Tokyo.”

It’s 10 p.m. in my personal Zoom room. I’ve invited Armaan and Jared, my only gamer friends, to talk about their virtual lives. They appear in little boxes on my computer screen. Physically, we’re thousands of miles away. Armaan and Jared are in California, I’m in Philadelphia. But here we are: distant and close. Two smiles, two pairs of expectant eyes. Have they sent holographic emissaries in their stead? The possibility flits through my mind. I am indulging a longstanding fantasy about how nothing in the virtual world “actually” exists. It’s flimsy solipsism, but it exempts me from concern about Zoom etiquette.

Armaan and Jared know little about why they have been summoned. The meeting’s raison d’être, relayed clumsily over text, goes something like this: Several weeks ago, I discovered r/noWoW, a subreddit for people committed to giving up their addiction to World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game in which players fight monsters and explore the planet of Azeroth. r/noWoW is a place of encounter for a diverse group of self-described “WoW addicts.” They exchange tips for staying clean. Some members are high school kids who blew off prom and the SAT to go questing (gamerspeak for completing a virtual task), others are middle-age adults who sacrificed their marriages to slay Loguhn, the leader of the Snowfall Tribe of Wolvar.

When I mention this subreddit at dinner my mother, a psychotherapist, remarks that gaming addiction is on the rise. Nowadays, some couples sign video game contracts alongside prenups. One spouse swears not to exceed three hours of playtime a week, the other spouse agrees to tolerate the diversion of a small portion of joint retirement savings toward the purchase of expansion packs. The idea of gaming contracts enthralls me. Could it be that millennia of progress have culminated in the modern secular human who negotiates her Call of Duty playtime? That night, I draw a concept map linking the following phrases: “low birth rate,” “culture wars,” “cyber-bullied on Xbox,” “blue light” and “gory video games.” Voilà: the naissance of an article.

Of course, it’s sheer incoherence. My idea remains inchoate for days. I would like to write a piece that juxtaposes personal narrative against the backdrop of a culture gone awry. I would like to write in response to an imagined elderly classicist who, upon learning the acronym MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game), laments the impending collapse of Western civilization. I would like to offer either a counterpoint (“gamers can be well-adjusted members of society!”) or supporting evidence (“in fact, we are doomed”).

Unfortunately, I have yet to find such a classicist. And beyond browsing online forums, I have yet to engage with the gamer community. Enter (virtually) Armaan and Jared. They have graciously agreed to speak with me about their trajectories as video game players.

I begin our conversation with a disclaimer — “I am not a gamer, but I understand the gamer mindset”  — and an anecdote about my childhood love for The Sims, a life simulation game.

“I’d spend hours picking out their clothes. Then I’d use the cheat code to buy them a mansion with a fridge, a bed and a piano. I’d force them to play piano for 10 hours a day — 3X speed — until they collapsed. Piano, food, bed, repeat. They became virtuosos. Then I would get bored and lock them in doorless rooms.”

Armaan laughs nervously. Jared nods. 

“People like you,” Jared says, “go full God complex. God-complex gamers tend to like role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. They either want to play around, you know, put on a bear hat and run through a pasture. Or they’re into indulgence. They want to do something that would be horrific and disturbing in reality. Cut up bodies, crash a car into a building, beat people up, that kind of stuff.”

I can’t type quickly enough. This is the prima materia. This is the information that will breathe life into the concept map. I wonder if virtual reality could offer an outlet for latent sadistic impulses. Perhaps we should conduct psychological evaluations on the entire American adult population and recommend certain people for video game therapy. The treatment would involve 12 supervised hours of play (patients choose between Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed), and one hour of group therapy (“how did stealing someone’s car in GTA make you feel?”). 

I imagine a headline: “Millions of adults undergo Virtual Catharsis, the pioneering psycho-social intervention developed by an enterprising college student.” A bit long, maybe. Would researchers in the psych department agree to fund a small-scale study? Would 10 or 15 Stanford students allow us to monitor their heart rate while they play Xbox in exchange for $5 Amazon gift cards? Armaan’s voice interrupts my train of thought.  

“Really, the question is: how much is the video game going to punish you? [In Persona 5], if you run out of time to build your relationships, that’s it. You get to level seven in your relationship with Hifumi Togo — a friend of yours — but then you can’t rank up with her again until you have your intelligence stats maxed out. And the better your relationships with your friends, the better you are in battle. Psychologically it feels very real.”

While I was thinking, Armaan and Jared moved on to the topic of punishment in games. Armaan has an elaborate theory about the interplay between time-limited decisions and open-world play. He enumerates the tasks set out to the teenage protagonist in Persona 5 — spending time with friends, studying, battling demons, scheduling your next task — and describes how making efficient choices can stave off penalties in the game. 

Jared chimes in. He asks us if we remember “grinding in old JRPGs.” It turns out that none of the words in this sentence mean what I initially think. “Grinding,” in gamerspeak, refers to the completion of repetitive tasks like winning a certain number of battles to level up. “JRPG” means “Japanese Role Play Game.” (In retrospect, this acronym should have been easy to guess.) Jared explains that whereas older games subjected their players to time-consuming gauntlets of grinding, new games eschew monotony. The “grinding paradigm” has given way to fast-paced storylines. People don’t want to work for it anymore. 

Nothing makes sense to me. Why would you want to play a video game that punishes you? Why would you spend hours doing repetitive virtual chores? Don’t we have enough punishment and boredom in real life? To hear Armaan and Jared tell it, video games allow you to experience life with lower stakes. You live vicariously through your avatar, you make a character in your image, you work through sociopathic impulses. The game might punish you for poor decisions, but you can always restart if you lose. 

Of course, the appeal of video games transcends “living life at low stakes.” They also allow us to construct and inhabit different versions of ourselves. Jared runs around his island in Animal Crossing and makes friends with talking animals. Armaan rides the metro in circles around Tokyo and gets coffee with Hifumi Togo. I survey my tormented Sims with a dispassionate eye. Is the whole thing a bit weird? Maybe. I imagine the wizened classicist observing the spectacle of maladjusted Gen Z kids. Whose fault is it that someone thrust smartphones and gaming consoles into our hands at age 10? Blame society, or something. 

As it turns out, most older people aren’t preoccupied with young gamers. The columnists at the Wall Street Journal have more pressing concerns than a 20-something who spends 12 hours a day playing World of Warcraft. They want to write about woke teens and cancel culture. They want to lampoon slogans and interview blue-haired radicals. We want to be entertained. They tell us to be serious (all of Western civilization is at stake!), but we can’t. They ask questions like, “Do the kids read Walt Whitman anymore?” We don’t look up from our screens. Walt Whitman … the name sounds familiar. Something about loafing around with a grass pillow?

Whatever. The Western canon is a neocolonial myth perpetuated by the Academy. We’re enlightened. Post-history. Imagining utopias. Dreaming of virtual worlds. In 50 years, we’ll all play video games with our robot significant others. In a century, the tides will rise and swallow up island nations. Who has time for Walt Whitman?

Apocalyptic daydreams. Armaan and Jared keep talking about games. They’re inexhaustible and brilliant. They’re overflowing with keen observations. They’re bursting out of the corners of their little Zoom squares. I realize how much I miss them. We haven’t seen each other — in the true, physical sense of the word — in over a year. We make do with texting and sporadic Zoom calls.

Will it be like this forever? Perhaps somewhere in the vast digital cosmos, we’ll find a virtual pasture. We’ll wear floral print shirts and bear hats. We’ll lean and loaf at our ease and observe a pixelated spear of grass. We’ll waste our time and spend the day at play. We’ll drive cars off of cliffs and rejoice in our eternal youth. Isn’t that what life is all about? Who knows. It’s just a game, anyways.

Contact Sanjana at grind 'at'

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