I've spent a large part of the last few days discussing history elsewhere. I majored in history in college, have read quite a lot of it over the years, and generally find the subject interesting. Yay history!
But of course, history isn't just names and dates. I'm fond of referring to it as an incomprehensibly large jigsaw puzzle, made up of all the stories that ever have been, all the stories that are, and all the stories that are yet to come.
It's hard, when reading of some particularly egregious era, not to insert yourself. I read about the 1850s, and I think, "I hope I would have been an abolitionist." I read about the 1930s and 40s and think, "I hope I would have helped protect Jews." I read about the 1950s and 60s and think, "I hope I would have worked on civil rights." At least I have the good grace to hope I would have been a certain way, rather than to assert that I know I would have lived up to my own 21st-century ideals.
There's been a lot of choice-based gaming going on in my circle lately. As chronicled here, I recently completed Fallout: New Vegas. One of my close friends is finally playing Fallout 3, and she and my husband have been giddily discussing Mass Effect (1 and 2) for months. I've mentioned how I grappled with the choices I had to make in New Vegas.
I've realized, putting these threads together, that in many ways, a game with a rich, detailed world is what gives me the chance to "prove" that I'm the person I like to hope I would be. When I'm in a world like the Mojave Wasteland, I feel compelled to create the maximum possible good for the maximum number of people. I want to make their world a better place; I want to give them the chances to be good people. Granted, I also go and vanquish evil, but somehow that always feels secondary to me to the side quests.
When we say, "games let us play the hero," that's true. And often it's in a very black-and-white, save-the-kingdom-from-the-dragon kind of way. But the component of choice in modern games makes that feel a hundred times more powerful. If I'm playing Super Mario Brothers, then rescuing the princess is non-optional. If I'm playing Fallout: New Vegas, I can remake the world according to my own morality.
What power. And what a rush. And how robust a chance to feel Good, and Right, and Vindicated.
I think that's what it really means when a game lets you "be a hero." Not that you get to stomp out evil (although that's always entertaining, not gonna lie), but that you get a visceral way of being the person that, deep down, you always like to hope you would be, given that kind of a world.
Food for thought.