It's the second week of December, so here in the USA at least nearly everyone's out buying something. Hanukkah and Christmas have a tight overlap this year, and in my circle of friends and family there are a surprising number of birthdays between December 24th and December 31st. Half the internet is all about gift guides, and Game of the Year voting and arguing rings more in the air than "Jingle Bells." When the big Steam Holiday Sale lands, I, like many others, will find myself stockpiling games to last me through all of the next year. In short: 'tis the season for consumerism.
There are studies out there showing that actually, money does buy happiness. To anyone who's gone an extended period without any money (and for me, those were years 1-28 of my life), this is no surprise. Being poor sucks and surely, the opposite is better. But one piece of information keeps catching my eye: studies by various psychologists say that if you want your money to buy you happiness you should spend it on experiences, not on things. Do something amazing! Go to that concert! Take that vacation! Throw that party! Go bungee jumping!
Play that video game?
I was mulling over my Christmas and entertainment budgets blearily in the shower (where all good thinking happens) one recent morning and realized that generally, I put games in the "experiences" category. Except that literally, video games are things: $5 or $20 or $50 worth of bits and bytes, sent virtually or pressed into a plastic and aluminum disc, a consumer good through and through. And they are a consumer good. One look at the structure of game studios, at the sheer amount of money involved in creating a AAA game, at the opening-week-sales race, or at the marketing structures around gaming leaves no doubt about that. But if my $20 buys me 30 or 50 or 100 hours' worth of an emotional journey, is it really just a thing, anymore?
|Being pissed off at Anders is definitely an emotional journey.|
This year's Thanksgiving sale on Steam allowed me to send several gifts. To the two friends who received Audiosurf, I thought I was sending the stomach-dropping thrill of that moment when the music soars and the track bottoms out from under you while hanging a sharp right. The gift to them was of flow and motion. I wanted them both to be granted the singular experience of finding their favorite music take color and form before their eyes, to ride it and feel its shape in a way different than even the most trained musician's ears do.
To the friend who received Fallout: New Vegas and all its DLC, I was hoping to grant a hundred little experiences of exploration and understanding. I was giving that moment of stumbling across Chance's map, the shock of discovering Christine, the puzzle of history left behind in a hundred audio logs and forgotten pre-war relics. I was giving him the chance to choose a future for New Vegas, a chance to look at anarchy and government and war and decide what, if anything, changes.
|The first experience: waking up...|
I have always felt that, at their core, games are experience. The heart and soul of every game is about the players being able to tell themselves, and each other, a story. Whether it's the immediate, quickly-forgotten, short-term thrill of getting the long block at just the right time, or the strategic thrill of building a city with good infrastructure, or the grim tactical deathmarch (deathsail?) of eliminating the Spanish navy in a 4:1 firefight before your ship is boarded... all are experiences and stories. A deeply strategic toppling of your opponent, a frenetic scramble to a goal, or something in between; a fairy tale about two brave but not always bright young Wardens; a jarring exploration of an unstable cop's awkward investigations; a chance to be a badass space marine... all stories.
So: pastime, or thing?
The truth is, it's an unfair question to level at games, or at least to level at games alone. It's the core of the human experience with art. If every time I watch the Lord of the Rings DVDs I feel the passion and the pull of that story all over again, if I feel the hope and desire and pain and faith I felt when they were in theaters during a vulnerable time in my life, when I needed them most -- have I bought an item, or an experience?
If Neverwhere and The Hunger Games and The Sun Also Rises and Macbeth and and The Book of Three and "The Sound of Thunder" each make me feel a certain way when read them, if I feel thrills and joy and despair and excitement as I revisit them, and if my readings change as I age and mature and experience my life -- am I holding paper, or am I holding experiences?
It's a trick question; the answer is "both." Art, I think, was ever thus.