Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Holiday Shopping

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.

To the friend who received Bastion, I was giving the gift of Zia's song and the soothing tones of Rucks's narration.  He was granted the history of Caelondia to explore and the tangled, tragic dreams of three people to uncover.  I gave ruined streets to walk and he received a chance to give survivors and a society hope in the face of pointless destruction and damnation.

The first experience: waking up...

To each friend, I hoped to be granting the feelings of discovery, victory, joy, defeat, mastery, color, flow, awe, decision-making, and so much more.  Four people received Steam codes through the ether, but none of them were given "things."

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.


  1. I think that people who say that money can't buy happiness are arguing semantics. It is certainly possible to live a happy life without having a lot of money, but there are a lot of problems that become much smaller or go away entirely if you have money.

    For me, personally, video games absolutely provide happiness, even if it's just by taking me to an imaginary place where the Lions really can play in the Super Bowl. Oblivion gave me hundreds of hours of enjoyment, even if some of it is simply from temporarily existing in a world where accomplishments are concrete, where you always level up if you have enough XP (no "sorry, we don't have the money for a promotion" in this game). Some of it also came from exploring the story behind the game, much as I might reread a favorite book, or from exploring the world itself, appreciating all the work that went into its creation.

    The problem I have with studies like that is that to me, they say "You should feel this way about what you buy." I should enjoy a vacation more than, say, a Rock Band Squier? Sorry. I spend half the time around a vacation a) worrying about who can stop by and feed the cats or b) thinking about the cats. On the other hand, with the Squier, I can use it over and over again while the cats wander back and forth in the living room, patiently waiting for the lap to return.

    Or better yet, I can purchase the Squier and then invite my friends over to play Rock Band 3 with me, and I can have a shared experience and a thing! In fact, I've done nearly that exact thing before. I have an Ion Premium drum kit for the 360, and it's awesome. It wasn't cheap, and perhaps I shouldn't have purchased it when I did, but I've had tens of hours of enjoyment out of it, as have my friends.

    Those friends aren't a requirement, though, to get happiness out of a thing. I think you're right. Happiness is where you find it. If you're happy reading through The Stand for the eleventh time, or watching Return of the King because you want to see the scene where the Haradrim basically say to Aragorn, "Yeah? You and what army?", well, that's what you need for happiness. If you're happy visiting France or Honduras or Kazakhstan or Indonesia, that's fine too.

  2. The answer is both, but I think it leans heavily to experience and not to possession. I don't have any more feelings about the DVD or the Steam site than I do about an airline ticket or e-ticket. I'm excited about where I'm going and whom I'm going with, not what's essentially my digital paperwork authorizing me to go.

    How are the New Vegas DLC btw?

  3. Looking at it in that way, also -- my entire collection of PC games, built since 1992, was stolen in 2006.  Since 2008, I've regained the ability to play something like 90% of what was lost to me, either through GOG, Steam, or my husband's collection.  I don't feel particularly nostalgic for the 100 missing discs (though I'm still ticked off about it) now that I have regained the ability to visit those worlds and play those stories.

    And the NV DLC might be better than the base game, all told.  The four of them together make one huge narrative arc that really adds to the overall game experience.  Dead Money is a tremendous, appalling pain in the ass to play but the characters and story make it worthwhile, and by the time I hit Old World Blues and was cruising into Lonesome Road, I was sold.

  4. Money can't buy happiness but I imagine it'd make a whopping down payment. 

  5. I think games, and video games in particular, are kind of a catalyst in shifting the thinking and conversation about where and what the essential nature of art itself is. I've been doing a lot of this in my own private thinking, mostly in relation to a story I want to write, but it's expanded through the ongoing discussions about games that I've been so lucky to be included in (thanks, primarily, to the Horde and through that reading your blog). 

    Among the other things I like, I'm a long time lover of books and storytelling. The fact that those are actually two different things is not readily apparent to most people in this day and age, even if it would have been blindingly obvious to someone in the time of Socrates. While I love and use e-readers, and am a voracious listener of audiobooks, I enjoy the experience of a physical book so much more. I've owned several editions of Dune, and read it more times than I remember, but the experience is very different when reading the old, worn Book Club edition, with the original slipcover art, the yellowing pages, the smell of old book, and the antique typeface I found for $2 at a Half Price Books in San Antonio, Texas over a decade ago. Even though I prefer that experience when a physical book is involved, this copy of Dune is not essential to the art it contains. In the same way, having a print of the Mona Lisa, with "THIS IS A FAKE" written on the back in black felt-tip, hanging on my wall might be different from having the original up there, but it's still the Mona Lisa on my wall.

    Video games make this disconnect between the essential nature and location of art and the means we use to get to it explicit in an extremely useful manner. Fallout: New Vegas played on a PC is a very different experience than on an Xbox 360, which is different from the experience on a PS3. Some people prefer first person games with a keyboard and mouse, some prefer a controller, and some don't particularly care. However, regardless of the platform I use, I still need to load up on Rad-X and RadAway before heading down into Vault 34; Deathclaws will still rip my head off in seconds if they get the jump on me; "The Father's" journal entries in Honest Hearts will still cause a lump in my throat; Caesar will still be a bastard; ED-E will still be the best beeping robot since R2-D2; Jeannie May Crawford will still be a monster disguised as a librarian. That core of essential experience, regardless of the mechanical measures used to get to it, is the spoor of art. 

  6. It's one of those nightmare scenarios when you're actually missing most of the game if you don't play the DLC. With it all together it's much more than the sum of its parts. As if I needed more reason to avoid buying games until they release collected editions with all the extra stuff.

  7. I’m lucky in that 3/4 of my siblings currently play videogames (the fourth did for years but finally burnt out). L. is a Facebook gamer who enjoys the occasional RPG like Puzzle Quest or Kingdom of Loathing, S. likes super-precise 2D platformers, E. really digs Bioware. Over Thanksgiving, while I was in first flush over DA2, L. expressed interest in DA:O, so she's getting the Ultimate Edition this year. S. is a pretty easy giftee, so he gets Rayman Origins. E., the Bioware fan, already has a copy of DA2, and that's just as well since I'd feel odd sharing my feelings about my super-melodramatic gay DA2 romance with him (I'm not quite done with Act 2 so haven't gotten to the face-punching part yet), and I'm sure he will enjoy his chosen party and their banter just like I do mine. I'm giving Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts to a nephew who is an artist and a builder, because I know he'll be able to create lavish freak-of-nature vehicles that'll still win the challenges. And I'll push Portal and Portal 2 on any hapless gamer soul I know who hasn't played them yet! It brings on a nice glow when your giftee comes back and tells you how much they enjoyed the game or movie or book you picked for them, especially if they hadn't heard of it before. The fact that you spent a few bucks on it isn't important.

  8. In "me missing the point entirely": How the hell did deathclaws get so hard in New Vegas, anyway?  Even after I played all the DLC and leveled all the way up, clearing Quarry Junction was a pain in the butt.  They were ferocious in Fallout 3, but not like *that*.  Man.  Sharp-toothed bastards.

    (And yes, the journal entries with the caches are what made "Honest Hearts" worth playing.  I wasn't so sold on the main arc and I had some problems with the portrayal of the "tribes" but that long-gone man straight-up broke my heart.)

  9. The re-implementation of Damage Threshold, the reworking of VATS, and tweaked scaling is most of what made Deathclaws harder between games. In Fallout 3, where DT was removed, you could take the head off a deathclaw with the (easily obtainable) Terrible Shotgun with a single shell. It was really too easy, since they were supposed to be among the absolute most dangerous things left in the Wasteland. In New Vegas they totally re-modeled how shotguns worked, which combined with the high DT of Deathclaws meant that unless you have the Shotgun Surgeon perk (which most don't have unless you want a shotgunner) and AP rounds, those pellets will just make it annoyed. Also, in Fallout 3 you were invulnerable while taking shots in VATS. In New Vegas you have no such luxury, so advantage huge, fast, be-taloned mutant chameleon.

    The only thing I've one-shotted a Deathclaw with in NV (so far) is the Anti-Material rifle from stealth, and then only when not in VATS, and hitting the head (which is very not easy when they pace). 

  10. When I was in my 20s (especially early 20s), the pleasure of acquisition was a substantial factor in my video game buying habits. If I felt depressed, or bored, or just had some extra money, I'd go looking for a video game to buy. If I got excited about a game based on something I read somewhere, I absolutely had to have it right away.

    Sure, I liked playing them too, but I went through a good number of games in this period that I didn't complete, or didn't even play for very long. As I grew up and started budgeting and so forth, I put game purchases under "Retail" which is my code for "stuff I don't actually need", and I focused on trying to cut down on "Retail".

    But now that I'm getting to be old (31) the focus of my self-control has shifted. Rather than controlling my purchases I'm working on controlling my time, Since video gaming is something I've decided I believe in and care about as an aft form, I'm trying to spend more time with them (as opposed to time-wasting like poking around on the Internet or whatever). The cheap thrill of acquisition is empty now, replaced by the subtler pleasure of getting deep inside something like Dark Souls. I only buy games because I plan to seriously play them, and game purchases are classified as "Entertainment" (code for "Cultural Enrichment or Baseball").

    I suspect I'm not the only one experiencing this sort of arc, where gaming goes from a mindless obsession to something you have to work at but still love.

  11. My family's saying while I was growing up under the poverty line: Money can't buy happiness, but it can sure rent it for a while.