About Me

My photo
Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Sunday, September 2, 2012

God Mode: How Modern Video Games are Killing Little Practice Monsters

The title of this post might lead you to believe that I am against video gaming.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I love video games, and I always have.  This will date me, for sure, but I lusted over my neighbors' Atari systems.  In junior high school, my parents gave me an original Nintendo system.  I spent a summer slogging it out with Super Mario Brothers.  As an undergraduate, I practiced and studied all day, and played Sonic the Hedgehog all night (sometimes, literally).  My kids think the Wii was for them, but I love that thing.  However, something is wrong with these new games, and I think it speaks volumes about what is happening to our society.

The Legend of Zelda (and I'm talking about the original) was an amazing game.  It required strategy, problem solving, tenacity, and there was the small matter of trying not to die.  Virtually all of the games of my youth had one thing in common:  if you died, you had to start over.  Okay, maybe you had to go back to the beginning of a level, or back to a checkpoint, but sooner or later, you were going to have to start the whole thing over again.  It was brutal.  I remember falling off the couch, shaking my fist (and controller) to the heavens, shouting "Nooooooooooo!!!"

My son loves the Lego games on Wii . . . Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter.  These are seriously great games.  There are so many levels, each game is like a universe.  The action is non-stop, and the sensory stimulation never lets up.  With a controller in each hand, you just keep grabbing those golden lego coins, slashing away at enemies.  If you die, you get right back up again.  You can play forever, and you never have to go back to the beginning.  True, you do have to solve some puzzles along the way, but you could literally just run around and find interesting things to do forever.  Literally, forever.

I can remember when this change started.  In grad school, I had a copy of Doom on my pizza box-sized Power Mac 6100.  My buddies drooled over the 8 megs of ram.  For real.  Doom was fun, but there was a way to really maximize the fun . . . internet cheat codes.  Type in the right word and you could have infinite health, weapons, ammo.  I think there was a "god mode" where you could even see the hidden enemies (that might have been another game, but that does seem to ring a bell).  Why bother really learning how to play the game when you could use a cheat code, and then simply enjoy the sensory extravaganza?  It was awesome.  Or was it?

Games are great for burning off stress, and these days, I don't have time to learn a complicated video game.  Doom with invincibility meant that I could enjoy the game without really being any good at it.  It didn't matter.  In fact, if you played with the cheat codes on for long enough, you might actually believe that you were good at the game.  All the rewards with none of the work.  None of the dying right before slaying the boss that takes a half hour to get back to.  With the cheat codes, you really were the god of the game.

Video games today are way more realistic than those old NES things.  These new games are so good, you really feel like you can strike out A-Rod.  You can bowl strike after strike.  You can dunk.  You can play the guitar.  (I don't know about you, but I can't do ANY of those things!)  This feeling of reality is powerful, and the games are designed to keep you playing.  I concede that there are certainly exceptions, but my experience with the games that my children and their friends play is profoundly clear:  the games are designed to hook you by keeping the action coming, and it is practically impossible for your character to "die."  At least not in the way that poor old Pac-Man would go down in flames with his little death tune.  These games are engaging, empowering, and in most cases, overwhelming.

This might be a leap, and purely speculative on my part, but it seems to me that the video game experiences of my youth taught me to come back swinging, and to keep practicing, but these new games are more about just keep playing. When it comes to real skill building, there are no cheat codes.  You can't download mastery like code from the matrix.  You have to be willing to start from the beginning, and failure will knock you back, sometimes hard.  You can't just blink and hop back up like nothing happened.  It is seriously difficult to pull yourself up, to learn from your mistakes - to go on, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable challenges ahead.  In life, there is no "god mode."

One could easily argue that the games are more of a reflection of society than the other way around.  No doubt, there is plenty of truth to that chicken v. egg scenario.  But the point of this blog is that we become what, and how we practice.  I enjoy these new games.  I even sometimes play lightsaber duel when my kids are at school (I'm in trouble when they start reading my blog).  As immersive and as fun as it is to play these games, I always stop playing because I've had enough - never because I "died," and if you never have to go back to the beginning, if you never have to repeat and refine, how are you getting better?  You aren't.