Learning Curve

Weird, intriguing, or uncomfortable - games can be a safe place to experience the new.

By: Alexandra Geraets

Filed Under: Editorial Life Reflections

We’ve probably never met in person. You’re reading this, though, and you’re learning something about me. I’m putting myself on display, for your enjoyment and your judgment. You read the words and you learn something about me. What you assume about me from my writing is entirely up to you. I hope it’s something good.

I’m showing a side of me here that few people see. This is the side that has saved a world or two, had many a grand adventure, and sometimes missed that third handhold on the right-angled wall, and fallen from a pretty miserable height. This is the side that has run madly down a dark hallway while being chased by ill-tempered monsters, survived a plane crash in the desert without a parachute, and driven a rickety old truck named ‘Betty’ through a very narrow dark corridor.

From these experiences, I’ve learned to be patient, more attentive to my environment, and to give deeper consideration to potentially big decisions. I wasn’t me, but I was inhabiting someone’s shoes, and we had us some good times.

Video game stories encourage projection. We’re a part of the story, and we take something away from every game we play. As a gamer, I’m immersed in my present story as deep as I can go. What I take away from the experience sticks with me, informing my future gaming choices, and even influencing some real-world actions.

All the stories I’ve been part of, the experiences I’ve had, I’m sure you’ve had some of those same adventures. I wonder if we took away the same things.

Saving the world? I was part of that in Dragon Age: Origins. Things didn’t go exactly the way I planned, though, and one of my closest allies ended up paying the price for victory in the end. The world was still saved, but it felt a lot emptier with him gone. I couldn’t help wanting to reach into the game world and hug my character. She looked like she needed it at that point.

The grandest adventure is one I haven’t even come close to finishing. One year on, and I’m still hunting that one pesky dragon in the mountains. I know there’s a civil war going down in Skyrim, but that dragon has caused me nothing but trouble, with its burning of villages and nasty habit of eating traders on the road, and leaving their bones for me to find later. At least they leave some spare arrows behind.

I still blame Prince of Persia’s weird camera angles for that missed handhold, and the subsequent long fall, but it might have also been due to a certain Prince and his endless stream of verbal chatter. I started tuning him out after awhile. It was the rare game where I wished I could play the princess accompanying him instead. She was a lot quieter, though no less witty. Something tells me she wouldn’t have missed the handhold.

Dead Space 2’s tense run down that dark hallway tripped more than a few fear factors. A childhood fear of the dark, coupled with an equal childhood distaste for haunted houses and the blood-curdling screams issuing from tape recorders and masked participants. Later, I emerged onto an abandoned ship, with its eerie, gore-spattered rooms, awkward encounters with a vaguely familiar ghost, and the unpleasant beasties nipping at my heels. They caught me more than once. I’ve learned to appreciate flashlights since then.

That desert-based plane crash in Uncharted wasn’t entirely my fault. Well, maybe it was. Nah, it wasn’t my fault. Nothing in this game is my fault, not technically. I just happen to stumble into horrible situations from moment to moment. I keep missing another handhold in this one too. Make a note: Practice jumping puzzles more.

Driving ‘Betty’ down a narrow tunnel? My least favorite aspect of Gears of War 2. The tight, jagged edges of the tunnel, and the dimmest of lights on the far end made the experience all the more nerve-wracking. Small spaces + no light + me = not a happy fighter. At least once that part was over, the action started. That gory, unsettling, sometimes disgustingly funny action forms the core of this particular game series. Even so, I dreaded encountering another small space level in its sequel. I got one, in a submarine. That somehow made it slightly worse.

The elements of a game that stick with me the most are the ones that trip familiar emotional triggers – sometimes good, often times unsettling. Sometimes a game teaches me things I’d rather not know about myself. I’ve learned that I have the capacity for a certain level of viciousness when it comes to particular situations. I’ve also got the capacity for compassion. I can be forgiving, even if I can’t help thinking that a storyteller doesn’t want me to be.

I’m a curious person. Even at this point in my life, my favorite questions are variations on ‘why.’ When a story element involves religion or politics, I want to dig in and find the real world parallels. When gender and sexuality are part of a game’s story, I dig my heels in and I want to know more.

‘Why’ is my constant mantra. Why does a game present itself in Fashion X and lead me to feel Emotion Y? The short answer is that games are a form of art, and the purpose of art is elicit emotion and a reaction. But I think it’s simpler than that: The present generation of games has an intelligence on par with the smartest movies and books. Games encourage thought, self-reflection, and an application of real-world experiences to truly appreciate them.

In hindsight, I could never have appreciated Okami if I didn’t draw and paint in my free time. I might not have enjoyed playing the part of the writer and titular character in Alan Wake had I not been taking a writing class at the time. If I didn’t have such a passion for history, I wouldn’t enjoy the Assassin’s Creed franchise. These are titles that reflect parts of me; playing them allowed me to experience my hobbies and interests in a different way.

If I project aspects of myself into a game, I wonder what the storyteller who created the narrative is projecting. What does a game tell me about its writer? What do certain character personalities tell me about their creators?

I still want to know what inspired the woman who wrote Anders in Dragon Age 2 to create such a passionate, determined character. Anders is filled with self-righteousness, a strong sense of morality, a clear desire to do good for the sake of doing good. He yearns for freedom, and desperately wants to see his enemies brought to their knees, if only so they might understand the pain he’s suffered. He might also be the most passive aggressive, manipulative, and emotionally abusive person I’ve seen depicted in a video game.

The Metal Gear Solid games fascinate me due to their strong anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons stance. Once a gamer digs past the ridiculous dialogue, the absurd characters, and the twisty-turny-wobbly stories, the message is clear: When given power in the form of destructive weapons, there are those people who will use such power to justify any action, no matter how atrocious. There is a moody, solemn darkness of the soul, and a strong sense of pacifism, running beneath the surface of these games.

Playing so many games over the years, I enter a certain mindset when I play. I read deeper into stories and characters, I listen for certain music cues to warn me that something terrible is about to happen, and I’ve learned to never accept anything on its first presentation. Games have taught me to not trust what I see. I’ve learned to follow certain instincts, and then, just as quickly, learned that those same instincts are wrong. I’ve learned things about my own personality from games, become acquainted with parts of myself that I don’t necessarily like, but parts that I might not ever have really accepted had it not been for a certain story moment, or a specific character.

Games are triggers, and triggers are good or bad, depending on the person. For me, I like to think that all the triggers (even the claustrophobic ones) are good. Games have reignited my passion for learning, exploring the nature of the world in all its craziness, and made me take a hard look at the things that make me enjoy life. Writing is one of those things, and without games, I might not have embraced it as I have.

I had adventures, and I’ll have dozens more, I’m sure. Some of you might have the same adventures along the way. I hope you take away something special from them. I know I already have.

Filed Under: Editorial Life Reflections

About the Author:
Alexandra Geraets is an fan of story-driven video games. She's an even more avid fan of exploring how and why they resonate with all of us. Her essays have been found on Village Voice Media.

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