Prologue: Gaming in the time of COVID-19

So my birthday was earlier this month – I’ve now reached the ripe old age of 34.  And celebrating one’s birthday in the age of COVID-19 is a pretty strong reminder of mortality.  There were no parties, very few gifts, and while I did risk a visit with my nieces and nephews, which mostly devolved into spending a long time playing Slime Rancher with my eldest nephew, it was mostly an uneventful day and week.  We were all very tired (except the kids), very busy, and our conversations were restrained by an effort to avoid divisive political talk.  I went home wondering what the future might hold: how long will we be stuck in social-distancing quarantine?  How long will I be stuck in my dead-end adjunct professor job, making little money and less respect?  What changes are in store for our government, our society, and our way of life with the next election?

But these weighty questions have few answers at this point – there’s no point worrying over them because I have so little control over their outcomes.  Instead, I want to talk about something I’ve also been thinking about for a while: how has my relationship to video games changed in the past five years?

In part, I’m thinking about this because my own life has changed pretty dramatically in that time.  In five years I’ve gone from a student to a ETS grader to an adjunct professor.  I’ve gotten married, and moved more times than I’d care to think.  I’ve gone from having whole days of free time, to whole days sitting on my computer, running Magic: Duels and match-3 casual games in the background while I grade, to having only small chunks of time available for gaming – at most an hour or two at the end of the day before bed, or ten-to-twenty minute chunks in the awkward times between classes or preparations.  And then in COVID-times, I find my habits changing again – with enough stress surrounding me from class preparation, world affairs, and day-to-day inconveniences, I’m moving away from intense games that challenge my reflexes to games that challenge my mind at my own pace.

This month I became especially aware of this dynamic when I examined my gaming habits.  As a gift, I received this month’s big exciting release from EA: Star Wars: Squadrons – a game I have anticipated eagerly (though apprehensively), and which proved surprisingly in line with my expectations.  I was a big fan of the old X-Wing and TIE Fighter titles in the ‘90s, the Rogue Squadron games in the ‘aughts, and much lamented the dearth of good Star Wars starfighter sims more recently.  My childhood was filled with these exciting space battles.  I still have my own elaborate method for mapping the old PC games’ elaborate and varied commands to the X-Box controller I keep connected to my desktop, though I find myself revisiting them less and less often.  So when the new game came out I was apprehensive (EA’s track record on Star Wars hasn’t been great), but excited.

And, weirdly, they delivered.  Squadrons is a faithful love letter to the old PC starfighter titles like X-Wing, down to the cockpit design and complicated command interface, while also learning many of the lessons from the Rogue Squadron games.  They have an engaging, dynamic campaign and a modern matchmaking system from years of experience designing multiplayer games – all overlaid with cutting-edge graphics and VR support (which I don’t have the resources to take advantage of).  This was well above my expectations, and I can’t say enough nice things about the game.  It really is everything I hoped for.

And I’ve spent exactly four hours playing it since it came out on October 1st.

That’s all.

This month I also bought Monster Train – a fairly ingenious indie mash-up of Slay the Spire deckbuilding mechanics and tower defense battles.  The game is totally turn-based, so I’ll regularly start a game, walk away, and return to it often while making dinner or watching TV with my wife.  I can run it on my laptop, so I can play it on campus when I have free time.  There is no direct multiplayer, though I have enjoyed out-ranking my friends on various challenges and scoreboards.

At time of writing Steam reports that I’ve spent over ninety hours on the game.

Throughout this year I’ve seen similar dynamics at play.  I tried to play the highly-regarded Prey (2017) for the first time, only to quit about four or five hours in.  I love the game, think it is an apt successor to the likes of Deus Ex, System Shock, and the like – but I couldn’t find the time or energy to devote long sessions to it, even this summer when I had plenty of free time on my hands.  Instead, I devoted that time to Cook, Serve, Delicious 3?!  I have followed its development since it was initially released to early access this January – eagerly playing every successive update through every level and achievement.  At time of writing I’ve sunk 128 hours into the game, gotten every achievement, and consider it one of the key gaming experiences I’ve had in this year of quarantine – all before its full “1.0” release several weeks ago.

The other games I’ve spent this year playing show this same pattern: In July, during the Steam Sale, I bought all the expansions to Sentinels of the Multiverse (160 hours and climbing), a turn-based card game parodying and re-creating the exploits of comic book superheroes; the earlier part of this year was largely devoted to Fire Emblem: Three Houses (75 hours), which I received for Christmas; this fall I found myself replaying Slay the Spire (up to 250 hours from 150-or-so at the beginning of the year); since it came out I’ve been on-and-off of Animal Crossing: New Horizons (155 hours, though I probably would have quit around 90 or so if it wasn’t for my wife), and I’ve also found a lot of time for Demoncrawl (40+ hours), a re-interpretation of Minesweeper with rogue-like RPG elements.  There are exceptions to this pattern – I enjoyed and beat Furi (7 hours) which was nothing if not fast-paced and intense (though admittedly in bite-sized forty-minute-long boss battles), and I replayed through both StarCraft and StarCraft II (let’s call it about 60 hours total; they are less easy to track) – though I kind of trailed off during the end of SCII’s Protoss campaign (it drags, and the anniversary achievements got meaner L).  But the tendency seems pretty clear.

I’ve become a filthy casual gamer.

Turning in my “Gamer” card

This is especially embarrassing since Wes Schantz and I have started ramping up our efforts to create content and engagement for our Video Game Academy enterprise.  We’ve been recording our podcasts (on Final Fantasy VI and Pony Island/The Hex) more regularly, reached out to our friends for more content and ideas, worked to re-design and reorganize our platforms – only to run headlong into several walls.  I’ve had health problems in the past week or so; our friends have been slow or disinterested in producing content (though we have some irons in the fire); and we worry we don’t have much to say about the contemporary releases grabbing attention.

Our aspirations are not so much to become a review website (none of us are especially good at keeping up with the release schedule of AAA titles), but to primarily work on deep, analytical dives of games with strong themes or stories – but I find myself spending less and less time playing games driven by story and narrative, and focusing instead on mechanically-driven games of strategy and cunning.  The big, highly-regarded action-packed video game stories of the past few years – Red Dead Redemption 2, God of War, Prey, The Last of Us 2 – I’ve missed or ignored, or, like Prey and Squadrons, struggled to fit into my schedule.

On the one hand, I don’t worry too much about this: many of the biggest releases tend to be overrated and overblown – I don’t feel any great urgency to go out and play the newest Call of Duty, for example.  But, on the other hand, the games I’m playing don’t have much narrative depth to examine.  One of these days I’d like to deeply examine the conceit of Sentinels of the Multiverse, but I’m not going to have much to say about the themes of Monster Train or Cook Serve Delicious 3?! because theme and story are so secondary to how those games work.  Nor do I want to limit my focus to the games of yesteryear: there may yet be untapped richness to the old Zelda or Final Fantasy games, but I also want to be able to appreciate how games now speak to gamers now about real, meaningful issues and problems in our lives.  What’s more, I find it more and more difficult to talk about the narrative games I do really enjoy.  I’d love to do a podcast with Wes about Outer Wilds, for example, but the game is so non-linear and exploratory that I’d find it very difficult to structure a conversation around it, or to set up arbitrary restrictions and limitations for progress, just so we could explore the game on the same page.  I really enjoyed Superliminal earlier this year, but the story is so sparse and the conceit so experiential that it would be difficult to appreciate in prose.

Nor do I want to turn gaming into yet another job.  Monster Train and Sentinels of the Multiverse are my refuges from responsibilities – switching to Prey or Red Dead Redemption 2 would feel like an obligation, and I have enough of those reading and re-reading The Iliad or Descartes’ Meditations in preparation for my classes.  It would likely spoil my experience of the game, or at least re-frame it in a way alien to most players.

But there’s the rub: as children we were free to enjoy games and engage with them at our own pace, with no obligation, no limitations to our experience besides the day-to-day drudgery of schoolwork and homework.  I came home and played games because I did not have to make dinner, pay bills, e-mail students, stay in shape, keep in touch with friends and family, endure social obligations – and so I played them, always on my terms, in the ideal mindset to appreciate and learn from what they had to say.  Is it possible that, in growing up, I have closed off my ability to appreciate the new?

A Defense of my Gaming Habits

Honestly?  No.

I realize that there is an urge to condemn nostalgia as unfair praise, and to think that focusing on the media of our childhood is evidence of that unfair nostalgia.  But I offer a defense of my gaming habits on the following grounds:

First, I think I have a pretty good grasp on my nostalgia-based biases, and I don’t think there are a whole lot of them.  I have been more than willing to admit when my favorite books and movies and video games are not all they are cracked up to be.  I will absolutely admit that Final Fantasy VIII endgame makes me want to tear my hair out, even though it remains my pet favorite entry in the franchise, based on my love of it in high school.  Some of my favorite childhood movies, like Felix the Cat or The Jetsons Movie really do not stand up to repeated viewings.  Animorphs and Redwall, my two favorite childhood book series, are both repetitive and drag on way too long.  I do still have an irrational love of Magic: The Gathering and basically all the Pokemon games, but I’ll absolutely admit the irrationality of that attachment, especially now that Magic has developed some really bad habits in the past few years, and Pokemon Sword made some long-needed changes that revealed the bad decisions of many past entries.

Second, I’ve found a lot of my favorite books, games, and movies in adulthood.  Just in the past few years, I’ve confidently classed Outer Wilds and NieR: Automata alongside Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Final Fantasy VI as some of my favorite games of all time.  Both left me regularly slack-jawed with admiration, beauty, and thoughtful reflection, every bit as much as the games of my childhood.  I’ve let my speculative fancy fly to the guidance of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker and Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest, thrilled at the artistic audacity of Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse and wondered at the cinematic mastery of Parasite.  I’m not spiritually-dead, even if my life affords fewer and fewer opportunities for that sort of artistic renewal.  I want to wonder; it’s just often inconvenient nowadays.

And Now, a Critique of Modern Gaming

At least part of the problem is what gaming has come to expect of me.  When I was a child, I was more than willing to dedicate an entire night to playing the same game.  When I was in college, I remember setting aside a whole afternoon to play the last Thieves’ Guild mission in Oblivion, down to making a sandwich before-hand in anticipation of a long ordeal.  But now, that same anticipation is the very thing driving me away from these games.  When I sit down to play Squadrons, I can anticipate a good five minutes of loading time before I ever get to a mission.  Once I get there, before and after, I can expect another five minutes of briefings, circuitous conversations with my squad mates with no real gameplay value (and limited value in characterization).  If I’m playing Multiplayer, I can expect missions to fail as I go up against players with superior skill.  I can expect setbacks and frustration – crashing into debris or other ships, lag, balancing the personalities of my friends.  By contrast, when I sit down to play Monster Train, I’m playing a game, making important choices, and setting my skills to the test in seconds.  One run alone might take an hour, and end in failure, but I’ve enjoyed the whole time I’ve played it.  I find myself gravitating, therefore, toward games that are economical about my time.

Prey, on the other hand, was much quicker in-and-out, but it was also hideously tense and involved.  I would psych myself up to play the game for an hour or two, then have to step away for a week at a time, then return to find I could not remember what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to do it.  Part of that is the appeal of an immersive sim – all those complicated interlocking mechanics – but it was frustrating all the same.  By contrast, Slay the Spire starts every run at the same easy level of difficulty, ramping up only as you play longer in a given run.  There’s nothing to remember, no stakes to losing.  It was accessible and forgiving.

But these last terms are especially vilified by modern gamers – and tie into a whole sub-culture that I’ve always found myself excluded from.  I speak, of course, of Dark Souls and the need to ‘git gud’.

Easy Mode

I have never beaten a Dark Souls game, or any of its attendant spin-offs like Bloodborne or Sekiro.  Part of the reason is that I started in on Demon’s Souls, the even less forgiving predecessor to Dark Souls, got pretty well hooked, then equally-well burned in later levels.  One of these days I would like to get around to finishing it, but – surprise! – it hasn’t happened.  The learning curve to Demon’s Souls is considerably crueler than Dark Souls – with longer runs to bosses and less patience for mistakes.  I did, at one time, master the art of patient, calculated combat – at least enough to make it through the first nine or ten boss fights – but I found less and less time for long, unfulfilling runs after I got married and started working full-time-ish.

That said, I have found some time for games like Hollow Knight and Sundered, which operate on similar rigorous difficulty curves.  I’ve beaten both to their respective secret endings, despite their difficulty.  I ‘got gud’, in short, and did so willingly – without apprehension or setbacks, in my usual hour-or-two-long sessions of gameplay.  Part of the reason I’ve found the time in this case, but not for Demon’s Souls is probably convenience – I have more time at my computer than my PS3 – but the other part is probably related to complexity and familiarity – the souls-like difficulty and structure is simplified by the 2D Metroid-vania style of Hollow Knight and Sundered.  There’s not so much world geometry to get caught up on, the levels are easier to take in at a glance, and – again – the loading times are much reduced.  I could do in an hour what Demon’s Souls asks me to do in three or four.  ‘Git[ing] gud’ isn’t the problem; the amount of effort and concentration required to ‘git gud’ is the problem.

But I also don’t have a problem with games that try to mitigate that difficulty curve.  The other side of the ‘git gud’ argument is an antagonism by gamers against games that provide an obvious ‘easy mode’ – like Nintendo’s efforts to reduce difficulty for gamers by providing an ‘auto-drive’ feature in MarioKart, or invulnerability to Mario, or “Funky Mode” in Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze.  I don’t usually opt into the “story mode” option which strategy games or RPGs employ to reduce the rigors of gameplay and let players appreciate the story on their own terms, but if it means I get to share the games I like with my non-gamer wife or my six-year-old nephew, I see only a boon here.  What’s more, I expect that the day may come when I need those easy mode options.  If this website takes off, I can absolutely imagine a day when my schedule won’t allow for a proper play-through, deaths and all, of a new title, but I want to see the story for myself, if only to talk about its merits on a blog or podcast.  I can imagine a day when I’m recovering from carpal tunnel surgery and don’t want to be penalized for poor reflexes and dexterity.  I have already sought out “easy mode” options for my nephews when I am shopping for Christmas gifts.

So the next time you dismiss the complaints of a “gamer” unwilling to ‘git gud’, spare a thought for why that might be.

The Classism of “Gamer” Culture

Much has been written about the toxicity of modern gaming, both from the perspective of ‘git gud’ elitism and the exclusivity of the “Gamer” moniker these days, but I want to draw attention to one particular issue in this dynamic, namely that the assumptions of ‘gamer’ culture are, essentially, classist.  To reject the “credentials” of a gamer on the basis of skill frequently fails to take into account the time commitment necessary to build skill.  Dark Souls may be a difficult game, but it is, more importantly, a game that requires long, uninterrupted blocks of time to build that skill.  It requires either a familiarity with the game built up in the past (i.e., more time) or a willingness to devote serious effort, mental energy, and stress to the acquisition of that skill.  It requires, to be blunt, a certain concentration of selfish leisure – a luxury that many are unable to afford, either because their lives are too demanding or because they are already managing excessive stress.  What’s more, to keep up with modern gaming requires a serious investment of capital – money for hardware, consoles, games, and peripherals, in addition to the time investment.  Gaming is, in short, a hobby that only the rich may properly enjoy. 

For my part, I cherry-pick critically-revered games years after their release, when they are heavily-discounted; favor $20 indie titles over $60 big-budget releases; and prefer games that treat my time economically and my mind gently.  This should not be disqualifying to my ‘gamer’ credibility, though I recognize that it will likely hamper my ability to reach a broad audience out-of-step with my habits.

But I also recognize that there are more dimensions here than I’m fully attentive to.  I’m seen my students and nephews caught up with Fortnite-fever, socially-pressured to buy expensive in-game cosmetic items to avoid the “default” skin, universally-mocked by the community.  I recently watched Noah Gervais’ videos on Call of Duty, in which he made the point that the power fantasy offered by those games (often condemned by critics) can often be salve to the powerlessness of poverty and crappy jobs.  By contrast, I find myself physically stressed beyond my limits when I try to appreciate a critically-regarded game like Cart Life or This War of Mine because it speaks to ugly realities about the world that I myself endure or identify strongly with.  Why and how we enjoy games may well depend on other factors well outside our control – the usual punching bags of insufficient skill or dedication or artistic appreciation may well mask an ugly classism: rich gamers pressuring poor gamers to overextend their time, energy, and money to join an exclusive society of “gamers” apart from filthy casuals like me.

To which I may reply that Monster Train makes me happy, and that’s all I need to know to keep playing it.

A Conclusion

At the end of the day, I recognize that my gaming habits have changed, but I don’t think they disqualify me from discussing the games that truly warrant conversation.  I will not be a vanguard critic, charging into the unknown waters of gaming to distinguish overhyped duds from underappreciated gems – though I will maintain my vigil over promising indie releases, even if I’m a bit late to actually play them.  And I am in no present danger of running out of good games to talk about.  Wes and I have not discussed our plans for podcasts after our Daniel Mullins series, but I have plenty of titles in mind that should keep us going for years to come, and I’m sure he has a similar list in his mind.  We won’t want for content, even if it is years after the curve.

But I also think we need to take this opportunity to make a kind of statement of intent.  I recognize there is a push-pull tension between the desire to stay relevant and speak to games popular in the moment – and the desire to focus on games already proven insightful and relevant by years of community admiration and conversation.  I think we should not remain complacent in our comfort zones, reviewing only the games we already love; but we should also not exhaust ourselves surveying unproven titles in the hope of being the first to see value in a game.  We should be comfortable saying “I couldn’t get into this” about something like Prey or Squadrons, even as we recognize the merits we saw.  And we should absolutely question both ourselves and these games to try and find where the fault or miscommunication lies.  We should be willing to critique the industry as well as the developer; gaming as well as games.

In short: we can (and should) be casual critics without doing any disservice to our criticism or our credibility.

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