I played games a lot as a kid, and this gameplay was very similar in experience and diversity as my Lego, Barbie, and kid-on-kid action was. As children, we're free to explore, play, and--perhaps most importantly--make mistakes, mistakes we learn from, whether learning the boundaries of parental control, that round peg does not fit in triangular hole, or learning how to do what we want without getting caught.
As we mature--in theory--mistakes are less tolerated and their ramifications increase, sometimes to drastic proportions--losing jobs, mates, etc. This phobia of wrong-ness has induced near paranoia in many individuals who will do and say anything rather than admit wrong, otherwise known as taking personal responsibility for one's actions.
Gaming, however, is something of a deliverance from the expectations and ramifications of reality in the sense that we are once again allowed this freedom of exploration, play, and--again, importantly--making mistakes. It's an escape back to the freedoms of childhood wherein we learn by experience, by trial and error, and mistakes are often rewarded by processes of creative problem solving that lead to ultimate solutions of grand problems.
It's also liberating as we're allowed to make mistakes in front of other people, with perhaps only a temporary slagging off from our friends on multiplayer, we then move on and kick some ass to make up for our momentary lapse in, say, aiming, or not paying attention as we dash to the kitchen for another beer/lemonade/twinkie (I make no judgements). We learn again to work with others through our mistakes toward a common goal.
The ability to respawn, rethink, proceed, and defeat trumps our everyday drudgery in which those would-be valuable mistakes (that could make us better worker bees or even human beings) are instead turned into badges of ultimate failure. Even on the vast and anonymous internet, even on this site, saying the "wrong" thing (i.e.: something someone else disagrees with, which is also known as a differing opinion) can earn the trolling ire of hundreds descending upon a poster for making such a muck of him-or-herself. Unless it's Jim Sterling--we can't deny a man his one true joy in life, can we?
Gaming teaches us the lost innocence of play. Obviously, one plays a game, but play as a child and play in grown-up land are abhorrently different. Gaming is the great equalizer here--where a 13 year-old can kick the shit out of a 50 year-old gaming exec or a girl can rip the crap out of some dude's testosterone-fueled (and failed) rushing strategy. We learn to think creatively again--on the spot, in the moment, and without constant worry of permanent and possibly life-altering consequences. We PLAY again, I mean really play, instead of constantly monitoring the reactions of our peers for approval/dismay.
If we could learn to capture this essence of childlike freedom found in gamespace and transfer it to our non-digital selves, perhaps we'd all feel more freedom, creativity, and joy in the pursuit of . . . twinkies? Whatever faps your fancy, my friend.
Scars spread across my body like the patchwork of a web, armor all its own, a story formed by warfare so individual as to fail descriptive faculty—just connect my dots, follow each jagged line to its edge till it splinters in another direction, marks another battle for fight. Flight is not an option.
And it’s the same with everyone. Billy Creed’s torso read like a telemetric mountain range. Jericho’s back echoed a narrative of continual strife, and some Raiders I find etch their respective body counts on limbs, stomachs, even some of their skulls. The most isolated, the most withdrawn from the world cannot escape the story this environment etches into each of us, but this is no recourse for sympathy. Those I’ve spared have only come back to burn another line in my skin, for which I now draw “The End” on virtually everything I come across, with few exceptions.
The Wastes aren’t as desolate as so many seem to think. Dig just a few feet in any one spot and you’re sure to find former vestiges of life, some older than others, some still smoldering. It’s a graveyard—the whole fuckin place—a testament to centuries of error, strife, and the stubborn insistence of humanity to keep going. So if you think about it, wherever you find yourself—here, you’re never completely alone. The ghosts of war are not those to settle silent in the dark. And far from its inherited misnomer—The Wasteland—I intend to waste nothing. Not a moment, not a cap, not a life.
And it has its own maligned sense of beauty. No composer could improve upon the imminent song sung as a man breathes his last, the jingling of rifle shells trailing behind as I go on the offensive. Smoke clears; dust settles, blood sinks swiftly into the brown-yellow dirt that smothers the landscape beneath your feet to the far reaches of the horizon.
So here, in this haunted sprawl of anguish and mutation, survival is for those who’ve already given in, relinquished life as something to which they grasp blindly. No—mere survival…that’s for those already dead. I intend to flourish, to grip every opportunity by the throat and transform, as the great ancient Sirtomas of More once wrote: “Your sheep, that were wont to be so meek and tame and so small eaters, now, as I hear say, become so great devourers, and so wild, that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves.”
I had never killed another human being until the day Amata put that 10mm in my hand. Funny, really, thinking about it.
A couple or a few or however many days ago, I came upon a settlement even more ramshackle than Megaton, a wooden bridge leading straight across into “town.” No wall, no gate—nothing. Even from a distance I sensed the small populace was in a frantic state, sputtering on fumes of fear. Super Mutants, apparently. Pathetic.
They were thus stricken utterly useless. “What are you doing here?” barked the quote unquote sentry “keeping watch” at the bridge (not even a door; not a damn picket fence). “Just thought I’d stop by, slaughter the lot of you, then pick your bones for swag. Needs some repairs.” He laughed—laughed—commended my sense of humor, even slapped at his knee. Vulnerability via stupidity. An insult in ease.
So much for honesty.
However, “truth” is something men invented to pursue the greater farce of “nobility,” a synonym for “superiority” created by those who couldn’t last two days on their own out here. What’s so fucking superior about that? Self-importance, postured morality—I suppose there have been times where such behavior was more conducive to “productive models of society,” but society’s done, and all that goes with it.
From what I surmise, there are two kinds of people left in the world: those who do whatever they can and those too chicken shit to do anything. The whole population of this tin-plated tinker town reveled in their defenselessness, whined about the failures to protect and look after their own, then admitted, one after the next, they were all just waiting to die.
The first person I killed—I mean the first,, right after Dad jumped ship and left me on the plank—my first, the guard, that was reflex; Butch, call it payback; the Overseer…well, that was fun. I hear people call the Raiders psychopaths, but—no. Raiders have, at the very least, some motivation, something I can relate to. That man was a void, an inverted Charybdis. Radroaches have more feeling.
I suppose it was something like disgust, then—an anger toward this tiny population that refused to do anything for itself. At least I presumed as much when I landed Mr. Easily Amused between the eyes. Good, strong armor; rifle; ammo; worth it. I think a shot grazed my side next. Now they fight back.
I tucked into a protective bunker, crouched low to the ground. Leather creaked around my ankles and stabilized my stance against the dust-filled sacks at my back; dirt spilled down my neck as tiny shells dotted holes across the top of the barricade. A young man came around the corner first, leapt right into my scope. His eyes were bright, a blazing blue. The one after tripped over his body, the next on hers—how quickly this harrowed settlement reduced itself to a mangled mass of blood and limbs, grim faces drawn by gravity and life lost.
I admit—a delicious exhilaration filled the vacuum of silence that followed, doubtless fueled by the ambivalence that collided in my chest, caught half a breath in my throat. They hadn’t done anything to me, nor were they terribly likely to do so. Somehow, it didn’t matter. It’s not that they deserved it, but if it was to be Muties if not for me, or Raiders or Lurkers….
My finger still cradled the trigger. I’d made a decision; it was the only one I had.
Imagine living your whole life in darkness, in a monotonous debasement of mundane tasks and surrounded by the same handful of people the entire time. Imagine just a single shelf of books to read over and over again, the same replayed holotapes, same tins of food and moronic banter to go with it. Now imagine you knew of a place without any of it, without walls and rules and this regiment of futility, and you knew that world was out there, somewhere, not far off, just above your head, but you couldn’t get to it. You’re locked in this Petri dish and told that this other world, this blessed escape, is full of danger and evils so perilous as to make life in this can a Paradise.
Well, you’d do everything you could to get the hell out of there, too, right? Only there was no out. All vents and ducts led in the same circles as the rest of life. I just never imagined Dad, of all people, would be the impetus of my liberty, nor did I imagine the stupidity with which he’d pull off such a stunt. If I taught him nothing all these years, I thought at least he’d understand that when you engage in activities other people (i.e.: everyone in this sink hole) decidedly do not favor, it’s that you don’t get caught doing it. Then would come the “blah blah morality” and “blah blah what would your Mother think?” Fuck whatever “Mother” would think. I never knew the woman.
In addition to leading to my subsequent release from Vaultic Oppression, Dad drove the final nail into my argument against “morality.” If there was ever a man who extolled signals of virtue, the likes of which I had read but scarcely seen, it was my father. This same man, who defended even the murkiest of characters to insipid rationale, then ventured to leave his life behind, without dropping even a hint of his intention, and me with it. Me, his daughter, left to fend for my life not only in getting out but with no actual conception of what lay before me.
Luckily, I’ve always been quick on the learn.
Bless the Wastes for all this space, all this sunshine, all the many varied things to do out here. Chalk it up to naiveté, but I just strolled up to the first sign of civilization I found: Megaton, great heap of all junk heaps, the population of which, well, the only person of partial interest I met was a shady, self-styled “gentleman” called Burke, who proceeded to hit on me with insufferable zeal and then proposed a piece of business, in that order.
I’m also fortunate in that I’m not the most emotive of individuals, for I was a bit surprised to hear this man, this complete stranger, ask me to detonate the giant nuclear bomb that sits quaintly in the middle of Megaton, but I suppose this is how things are done out here. “Pleased to meet you! A) I’d like to shag you senseless, and B) Care to annihilate a community for me?” I didn’t exactly have any qualms about the job itself—anyone content to make a centerpiece the means of their eventual destruction must, at least secretly, yearn for its arrival. I was also promised a lofty reward.
By reward, however, I do not recall the words “undying” and “love” making their way into our agreement. True, I used my baser charms to secure the contract, but I’ve yet to see the wily bastard since. All I get are these damn “letters,” which are more like sprawling spews of sentimental tripe. Very well, I resolved—if I can’t blow the place, someone here should have the sense to want the threat neutralized, which seems to be the only sense our local “Sheriff” does possess. I got a sack of caps and some local real estate from the deal, and while there’s not much of a view, at least it’s a start.
My Fallout 3 character is one badass little honeypot. I stacked Sneak, Small & Big Guns to 100; Agility and Perception are at 10. When I first started playing, I’d tiptoe around Raider camps and lure them out one at a time to be picked off like distracted little deer (rabid and ammo-laden though they may be). Now, however, I hunt those bitches down, striking known camps when enough time has passed for them to respawn in even greater, more armored numbers.
This is, of course, after a couple early attempts at the game when I ventured towards creating what I felt were more interesting and complex characters based on skill, which promptly led to my inevitable and repeated slaughter. My Charisma is shite, Speech and Barter next to nothing, yet I spend a good part of the game picking the bones of my victims for goods to sell and trade, and my Karma is so stellar that I’ve attained a follower from the Brotherhood of Steel and random Wastelanders approach me bearing gifts.
One would think that, based on these two main components in my gameplay, attributes like Charisma, Speech, and Barter would rise, yet due to the arbitrary nature of XP expenditure in games, I get to place it where I damn well please. Due to my aforementioned failures, I learned to place these points in areas that would better ensure my survival rather than in places more reflective of the kind of “actual” experience my character was garnering through play.
So what does it mean to gain experience in a game? Back in my tabletop and online roleplaying days, XP was most often granted in much the same way—play a bit, earn some points, and spend them where you damn well please. No matter if I’d devoted my time to investigating the intricacies of a plot or simply terrorizing whomever I could find—I got the points and placed them where I desired, no matter how much (or little) it had to do with the way my character behaved.
Once I started GMing, however, I took a new approach. The characters under my care had to earn the experience they sought, and I didn’t simply assign a number to by divvied out as the player saw fit. Based on the actions of each character, the time devoted to and success by which they had performed certain tasks or actively pursued particular skills or sets of knowledge, I assigned them very specific points of experience. If a character spent most of her time slaying enemies, I would offer points in skills and attributes such as Melee, Strength, Guns, Agility, etc. If another devoted his play to seducing every other character and NPC in the game, they might gain some Charisma, Seduction, Speech, or even lose points in some of these areas if his efforts were dreadfully disastrous.
Naturally, some players disliked this XP “assignment” regime I developed in my games, and I invited those few to promptly fuck off, but for the most part I found a troupe of players that became more focused, more purpose-driven, and endowed with a sense of reward for this acknowledgment of their efforts. Further, it encouraged them to devote more time and creativity toward earning what they wanted for their characters and to develop more intricate, complex, and realistic personalities, knowing that I would steer the details of the story to compliment and challenge each of their strengths and weaknesses through the course of play.
So in most games with Experience Points, I continually find myself in the same cycle of arbitrary adherence to earning what I can to assign what I must for the simple sake of survival. It’s most often not a reflection of the character I’m building through concept and action, but it’s what the game requires to manage gangs of Super Mutants or regain health by sliding my electrically-charged ass across power lines or even set off viral detectors whilst pointing the finger at another patsied soldier.
I just don’t see why it’s so damn difficult to set up a system by which a character earns new powers or skills based on the actions one, as a player, chooses to make. Especially in the expansive RPGiverse, an engine should be able to track the types of maneuvers one makes and thus assign XP to reflect these actions. It’s cause and effect. It’s consequence, and the possibilities for greater depth, immersion, and commitment to a game and one’s character could, in this way, expand profoundly.
It’s not about an algorithm insinuating worth, but the player’s interaction with the code of his or her gamespace to realize the decisions we make, as those who wield our characters often with so much abandon, may indeed shape meaning from the incongruous intentions of these, our binary souls.
It’s 4:30 in the morning and I have to be at work tomorr—err, today, but for some reason I’m playing [Prototype] again, from the beginning, to see if I can better my mediocre performance throughout the missions and side events during my first go-round.
The logical reaction to this sort of behavior would be, “What the fuck is your problem?” But I think I’m amongst company that knows full well of what I speak. This isn’t logic—this is gaming, and play has nothing to do with alarm clocks or deadlines or “when was the last time I ate?” It has its own drive, its own pulse, and it drives you at least as much as you drive it. The urge to pursue, conquer, slay, devour, decode, investigate, riddle-with-bullets, or pop sticker bubbles can be all-consuming, and it makes me ponder the reason for this compulsive, illogical, entirely addictive behavior.
I’m sure many of you saw the recent report on China’s brilliant use of electroshock “therapy” for internet/gaming addicts, the majority of whom are teenagers, which was ordered cease stop by the country’s Ministry of Health. However much I desire to refer not just to video games but to acts of play in general, it seems that gaming—like gambling—creates greater compulsive behavior.
In gambling, the payoff is not only financial, but a feeling of acquired skill, stealth, strategy, and beating the system. The same (or similar) can be said of video games, where one desires not just to explore the world divulged in the system, but to discover and ultimately unravel the many faceted obstacles and intrigues programmed to obstruct your success.
With video games, however, I feel there’s something much deeper at play—the immersion and interaction a player experiences once hitting <START> and plunging into whatever universe the developers have concocted, be it rapidly falling jigsaw pieces to the ethical dilemma of saving or sucking dry scores of Little Sisters. The fact that video games offer this interactive, action/response involvement creates not just a system of development and problem solving, but an anxiously desirable realm affected at every turn by a player’s instinct, insight, and imagination.
Gaming provides an other world that is beyond mere escape and traverses into the framework of creation, empowering the player’s every touch of the D-pad with virtually limitless endeavors, custom experiences that change based on a variety of factors located almost solely within the player him/herself. This state of empowerment is both highly desirable and, as history’s legers and the rising of the sun on my sleeplessly addled brain inform, potently addictive.
We play beyond limits because we’re offered the limitless. We thwart common sense and even basic needs because the state we’re in—the gamespace—often has something far better to offer. The Chinese may have decided to cremate the brains of these experiential entrepreneurs, but at least in this world of mine, the worst I can do is…get fired?