Guys and videogames. There they sit: asses glued to the couch, eyes transfixed, their attention leaving the screen only for as long as it takes to tell you about their latest achievements — how no, you don’t understand, their Madden team traded for Tom Brady and that unlocked a better sniper rifle which the clan can use to raid the Molten Core… or something. And why is there a Jorts Monster fighting a commando? And what is that commando wearing? I can literally see into her butt. This is gross. You’re gross. Games are stupid.
I hear it all the time. Gals will meet a guy and he’s great and totally not weird, so they go on a few dates and that goes great, too, and so the relationship progresses to a point where they both feel comfortable just hanging out at his apartment, and now, suddenly, they’re confronted with exactly how much time their guy spends dicking around on his xbox. And they think: where did this come from? I mean, he’s not a gamer, they say — he’s normal. So what the hell? Why can’t these twenty-something guys just grow up?
For sure — and I’ve written about this before — there is a contingent of guys who fully intend to extend their adolescence as far into their twenties (and thirties) as possible. These guys are absolutely the type to marathon Call of Duty with their forlorn girlfriend sitting quietly beside. These guys exist, and videogames are just one more entrée in their smorgasbord of self-indulgence. Yes. Absolutely.
But I don’t believe that’s the case for most guys. I think the reason you find some sort of video game machine in the apartment of most guys is not that they’re trying to avoid the pressures of growing up; on the contrary, I believe they’re coping with those pressures. I believe video games provide guys with a kind of psychological something, a balm against the realities of their life, that provides a wider solace than simply escapism. And I believe this is something they simply can’t get anywhere else – including loving girlfriends.
Let me explain.
No seriously, give me a minute to explain.
NOBODY LIKES GUYS. That’s where it starts. Nobody cares about guys, and guys know it. Oh, there might be a particular guy for which you’ve developed an affinity: your boyfriend, your dad, the really old Korean War veteran you saw cry on a childhood trip to Arlington — these men exist, and I have no doubt that the love you feel for them is real — but, as a thought experiment, imagine yourself in a room with all of them at once. Now imagine each can invite their five best male friends. That room’s suddenly a lot less pleasant, right? Guys are like cats or Yankee Candles — each one past the first couple makes the room exponentially more unpleasant. This effect is so widely recognized and profound that the free market spawns legions of dour-faced blondes armed with clipboards in response, and it’s only through their tireless work that the nightspots of this world become palatable. Protecting a space against the cumulative effect of guys is literally a full-time job.
And guys are no less self-loathing when they go it alone. A gal saying Screw it, I’m going out tonight and I’m just gonna dance and I don’t care what anyone thinks is adorable; a guy dancing goofy-fun alone on the dance floor is weird as hell and about ten seconds from being bounced out on his creeper ass. A gal sitting alone at a bar has the hassle of dudes — by no means uniformly desirable — coming up and trying to include her in their life; a guy at the bar alone, on the other hand, basically proofs Newton’s First Law, in that his body will stay at rest indefinitely — or until acted on by an external force, like, say, the bartender at last call. Nobody will ever approach and ask their name. No one will ever buy them a drink. As the men of the Titanic watch the lifeboats full of women and children drift into the horizon, they think: This feels right.
History has been kind to men, for sure, but it seems men never quite figured out how to be kind to each other. From the moment a guy wakes up, he goes about the business of avoiding an ass-kicking. Because every other guy we come into contact with during the day is Schrodinger’s Beatdown, and it isn’t until we make eye contact or accidentally step in front of them on the sidewalk or wear the wrong color shirt that we know for sure. A gal might make accidental eye contact on the subway and have to deal with some creeper smiling back; guys have been stabbed for less. And while I’m a major fan of chivalry, I’m also partially disabled, and the looks I get for not giving up my seat to healthy-looking women in the morning rush are unambiguous in their contempt for me.
Once, while working as an elementary school teacher in the American South, I witnessed two of my male students — adorable kids in private-school uniforms and matching bowl cuts — walking along a sidewalk, kicking a soccer ball up ahead and smiling, laughing, racing each other to it, tugging the other’s collar like a cheating Spanish footballer trying to slow the other down; they were having a blast. Carefree, halcyon fun. The kind that should typify childhood. And so I sped up, pulled my car nearly beside them, knowing they’d get a kick out of seeing their favorite teacher out of class. But as I rolled down my window, a black SUV approached on my right and rolled down its window; the car filled with college kids, and they hung their faces from the open window — the oppressive sun glinting off their wraparound Oakleys — and yelled to my students that they were DICKSUCKING FAGGOTSSSSSS!!! AHHHH! COCKSUCKERS! GET A ROOM AND JUST F-CK EACH OTHER! WITH YOUR TINY FAGGOT DICKS! AHAHAHAHA! The guy in the back pushed his tongue into his cheek and simulated a blowjob.
At two elementary school kids.
Because they had the temerity to show joy.
The situation was shocking for its cruelty but, horribly enough, not for its rarity. Because I think at some point every guy has had a moment like that. At some point in the process of growing up, most guys learn that it’s not okay for a man to feel — neither joy nor sadness, nor any emotion which might seek expression to the greater world — that it’s not okay to trust, that you can’t ever expect someone to keep your secrets, that people will hurt you for no reason but they’ll hurt you more if you don’t mind your own business, if you care, if you’re anything but muted and stoic; to ask for anything else is to be needy — that is, to be weak — and thus deserve whatever suffering comes from that weakness. We’re told this is how Being a Man works, and as bogus as it sounds spelled out like this, society tends to punish deviations from it rather harshly. As you can imagine, it isn’t all that emotionally fulfilling. And that’s where the video games come in.
VIDEO GAMES MAKE GUYS FEEL SPECIAL. One of the most popular video games over the last decade has been the Madden franchise, a football game released in yearly installments that features real NFL teams and players. And one of the most popular parts of that game is its Superstar Mode. In Superstar Mode, guys can create a player that looks almost exactly like themselves; your player’s appearance can be customized from height and weight, all the way down to facial features like cheekbones and the size and tilt of your ears. After working out in a virtual gym and attending virtual practices, your player will receive a virtual contract for millions of dollars, which he can then spend upgrading his virtual apartment, getting a virtual tattoo, or even a virtual haircut. And once you’ve created a virtual life deserving of your fantasies, you can start a game.
Normally, you play Madden by controlling the entire football team: you choose the plays as the coach, then cycle between the different players on offense and defense to make plays and try to win the game. In the popular Superstar Mode, though, the camera stays on your player, making him the only player you are able to control. Which means 80% of what happens on the field does not include you. When whichever unit you’re not a part of (offense or defense) is on the field, the camera cuts to your view from the Gatorade cooler. Once you’re on the field, the computer — acting as coach — picks the plays, and there is no guarantee they will involve you. As a wide receiver, you might run down the field to block for the virtual running back, or sprint down a route designed to get a different wide receiver open for a catch. Your player might get open and the virtual quarterback might just throw it over your head or out of bounds. For the vast majority of this mode, you are watching computer teammates play against a computer opponent. This game costs guys seventy dollars. And this mode is massively popular.
That’s how much guys just want to feel special. We’re willing to spend significant hours watching a computer play pitch and catch in front of us, only sometimes deigning to include us, so long as it means when we do get a catch, the crowd will roar, the play will repeat in instant replay, our player will increase his ability scores, and after we win we’ll be able to check the NFL League Leaderboard and feel a strange but seemingly real pride that our virtual selves are leading all the other wide receivers in Yards Per Reception.
In the basketball version, you can give yourself a nickname and the same announcers from TV will call the game and say your name and heap praise upon you — by name! — when you play well. And the crowd will chant for you. They’ll seriously chant for you! This might seem like a minor thing except that every guy has grown up watching movies where everyone cheers for the hero, the professional, the best of the best; everyone cheers and so does the girl and the hero basks in the glow of his public accomplishment and, ah, yes, of course, all his hard work pays off and his skill and persistence are finally recognized by everyone, just like you almost never, ever see happen in the real world. As if any guy has ever received this level of appreciation. We grow up seeing it, and we internally admit we want it. But we never get it. Only when our virtual guard hangs 45 points on the Boston Celtics do we even get a taste, a simulation — the closest thing.
VIDEO GAMES PROVIDE IMMEDIATE PAYOFFS. Life doesn’t give us a whole lot of payoff for our effort. A hardworking guy can apply to fifty jobs a day and still go unemployed for months at a time. On the other end of the spectrum, a guy might put in sixty hours every week at work, might be the best employee in the entire department, might be making all the right moves professionally and still get passed over for a promotion. And there’s nothing he can do about it. If he complains, he’ll come off looking like a whiney baby. So he goes to the bar and sits alone. Drowns his sorrows. Nobody comes over to talk to him. He questions what he’s even contributing to the world; as a middle manager he doesn’t really build or create — there’s no tangible evidence of the fruits of his labor. Good management skills result in… something. Certainly not a high-five. A paycheck, he figures, but beyond that, he doesn’t know.
In the massively popular game Starcraft, deft resource management results in his being instantly rewarded with the ability to drop a brightly-pixelated nuclear bomb on the secret base of the 12-year-old in his headset who won’t stop shouting in Korean. Is that more rewarding than having an extra disregarded bullet point affixed to his yearly performance review? I think you’ll find that it is. And so he plays. He plays even though his girlfriend is wearing her Pretty Date Dress and asking him to pick a restaurant. Because the payoff for his ‘work’ is refreshing and, taking it a step further…
VIDEO GAMES PROVIDE A CONCRETE PATH OF ADVANCEMENT: Several years ago, the field of cognitive psychology discovered that animals — including humans — that learned their proactive efforts would not reliably produce resource gains nor protect them from suffering developed adverse physiological and psychological conditions in response, including depression. The more effort that guys expend on things which they perceive as out of their control — advancement at their job, financial security, romantic affection — the more likely they are to become maladapted to deal with future challenges.
Video games guard against this. A big part of game design lies in rolling out challenge systems to a player who, upon mastery of that system, is rewarded (and thus encouraged to continue playing) and subsequently presented with a new, slightly more difficult and possibly cumulative challenge. Game designers stand alongside cognitive psychologists in understanding that if you want to make a man happy, give him a concrete path to achievement and ‘status’ which is guided by quantifiable benchmarks — so that’s exactly what they do. Roleplaying games tell guys that after 1,000 points they’ll be able to throw bigger fireballs. Guys don’t have to worry if the projects they’re working on will give them the best shot at advancing their career, or if they need to cut more carbs (or was it fat?) to get visible abs — there’s no ambiguity, the path is clearly laid out: hit 1,000 points and the goal is yours. A shooter game might require the player to stay up all night playing a level he finds nearly as tedious as a shift at work, but in the morning, after 500 kills, he’ll know with absolute certainty that he’ll have earned the Turbo Big Dick Gold-Plated AK-47, and with that feel a simulated sense of mastery over his world. And his brain won’t know the difference. (Coincidentally, this is why guys will often tell their girlfriends about what they’ve been up to in their videogames, despite it being something no one else in the world could possibly care about.)
VIDEO GAMES PROVIDE AN OUTLET FOR AGGRESSION: In the olden days, guys responded to being slighted by removing their glove, slapping their rival across the face, then gunning them down with flintlock pistols. These days, guys recognize that sort of behavior as barbaric and absurd, opting instead to blow off steam by logging onto Call of Duty and virtually shooting the face off their opponent and screaming obscenities at a faceless assembly of adolescents. Is this pretty? No. Is it mature? No. But just because the old way had fancy-ass vests and rapiers didn’t make it any less ridiculous. And all things considered, a guy sitting alone in his living room drinking 40s and moaning incoherently while pounding a 2D Brock Lesnar in some UFC video game seems way less destructive to all parties involved than whatever the real-world analog of that might be. And to be honest, I’m glad all those people who drown/ electrocute/ incinerate their Sims in The Sims games are too busy redesigning their virtual kitchens to go outside. I think we all are. Anyway.
VIDEO GAMES SIMULATE TRUST AND AFFECTION: In the hit game Mass Effect, the main character (who, as with Madden, you’re given the option to make look like yourself with an excruciating level of detail) is the Intergalactic Belle of the Ball. You’re allowed to make eye contact without people thinking you’re trying to creep or start a fight. Folks can’t wait to talk with you. They say you’ve made them proud. That you’ve changed their lives. That they trust you; they trust your judgment. When you’re faced with the tough decision of sacrificing 300,000 Batarians in order to save the lives of billions across the universe, your commanding officer doesn’t even ask to see the report – he knows that you always do what must be done to protect the innocent. All of humanity — and the alien species, too! — knows your reputation for skill and efficiency and talent and confidence and daring and (the fellatio continues) and they’re glad to have you onboard their ship, because there’s a situation that needs handling and they trust you for the job.
How often does this happen in the average guy’s life? How many times does a guy feel underestimated? Talked down to? Confronted for forgetting the gift or the wine or the keys or leaving the seat up? But then you come back from the job and bask in some simulated glory — everyone thought that job was impossible! — before moving on to the next problem, the next conflict where you can show up and really make a difference.
Really make a difference.
Of course, guys know on a logical level that it’s all make believe. But games like Mass Effect sell so well because they pour millions of dollars into being as immersive as possible. That’s what the developers are going for: ‘immersive.’ They know that it’s not really about shooting space lasers at Krogan or Geth stormtroopers, that’s why they write, cast, and perform tens of thousands of lines of voice acting. That’s why they populate these virtual worlds with so many moving parts, so many characters with their own backgrounds and life stories. They want the player to forget how much time they’re spending playing videogames and instead wander the virtual city streets, talking with all the people, maybe getting involved in Citadel politics, maybe raising money for the virtual orphanage, maybe ousting the local crime lord and running a smuggling business — all these options beyond simply gunning down bad guys.
Guys know on a logical level that they aren’t really doing anything but sitting on their couch, but – as Thought Catalog writer Josh Gondelman showed me — it isn’t logic which makes you cry in the middle of a pizza place because a particular song came on the radio. And it isn’t logic that causes the feelings swelling within a guy’s chest when he spends three hours helping a space-lizard assassin reconcile at long last with his estranged space-lizard son. The people of Illum didn’t really throw you a ticker-tape parade. The abused and broken psychic warrior chick didn’t really battle her misgivings to fall into a profound love for you. And there (as far as I know) is not an imminent Reaper threat to civilization. None of it is real. But the charge a guy can get from it is. And it might be the only place in modern life where he can get that charge. So if the rest of him is functional and productive? Ladies, let ‘em play their video games.