Go Small

Find the Thrill in Humble Stakes

by Kym Buchanan

27 April 2016

When a game does engage with what's sublime in being human, it often still reverts to staid larger-than-life tropes. However, what I'm looking for is the adventures of the everyday.
The Last of Us: Left Behind (Sony Computer Entertainment, 2016) 

I’m looking for more video games that tell small stories. Many games tell big stories, in which players defeat ultimate evils and save worlds. I enjoy such games, but I also crave games with challenges and stakes more like my real life. There can be distinctly different forms of angst, thrills, and beauty in the adventures of the everyday.

I want more diversity in the menu because I enjoy variety in my gaming diet. Furthermore, there’s significant worth in stories that explore humble stakes. Stories can be containers for storing and sharing values in interesting and memorable ways. Story-rich games can be especially powerful vehicles for exploring and promoting values because they’re interactive and foster experimentation. However, the stories and thus the value-choices in most current games are far removed from my own experiences.
  
Video games have grown up alongside me, but sometimes it feels like I kept growing while games did not. As a child in the 1980s and a young adult in the 1990s, I found plenty of games with grand stories in which my characters had equally-grand abilities. Whether wielding big guns, big swords, or big armies, I was a world-changing force. I greatly enjoyed escapist games, and I still do. But I turn 40 this year, and my craving for adolescent power fantasies has waned considerably. Instead, in my real life, I wield different power in newer roles, such as scientist, boss, mentor, and parent. More and more, I daydream about excelling in these roles, not slaying dragons.

Part of the problem is games’ partial dependence on computer simulations. It’s relatively easy to quantify and manipulate systems such as the finances of a small business, the economy of a nation, or the relative strengths of soldiers and war machines. When games try to simulate human-scale dispositions and relationships, the play experience can be trivial rather than profound. For example, in Dragon Age: Origins, one of my companions may disagree with my choice during a quest, causing their approval rating to drop. But I needn’t worry. Once I return to camp I can buy the right object, give it to as a present, and immediately raise their approval level back up.

Real life is more messy. Some people can name stories that authentically engage with the messy and thus deeply affect them. They can name stories that affirm the choices and virtues in their careers and personal lives. For example, here are three areas of my life where media other than games have significantly affected me.

As an educator, I draw deep inspiration from the movie Dead Poets Society, especially in how I try to teach life lessons as well as academic content and in how I survive the emotional peaks and valleys of academic life. I can’t point to a video game that explores the joys and heartbreaks of my profession in comparable ways.

I work at a public university in a state and in an era when our worth and honor are questioned. So I strongly relate to the intrepid civil servants in the television show The West Wing. I try to maintain the same unapologetic, altruistic idealism.

I was raised by a single mother, so when I became a father, I didn’t have an obvious role model on which to base my identity. Instead, I construct my mindset and choices from many sources. My inspirations include real-life father figures as well as fictional fathers in movies and television, from Father of the Bride to Veronica Mars. I can’t say that video games have been much help in this endeavor, a failing that’s an especially conspicuous lack of inspiration given how many more hours that I’ve invested in them then in other media.

It may have felt odd to read the past few paragraphs in a column about video games; it felt odd to write them. That’s exactly my point. In other media, it’s not unusual for a commentator to relate the themes of a work to their own lived experience. Other media often touches on the angst, thrills, and beauty of the everyday, from navigating high school peer culture to the complexities of multi-generational families, from battling cancer to surviving addiction. Yes, some games engage with the everyday in interesting ways, but they seem few and far between, especially in the Triple-A and mainstream markets.

When a game does engage with what’s sublime in being human, it often still reverts to staid larger-than-life tropes. Consider The Last of Us, a game that both enthralls and disappoints me. The post-apocalyptic setting is larger-than-life, yet, at first, it seems that the story is humble. It would have been enough for me to safeguard a teenage girl through the wasteland. After all, the most interesting moments in the game occur when Joel and Ellie just interact with one another as people. But no, Ellie turns out to be the possible savior of all humanity. Hence, I’m delighted that the DLC “Left Behind” is a prequel. It postpones that bulky messianic mantle and instead tells a story that’s “just” about two young women trying to build a life that makes sense to them in a world gone crazy. “Left Behind” deserves praise for its sensitive depiction of female and LGBTQ characters and also for going small. At this point in her story, we don’t know that Ellie is special, except in the way that any of us can be special: by telling the truth to someone we care about.

In my search for humble stakes, I’m not overlooking the one series that definitively engages with the everyday: The Sims. Like most (or all?) simulations, it stores and shares values, including attitudes about a strong work ethic, consumerism, life balance, and nurturing relationships with other people. But The Sims doesn’t try to tell a convergent story with a clear message. Rather, it’s largely a story sandbox, reflecting back to me whatever I bring to it. If I’m predisposed to examine the tension between my work ethic and my relationships with my children, The Sims may help me. But it doesn’t aim for that particular story/message in ways that other media do, such as the play Death of a Salesman or the song “Cats In The Cradle” do.

What I’d really like is more games with convergent stories that engage with the everyday and show me new facets of life. In other media, perhaps we smirk at Ricky drawing inspiration from a wind-blown plastic bag in American Beauty or find Emily’s rhapsodic reflection in Our Town quaint (“Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”). But these stories depict people and lives more like our own, and thus say more interesting things than most video games do.

Stories can be containers for storing and sharing values, which is why I have another, long-term concern about video games’ relatively narrow focus. There’s a subtle yet cumulative effect from games’ focus on extraordinary protagonists saving the world. It may partly fuel a mindset in real life that our big problems can only be solved and thus will only be solved by extraordinary individuals. Climate change? We need one extraordinary scientist, a Gordon Freeman of climatology. Dysfunctional political process? We need one extraordinary leader, a Commander Shepherd of statecraft.

Historically, exceptional individuals have played important roles, and they deserve distinction. Yet stories of real change usually involve whole movements of people. For example, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. were exceptional people. But the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the greater civil rights movement depended on the involvement of millions of other people. I don’t need to be Parks or King to positively impact the world, nor wait for such a leader to come along.

Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In media other than games, many artists have delved into the everyday struggles of being human and in the process uncovered profound ideas. One of my writing teachers put it this way: in fiction, yelling is easy, whispering is hard. Yet it’s the whispers of real life that usually shape us. Most of us don’t become celebrities, so our lives are marked by small, personal moments: private and only consequential to us, but no less intense than the moon falling out of the sky. For example, few people know or care about what happened during my high school prom, but I sure remember.

Game developers have done amazing things with mechanisms such as bullet time. Now I’d like to see more awkward silences.

Kym Buchanan is the Associate Dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He studies and teaches psychology and human development, including the intersection of adolescent development and modern media. His ideal game would be a mashup of Kohan, System Shock, and dwarves. His professional website is KymBuchanan.org and he tweets @reach2grow.

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