The Video Gamer’s Burden

It happened somewhere around the Pacific Union Railroad Camp. I was frustrated with failing a finicky mission multiple times. I wanted to break up the monotony. I double-checked that I had saved the game recently and then ran toward the train.I ran onto the train and initiated slow motion. I painted my targets in slow motion and then let fly. The shots rang out in the narrow train car as blood and red viscera sprayed out from two innocent passengers and onto the wooden benches. A third ran at me with his fists up and I easily dropped him with my pump-action shotgun. There was no in-game motivation for John Marsden to be committing a massacre on this train. There was no systemic reward for it in the game’s economy. I was just bored.

* * *

As a person, I’m continuously changing, but what happens when my save files don’t? On a cellular level, I probably average out to be only a few years old. Most people are open minded enough that their perspective is always evolving — at least somewhat. I’m not who I was just one, two, or ten years ago. Yet, old saved games reveal to me a sometimes uncomfortable picture of myself.

Such phenomenon occur in other areas of life all the time. People return home for the holidays and find their high school posters and bedsheets, items that betray the embarrassing fandoms that they belonged to in adolescence. I’ve stumbled across old doodles and term papers that left me baffled or embarrassed. In the information age, this type of embarrassing discovery has migrated to the digital space. Someone discovers your angsty LiveJournal or you find a foray into MSPaint pixel art on an old hard drive. As simulations and systems, video games offer a unique form of this self-rediscovery.

In many cases, these files aren’t backed up or the memory cards and consoles that they resided on have been sold off, but where a lifelong gamer can find these old game states, they can find out quite a bit about who they once were. Perhaps the simplest thing to find in old saves are old characters. I found a character that I created in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 that look like the lamest imaginable simulacra of teenaged me. I have found save states for games as new as Mass Effect in which I created and played a version of Commander Shepard that was… problematic.

I spent undue amounts of time in my youth doing stuff in game spaces that I now find weird or upsetting. I hope that I’m not a monster for these past forays into terrible game behavior. I think something in human nature so often wants to subvert game simulations or to constantly test their limits. This tendency can sometimes result in our saved games revealing some dark places inside ourselves. Early in her career, Leigh Alexander dedicated a whole column to some of these strange corners of our pasts that are revealed in video games and Jon Bois has made a career out of manipulating sports games with this idea in mind. It’s unnerving to consider the times that I babywalled someone in The Sims or intentionally hit pedestrians in Road Rash and Crus’n USA, but I wonder if everyone that played games as a kid did the same thing.

* * *

Approaching the shores of the New World, I send my men on an expedition. We are here on a mission for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Ultimately, we are on a quest for the Seven Cities of Gold, but we’re content to explore new lands and trade with the natives. On the first island that we visit, we leave behind clergy that establish a mission. On the next, we begin the process of plundering the natural resources of the New World and doing violence to its land and people. We encounter a burial mound and remove artifacts from it. We amaze and threaten the natives in order to take their gold. If the trip continues successfully, we will have a lot to bring back to the king and queen.

I control all of this at age ten. I play it all completely unselfconsciously. I don’t have any of the historic or cultural context to critically examine the colonialism of the game’s systems at all.

* * *

Picking up an old game and an old memory card can also be all the more distressing when cultural representation is a part of what characterizes the game world. I feel even more gross if I boot a save from a game like Civilization II, a game laden with politics and social systems that serve as grounds for gameplay. Game systems allow for experimentation and emergence. They can provide meaning and teach us in unexpected ways. So, my issue isn’t necessarily that I played these games as if I were some ’90s version of GTA IV’s Republican Space Rangers. I take umbrage with the fact that I did so with no sense of history or my own privilege. These saved games can reveal my past and my biases in ways that make me cringe.

Like every other kid that grew up watching ReBoot, I sometimes think of a video game simulation as continuing inside the console or the computer after I close the application — as if the characters still have lives after I turn the game off. A small smattering of games like Animal Crossing actually play into such a conceit. If you don’t play Animal Crossing for long enough, you will come back to a town in shambles and some of your favorite NPCs may have moved on to greener pastures. Daydreaming of games this way inspires a weird guilt when I think of the sociopathic things that I’ve done in video game worlds or when I find the terrible dictator player-character that I used to be in old computer files. I’m haunted by NPCs and the reign of terror that I’ve imposed on them, even as I’m aware they’re simply inanimate code.

I still engage with problematic games. I have played a campaign recently in Crusader Kings II that brought up all of these memories, but now I play the game with a critical eye. I’m aware of the historical context that Paradox is depicting in the title and I’m not blind to the parts of that history that are difficult for me to confront. I experiment and play with self awareness and empathy. Now and then I even try to play these games in a way that won’t embarrass me if I load the game up in ten years.