EDT791: Compelled to play

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Sun, 04/27/2008 - 11:43

A few months ago, I started trying to talk my dad into buying an XBOX 360. I worked on him for months, occasionally feeding him little tidbits of motivation by telling him about such treats as Gears of War or Forza Motorsport 2. These were games I was certain he would revel in, but the experiences were too familiar to him and, therefore, failed to inspire the desired action. Months of subtle attempts at manipulation went by, and then my wife and I had my family over for dinner. I got out Guitar Hero III, which my brother and I had been playing with for a few weeks, and started to play. Dad was almost immediately hooked. Mom was in love with it. A few days later, I got a call on my cell phone while I was at work, "I'm at GameStop. What games should I get with my 360?"

Cover image for Guitar Hero III: Legends of RockAlong with Guitar Hero III (which he and my mom still play regularly and bring up frequently in conversation), he also picked up Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Last week we had a conversation about it that I found quite relevant to Gee's concept of the ability of games to make a player sympathetic to unfamiliar circumstances and points of view.

Our conversation started when I asked how he was enjoying it. I had seen him on my friends list playing it a few nights prior. He told me he had beaten it, was playing through a second time on a harder difficulty, and was having a great time. What he really wanted to talk about, though, was the experience of being placed into the situations the game presented.

The fictional story of the game involves a "near-future war between the United States, United Kingdom, and Russian Loyalists against Russian Ultranationalists and Middle Eastern rebels." He felt the game took a relatively neutral stance on the way the conflict is handled, and simply offers the experience to the player's own interpretation. As a result, he said that he felt the game had made him understand several important things about similar real-world situations.

Cover image for Call of Duty 4: Modern WarfareAs a soldier on the ground, he was able to understand that situations like the one presented in the game are incredibly complex. He learned how hard it can be to make decisions in the chaos of a ground battle. Telling the difference between enemy and ally was difficult. He found a new sympathy for the experience of a soldier entrenched in conflict. He described the combat as visceral, difficult and exhausting.

None of these concepts were new to him, as they wouldn't be for most people. We hear frequently of the horrors, chaos and complexities of war. Most of us don't, however, experience them first hand. Even when we watch them in a visceral format like film or television, we're still not an active participant in the experience, so our view is tainted by the third person perspective into which we're naturally forced. Games remove that barrier and allow us to be direct participant. No longer casual observers, we become the soldier fighting for his life.

My dad is by no means a pacifist, but I don't believe he frequently supports military action. That's why I found it so interesting when he said the game made him feel that there are times when an organized use of force is the only way to resolve a situation. He didn't say that with the excitement you might expect from someone who had just beat a game, though. His active participation in a realistic conflict informed his opinion. To him, it was a cold dose of reality.

I haven't yet played Call of Duty 4, so while I wait for my dad to finish up his time with it and hand it off to me, I've picked up Call of Duty 2. I'm only a couple hours into the game, but I wanted to relate one experience I've had already.

Cover image for Call of Duty 2I'm currently playing as a member of the Soviet infantry, attempting to fight off the German assault on Stalingrad. While my comrades and I were pushing our way through city streets, I heard the distinct "tink-tink-tink" of a potato masher landing near me. I knew I needed to get away, but the rubble I was hiding behind was under a hail of enemy fire. I crouched down and tried to fall back as quickly as possible, but I was too slow, and wasn't far enough from the grenade when it went off. The force of the explosion knocked me to the ground and, ears ringing loudly, I found myself disoriented and crawling. I noticed a comrade crouched behind a nearby crumbling concrete wall, and the relatively few seconds it took to reach him felt like an eternity.

With a singular experience, I was both entertained and horrified. I use the term "entertained," though, because I have no better term for the experience. I'm not sure I can really say I've had the kind of smile-on-my-face, laughing-out-loud fun with COD2 that one typically associates with playing a game. I supposed "compelled" is really the best word for the emotion, but it, and all it's variations, are so drastically overused in gaming media that the it has truly lost its significance. It does, however, accurately describe the feeling.

So what is it that compels me to keep playing it? I believe there are things we do not because they entertain, but because they satisfy. It's easy to confuse the two emotions, yet we find ourselves compelled to do many different activities. Even though it isn't fun when I spend hours writing and debugging Drupal modules, I frequently find it difficult to stop. The act of creation and problem solving is satisfying in itself. Playing certain games has a similar effect. Retaking a train station in Stalingrad, while difficult, intense and not really very fun, is incredibly satisfying.

Note: Images taken from the corresponding Wikipedia articles.