I’m a ridiculous human being. Among my many varied interests, I love video games. I had an old NES when I was a kid, blew into the cartridge so that decades later they could look disgusting and require proper care to work, I puzzled when the Genesis came out and it worked pretty much flawlessly, having no idea of the history of the supposed “zero insertion force” concept and its relation to making the simple act of playing a came contained on a circuit board difficult. I resisted the change from cartridges (my N64) to CDs (my Playstation…1, as it’s known these days because companies don’t give new systems new names any more. Because they’re lazy) even as I appreciated the improvements in graphics, because CDs scratch and cartridges are forever.
I went from action platformers where I had to rescue the princess (Or, in the case of Mario Brothers 2 play as the princess because of that sweet float mechanic and escape what seemed like some kind of peyote-in-the-desert fever dream, I guess?), to RPGs where I was a woman with mitochondrial powers shooting bats with a pistol and/or become an eco-terrorist with a bad memory (bonus points for recognizing the first and yes, that second one’s a dig on FFVII. Come at me, bro).
What kept me coming back was how fun they were, and the plot (Well, let’s ignore Mario Bros. for that one). I defended them as interactive, immersive stories. And as time went on, I played games like Fallout 3, or Dead Space, and continued thinking that. They were fun stories, and each level made my character feel like a greater badass, but a greater badass within the storyline. I could pick them up and put them down, even though leveling was fun, because leveling was only a part of the fun.
But I, and many gamers, have a problem with that part. You see, RPGs have infiltrated everywhere, and for good reason. The reward of “leveling up” hits us right in the reward-junk. Companies have realized that that alone is enough to make a game seem “fun”. And when we’re so close, we keep playing because we’re almost there. And when we just leveled up, well, we want to experience it; after all, we just got these sweet new sunglasses on our character! And now our level is one more. We’re at Eleven, man!
World of Warcraft really initiated this (I’m aware there were others, but c’mon, it’s WoW, it’s the Big One). Nobody remembers anything about the game’s plot (is there a plot?), but everybody knows about epic mounts, and level caps. But it’s when RPG mechanics hit First Person Shooters that the crack really hit the bloodstream. It’s why “campaigns” are getting steadily shorter in favor of multiplayer matches. There’s games like Borderlands, where there is technically a plot, but really it’s about that sweet sweet loot. Which is always subject to leveling. Same thing with Destiny. Does anyone know the plot of that? As far as I could tell, it was about how Peter Dinklage needed a new boat. Which, to be fair, he deserves. Give the guy a boat. He obviously needs to cheer up, based on how he read those lines. Harrison Ford had more emotion in the Blade Runner voiceover, and I’m pretty sure he did that at gunpoint.
But by far the worst offender here is Call of Duty. Because matches have a well-defined end point that’s only around ten minutes, they can be played quick. But, as a fellow who lived in an apartment block I used to live in said, “Once you pop, you can’t, you can’t stop, man. That’s why I stole that stereo.”
Because you’re chasing that white dragon or, in the case of CoD, that Advanced Supply Drop. You’re always just a little bit away from the next level, so why not play one more round? It’s only ten minutes. Before you know it, three hours passed. And “ten minutes” isn’t really ten minutes. There’s lobby wait time, level load time, and of game stats load time. You can’t even defend that as fun in any meaningful sense, since you’re not doing anything but waiting–that’s just straight-up wasted time. So each match is more like 15 minutes, or more. Still, you’re so close to that next level…so don’t bother cleaning yet, I mean, it’s only one more match, right? Maybe two? Oh, three it is. Well, now let’s see how that level is…I’ve unlocked a new grenade! It’s stats are slightly different so I must try it out!
Yet, despite my crack-equating here, there’s an even worse offender than FPS games. The heroin to FPS’s crack. FTP games. Basically, “F” is bad. Free to Play games abuse this leveling high by drawing out when you can even do what it takes to get a higher level. They’re like that dealer who wants to make conversation in the bathroom where he’s selling you his hit, because you’re forced to pretend to care. Except, in this case, you don’t have to pretend. All you have to do is pay him more and he’ll shut up and give you a hit. And you will pay him more to shut up, even when you know it won’t get you that level, it’ll just get you closer to it. Because you just have one more level, man, and then it’ll be sweet. Gotta Clash those Clans, gotta Crush those Candies.
Even Nintendo is getting in on this, with push updates to the DS that technically don’t install (but put as an icon and advise installing) “free” Pokemon-branded games that are little more than hope that parents won’t notice their kids using the credit card. They’ve gotta match those Pokemon, and they’ve run out of hearts! Why wait fifteen minutes? It’s only two dollars to get another heart, and it’ll last almost a whole minute of “fun”!
Sure, obviously, being addicted to games isn’t the same as being addicted to drugs. I’m not stupid. Games don’t rot your teeth, and mine are rotten enough without any extra help, thankyouverymuch. Better hand-eye coordination is great, and there still are good games out there. But the parallels with these games that are designed solely to hit the reward centers and hook you are real, and insidious. Getting into that reward-feedback-loop stops you from getting real rewards. Don’t get sucked in to a loop that never ends until they come out with the new version, and you have to buy that or else there’s no one to play against any more, which means no more levels to achieve. Because then you buy that one, and you start over at level one again. And really, it’s only one more round until level 2.
The point is that there’s shit you can do that actually matters. Level up in your job, or in a hobby. Get some schoolin’ like one of those book-learnin’ folks. Those things last; unlike with video games, you aren’t just renting your victory. Paint something. Write something. Argue with someone on the internet, if that’s your bag. Make your day matter.
Anyway, I gotta go. I’ve only got like one more round, and then I can Prestige again.