What Went Wrong With Gaming?

What Went Wrong With Gaming?
Photo by Sean Stone / Unsplash

And how this reflects on other things happening in the real world.

The last triple A games I played before I finally "kicked the habit" were of the open world RPG variety. And I'm happy to say that I ended my lifelong gaming spree on a high note. The Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid 5 and Assassin's Creed Odyssey were of sufficient quality to leave a lasting impression before I ceremoniously laid my controller to rest for the last time.

That said, I could rip the games apart just like any other tried and tested cynical games critic if I were to analyze the defective gameplay, pacing, storytelling, endless running around, uneven combat, and bolted on RPG elements that have become excessively common to all types of games, not just the open world adventure genre.

I was aware of all the usual defects even as I was playing through these better-than-average titles. For example, the gobsmackingly repetitive looting, the endlessly irritating fetch quests for nonsensical items, the simplistic hack and slash and dodge combat, the badly balanced boss fights, the way-too-long cutscenes in some cases, the unnecessary stuffing to make games longer than they really need to be, and the poor leveling up systems and artificial need for upgrades that make you either too powerful or too weak compared to the NPCs inhabiting a given level.

Despite all of that, the real reason that I stopped playing this type of game is that I was "getting old." The monotony of gaming in general, the repetitive actions, the saminess of most new games regardless of genre had reached its peak in my subconscious. Only youngsters and newcomers can tolerate that sort of thing for that long.

Once the novelty wears off, it's not coming back however hard you try, however many new titles you desperately line up in your already bloated Steam wish list thinking this'll be the one, this'll give me a hit like the good old days of Halflife 2 or the original Deus Ex.

Just forget about it, it's not gonna happen.

It's not possible to recapture the wide-eyed, childlike emotions gamers experience the first time they leap around a 3D environment with a uniquely charismatic character such as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider series or as a commander of troops on the WW2 battlefield throughout the grueling campaign of Company of Heroes.

These are fleeting moments in life just like all first encounters. It would be foolish to think that we could relive these experiences over and over again expecting the same results. And yet, that's exactly what many veteran gamers pursue in vain knowing deep down that the magic wore off a long time ago. The denial is palpable.

The facile nature of modern games

Open world games have turned into a list of chores that need to be systematically crossed off for the gamer to receive a steady drip of dopamine and digital bling. This game model has been carefully crafted by the higher ups (the gaming mafia) to deliberately keep gamers hooked for as long as possible in endless cycles of brief combat, looting and NPC interaction.

This is commonly known as the Ubisoft effect on open world gaming. Once you've seen and played one you've seen and played them all. You shall recognize such games by the enormous number of icons on the game map — thousands of quests and a neverending, sometimes procedurally generated list detailing points of interest where players can grind away earning fake tokens with which to level up.

And whatever keeps gamers glued to seats and spending more coin works for all the other developers too so the cycle of copying whatever works goes round and round until all games start to look the same.

What have we become?

Gamers of all ages have substituted pursuing goals in the real world, living a real life full of meaning for the fake rewards dreamed up by game developers and psychologists plotting all of this around boardroom tables.

It's actually quite sad when you stop and think about it. Gamers have been lured by flashing lights, bleeping sounds, and clever psychological tricks into a pattern of self-harm and poverty! The psycho-developers took the lessons learned from the casino model and dumped them into every teenager's bedroom.

And now the marketing types get to turn the screws with every gambling trick in the book, with every shiny, new, cosmetic, digital upgrade made easy to purchase through ubiquitous micro-transactions.

Just think about how evil that is.

And pretty much every form of content is being prepped for the same treatment. Genre fiction, music, comic books, TV shows, and films can be stripped down and sold in parts with multiple added extras and remakes and HD makeovers. It's endless. The art of repackaging and selling the same thing over and over again has reached peak and I sincerely hope it crashes soon as consumers and fans everywhere walk the other way. It's time to call it a day. Time to reassess what's really going on here.

There are only so many hours in a day

It's not normal or healthy to sit glued to a screen for longer than a couple of episodes of Game of Thrones, but gamers regularly surpass that by many hours enduring binge sessions at the weekend or late into the night on weekdays.

And as for the poverty thing, just take a peek at what developers are charging for their triple A titles these days — anywhere from $60 up to $100 a pop. Consoles are pricier than ever and pc gaming has reached new heights of ridiculous. It's incredible how much gamers invest in this hobby just to move a few pixels around a screen. The need to constantly upgrade hardware in search of what now amounts to micro-improvements in gaming graphics has become an obsession worthy of study. A system of keeping up with the Jones's and making underperformers feel inadequate has never been so cleverly utilized as this. It's pure genius.

For me personally, I wanted to spend more time on other things, namely writing a series of sci-fi and fantasy novels, and that meant that other time-consuming hobbies had to go. But it wasn't a struggle since I was already more than ready to make the switch.

Even so, as the day of quitting drew nearer, I kept thinking I would fall under the spell of a new title, but the dragging weariness that had built up over decades of video game repetition had taken its toll.

Maybe Red Dead Redemption 2 would keep the ball rolling? Maybe Days Gone? How about the next GTA whenever it finally released?

Nah. I was done. And that was that.

I'd already taken to watching playthroughs of games instead of actually playing them myself. The cutscenes spliced with snippets of gameplay edited into a movie version of the main campaign was sufficient to get the gist of the story. And that was enough for this "old man."

The inexorable homogenization of entertainment continues unabated

Films, TV shows, music, genre fiction, video games — all forms of entertainment eventually fall foul of standardization. Like all industries, there evolves a need to churn out more of the same, the products that did well last time. Aim for franchise supremacy if at all possible. Don't settle for once and done. Not even a trilogy will do these days. The marketing gods demand that maximization of profits is what matters most in this world regardless of quality. And dignity or other such human values are not even on their radar. It's sell, sell, sell, squeeze, squeeze, squeeze for as long as the suckers keep parting with their hard-earned cash.

That's the nature of our world now. And the world of video games reflects this real world exploitative drive beautifully, as if a mirror has been held up for us to see our ugly reflection in it. Just saying... but it seems pretty accurate to me.

Even non-open world linear games suffer from the standard third person gameplay rut — basic, button-mashing combat lacking any strategic or tactical input followed by hours of walking from A to B across graphically pleasing levels stuffed with eye candy interspersed with pausing to crack open the odd loot box or pluck herbs and other generic items allowing for the illusion of upgrades and endless leveling up prepping for the inevitable scripted cutscene (reward) where the player watches a low-grade movie before getting back to the grind. Rinse, repeat.

In fact, the standard triple A video game experience has become that of relaxing in front of a playable movie. The homogenization and standardization of common elements into a one-game-fits-all model was inevitable where profit and corporate greed were calling the shots. Maybe that's why independently developed games are flourishing and many jaded gamers find refuge in their welcoming arms.

Others like myself have reduced our gaming habit to the occasional point-and-click casual game while listening to lengthy podcasts. On demand TV series have also come back somewhat to fill the void that a chronic gaming habit inevitably leaves behind.

And of course, this is where I have to admit that gaming has a strong element of addiction tied to it, often masking other issues which are extremely common and unfortunately unavoidable in our modern lives. This is something that many gamers are reluctant to disclose. They get triggered at the mere mention of the topic which is a typical defensive response from addicts of all kinds.

A deep seated need for escapism is at the root of the consumer culture that has grown since the 1950s along with its relentless advertising campaigns, a desperate need to fill spare time with all manner of expensive hobbies including obsessively shopping for new goods (anything to keep workers from hoarding their well-earned savings) and an obvious program to dumb down the population following the bread and circuses model of ancient Rome.

The difference is that now the citizens don't even need to leave their slave quarters. They have access to more digital entertainment at their fingertips than they can possibly consume in a lifetime. They can order all the food, clothing and household goods on display in the Amazon catalogue and have them delivered to their doorstep within days.

At least Romans were forced to leave their domiciles and interact with other Romans to partake in their version of crowd control.

The Internet along with Wifi and fiber optic cable installation has made all of this possible. The digital panopticon has been built up around us while we slept and commuted to our wage-slave jobs.

Workers look forward to evenings and weekends when their energy drink and junk food-fueled video game indulgence can take place in the privacy of their man-caves (and girl-caves if there is such a thing).

An open-world, massively-multiplayer role playing game can keep such gamers occupied for months and even years racking up thousands of gameplay hours, hours that could have been spent on a hundred other more productive activities.

I can hear the squeals of disapproval as I write the words. "But this is entertainment, rest and recreation," etc etc. I used to defend my gaming habit in similar ways, even justifying the dedication of hundreds of hours to a non-productive activity by referring to the fact that gaming was a "billion dollar business now" as if that somehow added clout to my claims.

The pharmaceutical industry routinely makes billions of dollars selling products that people don't need (there are alternatives) and can lead to horrible side-effects and death in many cases.

We have to stop justifying the existence of growth industries and even applauding their rise to dominance on the basis that they make enormous profits for shareholders.

I think we're reaching a turning point.

(Or maybe I'm allowing myself to slip into optimism again. Some habits are hard to shake).

It's well beyond time for the true intent behind these endeavors to be revealed for what they actually are — distractions that keep the herd occupied while the final fleecing takes place and the digital chains are put in place around our necks so that dissenters are left powerless and penniless in the emerging real-life, open-world gulag — no leveling up permitted.

Welcome to a brave new world.

Let the hunger games begin.

There's just one thing...

I'm not sure anyone is going to turn up.

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