Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why I Game

Yeah, there's a gaming story coming up, but it has a point, I promise.

I play my Sims2 neighborhood, Drama Acres, in one day rotations, meaning that I will play one household, containing one to eight little pixel dolls, for one in-game day, and then move on to the next, in a customary order. This is not a particularly long time to spend with one family, but it allows me to play a fine-grained game, with events in one household - say, a death, marriage, date, or quarrel - having repercussions in other households throughout the neighborhood. And I can get extra time with my favorite sims by sending them to community lots or on vacation, which freezes the timer at the home lot so that when the sims return no time has passed.

In my very favorite family, the Munnys, the two Munny boys are about midway through their teen lifestage. Sims have panels of wants and fears which are dependent on - well, on a lot of game mechanics I won't go into; it boils down to random chance, contingency, and their personalities. Frank, who BTW is an alien hybrid and green (this is rare but normal within the game), rolls wants having to do with making friends and doing outdoorsy things. But when the phone rings, and it's a teen girl on the other end, the call is for Frank. On my last rotation in this family he didn't have time to go hiking like he wanted to because every time he put the phone down it'd ring again and be another girl. Admittedly, there's a boy shortage at Drama Acres High right now, but none of my other playable boys get half the phone calls, or if he's on a community lot get half the female attention, that Frank does. If his brother Mark (who rolls wants related to music, grades, and girls) picks up, they ask for Frank. If Frank's on a community lot with other teen boys, and someone tries to talk to a girl he's not already in a dating relationship with, she ditches him as soon as possible to line up to talk to Frank. Frank is, obviously, the Coolest Boy in School.

A lot of my attention while playing this household is taken up trying to get poor Mark out of Frank's green shadow, but I am also alert to any indication of who, if anybody, Frank might (in what I believe is still the parlance of the age group) Like. After all, I'll be marrying him off someday, and soap opera relationship drama is one of the prime sources of amusement in the game. So I keep an eye on him when he appears, either as a visitor or in the background at community lots, to see if he gives me any hints. His thought bubbles at a party last rotation contained attraction hearts for a girl named Amanda Ruben, who was running around the party refusing to interact with anyone except her sister and her BFF - which rather tickled me. The guy everyone wants, who only wants the only girl who isn't interested, is a classic, after all.

So what I find myself doing, especially when playing a household containing a teen girl, is something I have never done at all in real life - watching a guy like a hawk and dissecting everything he does for hidden meaning. Of course, it's the nature of the game that the player who, like myself, is chiefly interested in the sims as characters has to interpret the constellation of autonomous behaviors, rolled wants and fears, and stock animations (which are surprisingly varied - some fiendishly talented animators worked on this game) into a fictional individual. But I'm subjecting poor Frank to something much more than that. That process is automatic, pleasant, and almost zenlike. This is tense and obsessive. Oh, shoot, he's giving Tina Traveller a backrub - I don't want him to like her, she's too much younger. Now he's playing the most flirtatious game of redhands I've ever seen with Amanda. Oh, now he's telling Tina a dirty joke, but Amanda's standing right next to her, so is he telling it to Tina and aiming it at Amanda, or what?

I'm always impatient of women who do that sort of thing; because it is such a waste of their time. Most of what they agonize over doesn't mean one dang thing. The guy's not sending messages - he's just hanging out and doing whatever seems like a good idea at the time. If you want something from him, you walk up and ask for it. It's simple.

But I know how they feel when they do that now, even while I laugh at myself about it. After all, it is even more true of Frank than of most guys that his actions aren't motivated by any strong internal drive. If I'm not controlling him, the game mechanics are.

Similarly, I've always had a lot of contempt for the sort of girls for whom boys are status symbols. They aren't competing for the attention of the star football player, or the cute new guy, or whoever because of any quality of his - they're competing because winning that competition gets them a high-status prize that "all" the other girls (girls like me don't count in this equation) want. Yet, when I was playing Amanda Ruben's household, and she picked up the phone, and it was Frank - the first time he's ever been the one calling into a household he isn't part of - I felt her surge of triumph. She barely got to friend status with Frank when they both went on an outing with her BFF - but he called her. She must be pretty hot stuff! (And her cousin was visiting at the time, so she doesn't even have to spread the story herself!)

And I'm willing to let her have that triumph, because heaven knows the poor girl needs something. Her mother has ghastly pregnancies, but keeps wanting more babies, and her father can barely keep ahead of the bills, so Amanda, the oldest girl and the oldest child left at home, never gets to go anywhere when I'm playing her household without a gaggle of kids trailing behind her, never has any money to buy anything much less go out with her friends or date, never has a moment to herself, and is constantly cleaning, or cooking, or changing diapers, or helping with homework, or doing homework, or fixing the sink, or some dang thing - so I think she's entitled to that moment of soaring personal affirmation when the Coolest Guy Called Her. And since she's a little pixel doll and can't actually feel anything, I'm okay to feel it for her.

This experience of emotions and mental states alien to our own is a big draw of fiction in all media, and also of RPGs, which count for these purposes as interactive fiction. It is not sufficient for us to imagine ourselves in the place of someone else; that has its use, but if that's all we ever do it makes everyone else into our reflections, which is not adequate to the purpose. To get all the way out of our own heads, and into somebody else's, is both a good and useful thing and a liberation.

Because I get really tired of being me sometimes. It's a relief to get out of my own head and into that of somebody like Frank - or like Len, the protagonist of the lesbian western - somebody who's alive in the moment and doesn't think everything to death. Or somebody with a completely different set of problems from me. Somebody from another subculture, another gender, another age, another set of base assumptions, another set of personal reactions. So I read, and I write.

But I don't seek out the experience of getting into the head of somebody like Amanda, or like Tina - who is fixated on Frank and onto whom, in the storytelling tool, I've dumped all my dissecting observations of him. I think books like that are boring and I get impatient reading them. The game sneaked their POV's up on me and plunged me into them without warning; and I was not bored or impatient. I was laughing at myself, and them, and having a really good time.

And that's why games. Because whether it's the computer code, or the dice, or the other people sitting at the table with me, I don't control the game beyond the choice to participate or to walk out. If I'm involved in the game, I have to play things as they lie, and I find myself negotiating unfamiliar territory, and enjoying it, before I realize it. I don't have time to self-censor certain areas completely out of my realm of possibility.

Not everybody plays, or reads, like this, of course. Every RPGer knows the type who always plays the same character with a few cosmetic tweaks. Some simmers create neighborhoods in which every sim is a reflection of their personal notion of How the World Should Be, whether that's a whitebread fantasy of a middle class neighborhood inhabited only by perfect white heterosexual nuclear families, or a unisex neighborhood with a same-sex pregnancy hack and all the wrong gender babies put up for adoption. The only wrong way to play is the way that bores you.

And some people only read for one kind of experience, essentially reading the same book over and over again; and that's their privilege; as long as they don't try to restrict their neighbors' reading to the same material. I may think they're deliberately crippling themselves, but if I don't want them telling me what to read I can't tell them what to read, either, and maybe there's sound healthy reasons for their choices. I don't know what their lives are like, after all.

But this is what it's all about for me, and I'm sorry I couldn't explain it more concisely.

This is Frank, BTW. I can sort of see what the girls are on about...

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