Narrative Versus Conquest: Learning to Conquer

Part 1 here.

The learning process of any enterprise happens through conflict. It’s part of the way human beings learn to deal with adversity, and (if you ascribe to an evolutionary mindset), it also dictates how Christians also deal with said adversity. Ecclesiastes 7:14, for example, says:

14 In the day of prosperity be happy,
But in the day of adversity consider—
God has made the one as well as the other
So that man will not discover anything that will be after him.

In its own way, suffering defines much of human existence. The state of depravity and entropy continues to affect every human life. Christianity only adds to this burden – no one says it’s easy, and anyone who does obviously doesn’t get it. Perceiving and addressing sinfulness goes above and beyond the call of duty; sanctification goes further than salvation, so to speak. I Thessalonians 3 tells us that suffering was expected AND understood as a predominant reality in the early Church (mostly in the form of persecution):

3 Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith,so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know. For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor would be in vain.

1 Peter 4 also echoes this sentiment:

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ,you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; 16 but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and ifit begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? 19 Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.

I think we can say, with certainty, that suffering has some role to play in the Christian experience. However, unlike those who are not Christians, we have both an explanation (sin) and a context (Christian doctrine) on which to understand that suffering, see its necessity to make us better people, and persevere through its circumstances for a better tomorrow, as Romans 5 makes clear:

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance;and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Suffering purifies, refines, and makes one better than they were before. Phillipians 4 says:

12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. 13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (NOTE: I’ve never seen this used in its proper context before, but here it is!). 14 Nevertheless, you have done well to sharewith me in my affliction.

This is all according to God’s purpose (Romans 8:28-29).

However, this aspect of suffering, conflict, and mental/spiritual warfare and perseverance hasn’t stayed in the modern video game realm. Many games play like a movie without any character conflict – what the character learn or gain without a central conflict underneath the narrative? If the end goal was such an easy task that the main character could snap his fingers and resolve the conflict, would it be satisfying in the least? Not at all! However, this same trend became normative in the video game; we like to watch suffering on screen in other media, but to play it? No thanks!

By doing this, there’s no investment in the narrative other than the barest gesture of “interactvity”. Sure, I’m doing action X in the game, but how invested am I in the proceedings? Not much, honestly. If I can’t feel and understand the trial at hand, then what connection can I hope to share with my avatar’s plight? This might appear as a string of rhetorical questions, but these are real questions for developers to answer. Does making the experience easy exist as a marketing cop-out? What if I was forced to truly invest myself in the character and its world through a difficult and challenging game mechanic – wouldn’t that satisfy infinitely more than frequent checkpoints due to faulty controls? Is it easier to make great design and mechanics that make the player feel smart by ACTUALLY solving a puzzle, or does giving them too many hints add to their interactive enjoyment?

I will answer, then: NO! They don’t make it better; they make it worse. They provide a substandard design for “ease of use”, but never force the player into any true obstacle. VVVVVV exists as a prime example of this flaw – even our “retro” games carry the taint. My hyperbolic tone sounds hilarious, sure, but I can’t leave this sticking point. It’s too important. So, as such:

Suffering remains endemic to any genuinely great video game experience. Without it, you’re going through the motions.

Now, I took  a class on American Pragmatism with one of America’s most prominent academic pragmatist philosophers (Robert C. Neville), so bear with me here. Charles Peirce is not the most engaging writer, but his head was FULL of ideas, so allow me to summarize one that has struck me in regards to this issue.

Charles Peirce, one of the first of the American Pragmatists, has a particular conception of how logical reasoning works. We don’t have self-consciousness in the sense of the Cartesian ideal; instead, our cognitions (anything that occurs in the brain, really) are caused by outside stimuli, the constant flow of information arising from the real world. Any thoughts from us arise out of our beliefs, or habits as he calls them. We are inclined to live in a particular way from habits formed over time. Think about the way you walk; those habits of walking with one foot in front of the other, basically were instilled over a long period of time. You don’t think about it because that habit was established long ago.

However, think about what happens when you trip while walking – suddenly, you’re out of order, you have to think about walking (which you haven’t been doing consciously), and thus solve the problem somehow. Thought, for Peirce, is much like that. It arises when our habits no longer correspond to the situation or the real world – we must think, and think, and think, until that belief has been resolved, altered, or removed, and then the human being inserts a new habit to replace the old one…until something new comes along. Of course, video games represent an obvious complement to this situation, as do most games in general. We learn through adverse and abnormal circumstances. If nothing conflicts with our life, than nothing changes.

In fact, this process continues near infinitely in the entire community of civilization – we continually reform our opinions and beliefs as we find they do not correspond to reality, and in theory human society will reach a point where all knowledge in human beings correspond to reality. Again, this part is speculative, but the idea is clear enough. While I don’t agree that the real world is just simply “the real world”, I’m not inclined to disagree, either. Perhaps I’ve just grown up in the state of doubt.

What struck me, though, is just how relevant this is to the process of learning a video game. It is the very essence of this concept, whatever kind of game you’re playing. Take an action game, for example – it will present certain rules to you, and the game’s reality is structured in a way that these rules will always (barrings bugs and errors in the game code) hold for the player. In a first person shooter, aiming, shooting, taking cover, etc., are all rules the game expects you to follow – if you don’t, you will fail. If you keep failing, it is because you have not learned the game’s rules.

However, the very basics of control don’t lead us to mastery. The game will, in fact, present additional obstacles that test your knowledge and capacity of the game system. Bayonetta, for example, just begs you to explore its combat system in its Alfheim events – one challenge involves going 100 yds in the air, or something to that effect. This is something that doesn’t make sense, at first glance – why would I want to do that, after all, if the game is about combat? – but a specific weapon, the Kulshedra, bounces you into the air if you whip and hold the enemies. The challenge is easy, but only if you are creative within the rules and systems the game presents.

I can go even further, here, by showing a role-playing game. Dragon Quest, for example, trains you to talk to every townsperson – they might provide hints or clues, but at least one person in the town tells you where to go, whether or not you realize it. The game, literally, trains you to do this in every town, repeatedly – this is how the world works, you realize, and either I get stuck in the first town area or I try to figure out what sequence of events that will make the game proceed. Battles in Dragon Quest train you to actually check the numbers of the enemies. At a point, you’re trying for efficiency in every random battle, as well as resource management, a constant tension (especially in dungeons). Shall I use a spell that hits all enemies, or use physical attacks for single targets? Which enemy is the most dangerous? Which enemies are simply pushovers? If multiples enemies have dangerous attacks, which one should I take out first? You’re not actively thinking about this most of the time, so much as your habits in the game are being challenged, repeatedly, by the game itself. Eventually, you master the game and finish it.

This doesn’t occur in fighting games, however, as each new opponent brings a different set of challenges. The rule set can be mastered, but you now have to discern the habits of an entirely different person that clashes with your own. This takes time and dedication to master these games, and even then, you can have a bad day and perform horribly.

But, again, videogames are all about habits, training habits in the game’s world. In that way, it’s a microcosm of our own personal worlds, and that’s why we like playing games. We enter new worlds, learn about them, and then try to master them. We encounter new experiences, mold our habits accordingly, then resolve our tension through learning the rules. As there are so many videogames, there are a limitless amount of new habits, and many habits transfer straight over to new games. These same skills carry over to life, only we don’t examine it in that way. So, are a lot of people who play videogames really just goal-oriented and looking for fun? Or are they unknowingly training themselves in habits befitting a scientific, post-Enlightenment world?

Games require overcoming adversity and challenge to become better at the game. They require understanding the rules and implementing them to your advantage. If a game requires no thought, then what possible reason could you have to progress? All game challenge, at base, remains arbitrary; it’s how the developers motivate the player into its difficulties that makes the narrative important. Game mechanics and narrative go hand in hand – without one or the other, the game fails as a holistic structured experience. How many games have you played where the story was a throw-away, irrelevant to the game itself? More than you could count. Modern culture has much to do with this problem.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Lots of interesting points made here. A little rich for my blood at this volume, but very good points. I’ve been finding that there’s something about the notion of difficulty that makes something even more enjoyable once you pass the bar of entry. It’s why games like Halo and CounterStrike get more fun when you’re 15 hours+ into the game. The more challenging the playfield, the more you learn about the details and minor exploits like line-of-sight and nuance. What are your thoughts on Bastion? I’m writing about it, and I’d love any input you have on the game.

    • @Mjoshua I played 5 hours of Bastion, haven’t finished it though. I should get back to it…I found it a pretty derivative hack’n’slash game with a beautiful world and soundtrack to complement it. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s nothing revelatory. The controls are a little inaccurate sometimes, but functional. I like using the hammer.

      • @Zachery Oliver You’re right that there’s nothing overtly revelatory. But I do think there’s something in there. After beating it and enjoying it immensely, I’m still trying to get at what makes it ultimately important. I know there’s something. Just trying to put it to words…

        • @Mjoshua I will have to beat it and find out!

        • @Zachery Oliver Also, this video is certainly relevant: http://au.gamespot.com/super-meat-boy/videos/are-modern-games-being-dumbed-down-6398401/