By Sanket Sakar
My headphones are abuzz with the takk of willow as Virat Kohli elegantly but powerfully flourishes his bat, gliding the ball towards the extra cover boundary. My phone vibrates as soon as the ball kisses the boundary rope; the virtual commentator praises, “jee haan, bilkul, accha sampark, milega chhe!” (Yes, indeed, good contact with the bat leads to six runs!). I find a smile extending over my lips.
This smile is not because of watching virtual Kohli play his trademark cover drive. Instead, it is the expression of joy one derives from becoming Virat and pressing the right buttons at just the right time to manifest that shot in a video-game based on cricket like Real Cricket’21. It is, in essence, the deep pleasure offered by gaming.
Unpopular as it might be, I hold the stance of gaming for pleasure very dearly in my heart. The worlds of video games, no matter how frivolous, have been more than just an escapist fantasy to me. When I sit down to recollect my first tryst with gaming, I can vividly imagine myself sitting in my room all alone, against the desktop screen, playing video-games for countless hours on weekends. I can still recall those exciting gaming sessions with one of my first playable characters, Agent 47 (a contract-killer in the Hitman video-game series). He moved fluidly in the game world through my inputs, performing his slick manoeuvres. Some of these intelligent manoeuvres were: sneakily strangling a guard with fibre wire, taking on the deceased’s attire, masquerading as that guard to avoid suspicion, killing a narcotic mafia, and then swiftly returning to his exit point. This precise and often incredible set of operations in a thrilling world was already fantastic for an ordinary school-going adolescent. But more importantly, there was a remarkable amount of joy coming from a strange partnership between me and the game characters.
As an introvert with no friends, and working parents, Agent 47 became one of my bosom accomplices. Sure, he had all the skills of handling arms and blending himself into a hostile environment such that he passes uncaught. But he required my brains in deciding upon correct strategies and firearms in enemy encounters. We had a balanced partnership of real mind and virtual actions – a bond between us that transcended the interface. I started to ‘feel’ for Agent 47’s objectives as I inhabited his body through the medium of my desktop.
So my friends kept changing over the years. From swinging past tall buildings being the friendly neighbourhood superhero in action-adventure Spiderman; to helping a vigilante get revenge in the first-person shooter, Max Payne, to controlling the forces of Genghis Khan to conquer Asia in the strategic Age of Empires 2: The Conquerors.
And simultaneously, with their companionship, I kept on getting better at making myself useful in their alien worlds. The games used to drop me into an unfamiliar milieu with nothing but a slight note of mission objectives and my playable character to negotiate within it. Thus, with a continual trial and error approach of different schemes, my eureka moment came when I learnt where to deploy my ‘nitro’ and where to drift in a racing game such as Need for Speed to maximise my score and minimise the time taken in reaching the finish line.
This is another unique pleasure offered by gaming. With minimum ‘rules’, players are encouraged to learn by doing, gain experience and develop their own ways of completing the objectives. So, after ‘n’ number of failures and getting killed, I learnt that a particular mission in GTA San Andreas that wanted me to kill an invincible drug lord and his handyman could be quickly finished by setting up a bomb to the entire building. While I learnt, another cheeky gamer completed the mission by applying a cheat code that gave them infinite ammunition. And since it is a make-believe world, you would not be penalised severely for making a wrong/unethical decision. Therefore, one gets the freedom to insert their own experiences and attitudes into a system they were unaware of, a few hours earlier. The knowledge they derive from multiple failures. And if that experience serves their goal, one arrives at a peerlessly rewarding feeling. Like one learns how to ride a bicycle. Slowly and steadily. In that respect, video-games sit uncomfortably close to reality. The latter is more believable with fewer bombs and violence, but dearer losses, I hope.
But during these unprecedented times of Covid-19, where we are witnessing such bizarre turns of events, will it be too difficult to compare this world to the gaming worlds of the apocalyptic games, like The Last of Us? As games are getting richer with immersive game designs, sensory aesthetics and engaging plots and our real worlds are short-circuiting towards a ludicrousness that seems playfully amusing, the boundaries between simulation and reality are getting thinner. Elon Musk toys with a similar idea by referencing video-games development as explained in a Vox video. Maybe. it is the fact that games allow a considerable amount of control and low-risk factor over the outcomes which make us love them so much over our lived reality? Do we need similar pleasures of command, camaraderie, and control in our random lives as we have in games like Call of Duty?
However, I went on a side-mission by talking about simulations versus reality while I intended this playful article as a personal homage to the pleasures of gaming. Now, it is here that I must address that there are grievous pitfalls when one gets addicted to digital gaming. Our current generation seems most vulnerable to addictions of anything that gives a dopamine high; video-games are no exception. However, as long as one remains wary of where and when to push the right buttons, especially the exit button, you and your Mario will continue to take immense pleasure in rescuing the princess from the evil king. Over and over again.
Sanket Sakar is a PhD research scholar at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. He has previously completed his study of Masters in English Literature from the University of Delhi.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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