Deep instinctive changes
This post is a response to this discussion on twitter.
When I first played PUBG for hundreds of hours I could visibly notice myself becoming better at making and sticking to plans. The game is so open and you’re constantly threatened, so if you want to get good it forces you to come up with your own structures to deal with all the inherent uncertainty and randomness.
The same could be said of many games, but I feel like the BR formula is especially good at it because of how high stakes it feels. In any case, this was a process (of learning to plan better) that I was already going through before playing PUBG, but playing it for so long both made me accutely aware that this was something I was lacking and also helped me instinctively nudge myself in that direction more.
One important effect games have is to change your body at an instinctive rather than at a conscious level. You do something so many times and for so long that it changes you at a deeper level than what most other media can achieve.
Passive media can change you top down, from conscious brain to instinctive body. But these changes are hard and often fail, for the same reason that deciding to exercise every morning is easy but actually doing it is hard. Good passive media hijacks your instinctive body to sell itself better to your conscious brain, but there’s only so much effect on your actual body that watching something for 2 hours can have.
Active media such as games changes you bottom up, from instinctive body to conscious brain. You repeat repeat repeat and it nudges your body more in the direction of whatever action you’re repeating, which eventually changes your perception more in that direction and creates a loop.
For instance, suppose you’re not an assertive person. When you have a dream and something awkward and bad happens your dream you doesn’t do or say anything. It doesn’t have the presence of spirit to intervene because, well, you’re not assertive and you don’t wanna make things more awkward and combative than they need to be.
And then let’s say you play a bunch of games that allow you to practice your assertiveness skills for like 5 years. Multiplayer action competitive games will generally be good at that. The aforementioned PUBG, CSGO, Fortnite, whatever. Games where you’re constantly having to assert your will, defend yourself, stand your ground, and so on.
But also games where you’re constantly having to make split second decisions, because you want to change your instinctive body and not your conscious brain, so turn based games where you can stop and think are not as good.
And so after 5 years of this something happens. You have another dream where something awkward and bad happens. But now you notice your dream you doing something. He’s speaking against the awkward and bad thing, making his will known and not just passively watching it happen and letting it go.
Your dream you is a representation of how your body instinctively acts. It’s the you that acts in a split second in real life. When you’re put into an awkward situation where you have to react without time to think. Everyone sort of understands that how you act in those situations is your “real” you in some sense.
And so if your dream you is now more assertive, that means that your instinctive you has also become more assertive, which effectively means you have become more assertive. And the dream is of course just one way for you to notice this change, but it’s often an early warning system.
In any case, did this happen solely because of the games you played? No, of course not. In your life you will constantly experience situations where you have to be more assertive and so you’ll also learn from them.
But games are unique in that they can provide a safe environment of practice. For assertiveness especially, there’s a very thin line between being assertive and being an asshole and starting arguments and fights unnecessarily, which something like the video below captures well. And while you can’t really have the full nuance of this in games, you can get somewhat close, and so it’s helpful.
But of course, most people, including game developers (sadly) are not experiencing any of this consciously. Most people don’t have enough self awareness to notice when their instinctive body is changing. Both because these changes are slow, but also because by default people don’t really want to change at all.
And in that case, yea, games will probably feel like they’re meaningless and do nothing.
There are lots of things people said about the purpose of making games in response to droqen’s questions, like “making games is more fun than playing games”, or “people who play my games tell me they’re having a lot of fun and are happy”, or “I connected with my friends through video games”, and so on.
But these reasons feel like bullshit. droqen remains “totally unsatisfied” by the whole thread probably because they can intuitively tell that these reasons are bullshit. They are not good justifications of a profession’s reason for existence.
So allow me to propose that they are not good justifications because they are the same things a fentanyl dealer would say about his business. “Growing my fentanyl dealing business is more fun than doing fentanyl”, “people who buy fentanyl from me tell me they’re having a lot of fun and are happy”, “I connected with my friends by doing it since they all do it too”.
And you know, if you were to ask me, personally, if I cared about sharing justifications of my profession’s reason for existence with a fentanyl dealer, I would say “no”. I don’t really care. But I’m guessing that droqen and other indie developers aren’t as… uh, morally flexible as me, so they probably have a problem with it.
And so when you’re trying to think about the purpose of making games, you can’t defend your profession with the fentanyl dealer’s reasoning, as it’s obviously a weak argument. But more importantly, it doesn’t get to the core of what makes games unique. It’s not a meaningfully true defense, which is why it feels like bullshit.
The reasoning of “deep instinctive changes” instead feels much closer to something meaningful and strong to me. The fentanyl dealer can’t change the fentanyl experience to be anything other than what it is, while the game developer can craft an experience to induce deep changes of multiple types from multiple angles.
This, of course, can be used for both good and bad. If games can be made to emulate aspects of life and induce deep changes, they can also be made to emulate aspects of life that players can endlessly indulge in to their detriment.
And it’s arguable that most players will choose to play and indulge in fentanyl-shaped games above anything else, but that’s perhaps a discussion for another post.
The point is that, for me, “deep instinctive changes” is an important reason for making and playing games and I don’t think I’ll ever be convinced that games should be “moved on from”. Games are an endlessly shapeable environment of body training. To consider moving on from them is equivalent to considering moving on from life itself, which would be nonsensical and suicidal.