Escapism v. Consumerism cage match, go, fight

Games– digital games and boardgames and sports and childhood pastimes, the whole bunch– are all escapist activities. Even games with grim messages and furrow-browed insights into our real world provide release and respite from that world. Games are governed by fixed rules we can learn to understand, and this in itself is a liberating and entertaining alternative to the real world. In short: games are escapist because they are games. They can be more or less escapist, yes, but they’re escapist.

Games which undermine their own escapism are, however, increasingly common. In Dragon Age: Origins, an NPC infamously sells you his own DLC. Free-to-play games can occasionally make their cash shops extremely intrusive. Facebook gaming has birthed an entire genre of games which are, essentially, fancy eggtimers: they turn your attention not to the world of the game, but back out into your own world, to your own mundane schedules and time commitments, asking you to plan and schedule your real life to accomodate the demands of the game.

These games are all still escapist actvities. A Facebook game has created an alternate reality in which I am both Laura Michet, the lowly contract employee, and Laura Michet the cafe owner, or farm owner, or what have you. That’s escapist on some level. Not profoundly so– not even always entertainingly so– but there you go: I’ve got a fancy little city, or farm, or digital cafe. It can occupy some of my time, and I can use it to pretend that I’m not who I really am.

If I do this– if I choose to escape in this way– I’ll have to accept that there’s a store hiding up there in the corner of my screen trying to sell me fancy crops or recipes or tickets to skip the boring bits of the game.  As a person with little income, reminders that I am a consumer are bothersome to me. They kill the mood. They cancel out my sense of escapism. Having a strict budget takes all the fun out of “free to play”– it makes my experiences more tense. It makes it harder for me to relax.

If I want to get away from that, then, I can go play Red Dead Redemption–which asks me in the start menu, every time I turn it on, to see if there’s any DLC I can buy. Or I could play New Vegas, which asks me the same thing. I tolerate this because I have to, but also because I don’t care enough to feel that bad about it. And, of course, I enjoy DA:O despite the awful NPC-DLC fiasco. These games are all good games. They’ve got enough in the base product to keep me thoroughly entertained. There is, then, a degree of business-minded intrusion into my escapism which I do accept, and even welcome: I’ve played some mighty fine DLC over the past two years.

Basically, I and most other people now accept, without question, that our escapist spaces can also be, to one degree or another, consumer spaces.

I think this is what bugs a lot of the people who are still roaringly angry at the very idea of DLC. Traditional PC games have done the expansion-pack thing for over a decade, but it was never this intrusive. You can play Age of Empires at home alone and never even realize that there was an expansion pack and a Gold Edition. Even Oblivion, with its slew of overpriced DLC houses and horse armors, never allowed the game itself to become a consumer environment. Once you buy the game, it’s a purely escapist bit of entertainment. Once you’re in the game, you can pretend you belong there: that you never bought it, but were born there, this silent wanderer in her battered Mithril Helmet, with her implausible Glass Longsword. The world where you bought the game has vanished– or you’ve hidden from it very well, at least. You could play this game alone forever and never even know that the infamous Horse Armor exists.

Lately, though, many games are becoming actual stores.

There’s a few good reasons why this has happened. First of all, it’s effective. DLC is a gold mine: many AAA developers are charging a sixth of their base game’s price– ten dollars or so– for additional material that adds up to less than one or two percent of the base game’s content. If putting advertisements for DLC in games makes more people buy– well, it’s working, isn’t it?

Secondly– and this is more important– visiting a store is even more escapist for a lot of people than games are. I’m not convinced that the act of purchase can ever be a true escape from reality, what with money being real and all, but window-shopping is fun. Being a consumer– even a potential consumer– can be fun. These days, browsing PC hardware websites and imagining the desktop I’ll build for myself once I save up is a pretty good way for me to escape. Many people find browsing the Steam store to be a pleasant experience. Why shouldn’t they or others take similar pleasure from browsing stores inside games? Despite the wailing that continues in some corners, there’s no going back from this: it’s already very deeply rooted and totally acceptable.

Thirdly, ‘what games are’ is also changing. Games are services, not just products. Games are environments, not just activities. Games are places where we do things. Shopping is a thing that people do. Because games are places, is there a good reason why we shouldn’t shop in them? We shop everywhere else, and downloading things like DLC from inside a game is now easier than  buying them from stores, and sometimes easier than buying them from online portals.

But it’s not just a ‘tech thing’ that makes this possible– it’s also a culture thing. There are now very few areas of our lives where we are not made constantly conscious of our role as consumers. Is this the same ‘culture thing’ which turned police brutality protests in London several months ago into a multi-day fiasco featuring angry, deprived teens exercising their purchase desires with violence? Are we so thoroughly consumers now that we’d rather not ever be separated from that identity, not even while fighting the fuzz? Not even while playing a game?

Am I bothered by this? I suppose I am. I like DLC when it’s meaty and interesting, and I like that I can browse Steam and XBLA without leaving my house, but I wish that I didn’t have to be conscious of my role as a consumer while I play certain kinds of games, particularly games with strong immersive or intricately escapist tendencies. (I’d much rather be conscious of my role as a dual-specced arcane warrior/blood mage elf.)

Clearly, however, this doesn’t bother too many players, and it certainly doesn’t bother a lot of designers. A certain kind of player enthusiastically welcomes it.

And times are changing: sometimes I imagine that in about thirty years, this kind of thing will not bother me one bit.

I also imagine that the world I’ll be cheerfully living in thirty years from now would make current-day-me a little bit queasy.

About these ads
Leave a comment

18 Comments

  1. Sam

     /  October 4, 2011

    “Games– digital games and boardgames and sports and childhood pastimes, the whole bunch– are all escapist activities.”

    What’s escapist about football? Or checkers? Are they not part of the “real world”? Similarly:

    “Secondly– and this is more important– visiting a store is even more escapist for a lot of people than games are.”

    Wuh?

    Some people seem to have this idea that the “real world” consists solely of going to work and making families. Everything else is perhaps too trivial to count: no doubt this was beaten into them by their working class parents.

    How do you define “escapism”?

    I mostly agree though (this surprised me!: you have some pretty dreadful sites listed in your sidebar). This sort of thing does break immersion.

    Reply
  2. I think where I get worried, and have always gotten worried, is that disconnect between buying something and buying nothing. A game that can draw you into the vortex that it creates, even for a second, to the point where it convinces you that in-game objects – like coins, or units of energy, or the ability to shoot faster – have real world value feels incredibly dangerous to me. There have always been the people who will follow these things to the extreme, who will pay one thousand dollars for a WOW character, and that’s always kinda scared the hell out of me. I think of how many games I could buy for that thousand dollars, full of virtual characters and entire worlds, and wonder what has to happen for that value proposition to take place inside someone’s head and whether the point of all video games is going to be turning the rest of us into that person with greater and greater efficiency.

    It’s something I ponder a lot, because I also love the way digital distribution is violently supplanting the old, physical media distribution networks. I like buying my games online and downloading them. The line is incredibly blurry – in-game gold is not a thing to me, but somehow a game that I pay for and then download is a thing. And I even like getting some add-ons for games depending on what they are – Left 4 Dead 2 is up to 12 full campaigns now, and if they had charged for any of them I would have gladly paid. But somewhere in my mind there is this line, where if instead of full self-contained campaigns they had released a new gun that shoots a bit better and charged for it, I would have considered that a vile anti-consumer act. And then there’s the games where you pay monthly for access to servers that fall disturbingly in-between – it’s not a *thing*, after the month is up you don’t get to keep it, but surely it’s not a worthless virtual creation either.

    Part of the problem as I see it is the way that paying for game-mechanics as components rather than for games as a whole undermines design. I think in good design, it can be as important what you leave out as what you put in. There’s that old art school exercise where a teacher draws two lines, like this:

    =

    Then he asks the class how many lines they see. The correct answer, of course, is three – two black lines, and a white line in between them. In modern game design, it seems to be that they want to sell you that middle space until it’s all filled in too, and then you’re left not with three lines or even two, but one big thick ugly one and a lot less money in your wallet for it.

    Reply
  3. Sam

     /  October 4, 2011

    “it convinces you that in-game objects – like coins, or units of energy, or the ability to shoot faster – have real world value”

    They have in-game value. Games are part of the real-world. This is not rocket science. Do you think that guy who paid one thousand dollars for a WOW character (if he even exists) was completely unaffected by what he had purchased?

    “…if instead of full self-contained campaigns they had released a new gun that shoots a bit better and charged for it, I would have considered that a vile anti-consumer act.”

    I guess this must be a typo. Giving consumers something to consume is anti-consumer? It’s very pro-consumer!

    Reply
  4. lauramichet

     /  October 5, 2011

    sam, you have no idea what the hell you’re talking about. If you don’t know what “pro-consumer” actually means, you can’t be part of this discussion.

    Reply
  5. DLC can be a dicey prospect both ways. The player has to put down increasing amounts of money for content that doesn’t scale with the price of the game, whereas developers may drop stuff into DLC to try and “add value”, like the ridiculously game-breaking rewards from New Vegas’ Dead Money DLC- practically infinite resources. Either someone was jittery about enticing people to buy it, or they didn’t have quite the same perspective they did during the development cycle.

    Maybe they just didn’t care, but that’s probably even less acceptable when you’re asking an already-gained customer to pay you again.

    Reply
  6. I think the Diablo 3 RMAH discussion throws another interesting wrench into this discussion: designing the game to allow players from within the game to trade real money for the work done of obtaining certain items, all player-to-player with the game being the middle man.

    More aimed at the original point of the post, I generally resent games that break their own universe to try to sell something to the player (basically all so-called “free-to-play” MMOs that require a purchase to experience game content, and constantly remind you of the fact). If it’s incorporated into the game world, though, I tend to either grudgingly accept it (EVE Online’s PLEX, which can be purchased for both real cash and in-game money, and has a background that mostly makes sense) or actively appreciate it (I think D3′s RMAH is a stroke of genius)

    Reply
  7. Anonymous

     /  October 16, 2011

    Devil’s advocate: games have always strived to emulate the consumer economy. They frequently demand we invest time and effort in boring tasks so we can earn a reward which is only meaningful in the context of those tasks. You’ve surely played games before which felt like they wanted you to do chores before having fun: kill this many bastards before you face the boss; get through this boring section before you’re allowed to do the fun stuff; take this shit mechanic along with the good or take nothing at all; no, quick-saving is against policy; no, you can’t skip the level; yes, here is a roadblock and you must earn twelve thousand space dollars before you an proceed. Any in-game currency is truck money, given in return for labour and payable only in-game for in-game benefits. And, as Tim Rogers recently identified, time and attention are currencies too. Even indie darling Minecraft emulates this logic (to its benefit) and uses mixed loop lengths to keep you playing. The commercial games you write about are just more naked about it.

    It is, however, bloody crass. I recently attended a graduation ceremony; I would rather not have gone, but it was my own. In between all the guff about opportunity and independent thinking, one of the dons slipped in a barely-subtle request for donations: “The University has given you great things; I hope that, in the future, you will all repay that generosity.” Fuck off! Stop hawking for cash halfway through this solemn ceremony you insist on!

    Reply
  8. whoops, that was me.

    Reply
  9. ezqbetfdpoeqfstpotippufs, Semenax, RQljSNs, [url=http://semenaxarea.com/]Semenax blog[/url], SEcMVGs, http://semenaxarea.com/ Semenax, tfgdkzC, VigRX, IMTNSkE, [url=http://phdofwny.org/]Vigrx plus permanent[/url], SFeOmMV, http://phdofwny.org/ Vigrx plus comparison, QrrdlFB, Maytag 24 in built in dishwasher w new steamclean option, CgSYXbz, [url=http://dgfever.com/24option-review/]24option[/url], pBgHRGb, http://dgfever.com/24option-review/ 24option, kKZYPiC, Human Growth Hormone, dluNTUn, [url=http://hghsuggestion.com/]Hgh therapy[/url], BpIPhAt, http://hghsuggestion.com/ HGH, ZpQPmvg, Valium stress test, GSJKYCS, [url=http://www.247anxietyblog.com/category/valium]How long dose valium stay in your system[/url], XSqoLRK, http://www.247anxietyblog.com/category/valium Side affects valium, NBOhwxf, Host Monster Review, HRgAWie, [url=http://hellarity.net/hostmonster/]Hostmonster[/url], Turjsbg, http://hellarity.net/hostmonster/ Hostmonster Review, ZwaPLcE.

    Reply
  10. loxirtfdpoeqfstpotippufs, Generic cialis coupon code, NjchFpZ, [url=http://www.tadalafilcialisrx.com/]Cialis[/url], kbyzLuW, http://www.tadalafilcialisrx.com/ India generic cialis, JpKcDua, Results of volume pills, qQvxbNB, [url=http://biggervolume.com/what-ingredients-make-volume-pills-so-powerful.html]Semenax volume pills[/url], QMHbhXj, http://biggervolume.com/what-ingredients-make-volume-pills-so-powerful.html Consumer reports volume pills, lGVMFaD, Levitra male enhancement, JuitcQz, [url=http://ihscr.org/]Levitra viagara cialis which is best[/url], elogvmK, http://ihscr.org/ Compare viagra to cialis and levitra, aieLcnK, Cialis cost, HZrNNrH, [url=http://www.cialispills247rx.com/]Cialis[/url], dsAUCZt, http://www.cialispills247rx.com/ Which is better the levitra are the cialis, TBTTDLD, Etoro Tribe, oBvwopV, [url=http://drgeo.org/etoro-review/]Etoro tribe culture[/url], Twcplzx, http://drgeo.org/etoro-review/ Forex Etoro, btTTugm, Dapoxetine ssri, oENPIsc, [url=http://dapoxetine-howto.com/]Dapoxetine update[/url], DYRaGoa, http://dapoxetine-howto.com/ Dapoxetine brand name, WHNFTSk.

    Reply
  11. Nocera credit cards Blood pressure through behavinghonorably following your acrylic spillage, constructing an outofcourt claimsfacility so you can get some other as compared with $6 b rapidly in the hands ofinjured people as well as companies.

    Reply
  12. このアイデアは、あなたが必要なを選択自分の誕生日カードをパフォーマンス複数の写真。花することもできます常に選択表現値。結婚式の花束にする必要があります達成結婚式衣装の花嫁介添人と他装飾。アクセントと上それだけラップそれを周りは首と一般的に行きます。

    Reply
  13. I leave a leave a response whenever I like a post on a site or
    I have something to contribute to the discussion.
    It is triggered by the fire communicated in the post I browsed.
    And after this post Escapism v. Consumerism cage match, go,
    fight | Second Person Shooter. I was actually excited enough to drop a comment :-) I actually do have 2 questions for you if you
    do not mind. Is it simply me or do some of the comments come across like left by brain dead individuals?
    :-P And, if you are posting on other online social sites,
    I would like to keep up with everything new you have
    to post. Could you list every one of your community pages like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

    Reply
  14. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Seldom do I encounter a blog that’s
    both equally educative and interesting, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail
    on the head. The problem is something that too few men and
    women are speaking intelligently about. I’m very happy that I found this during my search for something relating to this.

    Reply
  15. Good day! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a collection
    of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in the same niche.
    Your blog provided us useful information to work on. You have done a outstanding job!

    Reply
  16. It’s actually a cool and useful piece of info. I’m glad that
    you simply shared this helpful information with us.
    Please keep us up to date like this. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  17. I am no longer certain the place you’re getting your information, but great topic.
    I must spend some time learning much more or understanding more.
    Thanks for wonderful information I was in search of this info for my mission.

    Reply
  18. Pretty component to content. I just stumbled upon your blog and in accession capital to say that I
    get in fact loved account your weblog posts. Any way I will be subscribing on
    your augment and even I success you get admission to persistently rapidly.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: