Games as a media of wonder

Games hold amongst all the media the particular and peculiar trait of involving the player as not only an intimate, but necessary component to the function of the medium. Where other forms such as literature and film can stand autonomously as modalities of expression in the absence of interaction or audience, games cannot by the very virtue of their nature.

This level of interaction, while it in some ways limits the autonomy of the work in question, it also enables unique affordances exclusive to media which require as an audience not just a passive recipient, but an active participant. Based on this premise, I believe that games have the power to offer experiences which have no literary or cinematic precedence, due to the shortcomings of said media.

One of the most powerful emotions that games can be particularly effective at expressing, I believe, is that of wonder. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, discusses at length the notion of wonder, and specifically how the decreased amount of time people (but especially children) spend outdoors and in nature has led to an overall decrease in general health, both physiological and psychological; and how the ever-expanding divide between modern culture and the ‘natural world’ has led to the widespread proliferation of numerous pathologies of both body and soul. Wonder, which he describes as the transient sense of surprise and delight when confronted with the unexpected or the novel, is the foundation upon which feelings such as community, belonging, and connectedness emerge – feelings which are central to the formation of meaningful social networks. Louv was largely concerned with the failures of the modern generation, and believed that being raised in deliberate avoidance of loss and pain also sacrificed the risk and subsequent emotional extremes of suffering and delight which came with things such as outdoor play, and exploration.

While Louv primarily was concerned with the role of the ‘great outdoors’ as the primary conduit of this kind of play, he and many others in his cadre of open-minded, outdoorsy types are wont to dismiss video games as the very kinds of things which promote the deleterious seclusion he so so desperately warns against. But I believe the opposite – that not only are games not the meaningless and frivolous byproducts of the digital age which so many older generations firmly believe them to be; but that if designed with purpose, and played with intent, they can in fact provide as great of a sense of wonder and possibility as exploring the great outdoors. And indeed, it’s all too common to hear people distinguishing between experiences in a game experiences in ‘real life’ – the notion that the ‘real’ is somewhere tangible, as if anything experienced within a game or virtual context can and should be utterly dismissed on basis of the supposedly intangible nature of the experience itself.

But games succeed in a way that no other art can; and in fact, in a way reality itself cannot. In reality, we are trapped within the boundaries of a strict temporal and spatial conceit: no matter how inquisitive we may be, no matter how in touch with our environment we may become, we will never be able to engage with it in any matter beyond that which we have ready access to. Video games allow us the unique ability to engage not just with one’s environment and draw from that environment the very experiences of wonder and discovery which similar ventures in reality provide us with, but also to engage with the very fabric and constitution of existence itself: games do not simply serve as explorations or commentary upon the construction of worlds, but allow the player to actively manipulate and explore that world in a way that is meaningful on an individual basis, and reveals in gradual but grand moments of revelation the otherwise ineffable abstractions which constitute the infinitely fractal nature of a moment.

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