Recently, Channel 4 in the UK aired a documentary chronicling the rise of video games, hosted by England’s best satirist, Charlie Brooker. There’s not a lot in How Videogames Changed The World for people who don’t think videogames are one of the best things ever. For one thing, Brooker can’t decide if he wants the show to be a serious discussion of the issue or just a comic nostalgia-fest for people who grew up with Ataris or SNES’s or PSOnes. So, interspersed with jokes about our mothers’ sexual exploits are genuine discussions about the treatment of women in videogames, violence, and how Street Fighter 2 changed the industry by requiring tactical thinking in a videogame for the first time. Not many people watched it for this however, most of us just watched it to see where our favourite childhood games would come in the ranking of most influential videogames, a countdown which moved the narrative forward. No one watching it nor involved in the making of it actually believed that videogames changed the world, it was merely an exploratory discussion of the topic, and a love-letter to the medium in general. This was how I viewed it up until around the 90 minute mark. In the last argument of the 97 minute show, a curveball is thrown that really made me sit up and wonder if videogames actually had changed the world. It was the so-simple-that-it’s-almost-profound idea that social media websites like Twitter and Facebook are really just Massively Multiplayer Online videogames played out on a grand scale.
I try to stay away from videogames, as ever since my earliest days of Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt on the Nintendo Entertainment System, I tend to get overly-obsessed with them very quickly. As a result of this, I have probably bought 10 games in the last 15 years. Nowadays I only get my fix from the FIFA and Grand Theft Auto Franchises, and many of you will remember my obsession with GTAV from early October, which highlights the severity of my addiction to the medium, however isolated. Videogames operate through a system of challenges and rewards. A challenge is posed, which the gamer overcomes. The gamer then feels the thrill of overcoming the challenge as well as whatever rewards system is involved within the game. This is the essence of why people play videogames: in no other medium are we constantly, consistently validated and congratulated for our accomplishments. Feeling unappreciated at work? Come home, lead a squadron of soldiers safely through the photorealistic D-Day Landing in Medal of Honour. Or maybe, just maybe, post something funny, or a flattering photo of yourself on Facebook and see how many likes/comments/shares you get?
If I am making an argument about Facebook being a medium of self-validation, it is necessary to go back to the self. The Facebook Self is a special domain. It is not you, it is your ‘profile’. You create this profile by carefully selecting information you want others to know about you, and pictures of yourself that you think best define who you are. I am not being cynical or sarcastic: it is perfectly natural when given the opportunity to represent yourself virtually that you wish to portray your ideal self, the one you think you are or want to be: the one that is closest to the You that lives with you in your head. A Facebook profile is thus an avatar that we use to navigate ourselves though the digital world. This avatar interacts with other avatars, it has opinions, and it can recommend things it likes to others who can see its activity. All of these actions can be validated instantly by other users, either through a simple ‘like’ or an actual comment. If you ever wondered why you are addicted to Facebook, the answer is here: it is the only place that your ideal, perfect self will ever be validated, and this can happen hundreds of times a day if you wish. The more you use it, the more validation you will get. Every argument, link, opinion or photo is posted by and endorsed by the avatar you created to represent who you are. If someone ‘likes’ that, then that is not only a validation for your You, but also the actual you. Traditional videogames rarely achieved such a transcendence in transporting the achievements of an avatar onto the confidence of the gamer in real life.
As with any MMOG, there are of course many different ways to play the game. It is possible to be passive, to observe, and to use the Facebook platform simply to communicate with friends. These people obviously have never played videogames, and are immune to the rewards system. Others play the game by recommending things like music, movies, food or political opinions. In this mode of the game, being first to mention the topic is pivotal in the rewards mechanism. Having someone share a link/song/movie trailer that you originally posted is the pinnacle of success, especially as it will include a mention of you as the finder of the content. A corollary of this type of player would be being the first person to announce a celebrity death or world event. Other players try and create content for their avatars to endorse. They write funny one-liners, they take photos, make videos, write blogs. Players achieve validation and earn rewards (likes/comments/shares) through getting noticed above all the other things that litter the newsfeed of his/her followers. All of these game modes are equally valid, in the same way that when you start playing Grand Theft Auto V you have the choice to engage in the story, play the multiplayer, or else simply drive around killing people. It really doesn’t matter in the end, it’s all just a game.
Videogames did change the world in that without generations of kids growing up with videogame systems and their rewards mechanisms, social networks like Facebook and Twitter would not be so prevalent. And anyone who does not think that these networks are important for the way this world works is absolutely delusional. Justin Bieber made millions of dollars simply by validating one out every thousand of his Twitter followers with a retweet. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was built on the back of Facebook. As with all of my videogame endeavours, I am thoroughly addicted to social networks. Like many of you who sit in an office at a computer for much of the day, I have a Facebook tab constantly open on my browser, in order to learn of new notifications. By posting this blog on Facebook I am of course attempting to communicate ideas which befit the ideal Me, but which the actual me would fall short on delivering in person (any validation is appreciated). We create Facebook profiles and Twitter profiles to portray us, delivering a selection of carefully curated content that we think best represents us, and by others liking that content, they are actually liking us. It may sound sad and pathetic to put it in these words, but it is no more sad and pathetic than the rush you get from finally achieving three stars on that level of Angry Birds, finally defeating M. Bison in Street Fighter 2: Turbo, or getting retweeted by someone with one million followers. If you think about it, there is an upside. Stop worrying about the NSA stealing all your metadata: the person whose data they are stealing isn’t you anyway.