I admit: even though I’m pretty self-assured, not least when it comes to my media consumption, I still feel faintly embarrassed about telling people that I play games. It’s not even my age; I don’t mind being a gamer at the age of 38 (soon to be 39). It’s not entirely the subject matter either; there are many games that are embarrassing, juvenile rubbish in terms of their aesthetics and writing. No, I think what it is most of all is how gaming can reduce me to one of the dumber monkeys in a Skinner Box: it’ll have me doing the same thing over and over and over with little immediate reward. Take my current addiction, Dark Souls 2, a game so proud of its own difficulty that its central hub area has a monument to all the player deaths the game has garnered worldwide.
At present, the monument lists over 100 million deaths. Let’s be clear about what this means: people playing Dark Souls 2, like me, have been doing minor variations of the same thing over and over again, and dying again and again. Ideally they progress a bit in between deaths, but if they’re anything like me they’ll die dozens of times in the same situation, doing pretty much the same thing and trying to figure out how to change it up so they can die a split-second later, hit an enemy for just a bit more damage, and slowly but surely inch their way to getting through that bit alive – only to die again (and again and again, clap clap) two rooms further on.
What is it that makes such an exercise in repetition and masochism engaging and even entertaining? Obviously there are the moments when you actually make it, when a combination of learning, skill, strategy and sheer luck lets you whittle that enemy’s hit points down to zero, when you dive under an enemy mage’s spell and stick him with the pointy end, when you turn a corner and find a momentary sanctuary there – but most of the time you’re busy pulling that lever and wondering why you’re not getting that piece of cheese or the fish biscuit you were hoping for. You’re a rat in a maze. A beautifully rendered, darkly romantic, imaginative maze, but even that beauty is lost as you’re getting skewered, flash-fried and/or magic missiled for the nth time.
There have been articles about the inherent pointlessness of Dark Souls and similar games, and as much as gamers tend to dislike critical looks at their hobby, I do think it’s a valid question: what are we getting out of the endless rinse-and-repeat cycle? At what point have we succumbed to the gamers’ version of Stockholm Syndrome and we keep pulling that lever not because we expect a fish biscuit but because we’ve come to like it?
Now excuse me, I’ve got a lever to pull. And to be stabbed in the back by an Undead Knight while doing it, most likely.