Putting Off Play.

The moments I most enjoy playing video games usually come after extended, self imposed, periods of not playing games. Putting off the playing of video games builds anticipation, much like the anticipation that is built during a video game play through. I am currently playing Dead Space thanks to a great Steam sale. One thing that has stood out while exploring the mining vessel USG Ishimura, while fending off monsterous variations of its inhabited crew members, is the anticipation that is built up between bloody encounters.

The planet cracking, (mining) USG Ishimura.

There is an increased amount of satisfaction garnered when setting down to play a game after accomplishing certain chores and job hunting related tasks in a day. Is it a reward system? Yes. Is it therapeutic? No doubt. Is it more enjoyable when you perceive you gaming time as earned? Absolutely. During this period of unemployment where my efforts are not directly rewarded in the form of a salary, it is essential to reward yourself. When some of your ‘work’ does not bear fruit it is necessary to motivate your efforts and smooth your doubts with the anticipation of reward – video games fill that role for me.

Face to face character dialogue, audio logs of now diseased crew members, and “baby step quests” (What I call quests that build the foundation and the ability of the protagonist to reach a main quest and/or climatic point in a game.) all add to the anticipation of reaching a major gaming moment in Dead Space. The fact that the game is broken down into chapters enables the player to salivate with anticipation wondering what’s on the next “page”. Specific to Dead Space, the player wonders whats on the next “page” and do I have enough ammo to handle it.

One of Dead Space's audio logs - a creepy & terrifying version of Star Trek's Captain's Log.

The anticipation of immersing myself in a video game provides me the motivation I sometimes need while perusing job postings, filling out repetitive, online HR applications, and choking down another denial of employment email. It helps me deal with disappointment and move on from not being selected for a job. Instead of taking pause and letting depression seep in I think about video games, about playing them. But not until I hit up Indeed.com, visit career specific job posting blogs, touch base with my network, apply to a few more positions, rewrite my cover letter accordingly, make additional follow up calls… All while anticipating playing another chapter.

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No Safe Place.

Spitting out machine gun noises from my mouth towards my neighborhood friends, from a catchbasin, is a thrill I remember well. Playing “Guns” when I was a kid was not just a game but an exercise in ambushing. I was always willing to take that extra risk to get the drop on my VC friends as they traveled the Ho Chi Minh Trail, that was our neighborhood sidewalks and alleys. The drainage systems around my neighborhood were my hunting grounds. I was the little boy version of the G.I. Joe character, Tunnel Rat.

Using the outstretched branches of high hanging limbs was always on the menu when it came to serving an ambush lunch to the enemy team but when all tricks were known, I knew I needed to resort to something more underground. The drainage systems of the burbs I lived in as a youth always seemed to have an abundance of entrances or, I was just really good at finding them. That ability to notice good cover and ambush spots has returned to me the more I play Battlefield 3 [BF3]. Battlefield 3, with its Frostbite 2 Engine, brings unparalleled destructible cover to a squad base combat game spread over large battlefields. BF3 also adds wanted anxiety to a FPS [First Person Shooter] by making almost no location safe from heavy artillery. This anxiety I feel in BF3 is similar but admittedly less frightening, than the anxiety that I felt come crashing down on me, while crawling around in drainage tunnels. No safe place.

I would regularly be caught in shorts and a t-shirt, minus an umbrella, as I walked home from school and a storm would roll in during spring or early summer. It was very common for me to go to elementary school in third grade decked out in sweatpants, only to be hating the decision during my 80 degree plus walk home that afternoon. The days I made sure I was abreast of the forecast however, were on days that I knew their would be, non-NATO Sanctioned, all neighborhood war games. I paid attention to the school videos and presentations that tried to convey the dangers of playing in drainage systems. I remember the stories of kids who drowned because a storm caught them off guard and swept them away to their deaths. I always remembered to check the forecast while watching Saturday morning cartoons. I didn’t go into the drainage tunnels unless the forecast was clear, but you can’t always predict the weather. No safe place.

The buildings in BF3 are huge. The majority of them are at least two or three stories in height and many of the buildings in BF3 are totally destructible. They can collapse and kill everyone in them, while you score the points. You can hear the creaking of a building as it teeters on collapse. You make desperate runs towards second floor balconies only to be crushed as you start to parkour over a railing. No safe place.

My childhood home during the time I was in Olathe, KS was near a housing development that included an abundant amount of drainage entrances. A 50 foot hunched over crawl, from the entrance of one of these drainage systems, would bring you to a large drainage junction box. It was large enough to house posters on the walls and even provided convenient concrete seating. It was my rally point for planning my final attack on the VC and a rally point for drug users, based off the paraphernalia discarded around the ground. No safe place.

An unburied, drainage junction box.

From this junction, you could either turn back and head through the four foot pipe, to the sunlight above, or push on. To get the drop on my VC friends’ base, located in a parents driveway and right across from a drainage inlet, would require a bit more effort. Pushing on was really crawling on. The only other pipe leading out of the junction was around two feet in diameter and you had to basically army crawl to get through it. The rest of my child army squad left, to prepare for the attack that would set the VC up for my knife in the back ambush. It was a tight fit, even for a lean 12 year old, but toy gun in hand and with a smile on my face, I crawled into the deep. No safe place.

There are some pretty humorous moments in Battlefield 3. Your squad may retreat into a  hotel room to resupply and heal up, only to be turned into gibs as an attack helicopter spots the scope of the sniper in your squad. Your friend may be providing suppressing fire on an enemy who is deep in cover, so you can flank him and knife him in the chest. Just as you take the virtual dog tag from your knifed victim your squad-mate yells into his mic as he meets the same fate. Realization sets in, both sides were providing suppressing fire so the other could get the knife. No safe place.

Motivated by anticipation, the twenty foot crawl it takes to get to the street inlet, opposite of the driveway base, goes pretty quickly. The combatants are engaged in a firefight with my squad-mates, just as planned. Waiting for a lawl in the machine gun mouth noises, I ready my plastic piper of death. “Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat!” echoes out of my mouth and, to the surprise of the whitest VC ever, out of the drainage inlet. Four verbal machine gun burst leaves four fictionally dead and surprised, neighborhood kids. No safe place.

Getting stuck in a building that is on the verge of collapse is an exciting moment in BF3. You can hear the warning signs of a pending collapse thanks to BF3’s brillant audio and sound effects. It gives you, on rare occasions, enough time to make an escape. Usually, you’ll hear one final shell from a tank or RPG rocket hit the building, the building will creak one more time and then you drown in the rubble. No safe place.

After basking in my victory and talking to my friends through the inlet, I prepare to make my way back to the junction and on, to fresh air. I notice the sky is a bit darker than it was when I first entered my underground hunting lair. A third of my way through my victory crawl, an unmistakable noise echoes down the cramp pipe. The thunder is loud, even from my position underground. Though I couldn’t see them at the time, I knew my eyes where the size of laser disks. I breathed deep and froze. Head back to the inlet or push on to the junction? I try moving back and quickly realize I’ve never done this, nor was I any good at it. I let go of my toy gun. I had to push forward. No safe place.

After dying or causing a building to collapse in BF3, if you look at the upper left hand corner of the screen, you can see the list of people who you killed, or died with you. You can either bask in your killing spree or laugh, respawn and seek your revenge. No safe place.

Halfway through the suffocating pipe I start to feel my t-shirt, my chest and my jeans, getting wet. A mixture of fear and liquid lubrication quicken my tunneling pace. I am a human version of the Caddyshack gopher, scurrying away from Bill Murray’s flood. I’m scared shitless, as images of the warning videos from school flow through my mind. With the great motivator of not wanting to die, I disregarded all pain caused by my scrambling through a pipe covered by jaggedly formed concrete overflow. Now drenched, I could see the junction ahead, filling with water. No safe place.

Taking the high ground in BF3 is always a good strategy. You can almost view the entire battleground from some structures and in-turn, kill almost everything you see. Even at the top of indestructible buildings in BF3 people can still rain down death from attack helicopters and jets. The thunder coming from the canons of tanks below can still strike you down. No safe place.

When I reach the junction the water is at white rapid levels. I could here the thunders intensity echo in the concrete box. I attempt to get my footing and make my way to the light, that is not shadowed in darkness. I wasn’t really running through the tunnel now but sliding, picking myself up and sliding again. I was making it out. I came out of the entrance like I was coming out of a water slide. I splashed down into the stream and scrambled against the current, trying to get to the large filler rocks on the side. No safe place.

Getting to these tall buildings in BF3 is a dangerous game within itself. Some places can be reached via exposed ladders, that people regularly watch to try and get an easy kill. Others buildings require you to successfully parachute from a helicopter or splatter against the roof. You can exploit a Micro Air Vehicle [MAV], by standing on it and using it like an elevator, leaving you defenseless while in midair. No safe place.

Reaching for the rocks with bloodied hands I thankfully see my friends, my squad mates, playing the roles of saviors as they help pull me out. Wet and bloodied was a pretty normal way for me to return from playing outside so I raised no eyebrows when I got home. The next day was typical for summer, hot and humid and perfect for a kid on summer break. I peddled my bike around the neighborhood slower than usual, thanks to the bruises that encompasse my entire body. Passing by the entrance to the drainage system I stop for a bit. I look into the deeper than usual pooled water at the entrance to the pipe, that is now clear and calm in the summer heat, and make out my toy gun. Waterlogged and lifeless, it sets at the bottom. No safe place.

Our New Imaginary is Our Virtual Reality

As a method for me to get to sleep as a child I would imagine myself in a imaginary world. I would picture myself alongside fellow G.I. Joe, Snake Eyes. I would imagine myself as a Dark Jedi decked out in my own outfit that I would meticulously design in my head. That’s what I really spent most of my time doing, imagining what I would personally look like in these fantasy worlds. What would my shoes look like? What color would my Jedi hood and cloak be? Would my cloak fit loosely on my body and cover the majority of my face or would it fit snugly around both my head and torso? I spent the majority of my time on designing my outfit within my head rather than living out my fantasy actions. I would picture what a perfect battle helmet would look like, what best armor would go well with it and… sleep.

Thankfully today's games have much better character creation abilities than I do.

Now, I can design these characters in a virtual sense, live out the fantasies via video games and stay awake during it all. In Skyrim’s character creation section hundreds of thousands of combinations are possible and that’s a  very low estimate considering the multiple race options. You can tweek eye color, shape and positioning. You can design a perfect nose or, because mine is a little crooked thanks to my full face commitment to sports, something similar to Owen Wilson’s. The customization of character creation in Skyrim and many others games are nearly endless. You can create someone in your own image, as I usually do, or role play an entirely different gender. As a child creating myself as a hero was done within my head and also, through disproportioned sh*tty drawings that my sister made fun of. Not only can we create a character to our exact specifications but we can then take that character and live out a virtual existence with them.

Unique noses add character.

I don’t see this as taking away from our imagination but instead improving it and letting it flourish. Creativity spurs creativity and video games encompass a multitude of creative elements. Games are practices in writing through the copious amounts of dialogue and acting (see Star Wars: The Old Republic’s recent Guinness Record). The design elements for a game’s play, creatures, characters and cities take the skills of architects, interior designers and city planners. So much creativity goes in to a game it is almost mind blowing. What is even more impressive to fathom is the creativity that results from these well made games of epic proportion. Novels based of the lore of a game are numerous. Magazine and books focused on gaming. This blog ;). Games that are an undeniable benefit to society, like FoldIt and how it helped solve protein structures.

Games have stimulated my creativity and increased my hands on experience with social media, public relations and networking – all things I can apply towards benefiting me in an eye of a potential employer. Still continuing to struggle with sleep during my ongoing job hunt I have resorted back to a childhood method, with the same amount of success but with much more material.

Pressure Cooker: Gaming ingredients for better games and life.

Luke, flying in the Death Star trench, has to make an impossible shot to destroy the first Death Star. John McClane, with a gun taped to his back, has to drop Hans Gruber and another henchmen, all while his movie wife is positioned between them. Pressure situations in movies have been around since movies started and it helped make them a medium in demand. Video games have been creating tense moments, like the ones mentioned above, for a while now and gamers are taking notice and wanting more.

We may try to avoid this tense situations in life but with games, we search them out. Nothing immerses you into a game more than drama, especially drama connected to life or death. Games are creating stories on par with movies but at a much more immersive level, since you are the actor and you are playing out the script.

In Skyrim, I am a sneaky archer where each shot counts (because my frail elf body can’t stand up to a full frontal assault), so each encounter is a moment of truth, of life and death. With the added game unlock mechanic that lets archers slow time while zoomed in, the level of drama is increased and drawn out.

“Your first arrow hits the nearest target but three other bandits are on the move and closing in. So you slow time, breathe and loose each arrow… that could be your last. Just as the last bandit gets out the final words to his sentence of, “You never should have came here!” you drop him to the floor with an arrow to his head, his momentum carries him, sliding, to your feet.”

Moments like the ones above draw you into the game play and the overall story much more so than movie does. A movie lets you view the action, the life or death scenario, but it doesn’t allow you to “direct” it yourself. A game also provides you with a direct reward to your efforts you’ve put forth. The resulting death of the bandits may reward you with a successful completion of an assassination quest or you may find some valuable loot further inside the bandit hideout… or both.

What are the results of a gamer seeking, overcoming and being directly rewarded by     successfully surviving such a tense encounter? Does a gamer become more able to handle stressful situations in his real life? Is he more disappointed when his efforts go unrewarded in a dramatic experience? Would work, that provides proper rewards to stressful situations, create better workers and better efficiency?

One thing I can say with authority is a game that provides high stakes, immersive, game play that then rewards the gamer with the appropriate amount of reward/success is a good game. It is also a game that will keep the gamer coming back for more. How can this knowledge be transferred to other aspects of our lives and improve it?

If you are interested in the effects of gaming on life and how it can help shape us (and society) for the better, please check out Jane McGonigals’s REALITY IS BROKEN: Why games make us better and how they can change the world.