Gaming icons Sam and Max.
Gaming icons Sam and Max.

BooksJuly 17, 2019

Review: A book that redeems video games – and the people who play them

Gaming icons Sam and Max.
Gaming icons Sam and Max.

Sam Brooks, lifelong gamer, lost himself on a virtual battlefield in the days after his mother’s death. Here, he reviews a book by a kindred spirit: Lost in A Good Game: Why We Play Video Games and What They Can Do For Us, by psychologist Pete Etchells.

The person who got me into video games was, perhaps surprisingly, my mother. I was three years old, and Holly Hunter had just won the Best Actress Oscar for The Piano, which is how I measure time. The game was Sam and Max: Hit the Road, arguably the pinnacle of LucasArts’ point-and-click adventure games. Sam and Max, an anthropomorphic dog and bunny who are also freelance police, gallivant across fake American landmarks trying to track down a bigfoot who escaped from the circus.

It was highly inappropriate for a three-year-old, and I spent a comparatively huge amount of time over the next two years slowly, but surely, completing the game. I’ve little doubt that it contributed to my quick thinking and puzzle solving skills as an adult, and I’ve no doubt at all that it contributed the phrase ‘baleful lagomorph’ to my then five-year-old vocabulary.

But most importantly, it instilled a love of video games in me. It established video games as something that supported books, supported films, and supported music. They expanded my world-view and activated my imagination. They allowed me, within a few clicks, to dive into a world that was somebody else’s creation and sit in it for a while. But where books, films and music stopped at letting me sit in that world, games allowed me to actually walk around in them. They allowed me, as player, to be co-author of my own experience.

That was back when games were in their punchy adolescence – nobody quite knew what they were or what they were capable of. Graphics were decades away from being photorealistic, and even when someone said a game ‘looked real’, they were grading on a curve. Yes, Final Fantasy VIII looked real compared to Final Fantasy VII, but Final Fantasy VII’s cast had square polygons for hands.

In the 25 years since, I’ve gotten lost in many a good game. I’ve now played and beaten Sam and Max: Hit the Road well over 20 times. I own well over 150 games on about six different consoles. Just this past weekend, my playtime on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey tipped past the 100 hour mark. I’ve gotten lost in a game for fun, I’ve gotten lost in a good game to keep my hands active while I listened to a podcast, and sometimes, I’ve gotten lost in a good game because I really needed to get lost for a few hours.

Which is to say, video games have done a lot for me.

The world’s most famous MMORPG World of Warcraft

Lost in A Good Game, which ships with the hopeful-slash-pleading subtitle ‘Why We Play Video Games and What They Can Do For Us’, comes from UK psychologist Pete Etchells, a senior lecturer who specialises in the behavioural effects of video games on people. Gaming, for him, is much more than an academic interest: when he was 14, gaming helped him deal with the death of his father. As for his stance now? He is adamant that the World Health Organisation was wrong when it last year classified gaming addiction as a mental health disorder, and co-authored a paper to that effect, arguing that the move was based on bad science.

Etchells describes the book – his first, after a long and successful career of blogging – as a mix of psychology, travel writing and autobiography, a sort of Eat Game Love, if you will.

Etchells covers a wide canvas – if an alien came to this world and wanted a primer on video games, this would be one of the books I’d include. He covers the history and genesis of games, using his trip to South Kensington’s Science Museum as a narrative backbone, so he’s literally walking through the 75-year-old history of the medium. The more recent aspects of gaming that he covers, like the emergence of ‘screen time’, digital spectator sports, and virtual reality, are covered more journalistically – there’s information here that’s new to me, and got me caught up in the actual technological advances in the field that can pass you by when you’re catching up with gaming news every day. Who’s got time to talk about that game helping with gathering data for Alzheimers research (Sea Hero Quest, get the app) when you’ve got the new Fortnite skin to obsess over? Etchells does, thankfully.

But here’s the tension: Etchells is trying to capture the current conversation around video games, while also being quite aware that he has to cater to people who are still having the old conversation. You know, the people who roll their eyes when you suggest that video games are art.

When video games make the headlines, it’s never for good reasons. They’re linked with school shootings, with addiction, with gambling. If there’s something bad happening, there’s a journalist who has never played a video game who is willing to link it to a video game. So many people are still stuck in a headspace that not only are video games just for nerds, but they’re responsible for many of society’s ills.

That part of Lost in a Good Game is seen in the chapter titles – ‘Are violent video games bad for us?’, ‘Moral panics’, ‘Are video games addictive?’, ‘Screen time’. As someone who’s been playing games for two decades, my instinct to skip these chapters was strong. I don’t need to be told that people’s assumptions about video games are wrong, I’m good! 

I’m glad I persevered. Etchells shares my conviction that the moral panic over video games is misplaced – and with authority and clarity, he sets out science to back us up. (Some examples were risible from the start: remember when conservative US columnist Kevin McCullough described Mass Effect as ‘virtual orgasmic rape?’. Or when the Sandy Hook killer was revealed to have a video game obsession, but few outlets reported that the obsession was… Dance Dance Revolution?)

Etchells is a skilled enough writer to speak to both the old conversation (video games are a niche thing with all these problems) and the new one (video games are an integral part of popular culture) but I can’t help feeling like the book would be a more authoritative or definitive statement if it stuck to one or the other. At some point, culture moves on and you have to stop catering to people who are stuck having the old conversation. There’s always gonna be people who think that video gamers are solely people living in their mum’s basement – but jokes on you, my mum’s dead! At what point do you stop dispelling myths and just start ignoring them?

Where Lost in a Good Game gets special is when Etchell gets personal. The book’s first chapter – ‘Dragons and demons’ – juxtaposes Etchell playing World of Warcraft with the death of his father. There’s so little good writing, at least in print, about the emotive experience of playing a video game, so passages like these really sing:

“The village is surrounded by a grassy open plain, bordered on three sides by a narrow river. Sometimes, when the sun is setting over the hills in the distance, it’s pleasant just to sit there and watch the world go by. A bridge spans the water, and as you enter the village, you might be greeted by an old rancher called Ahab Wheathoof, pinning a notice to the totemic archway that signals dry land. If you talk to the character, you’ll be greeted with a simple quest – help him to find his beloved dog, Kyle.”

It’s not exactly Woolf, but the simple detail, rendered gracefully and matter-of-factly, does more to bring me into the headspace of the gamer than any of the science that Etchells covers. When you talk about something like it’s art, regardless of whether the culture at large is with you, it becomes art. If it evokes that response in you, who cares where the wider conversation is at?

The last chapter in the book covers ‘Loss’, and it’s here that Etchells’ gift for capturing the gamer’s experience of diving into a game pops up again. He writes about the loss of a friend, a fellow psychological researcher, and their Halo sessions, with as much vivid life as though he were talking about an actual physical experience.

“Sometimes, I like to wander through that empty landscape, crouch down by the waterside, listen to the wind and think about Robbie. It isn’t the same since he died, but then, I’m not there to try and recapture something that I lost years ago. Just for a moment, in those timeless surroundings, I imagine what it was like to see his name popping up on my screen as he logs on, and I think back to the times when we wouldn’t even think of that occurrence as something precious – just a prelude to us both jumping into a tank and going for a pyrotechnic jaunt over to the other team’s base. And so, for me, Valhalla stays quiet, a virtual memorial to an amazing person who touched my life for the briefest of times.”

That paragraph alone answers the hopeful, overly descriptive, subtitle of the book. This is why we play video games. This is what they can do for us.

Samurai Warriors 4-II

The day my mother died, I bought Samurai Warriors 4-II. Yes, the numbering is intentional. You pronounce it Samurai Warriors Four-Two. The title is as dumb as the game – it’s a spinoff of the highly popular hack-and-slash Dynasty Warriors series, but where that game focused on the Three Kingdom period of Chinese history, the Samurai Warriors series focuses on the Sengoku Period, a period of war that changed the face of Japan. These games are important to me. I’ve spent half my life playing them, getting to know the history and hacking up entire battlefields with these characters.

At about 4:30pm, I got the phone call that she died. I’d seen her earlier that day, in the latter stages of cancer where you’re not sure if it’s the disease that’s killing the patient, or the treatment. I posted a status to Facebook informing people that my mother had died (if there’s one thing that social media has made blissfully easier, it’s the grief weeping-willow phone tree). I texted a friend to come and pick me up to take me back to her house. I texted my flatmate specific instructions on how to buy Samurai Warriors 4-II on the Playstation 3, so it would be ready for my return home.

Or more appropriately, ready for my escape from my life.

For the next week, I disappeared into anachronistic 16th century Japan. I played as the ahistorical Koshosho, the ruler of Chikoku, slaying battlefields of thousands with pieces of fabric. I got lost in new maps of familiar battles, because I’ve played the legendary Battle of Sekigahara hundreds of times across a dozen games – this was a different map with the same characters, slightly redesigned. With each Warriors game, playing the Battle of Sekigahara is like attending a standing brunch date: all the people are the same, you’re there for the same reason, but there’s different food on the menu. It’s comfortable, it’s familiar, it’s safe.

It wasn’t getting lost in a good game – god knows that Samurai Warriors 4-II is not the height of the form – it was getting lost in a familiar home now that my actual home was one person short of a family. 

When I go back to that game occasionally now, it’s not because I need to escape. It’s for fun. It’s for any kind of reason.

Etchells sums his subtitle up once more in that final chapter, and in a way, he sums up his entire book:

“We play video games for all sorts of reasons. We play them to connect with people; we play them for the joy of discovery. We play them because we like the sense of achievement. We play them to find ourselves, and sometimes we play them to lose ourselves. When we lose someone close to us, sometimes we can’t play them at all. And when we can finally pick up the controller again, sometimes we play to remember.”

Lost in A Good Game: Why We Play Video Games and What They Can Do For Us, by Pete Etchells (Icon, $32.99) is available at Unity Books. 

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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