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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Identity and Escapism in the Sandbox

I am by no means a sociologist, but I know patterns when I see them. The past ten years or so in the gaming industry has seen a marked increase in the number of games that offer some sort of customizable experience for the main character. Elder Scrolls, World of Warcraft, NBA 2K, Rainbow Six, Borderlands, Fable, Guild Wars, and Diablo games all to some varying degrees exemplify the new trend of being able to make your character unique and/or play in a world that you can shape and make your own choices.

Now trends by themselves are not always indicative of any real psychological underpinning, but when paired with multiple trends we often can get to what's really afoot. Transplanting one's identity (or changing it) in a game is simply one thing, but when it is paired with the long running rise in teen suicides and eating disorders, the recent diet and exercise craze, and gaming's steady  climb up the age group ladder we start to see that there is a pattern: most Americans do not like who they are. We want to be skinnier, more muscular, more popular, cooler looking, and more heroic than we are or could hope to be in our normal lives. Video games, having always had an undercurrent of escapism from their inception, have tapped into that insecurity and have given the average American a place to escape and for awhile enjoy a "you" that can be all those things you wish you were.

It's not hard to understand why the video game industry has tapped into this phenomena. The three major companies (Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo) are all smart enough to employ whole departments to market research. Perhaps more important is the fact that the game developers themselves can very much understand what it's like to desire to escape the glare of pop culture's critical eye. Gamer culture has dealt with society's negative stereotypes and critical eye for gamers since the very beginning of the culture. It's what drove the gamer culture to be the insular and often negative body that it is. No one could have been better equipped to provide a means of escape and take advantage of the social trends than the game developers (most of whom are gamers themselves) who are the leaders of a sub-culture that has dealt with those same issues for decades.

This has, I believe, played a part in the consequent rise of video games into mainstream pop culture. It was serendipitous indeed that the very moment that society at large began to face an all encompassing identity crisis that the video game industry had reached a point of graphical design, online community, and cinema style scripting so as to be appealing to a broader audience. Everyone became a gamer. Everyone suddenly had a reason to take interest in what had before been a ridiculed sub-culture. Escapism reared it's ugly head and has returned to the forefront of discussions of problems within the gaming community, as people of all ages retreated from their undesirable reality into a digital realm that allowed them to be more than they could have dreamed.

As Christians, we understand not only the problem behind this behavior (and recognize it as a problem, which is not a universally held viewpoint) but we know the solution. God has made every human being with His own hands, and everybody is unique and valuable in their uniqueness to Him. Christ died to cleanse them of sins not because of their worth to the world, but because of their innate worth to Him. You are valuable. Everyone is valuable and loved just as they are. The Gospel is the cure to the identity sickness that plagues gamer culture and pop culture at large. As Christians and as gamers we have to make our mission that of reaching this expanding community with the Gospel of Christ, and telling people just how loved and cherished they are by the savior just the way they are.

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