Here I was, in the blizzarded-out mountains of Colorado in the 1800s, navigating a horse to some sort of hunting ground to score some deer for our starving party. A non-player character (NPC) made small talk with me while the game tried to clue me on things that it had already taught about riding a digital horse.
Here are some choice remembrances of my inner narrator: There is a button for cruise control for horses? Jeez this horse navigates like a 747. It’s been like 5 minutes. Where are we going? Was that a deer? Got to be 10 minutes now. Let’s get to the deer. Popcorn might be in order. You know, I never really scrutinize popcorn choices. I just grab. Maybe I need to . . . did my mind just drift? Can’t be, I’m engaging with what’s supposed to be a game.
And that was only the journey. I had to figure out how to get on and off the horse, find my bow in my horse’s saddle packs, arm the bow, crotch-crawl to the deer, not trip the alert bar on the deer, shoot the deer while negotiating a bow and arrow’s arc, pick up the deer carcass, put the deer carcass on the horse, navigate the horse, deal with horse exhaustion, and figure out how to automatically match pace with the NPC that was my guide.
It took me, no joke, 30 minutes of my precious adult life to ride a horse to and from, no cut scenes, a digital place to awkwardly–and for the first time mind you–track and bag two deer with a bow and arrow and bring their digital carcasses back to camp. This was not what I came here for. I came to the sanctity of my basement, where my TV and Xbox live, for adventure, not hunting and gathering.
When I got back to camp, I shut my Xbox off.
Quarantine embarked me on a quest to reconnect with a past self that I had lost in the rigamarole of adulthood, of job, and responsibilities. That self: The Digital Campaigner. The explorer, the imbiber of adventures through imaginary story, the karma fiend, the high-minded individual looking to save the realm—hey, it feels good to just “save,” even if it’s all algorithms. Or, really, the gamer.
I’m not new to video games. They were a big deal to me at various points in my life. Sometimes because they were just great games in themselves: Mario; Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, Warcraft I, II, and III; and Ninja Gaiden. Sometimes because they were fun to play with others: Mario Kart, Goldeneye, Halo, Madden, and Call of Duty. And my favorite, the RPG was a mainstay for hours of entertainment in the expansive downtime of youth: Diablo, The Elder Scrolls IV, Baldur’s Gate, and Zelda.
Last year, when I bought the Xbox One, I disrupted 14 years of video game console desertification. It was my brother-in-law, cousins, and one of my cousin’s spouses who encouraged me to come out and play, in the 21st century sense. Their game of choice: Call of Duty.
To be honest, it’s been just swell playing video games again, let alone with people I care about. I even got into an RPG, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. It is a brilliant game. Wonderful to play. Great storyline. Great everything, really.
So, I decided, why not try the other games that are out there? Why not dip back into those wonderfully immersive RPGs? There is a pandemic going on. Shrug. Why not?
Somehow, it was only $1 extra a month to upgrade my Xbox Live account to some sort of “Ultimate” status that would allow me to play an ever-rotating 100 games a month, kind of like I was renting them. The plan was to try some games out that I’d heard were great: Witcher 3, Batman: Arkham City, and Red Dead Redemption 2.
And after a couple nights rotating through them, I decided that while these games were lauded, they left me quite underwhelmed.
It was the Batman game that had me a little shaken. I had quit it because it was just too fast, to button mashy. And I remember sitting there thinking, This might be something right here.
I already knew that I was well passed youth, well past hearing those high-pitched frequencies that young people hear. Well onto kind of getting excited in the sense of order in completing one’s taxes. But I never considered that my sense of fun would alter so. Was I no longer allowed in Wonka’s factory? At 38, was I this close to calling some youth over to fix some superficial quark of my computer?
Age does play a roll in gaming. According to Pew Research, about 60% of my age group (30-49) plays video games as opposed to 81% of 18-29 year-olds. Once you get older than 49, you go into the 50-64 group, which means about 40% play video games. Above that, the 65 an older group, about 23% play.
A good explanation for the lack of video gaming in older generations is the non-ubiquitous nature of video games during that testing time of youth. Then again, Atari and NES started in 1983. In fact, even board games have increased in popularity recently. They have made leaps and bounds, rising 25% to 40% annually and creating a new fad: tabletop bars/cafes. In 2017, the board game market size was about $7 billion. In 2024, it is expected to read $12 billion. And then there is Nintendo’s inroads into that impossible “all ages” category with its Nintendo Wii, which with 101 million units sold comes fourth in most sold video game consoles of all time.
It’s kind of odd for me, a person who can sit down and read for extra-long periods of time, to not be able to patiently whittle my way through an RPG. I used to be really good at itI remember long bouts of leveling up in Diablo, and long bouts of in-game traveling. Annoyed, perhaps, but mind totally ready for the next adventure.
I don’t think it’s my sitting stamina. It’s the thing that RPGs bring to the table: a large and intricate world with quests to explore. And these worlds and quests have gone from pretty straight forward tales, a la Zelda, to un-ending behemoths, a la World of Warcraft.
Like many people that are human, I suffer through this thing that psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the “paradox of choice.” Well, everyone suffers it, but I probably suffer it more.
It goes like this: any time you are given many sets of choices, your drive to choose any one of those choices fizzles. It’s the reason why Apple became famous for its lack of choice. You do not get various model numbers with various choices and opaque use-cases, you get “Air” or “Pro.” Would you like something light in all ways or hefty?
This relates to a lot of the RPGs of today. When you play them, you have so many different options: do I become a hero or villain? What do I specialize in? Which type of character should I be: mage, barbarian, archer, bard, paladin, etc.? (And this is only the options for the familiar fantasy archetypes. RPGs expand into space and elsewhere.) Do I turn into a vampire? Do I go this way or that? Should I do this side quest? Should I start the game in the hardest mode available? Do I go back and defeat that villain to get better treasure?
And there is this fear of getting too deep in the world. I think of what becomes of those who play World of Warcraft. In 2017, it had up to 10 million players after 12 years of existence, garnering about $9 billion. I knew people in college that would go home from work and just sit on their computers, all night, going for it. The next day they’d emerge, totally bleary-eyed with stories of their digital plights.
When you play an RPG, you dedicate so much time to these games that one false move means a possible start-over. Before adulthood, when my time didn’t equal money or the world wasn’t so opened up with possibilities (having a car really changes things), I had oodles of time to explore fake realms alone, in a room, with a console and a TV.
Once while playing Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, I got stuck on a quest. I spent 30 minutes trying to backtrack and then try and re-attack the problem. I was getting flustered until I remembered I could simply consult the internet for the solution. It’s a certain type of cheating of course, but it reminded me of guides, which there is a whole genre of writing. And now, with YouTube, the “how to” genre has incorporated the guidebook genre.
A guidebook is a time-saver, an anchor to at least know where you are and that you have certainty in where you can go.
When I was playing Witcher 3, time-suck warning signs started flashing when I went into this tavern early in the game to interview people to find out where this enemy was hiding. It was kind of annoying, especially with all the different pre-built conversations that I had to wait through. Then, surprisingly, an NPC asked me to play a game. I did, because I’m a completist at heart (a guidebook helps), but I was immediately flummoxed. That thing was complex. It was a whole in-world game to play and get good at. I promptly got confused and quit out of the game and made something simple: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
I used to think Nintendo was for children, and the Wii was Nintendo’s lame gambit into the adult market. It never interested me. There are no complex buttons and combinations and other things to enact. There is mostly A and B. I wanted to play well-thought out games.
But in Witcher 3, I had like 17 gazillion different powers to specialize in and use while also wielding a sword. Or a bow and arrow. I had to pause the game and make various potions. Side quests galore.
I’m sure my tastes have changed as I’ve grown older. Yes, that could account for the entirety of my opposing magnetism to RPGs now, or it could just be that the way we want to spend our time becomes fresher as we age. When you’ve lived to your 30s, you know a bit about what’s a waste and what’s not.
There are not “better” things to do with my time, but I’m picky now. Far more than I was before. And that’s just because there are more things in my world, more potential things that I’m interested in. I’m not interested in getting lost in the world of digital bips and bops anymore, though I don’t cast aspersions on those who are. It’s fascinating what they are doing with all sorts of games now, but it’s not something I want to nerd out on. I reserve my nerd-isms for other things. (That’s a nerd’s right.)
I don’t think I’m that old person that refuses to try anything new or gets overwhelmed using or even thinking about using new technology. I’m still a very curious person. My book collection, especially my growing nonfiction collection, says that more than anything.
What I think I am now is someone who knows more of the world and what I want out of it. When I don’t know the endpoint, I’m a guidebook person. Makes sense since I spend most of my leisure time reading.
I love RPGs, and I really want to see what Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption 2 are all about. But I will be doing that with a guide because, hey, time is not only money, it’s happiness too.