A lot of videogames just replicate real life activities. So, what makes them fun?
Minecraft in Real Life…
The other day, my fiancée and I were doing some work around the property. It was a beautiful evening and, naturally, we had the Child with us. That’s not to say that she was happy about it. As I mentioned in the previous piece, she is primarily interested in watching YouTube – specifically videos of other people playing video games.
My fiancée, who was cutting grass, recited one of my oft-used lines. “It’s good to do things and not just watch other people doing them.” She added, “Life can’t just be videogames and TV.”
Then, a thought struck me. I called out to her from the sawhorse where I was working nearby. “You recently had a dream that Minecraft was more realistic. I’m cutting wood to make a fence around the potato plants. It doesn’t get more Minecraft than that, unless you want to build me a smelting oven.”
Everything that I said was true. She had told us about that dream. And I was cutting wood to build a fence around the potato plants. And I have long dreamed of building an oven – not to smelt ore, but maybe to melt-down old and broken tools and help to sharpen those still in use.
Any road, she sulked for a bit but was apparently thinking about what I had said. I was thrilled when she came over to get a closer look at what I was doing and even asked to have a try at the saw.
If I used power tools, this might have gone differently, but I was using a hand saw so I showed her where to cut and stayed close, holding the wood. It was slow work, but we got into a good rhythm and she helped me cut quite a few pieces.
… Is Better Than the Sims in Real Life
A recurring theme whenever I talk about the Child is to point out to others – and to remember myself – that a lot of her childish interests also take root in adults.
I imagine I spoke to the Child about Minecraft in a similar tone to that I used with my ex-wife when she would invite me to play The Sims and I would tell her that I already had a job, cooked food, and did the dishes. Later in our relationship, she got really into games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley and it got easier and easier for me to suggest that she just plant turnips in the real world instead.
Of course, I’ve been known to play some Minecraft in my own life as well – though not recently. Another of my weaknesses has been the Elder Scrolls series – another game that has fantasy elements but, at the end of the campaign, I usually just ended up having a job to build a house and support my family.
So, my words to the Child had me thinking about what about these games had brought me in. I imagine that it helped that, during most of my gaming time, I lived in apartments. So, doing things like cutting down trees and planting gardens weren’t things that I was necessarily free to do whenever the fancy struck me.
In games discourse, you often hear people talking about “escapism” and that has definitely been true for me. It wasn’t necessarily about escaping the stresses and concerns of my daily life, it was more about letting my mind escape the physical limitations of my environment. I’m sure that this is something that a number of us also explored during the early days of the pandemic.
Dormant Human Goals?
Escapism brings up an interesting idea that might explain games that spend so much time simulating work and transactions. Is there something in our human DNA that makes us want to plant and mine and craft? Now that many of us live in a building owned by someone else with no yard working behind desks, do we “escape” to something like what reality was for our ancestors?
In my former life, I wrote self-help and wellness articles. Back then, I talked a lot about how many of us have anxiety these days because our brains don’t realize that we can’t solve problems the way our ancient ancestors did. Our brains still tell us to “fight or flight” when neither of these reactions would be appropriate or effectual.
Similarly, some have suggested that the idea of “monsters” in our collective imaginations have inherited traits from the predators that hunted our ancient ancestors. In that subconscious way, we still fear the things that they feared even though these things are no longer a likely threat to most of us today.
Maybe the draw to these games is that they allow us to relive some of the day-to-day experiences of our ancient ancestors. They may have been sources of anxiety but were also sources of hope and value. I think time is the real killer.
In Skyrim, it takes a couple of minutes to mine a vein, smelt ore, and craft an item. This pipeline would take ages in real life. Similarly, a crop of potatoes in Minecraft grows a lot faster than a crop of potatoes in my back yard. Work does a body good, and I believe all of us like doing it, so I don’t think it’s the physical inactivity that draws us to doing these things in games.
Sometimes, I feel guilty parenting. I feel like I’m conducting some sort of long-term study on the Child. Or like I’m gambling that my long-game will pay off, even when my short-game doesn’t feel that strong.
When I was in high school, I was a teacher’s aide in the room for students with cognitive impairments (sorry if that’s not the language being used for that right now, but that was the language that we used at the time). There were rumors going around that I signed up for the job so that I could run experiments on the students. It’s not true, but I see now, looking back, I understand how those rumors came about.
Anyway, what I’m watching for now in the Child is to see if she isn’t a little more eager to help us outside next time. I have all of the upright poles in place for my fence, so the next time that I work on it I’ll be weaving staves in-between the posts. It’s a fence-style called “wattle.” It’s literally free, it’s easy to make and maintain, and –again– it doesn’t require power tools. So, the Child could certainly help.
What I think the real benefit is will be that after she helped me saw the posts last time, we ate fresh peas – the first produce that the garden has produced. That’s one thing that a videogame can’t do. Yet to harvest: fifty potato plants, a few odd dozen carrots, and some onions. Play-to-earn? I prefer garden-to-earn. It takes a lot less wrapped Ethereum.
A lot of this passion that I have, including the passion that I misdirect toward my family, comes from a new-found feeling of housepride. I never used to be houseproud because I live in a ramshackle house that’s over 140 years old. I took out a mortgage to buy it a few years back for $30k and I’ve been managing to hold it up ever since. Since then, something big has happened.
I live in a college town known for tourism. So, any time a house goes on the market, some jackass buys it to turn it into a rental or an AirBnB. I had no idea that this was going to happen when I bought the house, but God is doing for me what I can’t do for myself.
Last week, some greasy-haired crusty juggler just drove up and said he wanted to buy it. I told him to hit the bricks. If he ever comes back, I’m going to tell him $200k cash. That’ll be enough for me to pay the mortgage and subsequent home improvement loans, the sales tax and legal fees, and leave me with enough money to buy another house somewhere in town.
I’m not telling all rental owners to go to Hell, but if they got the hell out of my neighborhood, that would be great.
Maybe “houseproud” isn’t the right word. Maybe there’s a German word for my feeling. Like … HausTrotz.