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How the gaming experience is different

It’s often pointed out to me (usually by my mom), that I’m a first-class addict when it comes to gaming. Then I would quickly reply: “well you're also a Korean telenovela addict”, but of course I only say this in my head.

But I digress, and I try to wonder: why can’t gaming be my primary choice of entertainment? I would speculate the non-gaming mass, especially the older generations, haven’t come to grips that gaming could be considered a legitimate form of narrative.

Throughout my so-called “gaming career”, I’ve been very lucky to have experienced some of gaming’s finest moments. These are some moments that so far, no other medium has been able to match. Here are some thoughts on games that I think gave me a fulfilling experience.

Red Dead Redemption

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Early 1900s America, where settlements are being found and wild animals still freely roam the land. Picturesque landscapes of canyons and mountain ranges and dusty deserts with the tumbleweeds crossing about. You play the role of John Marston, a man struggling to do what is right (or sometimes wrong) in order to see his family again. It’s one of the rare games that would make me not use the fast travel feature, because I’d rather soak in the sights and sounds during the pioneering days of America. Not only that: it was able to successfully capture the feel during those days of lawlessness and how one can brutally survive with a Colt single-action revolver. Like the the art and aesthetics, the story is beautifully paced and the characters all have depth and personality, especially the protagonist, John Marston. I would go as far as to say this game was truly a masterpiece of its genre as I’ve never been so absorbed with any other title to this day.

Mass Effect Series

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Man has found a way to travel beyond Earth and to other solar systems with the help of technology curiously left behind by an unknown race. You play the role of Commander Shepard, who can be male or female, depending on how you customize the character. The plight of saving humanity and how you do it -- morally or immorally -- really depends on you as the player. The game successfully captures the feeling that each decision you make can have a rippling effect throughout the whole series. You are also given comrades in arms to fight with, both human and alien, and all of them are interesting enough to bring along as they will give you nibble sized bits of their opinions and backstory. Of course, the game takes place all over the universe. You get to hop in and out of different planets with different kinds of environments. What is a space opera if it doesn’t deal with some kind of “jumping” from one star system to the other?

Far Cry 3

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It was supposed to be an exciting getaway in an exotic island filled with flora and fauna that could only be found in the tropics... until suddenly everything turned for the worst! The island is filled with murderous pirates: not the charming kind, but the human-trafficking, sell-you-for-drugs-and-money kind. An excellent example of a first person narrative, the game never shifts out of the first person perspective of Jason Brody. Every grit, pleasure, and pain that Jason experiences is communicated very well by the game to the player. You get to witness first-hand the transformation of an adrenaline junkie man-child into a courageous yet ruthless warrior who seeks revenge. It may be cliché, but the main difference is in this game, you get to pull the trigger.

Why it's different

The one unique aspect of gaming that trumps other forms of media is the emergence. As I have mentioned with Mass Effect, some games today give you the freedom and choice to shape the outcome of the story. Imagine that you get to be the writer and director of your favorite TV show or movie, choosing the path of the protagonist and how he/she acts when presented with different kinds of situations. Some games also put you right smack-dab into the middle of the action, making you (as the audience) experience what the protagonist is experiencing first hand. Other forms of media only go as far as trying to make you understand by painting you a picture either visually or with words. Games, in my opinion, immerse you better since you have direct control of the character on the screen, and depending on the game, you are granted certain freedoms to go with certain situations. Couple that with quality visuals and professionally produced audio, and I can guarantee you that this is by far a superior experience to simply being the passive audience.

Even attractive women enjoy playing games (circa 1995)

I urge the non-gamer readers out there not to dismiss gaming as a hobby, or a distraction for children. The sad fact is that gaming has been generalized to be an activity meant for the juvenile populace, especially where I live. Yes, I acknowledge the fact that there are some games that are geared towards children, but same goes for any other form of media. There are shows and stories that are carefully designed and created to target certain age groups, which is equally true for games.

Although I enjoy the occasional summer flick on the big screen, TV shows with multi-dimensional characters (shout-out to Downton Abbey!), or a book that could easily toy with my emotions (go read: She’s Come Undone), I would still hand it to gaming for giving me truly unique and memorable experiences.

The Social Stigma of Gaming: Down but not Out

I’ve always been a gamer.

One of my earliest life memories is being three years old in 1986, bawling my eyes out in the wake of the EDSA Revolution because my mom had just bought me a Family Computer but hadn’t been informed enough to buy a game cartridge along with it. I spent hours sitting on the carpet with the Famicom all hooked up to our small black and white TV, watching how the noise on the screen melted away into an infinite blackness everytime I flicked the power button. There was nothing on the screen, but still it held a promise that threatened to hold on to me for life. I may not have realized it then, but it sure seems that way now.

Flash forward about ten years. My friends and I are having our first lunch break together as high school students. The usual gang from our grade school days was more or less still intact, and some of my buddies were already breaking out the Magic: The Gathering cards. I never really bought into the hobby myself -- only two or three of us really did -- but we all played with everybody’s cards anyway.

A group of young toughs from our batch happened to be passing by and they took the opportunity to sneer at the cards splayed out on the long wooden table.

“You still play with that stuff?” one of them balked. “You’re in high school. Act like it.

No one got pushed around or roughed up or anything like that -- even most of the dickheads knew enough to avoid unnecessary trouble -- but their contempt stung all the same. Discussing or showing interest in anything game-related began to feel like a declaration of my personal refusal to grow up. Gaming became a secret shame.

I learned from a very early age that every person is one of two possible things: a gamer, or a non-gamer. The distinction isn’t a terribly significant one as far as the criteria for friendships and relationships go, but it has always been there.

Gamers just got it. It’s hard to think of a more precise explanation than that. Gamers understood the concept of timing platform jumps, of performing special moves, of willingly taking the dead end route on the fork because missing something that can be picked up is unthinkable. Gamers understood resources and strategy. Gamers knew how to translate numbers and life bars into tangible ideas. Gamers got it. Whenever I needed to explain something to a gamer, there was always a gaming analogy that fit.

For everybody else, I had to really exercise my language skills.

Curiously enough, as I started to develop my gamer-sense or (and it pains me to drop this, but it was just too stupidly fun to pass up) game-dar, so did everybody else. And it wasn’t just the gamers who started getting ideas. That moment in high school was one of many early incidents that planted the idea in my head that maybe I was different somehow -- not different in a unique way, but different in an abnormal way. To the non-gamers, only children are supposed to play games. Grown-ups are expected to study and work. Therefore, a grown-up who enjoys playing games isn’t so grown-up after all.

During the late 80s, my aunt threw out my cousin’s collection of Dungeons and Dragons books because concerned parents were led to believe that they were tools for devil worship. The gamer stigma reached my social circles in the 90s. People started believing that video games led to bad grades, unhealthy obsession, and social ostracization. Doctors came up with the term “Nintendinitis” to describe all sorts of finger and hand conditions that kids developed after marathon sessions of gaming. My mom got into the habit of taking away my Famicom’s power adapter and hiding it somewhere in the house during weekdays to keep me from ignoring my homework to play games.

All that managed to do was to teach me the value of diligence: the diligence required to ransack my house from top to bottom to find that damn adapter. I secretly gamed for an hour or two before she got home from work most days, and still I managed to get through grade school without a single failing mark. I don’t think she ever found out. Mother, if you ever read this, understand that I’m a dirty rotten liar and I’ve been deceiving you for all these years.

The shame of being a devoted gamer remained all throughout my young life, although I hid it well: I learned to like the right things and to say the right words to fit in with the people who didn’t get it. It was difficult, but I slowly discovered how to silently flip that switch within myself that allowed me to get into the things that I was supposed to be into so that other people can understand me, and so I can relate to them as well.

At some point during 1996 or 1997, things began to change. The cool kids discovered Snake on their Nokia cellphones and began bragging about their high scores. The same cool kids saw the amazing CG cutscenes from the PSX-era Final Fantasies and played them for the eye candy. Parents and siblings began to pause in mid-step while the gamer in their family was playing to get updated on the latest soap-opera happenings in Metal Gear Solid. A decade after that, everyone was playing games like Plants vs. Zombies on their slick mobile devices. Today, gaming dwarfs the movies as a towering billion-dollar industry. People are not just getting rich making games -- people are getting rich playing games.

And yet the same division between gamers and non-gamers still exists. I know, because I don’t get to interact with many gamers in my day-to-day life. Sometimes, I still struggle with the same language barrier of not being able to express things in gamer-speak for the rest of the world. The success of the industry has only managed to muddle the lines even more: now, people who don’t get it are playing the latest Call of Duties and Legend of Zeldas and they’re treating games like throwaway entertainment -- not challenges meant to be analyzed and mastered, but a mere sequence of events to be experienced and then set aside for the Next Big Thing, of which there are several that come out every year.

Today, everybody is a gamer, and yet only few of us get it like the gamers of my childhood did. We are still the only ones who devote any serious amount of time to play some games. We’re smart. We have marketable life skills. We have real jobs. We form friendships and relationships and get married and create families. We function in the same world that other adults do, and yet we still get the funny looks from time to time: why do you play those games? Aren’t those for children? And still, sometimes but not as often, I would feel ashamed that I indulge in this hobby as much as I do.

I Hate Having Too Many Good Things

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is about two weeks old as I write this. According to Steam, I have racked up 36 hours of XCOM time since launch. I work full time and I do need to set aside some time for non-gaming responsibilities (or life upkeep, as I like to call it) and reading, so I found it quite remarkable when I discovered this last night.

Back in the halcyon days of our youth, it seemed like we were made of nothing but free time. We played whenever we wanted, and did whatever we wanted, and even after school, the day seemed to stretch on to forever with the promise of delights yet to be experienced. There's a reason why we grumbled about being made to turn off the game to go to bed: we still had the time to play. We were just being told to stop.

As adults, that free time is now a thin sliver in the increasingly colorful and rainbow-like pie chart of Daily Life. We treasure it and measure it in figurative droplets, like water from the only canteen in the middle of the desert. At high noon. In the summer.

There is hope. There's a useful skill called time management. Utilizing it helps us maximize what little time we have for optimal results. The obvious outcome, of course, is that now, we want only the best of everything. We don't have time for the runner-up. We want to see the best movies. We want to buy the best clothes at the best stores. We want to watch only the best TV shows. We want to fiddle and swipe at only the best gadgets. And of course, we want to play the best games. God forbid our Google calendar alerts us that today's game time has expired and we've been spending all that time messing around in a game that only scored 79 on Metacritic.

Being an adult consumer is the most terrifying existence imaginable.

This brings us back to XCOM, which is most certainly Game of the Year material as far as I'm concerned. If it gets a 79 on Metacritic, I wouldn't care because it has already scored a 100. In my heart. It shows in those 36 hours I've been playing it these past two weeks.

The problem is that it's not alone. The latter half of 2012 has brought with it a smorgasborg of really, really good games, and even more great titles are not far behind. Guild Wars 2. Sleeping Dogs. FTL. Dishonored. Mark of the Ninja. Planetside 2. Hotline: Miami. Assassin's Creed III. Plus all those awesome-sounding indie horror games. I haven't played half of these titles yet, and I already feel terrible because I'm missing out on some of the best games of the year.

I can afford to play them, but I really can't. I have only so much time and so much energy to spare. The only solution is to build a time machine, and I didn't buckle down in high school to manage even that.

Being an adult consumer isn't the worst thing to be, after all. Being an adult consumer gamer, on the other hand, is as close to scraping the depths of hell with my toenails as I can get without flatlining. It's just maddening and I want to change.

Until I do, however, I can only continue this daily existence of looking at game reviews, and looking at games on the online stores, and making lists that will never be used, and wishing I had ten extra hours each day to have fun and live a little. I have reached critical mass: too much of a good thing and not enough precious resources to enjoy everything. Curse astrophysics and my frail human body!

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