Not the way echinacea is good for you, or the way the Soloflex is good for you, but good like gardening or travel. Video games are nutritious for the imagination. Now, you wouldn’t know it from reading the paper, where id Software’s first-person twitch games Doom and Quake have become the only ambassadors for a gigantic, $6.3 billion industry—which has, in a much touted stat, nearly matched Hollywood’s total box office take last year ($6.9 billion). In fact, when it comes to quality and meaning in games, movies make an apt analogy. In the post-Littleton era, talking about video games is like talking about film with a vocabulary of two movies—Armageddon and Starship Troopers. Yep, the explosions are jaw-dropping, the bodies bodacious, but the innovation is happening elsewhere.
The trick is that better technology isn’t necessarily where it’s happening either. The Sega Dreamcast, released last week to 300,000-plus platform-promiscuous game junkies queuing up at software stores across the country, is a sleek upgrade of both the Sony PlayStation and the Nintendo 64. The Dreamcast games, like the dizzy trip of Sonic Adventure or the dazzling NFL 2K, are no doubt impressive. It can be hard to go back to the seriously pixelated “environments” on your PC after you’ve swooped through stadiums and examined player tattoos in high-res on Dreamcast’s NBA 2K. But the progress here is all about speed and detail (Image refresh at 60 frames a second! Snow that melts on the football field!) and not about broadening the point of play itself.
That broadening is out there, embedded in the evolving social mores of some of the most sophisticated and successful games. The best have de-emphasized gore and violence, even discarding one of the steadiest traditions: winning at all. In its place comes the value of alliances and the social power of shame. The supreme example of this is the hugely popular Ultima, created by Origin Systems (“We Create Worlds”). Ultima started off as a standard, single-player Dungeons & Dragons–style role-playing game. But it took a giant leap forward after the eighth iteration when Origin released Ultima Online in 1997, opening the game to networked play. Ultima Online is like a Renaissance fair with a purring business engine; over 130,000 players now pay $9.95 a month for the privilege of citizenship in Britannia (Ultima Online’s virtual country).
The goal of the game is to invent a character (a soldier or a mage) and help him grow stronger and more skilled. Ethical codes debuted in the Ultima Online design to discourage players from eliminating each other: killing someone makes your name appear highlighted in red for other players to see. An attempt to pick someone’s pocket turns your name gray. “There is this whole notoriety system,” says one Ultima player, Ben Nachumi. “If you kill someone, you become fair game.”
As with Gary Gygax’s D&D creations, the obvious strategy with Ultima is to align with complementary forces. Because no Ultima players have limits on the number of skills they can acquire, they join up with other groups to go out questing. As a result, thousands of communities called “guilds” emerged in the game. “There are guilds to protect certain cities, guilds to go on hunting expeditions every Friday,” says David Swofford, a spokesman for Origin Systems. It’s gotten so complex, he says, that “we don’t refer to Ultima as a game any longer. We say, ‘Live an alternate life.”‘ Which, when your primary one isn’t under your control, makes perfect sense. “My goal was [to get to a point where] nothing else could kill me easily,” says Nachumi, who stopped playing the game two years ago. “I was a grad student at the time, and in a world where you have extremely limited power to affect your destiny, there may have been some psychological benefit to winning small challenges.”
Even the shooter games have subtleties that are often ignored in the larger cultural conversation about video games. Half-Life, released in November 1998 by Valve, looks and feels a lot like Doom and Quake, with hefty amounts of violence, but it introduces sly forms of negotiation, such as human characters who are valuable and necessary for players to befriend. Effectively, you are a survivor of a massive radiation catastrophe, hacking your way around alien monsters. Fellow survivors, such as scientists and security guards, occasionally defend you or help you with keys or information. Kill them—or blow off an opportunity to protect them—and the game rapidly sours and you can’t progress. That small shift in emphasis—from trigger fingers to enforced, selective sympathy—dramatically alters the mood and impact of playing Half-Life. “It’s a game where you can’t automatically assume everything you see is an enemy,” says Marc Laidlaw, the game’s designer. “We had players who got really attached to the scientists and guards, and when they brought them into an area where they got killed, they would feel really sorry.”
But when we talk about community or character building or even regret in games, what we’re really getting at is simply games with implications. The SimCity series, which has players building cities up from the water systems to the skyscrapers, is considered a “god game” because you play from an omniscient, distant perspective, and also because it makes you fundamentally responsible for a city. It is almost strictly about consequences: build your factories too close to town and watch your city erode from the toxicity; create your mayor’s house on an isolated hillcrest and chances are fire trucks won’t be able to make it out there when it ignites (random, but it happens in real life too). The game rewards long-term, flexible thinking. “[It presents] the user with an ecology rather than simple cause and effect—decisions cause feedback, which causes repercussions,” says Douglas Rushkoff, the author of the pro–video-game nonfiction book Playing the Future and the forthcoming Coercion: Why We Listen to What “They” Say. “It’s the one thing that computers do that we couldn’t do before them: play out dynamic systems.”
The SimCity series could scarcely get more complex, but it will. This winter, the game creator, Will Wright, will unveil The Sims, which was the talk of this year’s industry convention, E3. In it, Sim players will be able to drop to street level to walk among their creations. It’s like living inside Legoville, only this time around if you don’t tend your tracts you end up with ghettos. How do you finish a SimCity game? You don’t. The garden just keeps growing or going to seed.
In a way, that’s also the biggest problem with video games—endings are not exactly the medium’s strong suit. After spending 20 hours collecting keys in PlayStation’s Resident Evil 2 or rings in Dreamcast’s Sonic Adventure, you’re left only the thinnest excuse for closure. As someone who cribbed cheat-sheets and harangued friends to get through the zombie-fest of Resident Evil 2, I can tell you the satisfaction of completing a video game never really comes. Just when the undead are all certifiably out of commission, the underground research facility explodes, and you’re riding the gravy train to the surface, you start wondering why you played in the first place. Video games may contain vitamins (systems thinking, social accountability), but they are still not quite meals.
Then again, TV has been serving us fast food for years, and nobody seems up in arms about Charmed or Suddenly, Susan. If anything, video games are drawing audiences away from the tube, which is full of endings over which you have no control. Gamers sense that constrictedness and flee. You hear it over and over again when you talk to them. “Basically, I play these games instead of watching TV,” says Nachumi. “I find TV kind of irrelevant,” says Half-Life’s Laidlaw. And if games are thieving time away from TV, how much of a crime could it be?