Self-actualization and the human condition are hardly explored in the video gaming arena. As interactive experiences, it is a missed opportunity because we directly impact the adventure by taking control.

A life crisis is a strange thing to experience at 22. I have yet to fully embrace the world and I find myself panicked about the future, growing up, finding love, and generally living a fulfilled life. It is a paradox of youth: to have thrills of a bright and stable future suppressed by the fear of not being affluent. Everyone has a different route to the white-picket fence and cherry blossoms outside; some do not have the pleasure or career momentum to make it there.

It may be the fear of the unknown, those uncontrollable perimeters which bind or limit us in some inexplicable way. Fate was never a concept I adhered to; I believe the idea of godly premonition is a fallacy of antiquated belief. Or an immoral justification for making stupid decisions. But it helps to step back and see life and fate and our worldly affairs, and often, in a brief second, we radically change our path. That decision is inevitable; it is purely common sense.

It is something I have treaded on dangerously for years–first wondering if such a future was possible, then if I had a career in writing. Then, ultimately, my sanity. To say I have a weird manner of thinking is understated. But it is logical for someone trying to figure out his position in life to consider whether the hard work and planning and career-building all leads to a point of satisfaction or someplace less captivating.

However, the unknowing trait of life is somewhat motivational; society believes we determine our own futures and therefore, as individuals, we have all the power. If we can manufacture our perfect future, anything is possible. That is not necessarily a truism. A lot of what separates us as human beings is the definition of success: some see material wealth as a pinnacle; others want to be happy. It is also plausible to fit directly in the middle of these two camps, to be satisfied in life and have moderate success.

All this positing has been largely unexplored in video games. Developers have shunned the value of self-worth and the idea of success as motives for characters to complete a task. For most games it bares down to a hero’s journey with a definite and determinable conclusion; in the thinking of today that is unrealistic. A game is digital escapism, yes, but like books have morals and films generally have a theme or message, games should be relatable in some way.

Given the industry’s fascination with otherworldly locations or outrageous setpieces, games carry a sense of disbelief or emotional weightlessness. Many of us go to them to distract from our own chaotic lives. But when a game dares to explore humanistic traits like self-worth or self-satisfaction, we view it as abandoning its virtual strangeness and not being “fun” anymore.

This is not about the wrongheaded philosophy that games are art or that they should be treks slathered in emotional figurativism. It is based on the outright laziness of developers to even moderately explore deeper issues of the human condition and not distract players from that intent with beautiful vistas and an outrageous amount of explosions. Why a no-name title like Spec Ops: The Line got so much attention was based on this lack of emotional or existential realization from games.

The defining scene of Spec Ops was when the squad uses white phosphorus (in the video below) to destroy what they believe is an enemy encampment. Instead it is a refugee base, and as they slowly walk through, half-baked corpses blanket the street. The camera then focused on a woman clutching her child, and both the protagonist and player feel an overwhelming sense of dread because the game forced it. It had to be done.

That moment is the most self-realizing of any game I have seen or played. Destructive and disheartening all in one brief breath. The lack of choice adds to the emotional fortitude of the scene, and because throughout players can make several critical decisions, the player feels powerless. Even in a shooter, a genre that regularly censors emotion in favour of brainless action, self-actualization can prevail as a theme. Or even better, a base concept.

I cannot say whether this industry is prepared to usher in a wave of games which question the human condition. Though, with the attention Spec Ops: The Line got, it makes for great marketing. Like Dark Souls with its difficulty, being different can sometimes translate into major profits. Maybe publishers will be motivated upon hearing that.

To the readers: Do you believe self-actualization is possible in games? Would it take away from the “fun factor” and disbelief of a game to have it relate so divinely? And, lastly, talk about some of your greatest moments of this in games. Spec Ops: The Line is the best recent example I can think of, though I am sure there are hundreds.

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  • Magic Mint

    I think we haven’t created the discourses yet to analytically explore video games. And I also think video games are trapped in a capitalist, money-making mind-set. If anything, video games try to reward players for following the script laid out for them. When video games challenge these life scripts, these routes to happiness, then maybe games can finally be appreciated and accepted as a legitimate art form.

    • JeffHeilig

      We have created the discourses, it’s just a lot of the industry hasn’t embraced all this. Quantic Dream is one studio pushing the boundaries.

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