Reality is broken, or, an XCOM2 review

Yesterday evening I went to the grocery store, and was startled to realize that I was suddenly in a totally different world.

Computer games have difficulty grabbing me these days. Many of the genres I used to enjoy as a kid have lost their appeal: point-and-click -style adventure requires patience and careful thought, but I already deal with plenty of things that require patience and careful thought in real life, so for games I want something different. 4X games mostly seem like pure numerical optimization exercises these days, and have lost that feel of discovery and sense of wonder. In general, I used to like genres like turn-based strategy or adventure that had no time constraints, but those now usually feel too slow-paced to pull me in; whereas pure action action games I’ve never been particularly good at. (I tried Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor for a bit recently, and quit after a very frustrating two hours where I attempted a simple beginning quest for about a dozen times, only to be killed by the same orc each time.)

Like the previous XCOM remake, Firaxis’s XCOM2 managed the magic of transporting me completely elsewhere, in the same way that some of my childhood classics did. I did not even properly realize how deeply I’d become immersed the game, until I went outside, and the sheer differentness of the real world and the game world startled me – somewhat similar to the shock of jumping into cold water, your body suddenly and obviously piercing through a surface that separates two different realms of existence.

A good description of my experience with the game comes, oddly enough, from Michael Vassar describing something that’s seemingly completely different. He talks about the way that two people, acting together, can achieve such a state of synchrony that they seem to meld into a single being:

In real-time domains, one rapidly assesses the difficulty of a challenge. If the difficulty seems manageable, one simply does, with no holding back, reflecting, doubting, or trying to figure out how one does. Figuring out how something is done implicitly by a neurological process which is integrated with doing. Under such circumstances, acting intuitively in real time, the question of whether an action is selfish or altruistic or both or neither never comes up, thus in such a flow state one never knows whether one is acting cooperatively, competitively, or predatorily. People with whom you are interacting […] depend on the fact that you and they are in a flow-state together. In so far as they and you become an integrated process, your actions flow from their agency as well as your own[.]

XCOM2 is not actually a real-time game: it is firmly turn-based. Yet your turns are short and intense, and the game’s overall aesthetics reinforce a feeling of rapid action and urgency. There is a sense in which it feels like the player and the game become melded together, there being a constant push-and-pull in which you act and the game responds; the game acts and you respond. A feeling of complete immersion and synchrony with your environment, with a perfect balance between the amount of time that it pays to think and the amount of time that it pays to act, so that the pace neither slows down to a crawl nor becomes one of rushed doing without understanding.

It is in some ways a scary effect: returning to the mundaneness of the real world, there was a strong sense of “it’s so sad that all of my existence can’t be spent playing games like that”, and a corresponding realization of how dangerous that sentiment was. Yet it felt very different from the archetypical addiction: there wasn’t that feel of an addict’s understanding of how ultimately dysfunctional the whole thing was, or struggling against something which you knew was harmful and of no real redeeming value. Rather, it felt like a taste of what human experience should be like, of how sublime and engaging our daily reality could be, but rarely is.

Jane McGonigal writes, in her book Reality is Broken:

Where, in the real world, is that gamer sense of being fully alive, focused, and engaged in every moment? Where is the gamer feeling of power, heroic purpose, and community? Where are the bursts of exhilarating and creative game accomplishment? Where is the heart-expanding thrill of success and team victory? While gamers may experience these pleasures occasionally in their real lives, they experience them almost constantly when they’re playing their favorite games. […]

Reality, compared to games, is broken. […]

The truth is this: in today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.

If enough good games were available, it would be easy to just get lost in games, to escape the brokeness of reality and retreat to a more perfect world. Perhaps I’m lucky in that I rarely encounter games of this caliber, that would be so much more moment-to-moment fulfilling than the real world is. Firaxis’s previous XCOM also had a similar immersive effect on me, but eventually I learned the game and it ceased to hold new surprises, and it lost its hold. Eventually the sequel will also have most of its magic worn away.

It’s likely better this way. This way it can function for me the way that art should: not as a mindless escape, but as a moment of beauty that reminds us that it’s possible to have a better world than this. As a reminder that we can work to bring the world closer to that.

McGonigal continues:

What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality? What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists? […]

Instead of providing gamers with better and more immersive alternatives to reality, I want all of us to be responsible for providing the world at large with a better and more immersive reality […] take everything game developers have learned about optimizing human experience and organizing collaborative communities and apply it to real life

We can do that.

2 comments

  1. Interesting article. Do you travel? Isn’t there more sense of community and emotional connection in say mediterranean or African societies. I have a guess it’s just industrialised Western societies which are lacking.

    Somehow I have felt I’m more of myself over internet (especially voice communication) than I’m face to face, and express my feelings without censoring myself. Perhaps there’s something in upbringing that has made me so. Feels like I should read a a developmental psychology book.

    The way Finnish people become more comfortable expressing their emotions is mostly with alcohol unfortunately.

    But I’m not sure if it’s just that. Games *are* engaging in way contact sports sometimes are and when playing competitive FPS games I feel like I “wake up”.

  2. Now I want to play XCOM2 really badly. Too bad my computer does not have sufficient performance.

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