Why Paranoia About Video Games Is Bunk

Posted by: Rea Maor In: Games - Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

What if we combined Quake and chess?

There are two times when I would have expected vilification of video games: (1) When they first hit the mainstream, as did happen when I was growing up in the 1980s, and (2) whenever Jack Thompson is talking.

If you’re a permanent citizen of Batty-Bonkersland, sure, hate on video games. It keeps you off the minorities. And when any young teen during the 80’s, twiddling quarters in their juvenile fingers on their way into a video arcade, would have viewed all the negative media press about video games, they would have done so with a jaundiced eye. Yeah, sure, they go through this about every entertainment medium. They used to raise a flap about novels back in the day. They’ll get over it.

Yet here it is, the new millenium, and you still see daily panicky headlines about “OMG! TEH DANGERS OF VIDEO GAMES!”, with yet another self-proclaimed expert ragging on how video games are responsible for every imaginable social ill.

After all this time, there doesn’t seem much that I can do to put down this nuttiness, but here’s how I’d try to do it if I thought I could change the mind of those whose career depends on inventing boogey-men to scare us:

In the first place, a couple of generations have had time to grow up in a world populated by video games, and yet, where are the damaged people? Unlike with alcohol and gambling, there are no “Gamers Anonymous” groups where the afflicted meet to struggle with their addiction. People are certainly fumbling up and blaming everything else in their lives, but I have yet to see somebody use an excuse like, “Excuse my poor social skills, I was a gamer as a child.”

But more importantly, as a person who equally enjoys the deepest esoteric intellectual pursuits and the most base guilty pleasures, I’m going to shock you with this revelation: there is equal merit to a game of Quake and a game of chess. “Nonsense!”, you might scoff.

But if you do, that just shows that you haven’t played enough Quake.

Heeeeeere's Johnny!

Consider that you are halfway through a dungeon, now in a dimly-lit hall right where the corner turns. You haven’t peeked around the corner yet, so God knows what’s waiting to leap out at you. But it is temporarily quiet. You are down to 45 health with 15 armor; you need supplies, and you don’t see any around. You are also down some ammo; you have about 18 rounds of shell for your shotgun and 12 grenades. Furthermore, you have heard the faint, distant sound of what sounds like a troll grunting.

Trolls in Quake-classic are distinct. They have two weapons: a chainsaw for close combat and their own endless supply of grenades. If they spot you, they usually immediately shout out and begin lobbing grenades at you. Their aim is fair, but they’re not crack shots. They also have a tendency to be caught unawares; you can sneak up on a troll as long as it isn’t looking right at you. Finally, you should know that in planning an attack, you have to consider that it takes time to switch weapons and tactics, costing you potentially crucial seconds in the heat of combat. So, what do you do?

One advantage of grenades is that they don’t detonate right away. You can bounce a grenade off a few walls before it blows up. Since you have a tight corner to work with, you can always fire a couple grenades at the wall catty-corner to the angle of the hallway, sending them around the corner at the position where you think the troll is. You can then listen for the telltale yelp after the explosion (each creature has it’s own unique vocabulary of vocalizations), and if you find you have a hit and you will soon be confronted by a lightly-wounded, charging troll, you can back-pedal the way you came – being careful to avoid the trap-gate you discovered a while back! – while firing more grenades after your pursuer.

Of course, this takes some skill and luck. Grenades work both ways, after all, and I’ve been nuked plenty of times in Quake by a surprise grenade that landed at my feet when I was hiding in what I thought was an inaccessible hole. Furthermore, trolls are pretty good at dodging grenades, being a little more cunning. There’s plenty of risk factors to make the grenade plan worth reconsidering.

You could also simply ready your shotgun and charge around that corner. This direct approach exposes you to risk, of course, since the shotgun just doesn’t kill very fast and you’ll doubtless take a hit or two before putting down your enemy, but it has more guarantees that you will eventually put your enemy down. Shotguns work great at close range but they’re miserable at a distance; the worst possible scenario is to be covering a retreat with the slow, weak pumps of the shotgun.

There are other courses of action yet to consider: you may be wrong about the troll, or the hallway may have a different shape from what you anticipate. Maybe he’s on a platform suspended over the hall, so that if you fire a grenade and hear no resulting dismay, and then stroll confidently around the corner you may be surprised to find a hail of grenades raining down on you from a troll who is hidden from your fire, but now alerted to your presence. For that matter, are you really that sure you need to go down that hallway? You might be able to get to the exit by another, clearer route. You haven’t found all the secret passages in the level; there might even be some better ammo stashed behind a panel whose access button you overlooked in the dark when you fought your way past charging knights.

This scenario I’m describing is actually one of the least complex Quake situations. There are times when you have to be not only very fast, but very smart and quick-thinking to be able to survive certain situations. Most of the time you deal with multiple enemies. Some co-operate, some act alone, some are more dangerous from far away than they are at close range, some pursue you relentlessly while others guard their territory. Some are as alert as owls, and are guaranteed to spot you and sound an alarm for stronger but less agile creatures to join the attack, even as they fire their opening shots at you.

But what about the violence? That’s a point: many video games simulate violence. But are we not simulating violence also when we jump checkers on a checkerboard? After all, checkers, chess, and even Go are simulations of battle – those playing pieces represent soldier’s lives. Virtually any competitive game, by its nature, requires some form of conflict as an element of play. We have long accepted that games simulate violence; we are just now negotiating the acceptable level.

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