As we age, we lose it: 0ur sense of constant wonderment, endless possibility, unfettered, carefree joy. Perhaps in rare moments we get it back. But it's not what we are anymore.
Why did we feel this way as children? The world was new and unknown-- we had no idea how it worked. We had no responsibilities to anyone else. We were new people in a new place.
Developers, academics and fans talk about the potential of video games: the potential for serious games to teach, the potential for independent games to be the 21st century's first new artform, the potential for mature games to rival film as a cultural force.
These may be potential meta-roles for interactive entertainment at large. But each individual video game holds its own potential: to turn back the clock of the player's psyche in a very real way. To reacquaint us experientially with the wonderment, joy, and endless possibility of youth. Each game is a new place for us to visit, and a new person for us to be.
Consider the experience of beginning a game you've never played before. The gameworld spreads out before you. Your role is undefined. You don't even know what the buttons do. The experience you've begun is nothing but potential-- you can only imagine what might happen next. It's as JP LeBreton describes:
Remember your first hour with Shadow of the Colossus, when you’d only fought maybe one of the beasts? The sparse loneliness of world seems to continue forever. What’s out there? What are you trying to accomplish? What are the limits? ... Other games have a story that stands out much more clearly from their gameplay dynamics. Even in these, there can be vectors that lead us to imagine – stories that are driven by mystery invite us to speculate, to dream up alternate possibilities – who is the G-Man? What happened to Rapture? We invite more of the game into our creative consciousness – we imagine.
These are sensations that no other mass entertainment can provide. Films, novels, comics give us glimpses into realities outside our own, but we are voyeurs. We lose ourselves in the exploits of others, we invest ourselves in their fates, we formulate our own interpretations, but we are not them. We approach the worlds of these static media with the same sort of wonder at first, but can only observe others' actions within their bounds. This lack of control creates drama. But it does not invite us to be new ourselves.
Maybe video games will be a new artform, a new tool for teaching, a new cultural tentpole. Maybe they won't. But they are regardless unique-- for being interactive, yes, but more specifically for the conduit which that interactivity provides, through which we may reawaken the faded sensations of youthful play in our adult lives. This is an incredible kind of restorative therapy, a unique and valuable service that video games provide for the time-battered psyches of their audience.
If adulthood familiarity with our own world leeches off wonderment and replaces it with cynicism, games offer us fresh worlds from which to derive the reinvigorating, electrifying wonder of the new. The saddest person is the world-weary, the seen-it-all, the joyless, the cynic. The imaginative, exploratory, carefree play of youth is what the cynic has forgotten. It's what video games provide.
We can give you back what you have lost.
This essay was inspired in part by Michael Chabon's elegy to the lost wilderness of childhood.