Trading Places

I bought an Xbox 360 last year but didn’t spend all that much time playing it until recently. It’s a fantastic system, particularly when connected to an HDTV and a decent surround sound system. In the best games — Bioshock, Halo 3, Portal — the detail is jaw-dropping; the controller rattles with tactile expressiveness, sending little earthquakes through your hands (if you rest it on your lap, your whole body shakes); the booming sound envelops you. Sit close enough to a very large screen and you just might forget for a moment that you’re at home, on your couch, holding a little plastic controller, staring at a bank of light-up pixels. Disconnect after a few hours of play and your eyes will throb slightly, your nerves will be a bit twitchy, and the real world will feel slightly less sharp, a foggy, uncertain place in comparison to the clear, clean constructs of the game. No, it’s not you-are-there-convincing; it doesn’t achieve, say, the panicky, could-this-real? quality of a dream. But it’s totalizing in the way it demands and controls your attention, as overwhelming and immersive as any fake experience I’ve ever had.

The engrossing quality of a well-constructed game is fundamentally different from any other art or entertainment experience I can think of. Novels, both highbrow and low, offer escape from the real world into your own mind, a chance to swim in the currents of your own imagination guided by an author. Movies give you a completely realized story and world, but you’re outside of it, separate from its reality, free to judge it. The gaming world, though, puts you and your experience at its center, particularly in the first-person games I’m most fond of.

And what they offer isn’t an escape; it’s an exchange. These games don’t come with instruction manuals; they teach you how to play through trial and error, through digitally lived experience. The end result is that you give up your self and your experience, learning the rules and rituals of the game world from scratch, trading your own life for the one provided by the game.