A Video Game I Quit Playing

Modern Americans are constantly bombarded with choices—local markets sell up to 25 different brands of water, media sources overload us with reports from the campaign trail, and college freshman opening a course catalog can be overwhelmed with options. Some people believe that choice rationally reflects desires, traits, and situations, and if we’re grounded in our beliefs and values, then making a decision should prove relatively easy. Recently, I played a game—Shadow of the Colossus—that caused me to question both my morals and ethics. Frankly, the game play made me uncomfortable.

Shadow of the Colossus immediately requires the player to make a difficult decision. In the introduction, a young man, Wander, rides horseback to the Forbidden Land. He bears the body of a dead woman and carries an ancient (and stolen) sword. He seeks to find Dormin, an entity rumored to posses the ability to revive the dead. Dormin consents, but first Wander must use the sword to destroy 16 colossi. And with that a god-like voice booms and warns Wander, “The price you pay may be heavy.”

As Wander crosses fields, deserts, and forests in search of the colossi, no additional threats or challenges confront him—he is alone. Most other epic video games present tasks and puzzles that a player completes prior to battle. Writer and editor Chris Suellentrop described Shadow of the Colossus’s unique game play in his article for The New Yorker. He wrote, “No enemies jump out to attack, it occurred to me on one of these rides, because I am the one on the hunt. The natural order of a video game is reversed. There are no enemies because I am the enemy.” In Shadow of the Colossus, a player is alone with his thoughts. The minimal sounds emphasize Wander’s isolation.

Wander eventually finds a colossus. Upon first glance, the creature—giant, hairy, and rock-solid—appears intimidating. However, by exploiting the colossus’s weak points, Wander kills him. In his account, Suellentrop wrote, “I found myself engaging in a fist-pumping celebration of my foe’s destruction. But then the creature’s eyes dimmed, the music turned mournful, and it seemed pretty clear that a wrong had been done.” Suellentrop did not succumb to guilt, instead he directed Wander to kill the next beast. However, he noted that the “dissonance—kill, regret, and then kill some more—makes the game more than merely an interactive summer blockbuster.” Perhaps what keeps people playing is what psychologist Daniel Kahneman described as the focusing illusion. He explained that a person often exaggerates the importance of a specific factor and, in doing so, overlooks other crucial factors. Kahneman believed that our minds focus on the peak and the final moments of past experiences and are prone to crowd out the rest.

I never found out what the additional consequences of the game were; I quit after the first kill. The game play and Wander became a playground for psychological egoism that I did not want to navigate. As self-prescribed therapy, I spent a week filling my free time with games reviewed on NPR’s Mindless Arcade Friday. Cheese or Font quickly became a favorite—a word pops up on the screen and I get to guess if it’s the name of a cheese or a font. And I could not resist I Saw Her Standing There, a simple tale of a boy in love with a girl zombie. The takeaway lesson, “don’t actually put your girlfriend in a cage.”

At the end of the week, I decided to take heed of game researcher Lars Konzack’s theory. He believes that game design should “not only present immersive experiences,” but should also express a “consequential philosophical system.” I browsed ICHEG’s collections in order to return to some of my old favorites that fit into this description—The Sims and Ico.