"Don't they have anything better to do?"
Last week, I spent Sunday afternoon watching football with four of my closest friends from childhood. Whenever we get together, video games always come up. They're part of the texture of our relationship. We've always played them and we've always talked about them: what's new, what's good, what's dumb, what's new and dumb and good. Of course, we started talking about GamerGate, the apparently inexhaustible internet movement that has been the biggest story in games for the past three months. My friends, enthusiastic gamers, know I've reported on GamerGate, and they all wanted me to answer the same question:
"Don't they have anything better to do?"
They didn't mean the question in the rhetorical and disparaging way, in the sense of, what these people are doing is obviously pathetic, they obviously don't have anything better to do.
They meant it in a humbler way, full of incredulity, as in, out of all of items on the menu of human concern, all the natural catastrophes, murderous cabals, nefarious influences, Damoclean swords, corporate malfeasances, structural injustices, everyday disgraces; not to mention family and work; not to mention an internet bulging with conflicts juicier and more worthy; not to mention on-demand distractions the scope and quality of which have turned every human being bearing even a semblance of disposable income into the emperor of his own attention; not to mention the pleasures of the flesh, real and synthetic; not to mention the old comforts: books, paintings, gossip; not to mention Serial; not to mention love; why have a group of us chosen to order Ethics in Games Journalism?
It's an impossible question to answer. I mean, what caused GamerGate in the first place? What really, really caused it? Was it a bizarre letter from a spurned man? Sure, partially. Was it the molten sludge of a new toxic culture war pressing upward on the crust of popular culture, seeking the slightest fissure through which to erupt? Why not? Was it, in a very few cases, about some minor ethical mistakes by game journalists? Yeah.
I shifted the conversation to Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game — out today — that I was excited to tell my friends about, because it is a Life Ruiner. You see, my friends and I all share a basic weakness for Life Ruiners.
It's hard to give a precise definition of a Life Ruiner — you kind of know one when you see it — but I'll try. The single most important characteristic of a Life Ruiner is that you can't stop thinking about it when you're not playing it. The second is that it is very long, so that you're thinking about the same game for a very long time, probably at the exclusion of Actual Things.
Life Ruiner isn't a genre, exactly, though it is true that many, even most, Life Ruiners are open-world third-person action role-playing games, the genre that traces back to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (yes, the greatest game of all time is a Life Ruiner). A Life Ruiner is a principally single-player game, the full completion of which involves a time commitment not in the tens, but hundreds, of hours. A Life Ruiner takes place in an elaborate make-believe world that may or may not be modeled after our own and mixes necessary and optional tasks in a way that gives the illusion of infinite content. Recent Life Ruiners include some of the most popular games of the last 10 years: Grant Theft Auto V, Fallout 3, the Mass Effect series, and the greatest Life Ruiner of all, Skyrim, a game that takes 844 hours to complete. It is key that you can theoretically complete a Life Ruiner (unlike massively multiplayer online games); it is probably the contrast between the illusion of infinite play and the knowledge of a bounded creation that makes these things so ruinous.
Anyways, Dragon Age: Inquisition is the third in a very good series of Life Ruiners, and I began extolling some of its many Life Ruining virtues: the enormous and varied world, the robust character creator from which I etched a man who looks like me, but terrific, and a cast of characters so vast it incorporates both a transgender mercenary (sensitively!) and a giant man-bull voiced by Freddy Prinze Jr. (sensitively!). Part of the fun of getting access to a Life Ruiner is tantalizing your friends with how thoroughly it will ruin their lives.
Then my friend Mike got a kind of beatific look on his face and floated the following theory:
"What if GamerGate happened because there haven't been enough games like this?"
In other words, what if the aggregate man hours of building and perpetrating GamerGate represent time normally allotted for Life Ruining? What if to the proximal and causes-in-fact of GamerGate we can add the crankiness brought on by the absence of a good Life Ruiner?
There have been good games released in 2014, true, but they're multiplayer shooters, or downloadable adventures, or Goat Simulator. The only game released before the outbreak of GamerGate with mass-market Life Ruiner potential — Watch Dogs — was a disappointment. I can think of only a single Life Ruiner released between January and November 2014, Dark Souls 2.
It's a stretch, yes — and it's not meant to absolve GamerGate of any of their myriad sins. But as a thought exercise, it certainly the the games industry in a sympathetic light! Rather than a creativity-starved, profit-obsessed behemoth, they're Desmond in the Hatch, entering the numbers every 108 minutes to prevent the apocalypse! They're heroes, toiling year-round to churn out enough Life Ruiners to spare the rest of us from the bored rage of an idle army (an army they may have helped create, it should be said)! GamerGate are the Lotus Eaters turned, without their precious flowers, into Laestrygonians!
The weeks to come will be the ultimate test of my friend Mike's genius theory. Today marks the release of not only Dragon Age: Inquisition, as masterful a Life Ruiner as any game I have played in years (it's bigger by several measures than the first two games combined), but Far Cry 4, a first-person shooter tuned Life Ruiner, and the re-release of Grand Theft Auto V for the new generation of consoles. Between these games are hundreds and hundreds of hours of potentially diffused gamer rage. If GamerGate has died down significantly by the New Year, you'll know why:
They have finally found something better to do.