A few years ago, I found a friend’s suicide. She–Meg–was brilliant and solitary, depressed in a way that good people can especially become. We weren’t close, but a mutual friend had returned from out of town, and he said that he hadn’t heard from Meg in three weeks. So I drove to Meg’s section-8 apartment, where I noticed that she had drawn all of her curtains.
Around this time, I was also playing Mass Effect 3. This is a video game. Specifically, it is a role-playing game, where the player becomes Commander Shepherd–a spaceship captain who amasses an intergalactic team of allies in effort to stop the villainous Reapers from devouring the universe. Lots of people have at least heard of the role-playing video games. Meg played them–and she’d enjoy that I mention them here.
Nothing–and certainly not a video game–can make sense of her death. But in light of all the suspicion about video games instigating death, I think she’d be pleased to know that this video game helped me to cope with her death. I’m not talking about the grief of her death; that took both everything I had and some other things besides. But the ordeal of discovering her death received some help from Mass Effect 3.
These days, the ESRB bestows lots of video games with Mature ratings. These M-17 titles peddle the flashy-splashy sex and violence, along with the use of theft, drugs and profanity. And the fact is that these elements function a lot like profanity, where their presence begins to show the developers’ lack of imagination instead of any amount of artistic panache. But in addition to indulging in some of this more pedestrian material, the Mass Effect series asks for maturity by involving the player in relationships with characters–relationships that, though admittedly predictable, can last literally hundreds of hours. Then the game forces the player to make choices about these relationships, as the universe goes to war. In general the game requires the player to act the heroine all along, but it also gives her options about what kind of heroine she’ll become–whether she’s a Paragon who’s orderly, kind, and restrained, or a Renegade who’s chaotic, ruthless, and aggressive. These decisions happen frequently, and some of them must happen quickly. And it was with this character-crisis mindset that I stood on Meg’s blooming and neglected lawn.
I confess that I’d volunteered to check on her because I have a naive love for adventure. That is, perhaps, also a reason I play video games. I did not expect to find my friend three-weeks dead in her living room. Not really. But when I saw that Meg’s mail had piled out of her box, and when I spoke with the neighbors, I got scared at first. I mean a sick, unfunny scared. And then I surprised myself with a question: I didn’t ask: what would Commander Shepherd do? After all, Commander Shepherd isn’t Jesus. But I did ask: what would a Paragon do? I blinked in the sun and deliberated. I could almost see the choice on a computer screen. This was an illusion, of course—or at least an illusory framing of circumstance. But in crisis, the mind will do what it can–and even manufacture what it can–to grasp at any modicum of familiarity and training. Illusion allowed me to peer below the bottom of Meg’s curtains (Paragon), to remove the window pane (Renegade), to smell death, to back away, to call the police (Paragon), and to remain calm and lucid (Paragon) while the detective questioned me about Meg and my desire to break into her living room.
Before that last part, I sat on the steps of the apartment complex, while a neighbor stood before me with her silent, nine-year-old child.
“She’s dead?” said the neighbor.
“Yes,” I said.
“How do you know?”
“It smells like death.”
“How does death smell?”
“It smells like bad meat.”
“So that lady’s dead inside there?”
“She’s been dead for three weeks?”
“I think that’s the case.”
“So you’re her friend? And you didn’t check for three weeks?”
I can be a heroine in a video game. That’s perhaps the primary reason I play them.
In Mass Effect 3, it’s possible to fail your friends. If you don’t heed your companion’s rather overt calls for attention, he won’t flourish enough to survive a mission. You’re left with his grayed-over silhouette on your ally screen. His story arc has closed. Any future moments that he could offer to the universal narrative have also closed. Most every benefit that he has given your character has ceased.
Video games have begun to return to the idea of Permadeath. This is the notion of the squashed Mario–three stumbles, and you’re done. Such a thing offers the challenge of the irrevocable, and as such, I think it can offer the instruction of the irrevocable. I’m reasonably sane. I teach college; I have a husband and a household; I participate in a liberal church. And yet, during one of the most visceral moments of my life, I relied on the conditioning that I acquired in a video game. And because of this, I wonder what would happen if something like Mass Effect 3 faced us with the irrevocable by employing circumstances that were better cloaked in the ordinary. We should still save the universe; few things can replace the allure of becoming a big heroine in a big way. But let’s make games that challenge us with something more subtle, more real. Some games, especially the indie ones, have lately allowed us toe these deeper waters. But I ask for more mainstream games to ask us to save the universe a little bit at a time.
I know a game of that sort would not have enabled me to prevent Meg’s death; I’m not that naive. But this game might have moved the world to be a little nicer to her–if only insofar as it moved me to be nicer. What is the Paragon response when a bleak friend asks you for coffee while you’re dealing with forty students and don’t have the energy to share another’s depression? Beyond the obvious prompts, how do you best nurture any one of your allies?
In 2015, the Entertainment Software Association reported that over 150 million Americans play video games. Of those folks, 42 percent play video games at least three hours a week. So: A significant number of people spend a significant amount of time giving a significant amount of attention to video games. They must be teaching us something.
I’m not saying that video games should offer us our moral codes. We have religions and philosophies that are much deeper wells for that sort of thing. But it is possible that video games could allow us to practice our morality–in every sense of practice, even if they granted us the Renegade’s gift of experimenting with that morality. We’ve done this sort of thing before. In fact, we do it all the time. We imagine what we’d do if we were Rick Grimes, or Starbuck, or King David. Stories let us practice ourselves. And when video games get to the point where they move us to achieve this same level of empathy–when they truly show us what it’s like to both save and be saved–they too will become art.