There is a weird component in our brains that has some form of addiction to near death experiences.
When we ride a wild roller coaster, during its fast movements and turns our brains release adrenaline, dopamine and reacts to the situation, the same way it reacts to drugs and addiction.
It’s a rare thing but rollercoaster addicts do exist and the seek for a thrill is out there.
Driving a motorbike at a high speed is another example where people justify its dangers with the answer of “ I feel alive when I do it” all of our senses and concentration are emerged in the experience focusing on one thing; survival.
In this video, I’ll try to make the argument that video games are capable of fulfilling this need for a thrill that many of us seek from the comfort of our seats but first here is a small note: the idea of this video was suggested to us by Gabriel who commented it on our second visual letters video.
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Back to our topic.
Soldiers who come back from war zones know this feeling very well. They know how it feels when each second of your life counts, missing a sound here or ignoring a small movement there could be the difference between life and death.
Coming back to the comfort of your home after having one of these experiences, feels unfulfilling for some. You use your senses and mental capacity at a minimal level. This feeling is captured brilliantly at the end of the film the hurt locker.
When team Bravo’s rotation ends, the main character James returns to his partner and their son. But the civilian life bored James. He ends up confessing to his son that there is only one thing he loves and in the next scene we see him starting another tour of duty, serving with the U.S. Army EOD unit on a new full-year rotation.
The film drew a lot of criticism from Iraq war veterans but by carefully reading their criticism, it all focused on technicalities about bomb defusing and how an EOD team works but none of them to my knowledge has criticized the ending and the feeling of boredom after returning to normal civilian life.
And let’s not base our conclusions on Hollywood films but from real soldiers who came back from war zones.
I found recently a Quora thread asking soldiers to describe their lives after coming back from war
Dallas McKay describes the feelings after returning home as follows: Boring. Frustrating. Relieving. Happy. Sad. Scary.
All those emotions happen simultaneously and individually. I have this 24 hour period of absolute bliss. Then it is followed by 30-90 days of hate.
Chris Madison describes his feelings even after a decade of coming back home from war: “Its boring. I served in Desert Storm (Marine) and again in Iraq (Army National Guard). I’ve been somewhat successful (three degrees, a patent, good income), but life is boring as hell. Yeah, I can go hike in the woods, or do CrossFit or do a goruck challenge, but that isn’t the point.
Dr. Howard Belkin, attending psychiatrist at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak says “Put it this way, if your life is full of ups and downs, twists and turns, actually enduring that on a ride and coming out just fine on the other end gives you a sense of accomplishment.”
But then the emptiness that follows will be hard to fulfill.
And I want to make it clear that we’re not talking about PTSD but about normal people who feel bored after being in a very stressful situation.
Jonathan Raab in his notes from the front lines in Iraq for the New York times poses a simple question to returning soldiers. Why do you want to go back?
While reading the answers of some of these soldiers, I remembered my feelings after finishing a great gaming experience and the emptiness I feel for a while after a great game ends.
I know many of you will say it’s ridiculous to compare wars with games. And you’ll be right. I’ll be the first to say that it’s ridiculous to compare both experiences, but in my opinion, the difference in both experiences is in degree not in kind.
Being absorbed in a masterfully crafted game with all of your senses and forgetting the real world that exists around you for a couple of tense seconds is one of the closest experiences I can think of to the tensity of war and I repeat that the difference between the two experiences is beyond comparison, but there is no peacetime alternative for war tensity that can inflame our senses like video games. Sports is a close second.
After finishing the eye operation segment in Dead Space 2 I felt fully exhausted at a mental level.
Who of us didn’t feel empty after finishing Red Dead Redemption 2? For one day after finishing the game, I couldn’t think of anything other than Arthur and how the events of the game ended, wondering if I could’ve done anything else to change the course of events.
On the same day I finished playing the Last of Us, I went to meet some friends and enjoy the evening with them, and those of you who have experienced the intensity of the game’s ending and the hard choices you had to make know very well how it can impact your thoughts for hours and maybe days after finishing the game. I still think of the game’s ending even after all these years.
In that evening all of my friends were chatting, laughing, and I was the only person who was there in body only, my thoughts were with Joel and Ellie thinking of the hospital corridors, the snow, the fireflies, and the painful choices.
I know war veterans and soldiers will be the first to laugh at this, but through video games, I learned how to empathize with their feelings of boredom after going through intense experiences.
The next question that jumps to my head when I think of the issue is can video games work as a replacement to fulfill our needs for a thrill? And in the case of a roller coaster and motorbike enthusiasts, can racing games be a safer substitute?
In modern peaceful times, we search for alternatives that can fulfill this need without necessarily waging a war.
Speed and cars with big engines are one way, entrenching in support behind our beloved sports team as if we are going to a war zone is another way.
Even the words we use in modern times to describe sports are derived from the military lexicon.
Fiona McPherson, senior editor of the OED’s new words group says “It’s not unusual for something in the military to make the move into sports, You often hear of footballers being ‘midfield generals’ or rugby pitches being ‘battlefields’ or players ‘waging war’. Rightly or wrongly the language seems to lend itself well to sports.”
Sport is a confrontation. Particularly in international sports, it is a war without weapons. We talk about victory and defeat – the ratcheting up of the whole value system. The temptation is to reach for something that makes a sport more important. Maybe a replacement to wars.
Maybe it’s an age thing and our generation is the first generation that can see and experience the full potential of video games and in that regards, I’m sure games can alongside sports be a very good replacement to wars to fulfill our hunger for a thrill.
There is a paragraph in my favorite novel, Blood Meridian, about war and sports. I want you to listen to it and replace the words sport and games with video games and see if the paragraph would make sense:
“Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.”
If I have to answer the question of can games fulfill our needs for a thrill and be a safe replacement for speed driving or even wars? Then my answer is Yes, and No.
I still think with our current technology we won’t be able to replicate the thrill of being behind the steering wheel and driving at high speeds.
One would think that racing games with ultra-realistic graphics and driving experiences closer to the real ones might bring us closer to that thrill but no, we’re still not fully absorbed in the experience.
But games can shine in making us absorbed in the experience at an emotional level, Kratos a god of war can reduce us to tears when we see how he cares about his son Atreus, fighting tens of other gods and giants to save his son.
It’s these intense experiences that can make us feel empty after finishing them wondering how to fill that vacuum they leave us with.
A racing game doesn’t provide the survival component in the experience and that’s where Games like Metal Gear 5 or ICO shine because even if you don’t care about the survival of your character because you’re sitting comfortably in your couch you still care about the other characters that you formed a bond with.
VR might be the missing link that will bring us closer to the thrill experience in racing games but I still have my doubts about that because the emotional bond would still be missing.
There is one genre in particular that makes me feel empty and bored after finishing a game. It’s survival horror.
Playing through P.T. or Outlast and coming out in one piece after the experience makes you feel alive similar to the feeling you get when you sit on your couch after riding a bike at 80 miles per hour.
I want to highlight a game that went unnoticed by gamers but it deserves more attention: Alien Isolation.
The unscripted nature of the beast combined with the isolation of the ship in the middle of space, the vulnerability of the main character all worked together to create a very intense atmosphere that made me feel relieved but also empty after finishing the game. At the moment of playing Alien: isolation I didn’t notice how absorbed in the experience I was, only after finishing the game and contrasting it with my calm and quiet life in north London I realized how absorbed I was in the experience. I remember myself in my apartment walking slowly avoiding making noise with my steps afraid of being detected only to realize that I spent hours and hours in the game crawling and hiding in fear of the alien.
For a day or two, I felt like one of those war veterans who came back from battles feeling bored to wash dishes, watch the Andrew Marr show on Sunday and take a walk in my neighborhood’s park.
Like James in the Hurt locker, who decided he only has one love, left his home and went back to the war zone. I felt I have to grab the joystick and face the alien again.
If there’s an experiment I want to do with war veterans then it would be the following. Find those who are bored and missing the thrill of war and then give them a copy of the Last of Us asking them to play the whole thing.
By the time they finish it I want to ask them if they’ve forgotten their boredom during the experience.
Maybe I’m exaggerating with comparing the feelings and thoughts of soldiers after returning home from war with finishing an intense video game. I don’t know friends, I had the thought in my head for a while now and I thought it might be interesting to share it here with you and listen to what you have to say.
Before we end this video, I want to leave you with something to think about.
Sebastian Junger, a journalist who was embedded with American soldiers at Restrepo, an outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley that saw heavy combat. in a TED talk he gave a look at the “altered state of mind” that comes with war, he showed how combat gives soldiers an intense experience of connection.
I want you to listen to his words about his experience together with one of his friend Branden and tell me in the comments section below if games can help you if even slightly to relate to his experience:
let’s hear Sebastian now: