Red Dead Redemption 2 and the emotional joy of video games

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THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE RED DEAD REDEMPTION VIDEO GAME. 

Video games have come in for a bad rap over the years. This almost always simmers down to a lack of understanding: people who don't play finding the attraction confusing and therefore rubbishing its existence. An exercise dripping with insecurity. In its earlier years especially, gaming was demonised for allegedly instigating real-life violence in players who committed grievous acts on-screen, fully ignoring the millions of us who didn't go on gun-toting rampages after putting down the controller. There are real and important issues to consider regarding how sensitively content is handled and age-appropriate classifications, because it couldn't be left an industry unregulated. But are video games dangerous by default? No.

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Anyone who's seen the second episode from the third collection of Black Mirror stories will be sure to have considered the pending implications of virtual reality. As VR headsets now find their way into our homes, the immersive nature of placing yourself fully inside the game is met with nervousness. Watch the current HBO Westworld series and it's difficult not to wonder where we need to stop in order to avoid an uncomfortable situation with robotics. Though, as Westworld is a reprise of the 1973 film and concept of the same name, it's easy to see that humans' complicated relationship with how we manipulate tech and our fears over what it means for mankind are nothing new.

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Some of the barbs chucked at the gaming industry are fully warranted. I repeatedly cringe at the impression GamerGate gave to the outside world. Setting aside the far more serious point about the abuse thrown at female gamers being at best abhorrent, at worst threatening and illegal, what did we look like? One of the most forward-thinking and exciting industries in entertainment reached a tipping point where an inclusive and supportive culture simply had to be implemented. That (hopefully) final push-back from those feeling downtrodden by necessary progress or a misplaced sense of ownership was so ugly, it must surely have left some taking tentative steps toward gaming running for the hills. I hope they come back. The more the merrier.

What we don't so regularly talk about though are the positives of gaming. The good feelings it produces. The emotions that aren't simply a sense of rage. For Jane McGonigal, gaming literally saved her from taking her own life after a brain injury. It had such an impact she created an app-based game, SuperBetter, to help anyone struggling with a physical or an emotional illness to view their recovery like a game. Even the pretend President of the United States enjoys the pressure valve that is bashing some buttons. We can talk about the bonding experiences that video games bring about. When we play with or against friends and family either online or in person, there is evidence to show that the shared experiences strengthen our connection with those people. Even playing a game in roughly the same timeframe as others or discussing achievements afterward can create a warming sense of community.

What we talk about even more rarely are the good things that happen in our brains when we dive into a video game's story. The image is changing to a point, but games have a reputation for being that of juvenile time-wasting. As pieces of culture, they end up being the poor relation to literature, film and TV. Not because they aren't jammed full of the same rollercoastering narratives or artistic skill, just because people don't always know there can be masterpieces living within them. Along the sprawling horizon of fiction, gaming is a relatively faint silhouette. Its potential for telling stories is only just being recognised. It's also the case that video games can be so expensive and time-consuming to produce that finding one that knocks your socks off can currently mean waiting around. But when it's good, it's spectacular.

Red Dead Redemption was a watershed in my gaming life. I'd been console hopping since the mid-80s but RDR was the perfect storm for me. Its End-of-the-West setting ticked a lot of boxes. The ability to ride horses around a geographical space and to inhabit a point in history I was already fascinated by was compelling. And what makes video games different to film, for instance, is that you get to control where you go and what you do. Want to take a moment to enjoy the view over the top of a cliff before the next big event? Take as long as you want. Yes, it's scenery built by hand, but as graphic expertise continually improves and takes our breath away, our brains fill in any gaps much like they do when reading a descriptive novel. Neuroscientists have found that when we just read about an action taking place with rich language, the area of our brains that control our motor skills light up. The words make us feel something physical. In video games the sensation is heightened because we're effectively making it happen. Have you ever been in a video game car chase and found your shoulders swaying with each tyre swerve? That's the inside of your head pinging to match what you're seeing.

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What really sealed the deal for me with Red Dead Redemption was the story and the characters. That's what I couldn't get enough of. That and the long, rhythmic, mind-wandering canters along dusty canyons. Emotional connections to characters in any form of fiction mean big business these days. The more we care about, like or even love them, the more time and cash we're willing to invest. In gaming, where there's astonishing money to be made, developers really want to understand the psychology behind what makes one character so engaging over another. According to a study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, it comes down to three key features - physical, social and task attractiveness. Basically, we most like people who look good to us, who have a friendly nature and who are useful to us within the game. John Marston, the outlaw we got to inhabit in RDR, was all those things in abundance.

I absolutely found John Marston physically attractive. That voice! I had a crush on him and, yes, I did feel weird about it. It's that awkward issue of humans and technology again. But I had no more reason to feel strange about it than I did finding Mr. Darcy annoyingly attractive while reading Pride and Prejudice. With Colin Firth in mind when reading, it was an easy mental leap. With Hugh Jackman in mind while playing as John, despite him not providing the voice, he was even easier to love.

What sets John Marston apart from Rockstar characters we've played in Grand Theft Auto, for example, is that he's actually a good person. He has to do some bad things, but ultimately all he wants is to get back to protect his family. We liked that. There's a popular theory in psychology called Theory of Mind, where we use our own emotional intelligence to make calculated assumptions about how others might react to specific situations. Fiction allows us to hone those skills. While playing video games we make astute judgements on who the characters are and what they simply won't do. While I currently play Mafia III, I refuse to rob any small businesses even when the money is there for the taking without consequences. I don't think Lincoln Clay would do that. John Marston's obvious honour and dignity courtesy of a cleverly written story made him intensely likeable while we guided him through the desert. And as for how useful he was to us within the game? Nothing happened without his input. His character currency hit the jackpot.

Being so invested in how Red Dead Redemption ended is why I cried when John perished. I didn't sob, but I shed some real tears when this fictional character died. I was sure he was going to be nursed back to health, but it wasn't to be. I cried at the end of Parks & Recreation because it was definitely over and I didn't want it to be. I couldn't visit Pawnee again. RDR was just the same. There seemed to be no way back for John and I'd never get to play again without knowing what happened. Rockstar had teased a return to the game franchise for six years, though it never materialised. More recently, leaked maps and job vacancy ads suggesting it was on the cards teased the possibility. A week and a half ago, one day at a time, Rockstar gradually revealed the worst kept secret we were too afraid to believe - Red Dead Redemption 2 was finally coming.

I made jokes about needing to place towels down in advance of watching the trailer. It's definitely sexy, I'll give it that. What I wasn't expecting was to cry. Again, no sobbing, but within a second or two of hitting play on the trailer, my eyes filled up and I placed both hands over my lips. My shoulders shot toward my ear lobes and my throat tightened. It looked beautiful. Magical, even. The door was open again to a place I'd loved. What's most exciting is that all signs point to the story being a prequel, meaning we probably will get to play again as John Marston. It's like striking a match at a candlewick that's been refusing to light only for it suddenly to catch the flame.

Video games are hybrid forms of entertainment. They can have all the enveloping joy of a novel or a film, but with the mechanics that allow us to at least roughly decide what happens and when. We're inside the story. When they're good, they have the potential to enhance our emotional intelligence while also improving our motor skills. Nothing else lets us do that in quite the same way. Gaming is far from being a niche industry anymore. The financial stakes are high and in terms of recognition, organisations such as BAFTA celebrate the contribution games make to our cultural lives. But there's still a 'low form of entertainment' tag that won't quite drop off yet. The credibility wavers. That may be the fault of movements like GamerGate that confirmed the impression of immaturity, fitting the stereotype. It may also be a generational issue that will pass once the early adopters of the 1970s push past middle-age.

Contrary to the damage done by a small but vocal minority last year, I want more people to love video games. I especially want more women to enjoy them. I need them to know that there's something for everyone. I want them to know that, despite the faults we're still working to iron out, there are characters you'll carry with you after the games finish, stories you won't want to end, the ability to time-travel, instant stress relievers, action that makes your heart pound and anticipation so exciting it can make you cry. Jump on a horse and come with us, because we're only just getting started.