Lately I’ve been trying to pinpoint exactly why I game. Some people play for the challenge, but that’s not the draw for me. I think the reason I keep returning to games is that there are few things in life quite as satisfying as spending time in a fictional world where we are able to be heroes. That’s what children do when they play make-believe. And that’s what we adults do when we play video games… right?
This brings me to one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — and my favorite bit of Star Trek tech, the holodeck. The episode “Our Man Bashir” takes place almost entirely in a holo-program that Dr. Julian Bashir has been escaping to during all of his free time, apparently. The program casts him as a suave spy — an obvious James Bond type — taking down bad guys and getting the girls. But when Bashir’s real-life friend Garak bursts into the program, Bashir is upset. This is a private program, and Bashir feels that Garak has invaded his privacy.
It’s almost as if it’s embarrassing to play the hero with such abandon. It’s naive. It’s silly. It’s not anything like real life, and it doesn’t seem to solve any real world problems. Being so immersed in geek culture now, it’s hard to remember a time when gaming was a secret passion you didn’t want to talk about with others… but there are non-gamers who find it strange that adults would part with so much of their valuable time to play make-believe in video games. But maybe they have their own ways of playing the hero.
To return to the DS9 episode, members of the Deep Space 9 crew become trapped as characters in the holo-program (without realizing it), leaving Bashir and Garak to play along in the holosuite in order to keep them alive. This is a fun twist, as Bashir goes from playing secret spy in the holosuite to saving the day in real life… by playing secret spy in the holosuite.
Later, still in the holo-program, Garak basically accuses Bashir of being a child for play-acting the hero:
“It’s time to face reality, Doctor. You’re a man who dreams of being a hero because you know deep down that you’re not. I’m no hero either, but I do know how to make a choice, and I’m choosing to save myself.”
This could be a sore spot for some gamers, I’m sure. But Bashir wins out in the end, saving the day in real life with his play-acting in the fictional world of the holo-program. His solution requires quick thinking, creativity, and the balls to make selfish decisions sometimes — but all for the greater good, of course.
Because what’s wrong with playing the hero once in a while? If we sometimes forget our ideals in the real world, it’s wonderful that playing games allows us to rediscover them. And if you want evidence of the kind of important skills video games can teach us and the traits they reward us for, this TED Talk by Jane McGonigal is worth a watch: “Gaming Can Make a Better World.”
Until we have holodecks, we have video games to let us escape the limitations life sometimes imposes on us. But it’s not about turning our backs on our problems — it’s about finding new ways of facing challenges. Sure, not all video games are about heroes, but when they are, they help us tap into what heroism is and what selfless feats we’re capable of accomplishing. I believe the world is filled with real heroes, and it’s always good to keep that potential fresh in our minds — sometimes through gaming.