If you ever worry that the hours you plough in to open world video games is time wasted, don’t sweat it. Every minute in a fantasy realm has actually been spent enrolled in a complex training simulation preparing you for the banal realities of 21st century life.
The creator of Dead Pixels – a comedy series about Meg and Nicky, two gamers utterly devoted to fictional fantasy MMORPG Kingdom Scrolls – explains how online games have been stealthily shaping us for the real world through nine simple life lessons.
Lesson 1: Submit to the rules
Games basically train you to be a good functioning member of capitalist society, a good employee. You have to submit yourself to a rigid set of rules, learn what you’re not allowed to do and get on board with that, or you’re not going to get anywhere. Subvert the rules if you want to, but if you do, you’re never going to make any progress.
Lesson 2: Grind away
To progress anywhere, you need to accept drudgery. Grind away. Do lots of busywork. If you’re happy to do that and to turn up for work every day, then you’ll go a long way and be rewarded with lots of nice shiny things and make money and XP and get levels. If you choose not to do that, then you’ll languish and essentially never amount to anything.
Lesson 3: Money gets you further, quicker
The more fortunate people in life will always get ahead. In Fortnite, you can buy tiers. My 10-year-old son will tell me that some friend of his is already on Level 40 because they’ve just paid his way to the top. That’s a good life lesson to accept – that however hard you work, if people have more money and more access than you, they’re going to get ahead of you first. It might sound bleak, but it’s useful to know.
Lesson 4: Really bad, unfair things can happen
Games are much needier now than they used to be, they actually want you to have fun. Back in the day, Spectrum games, 8-Bit games and platform games required much more skill. Once you’d bought a game, it was basically ‘Fuck you, we’ve taken your money. If you can’t get through it, tough shit’. Nowadays, because of season passes and subscriber models, games want you to be happy and keep playing. They’ve stopped teaching us to be patient.
Play pretty much any modern MMORPG or even FPS, and there are never really any consequences. You can’t ever really die and even if you do, often your progress will be reset within the last few minutes. It’s very rare that you get to something beyond your skill level. I’m playing Doom Eternal at the minute on the Switch, and there’s only so far you can really fall in that game. Original Doom was incredibly difficult and very punishing. That’s something games used to teach you but don’t anymore: that really bad things can happen and we just have to deal with it.
Lesson 5: Stay in your lane
You made a choice at the start of the game as to your character class, and built up that character every time you played. After 100 hours, if you decide that you don’t want to be a warrior, you want to be a mage, you’re basically fucked. You have to start again, retrain and go through every step of it again. It’s the same in real life if you were a plumber and decide you want to go and be an optometrist, it’s tough shit. You’ve got to relearn your craft and start again.
Lesson 6: Rewards > Escapism
In an online game, how often do you get on a dragon and fly through rainbows and under waterfalls? You don’t. You grind for items and mine for gold, and pull up the weeds in Animal Crossing. You’ve got this paradise island and you spend your time on it breaking rocks like you’re in a chain gang.
We enter these online utopias thinking, ‘My job is bullshit and I hate it and I’m miserable so I’m going to play this game where I can do anything I want’ and then what we do in the game is a form of busywork that more or less mirrors our day jobs. That’s because something innate in us that likes rewards and likes being told that we’ve done something well, so we’ll do these things because there’ll be a little reward at the end. The reward won’t necessarily make the game easier or more pleasurable, but we still covet it.
Lesson 7: Bureaucracy is in our blood
I remember playing a side quest in Elder Scrolls, going to see this woman who was locked out of her house in a little village. She’d lost her keys, so you had to search all of the places in the village to find this woman’s keys. At that point, it occurred to me that I was simulating the absolute worst part of my actual day, which is ‘Where are my fucking keys?’ The worst thing is, I’m just doing it for some incremental increase in XP which will ultimately increase my level which will mean I can access a new part of the game which will look like this part of the game, and will have enemies in it that will be benchmarked to my new level, so they won’t be any more challenging or any more fun than the current game. We, irresistibly, are drawn to bureaucratic systems.
Lesson 8: Change is the only constant
More so than they did before, games are constantly changing and shifting. The idea in Dead Pixels season two is that in-world game Kingdom Scrolls has shifted to focus on a different demographic, moving away from being for the hardcore and trying to grab that Fortnite market. In season two, characters Meg and Nicky feel like that world doesn’t value them anymore, it’s just going after a younger audience. Ultimately, they realise that there’s no choice but to get on board with it and try to enjoy it.
Your relationship to those properties and those worlds does change as you grow older. It’s like the Toy Story thing, there’s a time in your life when it’s time to put down childish things and become a grown-up and that’s a tension in Dead Pixels: how much longer can Meg and Nicky stay in this world?
Lesson 9: You don’t have to be in the same room to be with someone
To be slightly less bleak, the biggest benefit of online gaming is the connection you have with other people, to the extent that the actual game pretty much becomes irrelevant. The fact that you’re doing busywork doesn’t really mean anything, because you’re doing it with someone – especially right now – that you can’t physically be with. In lockdown, Fortnite essentially became the school playground. My son’s a social butterfly on there, he has scheduled activities all afternoon with his schoolfriends.
In Dead Pixels, Meg and Nicky can physically be together but they’re more comfortable when they have a third element to communicate through. That’s a huge positive and something I’ve experienced playing games with my brother, who I don’t get to see as much as I’d like. That’s at the heart of this show, that’s really what it’s about: here is a world that allows these two people to connect and communicate in a way that they can’t in real life.
As told to Louisa Mellor
Dead Pixels season 2 starts on Tuesday the 26th of January at 10pm on E4.
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