But then again, I’m pretty sure we KNOW that most human beings are dumb, and in order to understand why they are dumb, so that we can understand what ails our cutting-edge videogames, we need a primer on what I imagine actual researchers with actual degrees have to say about evolution and psychology.
The gist of it is that humans evolved to blame other humans.
Or, to be more specific, we evolved to take control of what we believe we can control, and screaming at other human beings is a way that we exert this control, because social mobility is one means to survival and resources. It’s a way to put the heat on someone else when you run over grandma in the crosswalk — she should have KNOWN that I was a maniac — and it’s a way to get other human beings to do the things you believe are necessary in order to assure your own survival.1
So as a species, we’re quite good at blaming other human beings for our fuck-ups, but on the contrary, we did NOT evolve to blame nature, and we otherwise SUCK at blaming nature, for the simple reason that you cannot blame nature for taking its course, you cannot blame the winters for being cold, you can’t blame the gazelle for deciding that it does not want to be eaten, you cannot blame those Hot Pockets for doing everything they can to fight back against the predator, as the melted cheese lashes out in self-defense and burns my tongue.
I give you the example that every person has run into a family member or a co-worker who often seems to be having a very bad day — maybe they didn’t win the Super Bowl that week and it is driving them MAD. But obviously, that person can’t lash out at the dishes for being dirty, they can’t lash out at the cascade of red lights that caused them to be late for work, because other human beings would see a person who jumps out of their car to scream at the traffic light as “irrational”, a person whose behavior poses a threat to the well-being of others.
So the more common outcome is that this person will eventually find someone to take out their aggression on, they will channel this environmental stress towards the first person or group of individuals who is unfortunate enough to do anything that could be seen as a catalyst, and after enacting righteous verbal or physical fury on those persons, the asshole may apologize on the way to explaining that they were just having a really bad day. 2
In-fact, humans suck so hard at blaming nature, they had to associate nature with human beings that had superpowers, with supernatural forms of magic, so that we could rationalize the behaviors of nature by associating them with something that kind of looked human. That way, when organisms smaller than the eye can see were busy killing your family and everyone you ever cared about, maybe you could ascribe it to a witch doctor, but more likely a god or a demon, and it was much easier to assume the vengeance was the result of some failure or flaw in the day-to-day behaviors of human beings.
Because what the fuck are you gonna do, blame the person who CREATED the universe? That motherfucker created the skies and the oceans, and according to the Old Testament, he does not fuck around, and he WILL drop a volcano on your ass. So if you’re going to take your concerns up with the big guy, it’s going to come with some human sacrifice at the sacred ground, the one that shall not be disturbed so we do not anger the Almighty. You’re certainly not going to blame Him after He gave you all those great and delicious animals to eat.
So human beings became very, very good at ascribing blame to other human beings, and as far as “hundreds of thousands of years ago” is concerned, this is what made sense, a world where nature dominated human beings, a largely unchanging world with a stable framework that humans had limited control over. You had to accept that nature was an obstacle to overcome, with family and friends alongside you, and you had to accept that screaming at nature would not solve the problem. It was the primitive equivalent of what modern man would call “GIT GUD” or whatever it is the cool kids are saying these days.
But we have now thrown a wrench in this with several thousand years of civilization, and particularly the rapid technological process that came with the last couple of centuries. Which is to say that humans now CREATE their environment, they now CREATE their nature, they now collectively CREATE the rules and systems that govern what occurs in most of our daily lives. But when these man-made environments create situations that are incompatible with human psychology and they stress the fuck out of people, our inhibition is still to lash out at other human beings.
The impact that modern society can have on a human being manifests in very subtle outcomes, and they’re are mostly the result of apolitical technologists and scientists creating individually interesting advances that cascade into unforeseen outcomes. For most of Western society, this results in the day-to-day grind of getting in a car and sitting at a desk, where the bureaucracy ensures your carefully-controlled input and total lack of autonomy can justify a paycheck that has an increasingly difficult time of paying for essentials, due to global issues that you have no control over, and call into question the entire concept of purpose and being in a modern world.3
The reality is that there is no person or group to blame for this, it is a world where your leaders are the symptom and not the disease. But when it comes time to discuss this complicated world, and you will find society blaming “Republicans” or “Democrats” or “Mexicans” or “feminists” or “my mother” or whomever is trying to throw me out for not paying rent this month. The natural human impulse, when placed under stress, is to take the massive and impersonal set of systems that prop up this global economy and then ascribe their success and failure to “the President”, because as far as human evolution is concerned, blaming the leader of the tribe is easy.4
And even videogame companies have made mastery of this in recent years, where we take the complicated tryst of bean counters and corporate executives who are looking for ways to provide shareholders with increased value, all working under the guise of an impersonal corporate structure, all working to justify a salary so that their family does not starve, and we reduce it down to Diablo III Lead Designer Jay Wilson, the man at the head of an operation spanning hundreds of individuals all working at the behest of Activision-Blizzard. And you know why? Because I KNOW that asshole programmed the Auction House and it makes me angry just thinking about it.
But it’s much the same thinking behind “community managers” that act as the figurehead for these massive monoliths, where all the anger and discontent is then directed and funneled at an individual like Robert Bowling, as though he was the one who decided that Modern Warfare 2 would ship without the functionality for dedicated servers, and wasn’t the mere end-result of corporate ballast. And then when the stress of the job eats that figurehead alive, the company will attach the next fool to the breaking wheel and the children will harmlessly redirect their anger towards that individual.5
That’s just the nature of human beings, we have to take these systems and place a human face on them, and then we blame that person or those people. It is almost entirely impossible for human consciousness to fathom it any other way.6 When we feel the stress created by those subtle and impersonal systems, we lash out at humans. And it works much the same way when you use a television screen and a joystick as the catalyst for DIGITAL forms of nature. Players still feel those stresses when you take the real-world and reduce them down to scale. They need someone to blame.
Much as in the real-world, the way that the rules and systems of videogames can influence outcomes and place stress on individuals can be very subtle. But while the fun and games on your television screen are a subset of real-world forces — one part of a consumer market that is heavily dependent on the whims of current technology and what people are willing to buy — these developers are mostly creating these virtual worlds from scratch. They have an incredible degree of agency in order to fashion the experience.
And what these digital systems have mostly done, after a period in the 1990s where videogame companies seemed to be hellbent on creating games that gave more and more control to their players, spanning larger and more complex movesets spread out across bigger and larger armies and more complicated control schemes, along with more control over the software itself, and creating the high point of your civilization,7 8 is that they freak the fuck out of the people playing the games.
That’s because psychological security is the thing that causes that half of the country to be incredibly concerned that there are crazy people running around with the high-powered killing sticks, while the other half threatens to dispense indiscriminate justice against anybody that believes they are a threat to the well-being of others. It’s the same thing that makes people horrified of traveling in the metal birds that are the safest form of travel going today. And right at this moment, this brand of household cleaner could break into your house, tie up your family, and burn the whole thing down.
It’s scary stuff, and that’s because there’s a difference between that empirical safety and how safe one actually feels. In other words, there was a very long time ago where the world was actually more dangerous, much less safe than it is today, but our dumb ape ancestors felt they could fight back against it, you could stare down the gigantic bloodsucking mosquito and punch the thing right in its goddamn face.9 But you can’t punch global warming, you can’t punch the threat of nuclear war, and if you are a poor person, you can’t quite shake the feeling that me and my wealthy criminal buddies are ruling the world, DENYING you the promotion to cashier.
But one of the best things about videogaming is how it can take a big and massive and impersonal world that disempowers individuals, and then reduce it to scale, where you have REAL agency, even if it is digital and imagined. It’s a world where only YOU can save the world, where YOU are the one-man army, juggling a dozen different firearms as you demolish Nazi Germany with the weight of the entire world hanging on your back…instead of the real thing, where the machine chews human flesh alive and massacres human beings by the tens-of-thousands without much of a thought.10
And in the face of this, the videogame industry of the twenty-first century has chosen to go in the other direction. They have chosen to REMOVE individual accountability, remove the idea that you (as an individual) have the ability to shape the outcome, and has placed its players at the mercy of both other human beings and crappy interfaces in order to get the job done, while simultaneously destroying the player’s ability to police their slice of the digital universe in the pursuit of declaring that videogames are a “service”, and placing them inside of digital communities where individuals come as fast as they go. The result is community after community of players who think their teammates and others are the worst goddamn people on planet Earth.
Some of this was the inevitable end of improving technology in a society that changes all too fast, with people looking to distinguish themselves in a market with newer and better and shinier, with games that tap into fundamental human impulses in ways that previous games simply could not, spanning more players and bigger worlds. Or, in other words, Counter-Strike and Halo and Defense of the Ancients ruined my childhood and Robert A. Kotick kicked my dog in the butt.
Continue to Part Two (Coming Soon).