I’ve just come out of an addiction and I feel amazing. For the past few weeks I have been trapped playing Assassin’s creed IV – the one with pirates. For those who haven’t heard of Assassin’s Creed, it’s a series of video games about a series of men who kill people in the past. There are assassins, knight’s Templars, conspiracies, and pseudoscience.
Asscreed IV – that’s not my abbreviation I heard it from someone much cooler than me – takes place in 17something in the Caribbean and like all action video games it follows a weird logic in which you murder more people than George Bush but are still supposed to believe that you’re the hero. The bad guys like to prance about in expensive looking clothes waiting for you to kill them and making cringeworthy public pronouncements about slavery as if they’re trying to get into UKIP. Only this time you’re kind of the bad guy because you like money more than death but then you redeem yourself by joining an order of murderers and there are some yellow laser beams and you’re actually a spy working for a computer game company in the present and they’re evil but they’re not but they are and humans were made by aliens or robots or earlier humans or something. I don’t know. The point is, stuff happens and it’s fun. Or at least it was. And this is why I’m writing this post.
Because Asscreed is both brilliant and awful. It symbolic of what is both right and wrong with games, what is both right and wrong with me, and as this essay will hopefully demonstrate, what is both right and wrong with our civilisation.
Asscreed is moderately engaging from the start. It’s not exactly Shakespeare but it offers us a character with a motivation – he wants to find a magical observatory which he can use to extort money from the rich and powerful. Asscreed then provides what a film or a book cannot provide – interactivity. You play as Edward Kenway. You become Edward Kenway. You can even make yourself spin around in circles while the game is loading as Edward Kenway. This is part of the enduring appeal of video games.
I’m not a video game spokesman. I recognise that most games are awful. There have been some great artistic games but they are rare. Asscreed is not a masterpiece. For all its joyful sadistic wonderment, people won’t care about it in ten years time – not the way they care about Toy Story and old Simpsons and Red Dwarf. But it is an experience to be relished today. Because Asscreed gives the player control. And more than that, it gives them mysteries.
If you collect enough money, you can buy upgrades for your ship. You can get bonus armour for collecting things. There are side missions, hidden treasures, Assassination contracts, warehouses to rob, whales to puncture and so on. All of these give you money and allow you to buy new guns and rams and sails and so on. But what’s important is that you don’t know exactly how some of these upgrades will work or feel until you buy them, so there’s a mystery which draws you in to perform tasks which you otherwise might find boring.
And this is where the game turns evil. Because at first, you hunt for treasure to see what hunting for treasure is like. Then you hunt for treasure to get enough money to buy a mortar to see what firing a mortar is like. Then you try and get a better mortar so you can kill a better ship. And then, by the time you have plenty of money and don’t need another mortar, you’ve built up a habit. Hunting for treasure made you feel good in the past. Now it’s something you have to do. You have to get all the treasure. All the mortars. Everything. You have to complete the game.
And I mean complete it. Every mission. Every treasure. Every upgrade. Every Templar hunt. 100%. They even have a completion bar on the main menu. You’ve started a process you have to finish. Because there are boxes to be uncovered. Viewing posts to be viewed. Airborne sea shanties to be caught. It’s not fun by this stage. It’s becoming more and more boring. More and more of a job to be done. A chore to be completed. You make a list – “go to seminar, pick up textbooks, read chapters 23 and 24 of Capital, collect everything on Iguana island, kill target in Havana, hunt the HMS Fearless, brush teeth, email Landlady, check timetable, take out native guards using only fists” and it becomes more and more of a burden hanging over you. It has to be done. It’s not fun. But that’s not the point. It’s on your list. It has to be completed. Not playing it makes you feel guilty.
I know most people reading this will be thinking “That’s ridiculous. It’s not the game’s fault. It’s your response to the game. If you hate it so much, just stop playing. No one else has this problem.” But this is where games are evil. They’re designed to be addictive. That’s what “achievements” are about. They grab hold of your completionist instincts and command them to play. If you’re always being scored and monitored, then you want to perform, even if you don’t like to.
I can’t go into too much depth here, but the addictive nature of the “achievement” system is confirmed by science. It may not affect you. In fact it probably doesn’t impact on most of those who are reading this piece. But in explaining myself I may hopefully bring some insight into other habits that you may have, perhaps to do with Facebook, or weed, or alcohol, or anything really because almost anything can become addictive. And if I don’t then at least it may help you to understand my situation.
Anyway. This is my problem. I enjoyed playing at first. But I increasingly felt like I had to play it. And the awful thing about addiction with a game is that there is one clear answer to the problem – which is exactly what the designers wanted – which is to complete the game. Once you’re done, you’re done. At least, that’s my experience. It’s not a satisfying experience to have just finished a game. Normally the weight of everything you’ve been putting off falls back on you. But it is a liberating experience. The screen no longer has power over you. You can do what you want. You can start to cross the other things you need to do off your list again.
I’m not just joking when I say I hope this might shed light on our civilisation. We live in an addicted society. Alcoholism and addiction to sugar are worse than they have ever been. The obesity epidemic is largely an epidemic of addiction to obese modes of behaviour. The internet is an addiction machine. We’re fed the things we love to read and watch by corporations and our friends, and we’re hyper-stimulated by endless brief distractions. I’m a big fan of civilisation, but today there’s a blurring line between engaging the human mind and exploiting its weaknesses.
The worst part of this addiction explosion is that a lot of it is built on what should be good parts of our psychology. The desire to complete tasks and the mechanisms surrounding that desire should be helping us to do things, to avoid procrastination, and to become who we want to be. But it’s the “I must always be running” part of my brain that chains me to my television and makes my eyes sting when I look away and realize the sun has come down.
If I still choose to play games then the only personal solution is to take control of my time for myself. That’s often a much easier thing to say than it is to do. The good thing is that when you do it you feel great. You can be amazed at how much time there is in a day. Personally, right now, I’ve stopped, and I’m much happier. So if this problem is facing you and you’re reading this piece out of a desire to make sure that you’ve read everything there is to read, the only advice I can try to offer is this:
You’re at the end. Stop.