Are Videogames Just Opiates in the Form of Stories?

Up until the last chapter of The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall is pretty optimistic about the form’s contribution to society. Stories bring people together. They help us learn how to live in the world by giving us chances to problem solve in an alternate one. But can stories be bad for us?

As the power of technology grows exponentially, Gottschall worries virtual worlds and the narratives they house will become so compelling that we risk letting stories take over our lives completely. We recently had a chance to talk to him about the powerful pull of fiction, storytelling as a drug, and the potential to disappear into videogame universes.

You’ve said, “The writer guides the way we imagine but does not determine it.” Do games differ from this tradition? Do they undermine traditional storytelling in any way?

I don’t know if I’d use the word “undermine.” I think what you’re saying is since it’s a visual form of media, that we don’t have as much scope for imagination. If I read a novel, I have to create the whole world in my head. So I think, yeah, film, TV, and videogames do give the imagination less room for creative trying, but they add something to it, too.

What’s really interesting to me about videogames is the interactive nature of storytelling. You get to be inside the story and the character, and you also have a role in determining the outcome. You’re probably too young for this, but when I was a kid we had these Choose Your Own Adventure books. Have you heard of these?

Of course. I used to read them, too.

I loved these things. I had a fantasy novel that’d read, “Do you want to fight the dragon or do you want to run from the dragon?” If you want to fight you go to page 152, if you want to run you go to page 158. Videogames are about that to me. What I like about those interactive stories is what I think a lot of videogames offer.

Usually when the possibility is brought up that people will plunge into virtual realities (The Matrix, or Inception even), the consensus seems to be that it’s a negative development: We are tricked into it, or perhaps we can’t differentiate between fake and real anymore. But you say we’ll like it. Why?

 Well, we like the Matrix too. The idea of going into the Matrix… that great scene where Cypher says, “I know this steak isn’t real” and comes to the conclusion that ignorance is bliss. If it feels this good, what do I care if it’s real or not? We’re drawn into these worlds because we like them, because real life is boring and often pretty meaningless. If you go into a game likeWorld of Warcraft, where suddenly you’re a stud with big muscles and you have powerful magic, and you could live there instead of here, and it gets more and more authentic feeling, there’s a very, very powerful draw.

If it feels this good, what do I care if it’s real or not? We’re drawn into these worlds because we like them, because real life is boring and often pretty meaningless.

On the other hand, I very strongly relate to nightmare scenarios. It’s hard for us to conceive what these worlds are going to be like in our lifetimes. To me, it’s not all that crazy that we could be living in things like the holodeck, and when I think of having a holodeck in my house I think about never doing anything else again. Why would you ever want to stop being God?

It’s hard to imagine that kind of future exactly, but in some ways I feel that here in Korea. There are more college graduates than jobs, and the government is worried about game addiction. Escapism is often cited as a reason to play videogames, but what if people eventually want to escape the breakdown of their personal stories instead of just boredom?

If you’re a big failure in the real world, the virtual world starts to look pretty attractive. You can go in there and be a success, have big muscles, respect, and authority. I know guys that have been playing World of Warcraft practically since the beginning, and they have these characters who are just juggernauts. They’re really somebodies in that world, while they’re kind of nobody in their own world, so I think that is dangerous for people who really have no life in this world.

I think there comes a point where it’s cooler to be a king in the virtual world than to be a king in the real world.

But what’s interesting to me is to project out 20 or 30 years and look at people who are successful in this world. I think there comes a point where it’s cooler to be a king in the virtual world than to be a king in the real world.

You said in your book that lots of people see those who dive into videogames as “pathetic losers,” that they are not like those people. But I often see they are dedicating their free time to pulling out their phone and diving into virtual worlds themselves. Are people overestimating their ability to defend against this kind of appeal?

Oh yeah, I think so. Again, we’re really at the earliest stages. I’m one of these people that see videogames as an emerging art form and an emerging form of storytelling. We haven’t really figured out all the conventions. Right now we have games that are really marketed towards the quite young, testosterone drunk, and play to their fantasy scenarios. But I don’t see any reason why eventually videogamers will not start designing these things for women who likeDesperate Housewives. Those kinds of stories could be implemented, too.

The most interesting form for me is the role-playing game. It’s the most story-like, it’s the most interactive in terms of creating a character and interacting with the story. And I don’t see any reason why it has to be limited to a sort of “dorks and orcs” genre. It could be spy thriller stuff, it could be romance novel stuff, and I think people who disregard games as “dorks and orcs” are overestimating themselves.

Speaking of RPGs and World of Warcraft, you wrote that it has a “profoundly meaningful” world, and you linked it to the successful resurrection of mythology in its story. Can you talk about that a little?

Well, there’s a sense of modern life – you know, gods are dead. Gods are dead, magic is dead; we don’t believe it anymore. But here, gods are still powerful, magic still exists. There’s meaning in the universe instead of meaninglessness. If God is dead, a lot of people think there’s no point to our existence. It happened: The Big Bang happened, chemical/physical conditions happened to be right to develop further forms, but it’s pointless. And scary. We want meaning in our lives, and these videogames sort of bring it back.

You’ve also mentioned the dark side of myths, that they can be easily weaponized or used for violence. Could the myths we experience through games ever be used to mobilize or exploit people the way stories have been used in the past?

I don’t see why not. Fiction is powerful. It’s been demonstrated in the lab now that it shapes people on an individual level. It shapes personality. It shapes beliefs. Measurably so. There’s the historical evidence of this, Uncle Tom’s Cabin being the great example, and many others where fiction has influenced not only individuals but whole movements. I think there’s every reason to expect that they’d [games] continue to have the same sort of power that fiction and other forms have had.

Fiction has influenced not only individuals but whole movements. I think there’s every reason to expect that they’d [games] continue to have the same sort of power that fiction and other forms have had.

Computer scientist Stuart Staniford said that as the robot population surpasses humans and takes most of our jobs,”the least disruptive approach to managing this is for the underclass to disappear into technologically mediated secondary universes.”I can’t help but see videogames imagined here as a widely used opiate…

Yeah, exactly.

What do you make of this?

 To me, it sounds like a science fiction scenario. It sounds like The Matrix, where you had the rise of the machines, and you basically have to anesthetize whole populations, make them believe that they’re living a real, authentic and meaningful life when they’re actually not. Is that how you read it, too?

Yeah, he goes on to say the trend would meet with resistance due to “traditional cultural ethics that despise dependency,” but when I read your book I thought you mightsay this dive into alternate universes would actually dovetail naturally with the way we’ve evolved. 

The Matrix is actually a really smart movie, and very prescient about the dilemma we’re going to be facing. If you had the choice to live in a pretty good world – the Matrix gives the stimulations of a pretty good world, basically our world in the modern 20th century – or, you can take the other pill and have absolute knowledge, but you live in Hell. I think a lot of people, if they had the choice between living in a relative paradise or hell with full knowledge, they’d choose the relative paradise.

So I think it probably would dovetail. I don’t think people will be dragged kicking and screaming into simulations of paradise. The Matrix, the only reason we can’t have paradise, the reason they [the machines] give us that simulation, is because they say, “Your species is so degraded and corrupt that it couldn’t stand the paradise simulation we give. You guys need trouble and stink in your lives.” But that’s not necessarily so if you have your holodeck. You can live in paradise.

It’s interesting that you said it’s not necessarily so that we need trouble in our lives, because in the book you talk a lot about how all the stories we tell each other involve some kind of terrible tragedy.

There’s a big difference, though, between how we want to live our lives and the stories we like. That’s one of the neat paradoxes of fiction: There’s this big gap between what we’d think of a desirable trip to the supermarket where nothing happens – you just have a nice time with your daughter – and what would make good fodder for a movie, which is where the daughter disappears.

So obviously you don’t think people can be dragged kicking and screaming into a simulated world, but can you imagine a future where a large portion of the population chooses to use virtual reality as a kind of drug?

Aren’t we already doing it? I think we are. I know people who sit around for five hours per day – that’s actually the average [amount] an American sits on the couch watching TV – and that seems to be anesthetizing [the] self withJersey Shore, dumb sitcoms. So I think people always use fiction, in some part, to escape from reality and get some sort of comfort in their lives.


I don’t think it’s all fiction is about. I don’t know what you’re experience is with videogamers. There’s a very broad, diverse group of people playing. It didn’t used to be that way. When I was a 20 years old, for the most part it was kind of dorks who played videogames. And I still experience that the most intense gamers, especially in the RPG field, do tend to be the kind of guys who don’t have much of a life. These are guys I went to college and graduate school with, hang out with now, and guys who’re still playing these videogames all these years tend to be guys who don’t have a lot going on outside of the game. So I do think there’s an opiate component.


What would it mean for people to binge on too much story? What would a “mental diabetes epidemic,” as Brian Boyd put it, look like?

That’s a really interesting question. I actually haven’t thought about that: “How would we know if we were in it?” For the most part, in the book I’m really positive and optimistic about stories. I think there’s some case to be made that we’re already in the epidemic. What we have with humanity is a very basic mismatch between conditions of early life and what it’s like now.

In the old days, if you were ever going to get a story, you had to have somebody tell it to you. It wasn’t until the printing press when regular people learned to read. You had to have a skilled teller or an actor. So that made stories extremely scarce. We were hungry for it, and the hunger we had for it was adaptive. Suddenly you get to us, with the same kind of story hunger in a world of tremendous abundance. You can’t get away from it.

I think it’s very similar to the obesity epidemic. We evolved in a world where food was scarce, so we’re very comfortable right now. I can afford to eat, sit down all day long, camp out at 7-11. We have this mismatch between our hunger and our [adapted world of] scarcity. So we may be already over consuming stories.

If we overestimate our ability to protect ourselves from story, do you think prolonged participation in hyper violent, interactive stories can affect our attitudes and values in the future? Do the traditional archetypes of stories still trump these concerns?

People started getting concerned about this question not with videogames, but with TV about 50 years ago. People noticed, oh man, TV is all violence; everyone who watches it all day, it’s just [going to] ruin them. So they started studying [it] scientifically, and we still don’t know the answer.

One thing that gives me hope about it, and it’s something that’s usually overlooked by critics, is that the violence is moral violence for the most part. You can find immoral violence, likeGrand Theft Auto, where you’re kind of encouraged to behave like an evil person, but for the most part the violence is heroic violence. You’re the protector, the punisher of people who’ve done bad things. It tends to send a message that other forms of storytelling do, that violence is bad. It’s only okay under specific conditions. But this is an empirical question and we just don’t quite know the answer.

Do you think there’s some kind of dissonance when watching Uncharted, which is like the equivalent of Indiana Jones, but in which the character kills hundreds and hundreds of people more than Indiana Jones kills in any of his movies?

Well, there’s a lot of slaughter in those movies. They open the ark up and all the Nazis melt. There’s the great scene where they’re in the bazaar, and the guy with the sword doing all the swordplay. Indiana Jones just shoots him. It’s a pretty brutal scene; he fuckin’ murders the guy. There’s more slaughter [in games]. It’s not hard to see in a few years or decades, if the designers want to go this way, it’ll look like brutality and carnage. It still looks kind of cartoonish now.

So I don’t know. I have this little neighbor next door. He comes over and tells me about playing Call of Duty, and he’s talking about, “Aw yeah, I slit this guy in the throat and then I stuck a grenade up this guy’s ass.” He’s describing [it] in all this detail, and that makes me uncomfortable. I don’t think that’s good for him.

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