Guilt. Guilt is one of those weird, almost untouchable emotions we all spend countless amounts of alcohol, therapy, denial, or self-justification to live with. It walks hand-in-hand with regret down the road of life, taking hellacious dumps for us to step on when we least want or expect to. So why, then, would we ever willingly look for them? Please be patient with this first one, it’s starting slow to give us a foundation for the rest.
Enter videogames, stage left. Not a stranger to this blog, they are funny little things that we subjugate ourselves to. Funny, sad, scary, boring, mind-building, and world-ignoring, they do everything that would otherwise be possible. Look at the terms used over the years: escapism; time-wasters; morally corrupting; power fantasies; etc. They kind of cover all bases like films or books or whatever else (like I’ve discussed before). So why would you ever want to feel some of the worst emotions possible, and on purpose, for that matter?
Well, because it makes a bloody good story, doesn’t it?
However, guilt is, like horror, one of those things where the more specific you get (and therefore how personally it affects you), the more people you’ll have turn off and cease to be affected. If you have a game about a dog you have to take care of, anyone afraid of dogs won’t really have the same response as a dog owner. Have a game about a child, and anyone who hates kids may be turned away and feel nothing. Unless you have a receptive mind and can detach yourself from yourself in the game (suspension of disbelief, which we’ll discuss more later), it will be like hearing a story about someone drowning while you’re dying of hunger. Not really relevant, and really isn’t going to help you much.
This feeling of guilt is something that can be simply, bluntly done, or it can be unraveled over time in some wacky scheme- it’s all the same end result, depending who you target and how receptive they are. That is, what buttons are pressed.
Let’s start simple. Tamagotchi. Those little plastic egg-shaped games with cheap screens where you have to take care of some little cute blob-creature; feeding it, bathing it, scooping up its pixelated poop, playing with it, etc. Technobaby’s first responsibility. It’s something that takes time, effort, commitment, and investment. Sounds silly, but absolutely captivating to anyone born in the age of gaming. It was important. But what always happened? You forget. You go away for the weekend, leaving your little blobby friend alone for days on end. Maybe you tell your parents that they must take care of it, and it happens. You come home to a little dead friend. Days or weeks worth of investment and care, and it’s gone. Either by a dead battery or your parents ignoring (or not fully appreciating) your investment into this little plastic waste of time; it’s dead. No take-backs. This is loss. This is guilt and regret to a kid. It’s easy to laugh at now, sitting jaded and older at our computers- but think about your favourite stuffed animal from when you were a kid. I know some of you still have them, even now. Imagine watching it being torn apart by a dog and having your parents not care. Feel that pang? Just a wee, little bit? That’s it, still there. Something you cared for died, and you could do nothing to stop it. Baby’s first loss. It doesn’t matter if it’s silicon or polyester or flesh and fur. I’m not saying it’s the same, but they certainly live on the same street.*
And that’s not even really intentional guilt. That’s incidental at best. The only other equivalent that immediately comes to mind are those babies that schools apparently gave to kids in the US twenty or thirty years ago. You may have seen these in TV series or movies, where the baby has sensors and needs and will wail and shriek in its awful, cheap-speaker kind of way until you “change” its diaper or “feed” it. If you shake it, drop it, neglect it, it can “die.” Some nonsensical, context-less, moralistic message to scare the hell out of unprepared kids, but hey, it was a thing. Imagine one of those that you wanted to take care of, and boom- Tamagotchi.
When we talk about videogames as a whole, they’re largely without consequence. If you die, you start again. It might be from the beginning of the game, but hey, it’s square one, not an actual game over. Mario still gets to save the Princess, Sonic still gets to go fast, and the right Pong paddle gets to keep.. keep doing whatever it is that it’s doing. Up and downing. Whatever, the point stands- you have a little “brrp” or “bl-l-l-lp” or “krrt” sound effect, a little “oh gosh” or “uh-oh” face, and you start again. It’s not really consequence. “Ha ha, I impaled myself on giant spikes,” Mario says to himself mid-impalement, “that sure is some kind of bummer.” Then “wa-hoo” or something, I don’t know.
Some of the only classic examples of this type of consequence-based guilt would be Sweet Home (1989) or Friday the 13th (1989), where your character’s deaths are basically the end. They don’t come back. Permadeath**, as it’s often called. If your character(s) die, the game ends. No extra lives, no do-overs unless you reset the whole game. Both being horror games, this gave them an incredible sense of tension and fear, because some characters were better than others, or the ending would be worse without having everyone safe. You had to care because of purely practical (or possibly emotional) needs. Not like Super Mario, where getting extra lives means that resetting the game means effectively nothing. No emotional investment other than sheer frustration from repeating the same level.
Now it starts to get a little more complex.
With the modern games come modern technology and capacity. We now have much longer games with much more detailed writing and story depth. More modern examples would be the open-world Elder Scrolls games, and the Fallout series, and Mass Effect, versus the more linear paths of games like Silent Hill, SOMA, among many others.
The last idea I want to cover before we open this up in the next post is a quick comment on guilt and regret. Not the same thing, of course. Regret is wishing something else happened than what did (whether you knew it or not, or whether it was intentional or not), usually after the fact. Guilt would be embarrassment or a feeling of responsibility over actions or events that took place (again, intentional or not, avoidable or not), usually when the event is still fresh and still affecting the parties involved. If you accidentally kill your friend’s Tamagotchi while they’re away. That’s guilt when you first realise it and see them again, it blends into both when they get angry/sad, then regret as the initial moments pass. A spectrum -a veritable rainbow- of embarrassment and shame, really.
Keep this in mind, and we’ll come back to find out:
-why we’ll do it for fun
-what role it serves
– what it adds/detracts from a game.
Until then, folks.
*Of course this isn’t to trivialise or ignore various and serious childhood traumas; I’m talking about everyday events/moments, not the obvious extremes. Upsetting events for a child, not something that would upset all ages. Thank you.