Finding Peace, and the Art of Video Games

Author: Dr. Don Merritt

In the early morning hours of June 12, 2016, there was a massacre at an Orlando gay club. I’m certain you’ve heard at least a little bit about it by now. It is being called the worst mass shooting on American soil in modern history with 49 people losing their lives and 53 others hospitalized. That doesn’t include the dozens more who were in the club but escaped without physical injury. The majority of the victims were Latinx, a designation that includes all genders; the event happened on the club’s popular Latin night.

Responses in Orlando to the tragedy have varied. There have been many communal outpourings of sadness and solidarity locally, nationally, and internationally. There have been many more moments of comforting and consoling in private among friends. Each person impacted by events has sought their own means of solace and comfort.

In the days immediately afterward a friend of mine who lives here in Orlando, has been to Pulse, and identifies as a young, Latino, Puerto Rican gaymer, started talking about video games on Facebook. The Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, began a couple of days after the shooting. My friend is a huge fan of Nintendo. Their announcements during E3, especially around “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” had him excited and posting happily on his wall.

Then he stopped and, in a post to all his friends, apologized for all of the talk about video games in the midst of all the hurt. It caught me off-guard. He went on to explain that video games make him happy, that Nintendo makes him happy, and he desperately wanted to feel happy about something at that moment. He wasn’t trying to be flippant, he explained, he was just trying to cope.

The post immediately got responses from us all assuring him we didn’t think he was making light of the issue, that we knew he was deeply affected, and that if video games make him happy then by all means play away.

I’d started playing a new game that Sunday for the same reason, I told him. I spent the morning hours of June 12 checking on friends who could have been at Pulse (but probably weren’t, I kept trying to reassure myself). When I wasn’t looking to see who was posting they were OK on Facebook I was reading stories about what had happened. How many had been impacted. The magnitude of the horror. At some point that morning, to get me off of Facebook and doing something – anything – else, I started playing Dragon Age: Inquisition.

There were lots of other things I could have done. I could have picked up a book. I could have gone to the gym. I could have repotted some plants that are in desperate need of some attention. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to focus on a book. The dog was spending the weekend at the in-laws so a walk without him would have let my mind wander. And the gym would have had televisions on everywhere showing coverage of the news and my phone, with its easy access to Facebook, right beside me.

Instead of all those other things I started playing a video game. I’d picked up Inquisition when it was new but never found the time to play beyond the introduction. I really wanted to – I was a fan of the series – but had never made the time. It had finally come.

Why a video game? For me, it was because playing a game requires problem solving and interaction that would serve as an effective means of distraction from the chaos around me. It was something on which I could concentrate and have a reasonable expectation of experiencing flow to a level that would let me put aside worries. It was something that would make me happy, frankly, and I really wanted to feel happy right then.

The “why Inquisition” question seems like an easy answer – I bought it but hadn’t really started playing it – but if you’re familiar with the storyline then there could be something more. I had already rolled a mage, and in the Dragon Age universe mages are near-pariahs. Scorned, feared, sometimes reviled, but also admired and even needed. The game begins with a disaster where many people are killed in a huge explosion but your hero survives somehow, marked by someone or something with a glowing green sigil on your hand. Perhaps the mark is a divine blessing, perhaps it is a curse – part of the storyline is figuring it out. I actually don’t know the whole storyline, I’m still playing through, and that’s why I’m not sure I chose the game at random.

In the story the explosion happens at a conclave to bring two warring sides together, Mages and Templar. The best and the brightest of both sides are there as is Divine Justinia, a Pope-like leader of one of the narrative universe’s primary religions. The explosion kills all of these people, including the Divine, leaving a gaping hole in the sky that sparks even more chaos and confusion. Yet from out of the ruins walks your hero, setting into motion a search for truth, healing, and hopefully justice.

Dr. Don Merritt's avatar in Dragon Age: Inquisition
Dr. Don Merritt’s Avatar

I’m not going into more of the story – you can look it up, and it doesn’t matter to my point. What I want to focus on is the direction of the game narrative and the context in which I find myself playing it. Normally when I play this kind of game I prefer being the “good guy”, choosing dialog responses that reassure the NPCs and mesh with my head cannon of a friend and confidant type for my avatar.

It’s different now. I don’t always play that way. I find my preferred answer to some of the dialog prompts are the “vengeance”-type responses, the anger responses. I’m also surprised to find that sometimes, when I do reply as the nice guy, the NPCs I talk to are having none of it. In their world they’re angry, and hurt, and saying nice things only makes them angrier and more hurt.

The parallels to my real life right now are not perfect, but there’s a hell of a lot of overlap.

It’s that overlap that has me thinking, and writing. I’ve wrestled with the idea of video games as art. I believe they are, on many, many levels. The challenge is getting others outside of those who love and discuss and study games to see that. They can break down the individual components – the artwork, the sound, the acting – and see the obvious art in those things. But when taken as a whole it becomes harder for them to interpret. I feel more strongly now that the challenge is in learning this new, interactive language of games just as it is with learning the language of any other art form. Learning the language is only part of the appreciation. Until it moves you emotionally in some way, it’s just a dry text.

Not all people can appreciate a Picasso. Not all people can appreciate Mussorgsky (though I consider that heresy). But if you asked them to describe a painting or picture that they loved, they could. Same with music. It might not be the same genre as your “classical” choice, but emotionally it carries the same weight for them as the other does for you.

The same is, and will continue to be, true for games. Just because a person plays a game and can’t call it art doesn’t mean they will have that experience with all games. We may just not yet have invented the genre they will appreciate. But what is clear to me now, in that apology from my friend for talking about games on Facebook in the middle of the tragedy, is that we as gamers and gaymers are not communicating that to others who might benefit from the power this art can bring. I’m playing a game as a character looking for justice after a massacre that seems to have left the world in chaos. If that isn’t a metaphor for my life right now, and the life of many others in Orlando, I don’t know what is.

Mother Giselle in Dragon Age: Inquisition

On Sunday, June 19, one week after the shooting at Pulse, the City of Orlando hosted a vigil a park at the center of the city. That entire day I was miserable, but emotionally unattached. I was going to the vigil but dreaded it so much. My partner left me alone all day and I just played Inquisition for hours. I was too miserable to interact with anyone.

That day I played up to the point in the game where you lose your initial base of operations in another huge disaster. After your escape you meet up with some of the refugees, scared and alone in a snowy mountain pass. One of the refugees, Mother Giselle, sits with the hero and engages in a conversation about faith.

It was hard to answer some of those in-game questions. Even in this made-up world I found my doubts reflected back at me. At the end of our conversation the Mother, in an attempt to reassure the hero, stands up and starts walking towards the center of the camp. As she does, she starts singing a song. In the game cannon it is a popular hymn. I don’t remember the words but I remember the sentiment – persevere through the dark for the dawn will come and that will be a new day. As she sings the entire camp comes out of their tents to sing along with her, lifting their voices up in the hope for that new day.

I choked up. Sitting on the couch, Xbox controller in my hand, holding back the first deep emotion I had allowed myself to feel in days. Because characters in a video game sang a song for me. It may seem silly to read those words, and it feels a little silly to write them, I’ll admit. But I was able to go to the vigil that night ready to start a path towards healing because of it.

I think that is the definition of art.