Is It Possible To Play Games Without Being a Total Shut-In?

Kirk Hamilton & Jason Schreier

For this week's Burning Questions, Jason and Kirk look at how gaming impacts their everyday life. Why is it so hard to maintain a social life and play games? Is there something about some games that is simply incompatible with being social? What games do we like to share with people, and what games do we play alone? Will Kirk ever get a date?

My, my. Those sound like some... Burning Questions.

Jason: Hey Kirk-bro. So today we're gonna talk about something that I've been wondering for a while. As ever-responsible adults in a world where more and more awesome games seem to come out every day, how the hell do we strike a balance between gaming and... well... life?


Kirk: Hi Jason-bro! This question is also something I've thought about (and struggled with) off and on for pretty much my entire gaming life. Sometimes, when I'm neck-deep in two or more different games, I'll really tune out on my social life. Is it the game's fault? Is it mine? There are moments of balance, sure, but sometimes it feels like many of the video games I play aren't all that compatible with having an active social life.

Jason: Well, it's hard to focus on other people when you're focusing on Mass Effect people. Or Zelda people. Or Skyrim people. Or, really, the people of any massive single-player game that takes a gazillion hours to power through.

Kirk: Who needs friends when you've got the crew of the Normandy? You and I play a lot of the same types of games—namely, games that have a strong single-player focus. When I'm knee-deep in Skyrim or Mass Effect 3, I don't feel like I have space for other people, either. I tend to kind of hole up and play through them on my own. I wonder why that is - do you think these games are in any designed to encourage people to play them alone?

Gaming can be unequivocally personal, especially when you're trying to immerse yourself in a story or world or character.


Jason: Absolutely. Gaming can be unequivocally personal, especially when you're trying to immerse yourself in a story or world or character. I remember when I first got Skyrim (which I was actually reviewing for Wired) I holed myself up for an entire weekend and did nothing but play. (It was awesome.) Now, sure, my girlfriend might have enjoyed watching over my shoulder for an hour or two, but she'd just be an observer. Detached. Without a controller in her hands, she wouldn't have any way to connect.

Plus, would I even want her to watch? Would I want somebody witnessing some of the decisions I made (like killing everybody in Whiterun just for kicks)? Dunno.


Kirk: There are a few things at work: First, like you say, there's the whole out-of-context thing. You kill the shit out of like 75 people, blood everywhere, screams and stuff, and... well, it can feel kind of mortifying, to be honest.

There's also another thing: Due to my job, I have pretty much every video game, so when I have my friends over, they want to check out what I've got. But they don't want to really play the game, since they don't want to spoil their own playthrough. Even if it's a game they won't play for years, or an old game that they might play. It really puts a chill on the social aspect of a lot of games, since you can't just sort of... play one through together like you can watch a movie. It's a much more substantial time investment.


Jason: You can't just sit down with a couple of beers and hammer through all 30 hours of Red Dead Redemption.

Kirk: Ha. No, probably not. Though actually, when I was recently in New York I was over at Leigh Alexander's place and a big group of us played through the first 2-3 hours of Catherine together. And it was a total blast! The bummer was that we didn't have the extra dozen or so hours that it'd take to finish the game, and when I left, I couldn't take our saved game with me. I'd have to start all over again.


Jason: I think that Catherine, because it's such a great visual spectacle and the actual gameplay is so frenetic and fast-paced, is a really watchable game. It's very shoulder-gamer-friendly, unlike many single-player titles.


But on the flip side, with a game as outlandish at Catherine, wouldn't you be kinda embarrassed to play in front of non-gamer friends?

It'd be tough for a crowd of people to gather around my laptop for intense StarCraft action.


Kirk: You know, not really. I'd totally play it in front of friends (though of course, it depends on the friends.) It's two things—the most fun parts of Catherine aren't the puzzle sections, they're the choices and such. We polled the room every time we had to choose one of those pull-chain "Would you cheat or not?" moments, and we voted on what Vincent should do in various scenarios. So, the game lends itself to group-play more than you'd think. But also... it's just cool, you know? It's a way more stylish game than a sci-fi action game or whatever. So I actually feel the opposite of what you're asking— Catherine is one of the games I don't feel embarrassed about showing people, game-playing or no.

Jason: Hmm, fair enough. I feel like some of my non-gaming friends might be put off by Catherine's anime-ish cut-scenes and weird sexual themes. So what games would you feel embarrassed to play in front of people (whether because your experience is uniquely personal or because you think they just seem dumb)?


Kirk: Anything where there's insane, impossible-to-rationalize levels of violence. So, pretty much all big-budget action and role-playing games, heh. You?

Jason: A lot of Japanese role-playing games. As much as I love them. Take Tales of Graces F. I really, really like that game—but there's no way in hell I'd want to play it in front of anybody else. It's for solo enjoyment only.


Kirk: I hear that. I also find that games like JRPGs, or real-time strategy games...anytime one of the game's big draws involves systemic strategy, I find myself wanting to explain to people in the room why this is cool, particularly if they're non-gamers. It's not the most enjoyable experience for anyone.

"Well you see, I have to balance my team and build up our buffs, but this enemy is resistant to fire, so I had to design a way around that..." And it feels hopeless. You play a lot of Starcraft II—do you ever play that with people watching?


Jason: I do not. It'd be tough for a crowd of people to gather around my laptop for intense StarCraft action. Although I have forced my non-gamer girlfriend to sit through a professional game or two on YouTube just to see if she found it entertaining (which she did).


Kirk: One of the more illuminating talks I've seen at the Game Developers Conference was when Dustin Browder from Blizzard talked about how they designed Starcraft II to be an e-sport. One of biggest goals was to make the units "readable" so the audience could tell what was going on even if they'd never played. It was something I noticed when I went to one of those Barcraft events in San Francisco, where they show pro gaming events on the TVs at a bar. And everyone did get it, and it was super fun!

Jason: One of the reasons I play a lot of StarCraft II is that you don't have to play it for very long. It's great for rapidfire, 15- or 20-minute multiplayer sessions, which is much more fitting for my gaming time nowadays than most long, sprawling single-player games.


Kirk:Ah yes, what we in the gaming space refer to as "The issue with becoming an adult."

Jason: Which brings us back to an earlier question: Between long hours at work and attempts to maintain some semblance of a social life, how do you find the time for gaming?


The truth of the matter is that whether I'm reviewing a game or not, when I'm really "in" one, I don't see my friends nearly as often.

Kirk: So, yes. The time question. There's this commonly held misconception that people who work at an organization like, say, Kotaku spend all of their time during the day playing video games...


Jason: Which we don't. At all.

Kirk: We do not.

Jason: We spend all of our time getting whipped by Stephen Totilo.

Kirk: That alone is basically a full-time occupation.

So yeah, MISconception. How do I find time? The truth of the matter is that whether I'm reviewing a game or not, when I'm really "in" one, I don't see my friends nearly as often. I'd imagine this is true for many readers, too—when a big game like Mass Effect 3 or Skyrim comes out, their friends just don't see them that often.


However, I'm finding that handheld gaming has significantly helped me be more social while still playing lengthy, involved games.

Jason: Yeah, I love playing RPGs on my portables. It's why the DS has been my favorite system for the past five years or so.


Kirk: Yeah. Which ties back to the JRPG thing—most JRPGs are dozens upon dozens of hours long, and I'm beginning to suspect that I just don't have what it takes to sit in front of a TV and play them anymore. I'd never play Persona 3 on my TV, and I'm obsessed with it on the Vita. Ditto Persona 4—I know I can play that right now if I want, but I'm going to wait for the Vita version.

Jason: If you were to play a JRPG on a console, though, how would you carve out the time?


Kirk: I did that last year, when I played Final Fantasy VII but didn't have a PSP to play it on. Basically, I played in the early mornings. That was the secret! When I'd have coffee after breakfast, I'd log a few hours. Sometimes those morning sessions would turn into a morning-to-afternoon session. I get a lot of the more mundane parts of these games done while it's still light outside. But! And this is weird. I don't like to finish games during the day. Maybe it's just an ingrained thing, but I feel like I need to finish a game at night.


Jason: Hold up. Most NORMAL people can't play Final Fantasy VII in the mornings because they're, oh, you know, AT WORK.

Kirk: On weekends, I meant! I could go long on weekends. Though actually, when I played Final Fantasy VII I was still just teaching and freelancing, so I did have a few more free days a week.


I have to admit that having a "full-time+" job has made me much more aware of the time-challenges put to the average gamer than I was when I was freelance and underemployed. There are all these games competing for people's time these days, but they're not just competing with one another! They're competing with, y'know... life.

Every minute you spend gaming is a minute you could spend with your significant other and friends.


Jason: Exactly. Every minute you spend gaming is a minute you could spend with your significant other and friends. Or finding a significant other. Or finding friends.

Kirk: Surely that's a big part of why asynchronous games like Hero Academy have gotten so popular—they fit into the cracks of everyday life. You can be social and play Hero Academy—I'll go hang out with my sister and still be playing the game. Suddenly, I didn't have to choose whether to do one or the other.


Jason: Ha, assuming you have friends who don't mind that you're just sitting there, staring at your phone the entire time you hang out.

Kirk: That does happen, doesn't it. My sister, who basically never plays video games, has finally gotten addicted to Words With Friends. And now I'll find her sitting there when we're hanging out, scowling at her iPhone while contemplating what word to choose. So, the game itself isn't actually very social, it's just that it's fragmented enough that it slips into the cracks of our everyday life.


But those asynchronous games are almost a new type of game. I wonder—do you think there are any things that big-budget games could do to help them fit into a crowded, social adult life better than they do?

Jason: Stop coming out so often!

Kirk: Ha. Quit being so absorbing!

Jason: Stop being so GOOD.

Kirk: In all seriousness though, I do have one: Keep on working on that episodic model.


I've found that when games are broken into chapters that are clearly demarcated, I have an easier time managing my time around them. Alan Wake, Mass Effect 2, even Bully... it makes digesting a show much more like watching a TV series on Netflix. More compartmentalized, and also easier to share with other people in the room.


Jason: That only works for narrative-focused games, though. Could never work for an open-world adventure.

Kirk: Right. It wouldn't work for all games. It wouldn't work for Skyrim.

Jason: Skyrim Chapter 3: Riften And That Field A Little South Of Riften

Kirk: Previously on Skyrim: The Dovahkiin walked across a field and got killed by a Giant.


Jason: My strategy sometimes is to split up my weekend nights. So on a Friday night I might head to the bar or a party or something, then Saturday night I'll stay home, order in, and marathon my way through a console game like Fez or Final Fantasy XIII-2 or Xenoblade.

At least you have Mitsuru.

Kirk: That's funny - I'm the other way around! I usually go out on Saturdays and stay in on Fridays. But yeah, doing a 50/50 is a good way to go. Still though, that's half of your weekend nights dedicated to gaming!


Jason: Which can be tough! Especially when you are also juggling a relationship.

Kirk: Yeah, I can imagine. And I'll have to, for now. Because my life is a wasteland of loneliness. For which I blame video games.


Jason: At least you have Mitsuru.

Kirk: It's true. She's bossy, but she's usually around. On Tuesdays and Thursdays and Saturdays after school, anyway. In the hallway near the faculty office.


Fuck my life.

Jason: Hahahahahaha. What's tougher, balancing your gaming time in real life or balancing your social links in Persona 3?


Kirk: It is astonishing how often I've asked myself that. You know? Like, really asked. I'm not sure I know the answer.


Jason: We'd better wrap this up before everyone starts feeling way sorry for you.

Kirk: Oh, I hope they don't! There are so many people in the world more worthy of pity than me. In truth, I've found that I've got a more active social life than ever BECAUSE of video games. I've met a ton of great people out here who are into games, and we hang out a lot. And what do you know—we do stuff other than gaming! Though we also play Def Jam Rapstar sometimes.


So that's pretty cool—whatever video games take away from socialization by demanding our time, maybe they make up for it by giving us common ground with a whole group of people we wouldn't have otherwise met!

Jason: Stop being so positive. We're supposed to be snarky. rawr rawr video games are evil rawr rawr


Kirk: Oh yeah. Um... snark! People suck! So do games! I hate everyone! Misanthropy! Jadedness! Skrillex!

(How am I doing?)

Jason: Spot on.

Kirk: Thanks.

Jason: So, any last advice you might give to somebody who's looking for an actual answer to the question "how do I balance real life and gaming life?"


Kirk: All things in moderation. Try to make friends who also like games. Don't forget to shower.


Jason: Communicate with your spouse/lover/harem. Make it clear that you need some alone time with your video games at least once a week. Stay in every so often. Neglect your kids. Just kidding. They can sit on your lap while you play Skyrim.


Kirk: "Tommy, that's what's known as a Slow-Mo Decapitation! Now pay attention, I'm going to teach you how to power-level your smithing skill."

Jason: Get'em young, that's what I always say. (Hope nobody takes that out of context.)


Kirk: I can't imagine who would do something like that.

Excuse me, I just have to go put something on twitter.


(Mitsuru image of the week by scelatio/DeviantART)

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