A galpal and I are discussing video games over cocktails at a bar. Well, kind of. She's trying to tell me why she plays FarmVille, and in the course of the discussion I find out her life is a mess.
This new acquaintance of mine and I have recently bonded over our fondness for farming simulators. I'm trying to explain to her how my personal favorites, the Harvest Moon games – as much life simulators as farm simulators – are and aren't like her FarmVille favorite.
"It just feels really good to know that I'm on top of things," she tells me, chewing on her straw a little nervously as she explains why she's so into FarmVille. "I like to know my farm is in good shape and, like, everyone can see it."
I know the feeling; our motivations seem similar. I get really into Harvest Moon's evolving, character-based chronology. The act of progression is satisfying. You build your farm in a village of others who become your friends as you watch them fall in love, marry, and participate in seasonal festivals. You yourself are a character who can choose a husband (or wife, if you're playing as a boy) and have a baby, family pets, and a home that you can upgrade.
Rosie (not her real name) is a FarmVille junkie like millions of others. She's probably poured as many hours into her Facebook farm as I have into my Nintendo DS one. "It makes me feel like I have my shit together," she tells me after a pause.
But the way she tells me this is funny; she looks a little furtively around her, speaks a little bit softly. Guiltily, even.
I ask her, "You don't have your shit together?"
Rosie and I aren't close, and it's uncomfortable for her to reveal the anxiety she feels about being unemployed. Especially in the Facebook era, where she alludes to a sense of insecurity that old classmates from her alma mater, or friends of her mother's, are continually privy to a social profile she considers unimpressive. She doesn't like how she looks in tagged photos.
She balks at admitting that her status as a "total FarmVille addict," as she describes it, is a reaction to the sense of helplessness she feels in the exposed world of social networking – but I suspect I might have hit on something by the way she can't meet my eyes.
I am twenty-something, old enough not to want to specify the "something." I am aware of the passage of time and hypercritical of my ability to balance work, play, and home life. I don't often think about why I play video games like Harvest Moon – to me, they've always been a way to unplug from the common pressures of living; most people, to some extent, use video games as a form of distraction or escapism.
Wondering if I'm onto something, I phone up an old friend — let's call him "Pete." Pete's a quintessential "nice guy." Shy and retiring, he'd never hurt a fly. He's the kind of guy who holds doors open for women, pulls out chairs. He quit a job he loved so that he could move back to his hometown and look after his sick mother. Seriously.
Of course, the old adage about nice guys finishing last is true for Pete. Despite his unfailing gentleness, he has trouble with girls. Time and time again, he's ended up relegated to the "friend zone" while some big jerk swipes his crush. I remembered playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City with him when we lived in the same city, and feeling like his enthusiasm for crashing cars and shooting pedestrians felt just slightly out of character.
I ring him up to see how he's doing, and rather than explain that I'm kicking around an article about coping mechanisms, I just tell him I'm exploring people's most common gameplay behaviors. I ask him if he still plays GTA – he says he's played every iteration since Vice City, pretty much. I ask him what his favorite things to do in the game worlds are.
"I kinda make up these weird story things," he says, a little sheepishly. "Yeah, I think they're funny – like, I pretend I'm shooting a movie and then I have the characters do all this random shit that has nothing to do with the game."
"Like… I'll pick up a whore and do it with her and then I'll drive the car off a cliff or something."
"Or like, I'll drive around until she freaks out and bails, and then I'll chase her down and beat her and get my money back," Pete says. The way he laughs nervously is kind of unlike him.
He continues: "One time I drove a prostitute to my girlfriend's house [in GTA: San Andreas] and when she jumped out in the chick's driveway I beat her to death with the pink dildo, and then I gave it to my girlfriend as a present." Laughs. "She loved it. It was hilarious."
I get psychoanalytical again; I ask if he resents women, or resents his nice guy status, and if he's acting out these feelings through the game. I expect the same kind of embarrassed dismissal that Rosie gave me. Instead, Pete gives a strangely bitter laugh and tells me frankly, "Probably."
I think of Rosie's latent emotionality about FarmVille, and Pete's repressed anger, and figure I should turn the lens inward a bit and think about the way I play Harvest Moon. In contrast to my real life, I am eager for time to pass in the world; I like the opportunities for new crops and new festivals that the changing seasons bring. Unlike my real life, I find it a burden to go out and socialize with the game's villagers, as one must do to gain certain perks of their friendship. I am obsessive about hoarding money (in real life it burns a hole in my pocket), and compulsive about removing weeds and stones from my garden (in real life, I can't be bothered to do dishes more than once a week).
I'm not living as myself in Harvest Moon; I'm not projecting a "fantasy life," as the series has often advertised. In fact, I'm using the repetitious organizational tasks within the game as a counter-measure to real-world activities. I'm not using the game for escapism. I'm using it for a sense of control.
Except one uncomfortable parallel: When playing Harvest Moon, I always choose the most unattainable, reticent bachelor. Time after time, I marry the mean ones. The game mechanic requires you to win over your future husband by regularly approaching them with gifts. I elect not to disclose some of my past dating habits here.
I tell Pete this, when I'm explaining to him all about the real nature of my article, asking his permission to write candidly (if pseudonymously) about him, and he was all for it. In fact, he seemed surprised that I'd address the topic.
"Doesn't everyone use games as a coping mechanism? You're gonna get a million comments saying, 'duh,'" he suggested, only half-joking.
He says: "You really only pursue the jerks in that farm game?"
He laughs, "You're so totally the kind of girl that makes me beat women in GTA."
I don't think it's really that funny. But Pete really is a nice guy. That's his idea of a joke.
[ Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]