It is easy to think of games as portals through which to experience a world unrestrained by the limits of our own. A game can make something as spectacular as interstellar travel feel effortless. Banal activities like driving a car become exciting again: “Shall I stay in my lane and obey traffic signals, or shall I instead use the car in front of me as a makeshift ramp and hop over a drawbridge?” Games not only show us these worlds that flaunt the rules we live by, they allow us to participate in the fantasy.
This sense of freedom in games accounts for some of their appeal, but it also obscures another important factor that draws us to them. For all their grandeur, even the most empowering and complex games create limited worlds. Unlike the chaos and infinite complexity of our lives, games are governed with systems that can be learned and mastered. This simultaneously satisfies our desire to understand the mysterious while soothing our fear of the unknown. Viewed this way, almost all video games are exercises in pleasure of limits.
Games serve our desire to collect and explore the unknown while also providing us specified parameters for measuring success. The Pokemon trainer can take solace in the fact that their Pokedex will always be able to tell them how close they are to “catching them all,” but the field biologist must live in perpetual uncertainty as to whether every species in a single forest has truly been studied. Convenient mini-maps and readouts showing the percentage of possible activities we have explored in Liberty City allow us to definitively measure our knowledge of the town. The city’s virtual denizens and hollow buildings are crude facsimiles of the real things, but their simplicity allows us to grasp the city and its workings.
The limits built into our virtual avatars allow us to chase and achieve the fantasy of ultimate mastery over skills. Since the earliest days of RPGs, we have expressed such complex terms as vigor, agility, and wisdom in numerical terms that are then used as predictors for success. Only through rigorous training or outstanding circumstances can we begin to guess at the extent of our own abilities. Games allow us to dispense with the guesswork: Once Link gets twenty full heart containers and powers up his magic meter, he has reached the pinnacle of his abilities, and so have we as players. No amount of extra training could possibly improve him, which is comforting because it is something about which we are always uncertain. Would another couple minutes jogging help that twinge in your back?
The systemic limits in games also provide us with idealized versions of social interactions. When we deal with artificial intelligence in games like The Sims, we can recreate recognizable, yet manageable reproductions of familiar social situations in a way such that they are unambiguous. Feelings of love, jealousy, and happiness are reduced to simple numbers and graphs from which we can make informed decisions. By placing a limit on the consciousness of others we can inhabit a world devoid of missteps and irreversible errors. We know these virtual constructs more thoroughly, more absolutely than those we meet in our daily lives.
Limits act as an equalizer in terms of social interaction when playing multiplayer games. While the rules of Halo, or Star Craft may be nuanced and complex, they are standardized. Everyone interacts by using tools made available for the entire population. Players can be more or less adept in using these tools, but the social rules have defined parameters that can be learned. When we step away from these limited worlds, things quickly become overwhelming. A game like Sleep is Death is intimidating because its complexity stems from its potential for variety. Without a prescribed framework, it begins to take on the frightening openness of the world from which video games usually allow us to escape.
Every marvelous power a game grants comes with limits that make exploring the experience manageable. Because they are structured in terms of basic rules, games can never truly reproduce the complexity of our lives; they can only approximate it in ways that are inherently more simplistic and understandable than the outside world. They provide us the ultimate fantasy: through their limitations, games grant us respite from the awesome, terrifying chaos of our normal lives.