While I’ve been playing video games for a long time, I didn’t get properly into them until I was in high school. Growing up, our house had a Nintendo 64 and a GameCube, so Nintendo games were a staple of my childhood: my brother and I delighted in kicking our mom’s butt in Mario Kart; it was always a serious endeavour to sit down and puzzle out the latest dungeon in Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker; and when my brother and I had a disagreement, we’d settle it with Super Smash Bros. Melee.
(Fun fact: Pokémon Snap was the first game I ever played – and the only Pokémon game I’ve ever touched, unless you count Pokémon Go I guess. Oops.)
It was a big deal when my brother got an Xbox 360. He taught me how to use a 360 controller so I could help him out with Halo and Gears of War when his friends couldn’t come over. And while I certainly enjoyed those games, they were games that I only really ever played with other people – my brother or my friends. It wasn’t until I was introduced to RPGs that my relationship with video games became a little… problematic.
Dragon Age: Origins came out in November 2009, when I was in Grade 12 and starting to prep for my first round of diploma exams. I’d never played an RPG before. I’d never even heard of BioWare before, but my friends Renee and Morgan were fervently in love with Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights and they seemed pretty pumped about this new IP. So, lo and behold, when my brother bought DA:O for the 360, I figured I’d give it a try.
It started out innocent enough. I was a little disappointed when I realized it was a single-player game. Up until then, video games had always been a social activity for me. Where was the fun, I wondered, in playing a game by yourself? But I created a character – a female city elf rogue named Sorya – and started my first campaign to see what all the fuss was about.
In Origins, you play as the Warden – a character recruited basically by accident into an elite order of fighters sworn to protect the world from monsters. After your first big battle goes awry, you and another new-ish recruit Alistair are all that’s left of the Grey Wardens, and it’s up to the two of you to gather armies and allies to kill a giant fuck-off dragon (as you do).
After figuring out how combat worked – and learning that throwing myself into the middle of a group of enemies probably wasn’t the best tactical choice as a squishy rogue – I started to pay attention to the dialogue between the characters. That was what really hooked me: the characters and how they were written. I knew logically that they were just bits of code combined with graphics and a voice actor, but a big part of the reason I fell in love with the game was the act of developing relationships with these characters.
In her book Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?, Blakey Vermeule explains that humans have the ability to animate and personify anything. (This wasn’t exactly new information to me as I get emotionally attached to browser tabs that I’ve had open for a long time.) Vermeule writes that, cognitively speaking, “the tendency to think of literary characters as if they were real people is lodged in the human psyche”. Caring about literary characters – or video game characters – operates in the same way as caring about strangers. So the fact that I latched on to my party members in Origins isn’t surprising so much as it is a natural consequence of my human ability to identify with objects.
That doesn’t mean it was healthy, though.
I was in Grade 12. Applications to universities had been sent off and, unless something really disastrous happened, it was all but certain that I wasn’t staying in Alberta for my post-secondary education. I knew I’d be leaving behind my friends and I’d have to go make new ones – something that, as an introvert, I wasn’t jazzed about. I obviously knew that I was capable of making friends, but I could never really remember how my relationships transitioned from Awkward Acquaintance to Person I Can Talk To Until Five In The Morning.
With Origins, forging friendships was easy. Each party member had an approval bar so I could see at a quick glance how I stood with everyone. And it was easy enough to boost that approval rating from Neutral to Warm to Friendly – all I had to do was loot enough dead bodies to fund my purchases of cake from the party camp merchant. I somehow I doubted this strategy would work at UBC.
This was also the first game I’d ever played where I could initiate and pursue a romance with a character. I’d played games that had romantic subplots before (it was rather obvious in Gears of War that Marcus and Anya had a little something going on), but this was different. I had the agency here. I wasn’t following a pre-scripted romance that I had no say in (however you might feel about Marcus and Anya, they get together at the end of Gears 3 no matter what); I was calling the shots. And call the shots I did.
Let me introduce you to Alistair:
Sarcastic, self-deprecating, doesn’t really know what’s going on but tries his best anyway, and a secret prince in disguise – I was into it immediately. And if you’re a girl and you’re not an asshole to him, Alistair is basically interested in you right from the get-go. Once I figured out there was a wiki guide to his romance, I started printing off lists so I wouldn’t have to pause the game and consult a computer every time I talked to him. Which dialogue options were the best to choose, which non-plot gifts netted the most approval with him, which quests had to be completed before he’d invite the Warden to spend the night in his tent, what to do at the Landsmeet so he didn’t break up with you or leave the party altogether… I had it down to a science. Once I finished my first playthrough, I knew how to most efficiently bump Alistair’s approval to the tent-inviting threshold.
I was obsessed. It wasn’t good.
I can recall that December: I’d come home from school and play Origins until I had to go to my Math diploma prep course, and then as soon as I got home from that I’d play until it was time for bed. It was all I wanted to do. It was all I wanted to talk about. It was escapism at its most extreme.
At the time I couldn’t see it, but looking back I can understand why I wanted to abandon reality for that game. I wasn’t going to be the smart kid anymore because all the smart kids were going to university. But in Origins, I was special – the hero who was going to save the world. There was validation in that, and it was addicting. I’d also never been in a relationship before. I was depressingly familiar with pining after someone from a distance, so it was refreshing (and again, addicting) to have such an easy, straightforward path to developing a romantic relationship, and the assurance that those feelings would be returned as long as I didn’t let someone sacrifice themselves using blood magic. (Whoops.)
I got addicted to Dragon Age because of the way it made me feel: important, confidant, loved, and worth something.
So why am I not an emaciated husk of a human being still sitting in front of an Xbox in my parents’ basement?
There was no grand moment of clarity when I realized that I had a problem. Instead, Mass Effect 2 game out in January 2010 and my brother stopped tolerating my near-constant use of the Xbox. (It’s hilarious to me that Mass Effect wouldn’t be on my radar for another two years.) I had to quit Dragon Age cold turkey and it was hard. It was, however, for the best; I actually put effort into studying for my final exams and learned how to have conversations IRL again that didn’t revolve around Alistair. Only when I looked back on this period in time did I realize how unhealthy my gaming habit had become.
Of course, that’s not to say that I cut video games – or even just RPGs – out of my life completely. Nor does it mean that I won’t still play Dragon Age for hours on end. (I powered through Inquisition in nine days because I needed to know what happened, dang it!) However, I’ve learned to recognize the warning signs: when I’d rather game than hang out with my friends, when I start to feel flat and lifeless in the real world and my first instinct is to reach for a controller, or when I finish one playthrough of a game only to immediately start a new one – those are indications that I’m starting to slip a bit too far into escapism again. I still love Dragon Age to bits and I’m still going to go a little crazy over any new BioWare game that comes out, but I know not to let that become the source of all the validation in my life.
It’s fun to pretend for a while. To be Amara, warrior queen who constantly beats the odds to survive; Astith, the badass dwarf who swings around a greatsword that’s as big as she is; or Rhaegar, the ruthless rogue with a soft spot for poetry. But running to the digital world to escape my dissatisfaction isn’t a long-term solution.
… At least until someone develops one of those virtual reality games a la Sword Art Online or Log Horizon.