A note for my readers – November 7 is known as N7 day, an informal celebration of the Mass Effect series (N7 being the name of the elite military unit the main character of the series is part of). So, today, I want to share another example of how important stories can be, and what they can mean.
We never know which stories are going to catch us sideways. I had known the sort of stories video games could spin, but I hadn’t realized how important those stories would be to me.
And … I wasn’t very good at Mass Effect. Journey was the first console game I ever played, but that was just running and hopping. Mass Effect needed a bit more from me, and I spent an absurd amount of the early game getting stuck in corners, getting lost in the spaceship, and barely staying alive on easy mode. Timed missions filled me with anxiety. I got characters confused. I didn’t know to upgrade my equipment.
None of that mattered as I got farther into the story.
I got to be Jane Shepard: war hero, respected, by turns brash and uncertain. I got a taste of what it was to have everyone watching, and know that however unfair it was, the other races in the game were going to judge all of humanity by my actions. I was plunged into a world far bigger than I was, was accused of interfering where I didn’t belong, and took all the help I could get. I learned about my crew members’ families. I sacrifice friends and saved enemies. I watched people consumed by the same forces that stalked me and my crew.
I’ve remarked before that I find it amusing how differently people respond when I say I’m off to read a book … or play a video game.
Books tell us stories and force us to build worlds in our head, put ourselves in others’ shoes. Video games force us to make choices and live with the consequences.
Video games are important. In an increasingly polarized world, games us allow the privacy to explore our morality and find our limits. They show us what kindness can build, and how even the most well-meaning choices can go horribly wrong. They show us the impossibility of living a full life without annoying someone, and they show us the importance of drawing boundaries.
I, almost paralyzed by my fear of conflict, learned that I could say angry things and the world wouldn’t come apart at the seams. Was I ever going to find myself in a back alley med clinic on a millennia-old alien space station, yelling for a mercenary to release hostages? No, of course not. But video games weren’t teaching me how to deal just with the exact situations I found there, any more than books were. They were teaching me about justice, about putting myself out there when it was important.
In Mass Effect 1, I learned not to back down when everyone though I was jumping at shadows. In Mass Effect 2, I learned that I could still do the right thing even when everyone who had stood by me disappeared – and that other people, people I might never expect, would step up. In Mass Effect 3, I learned the petty depths people would sink to even when there were vastly more pressing problems, and I learned that sometimes things go so wrong that there’s no getting out of them without sacrifice. (I also learned that I’d probably make a terrible leader during a protracted apocalypse.)
Games are important, because stories are important – but more than that, because games force us to be active participants in the story. If your friends are playing video games, if your children are playing video games, take a moment before shaking your head and rolling your eyes. I’m reminded of a post I saw on social media, about a woman who had written a college paper about Mass Effect. Her English teacher came in the next week, clearly low on sleep, raving about the games. He was in his sixties, and had never played a video game before in his life. He could see, after trying his hand at it, that games were another form of storytelling: like song, like books, like movies.
Happy N7 day. May you always find the stories you need, and may they open horizons beyond your wildest imaginings.