The three most influential video-game series of your generation are Fifa, Grand Theft Auto(GTA) and Call Of Duty (COD). Their impact can be felt everywhere.
COD – with its kinetic energy and first-person point-of-view – changed the way action films are shot. GTA – full of controversy and sprawling cultural references – took Tarantino patchwork creativism to the nth degree. And Fifa changed sport: the graphics of match-day programming, the language we use. The sport itself now panders to the game. Now every fan is an expert. Every player is a set of attributes rated 1 to 100. Every formation is referred to with the cool air of a seasoned pro.
And with these cultural touchstones, we’re all brought together. In an age where much is written about social disconnect, these games bring us closer. No matter what’s happened, if you’re of a certain age, a simple “Fifa?” from your best mate is what you want to hear most.
It’s well documented that men find it difficult to open up. A “man-up” epoch followed the “stiff-upper-lip” age and only now are we starting to see the emotional thaw. “Shall we get a pint and chat about it?” is a solid opening gambit, but perhaps beer shouldn’t always be presented as the solution to personal issues – that’s where video games come in.
A safe space
Let’s take video games as the great equaliser in a young man’s life. In primary school, social status for boys is divided into two camps: good at sports and good at video games.
Being a sports kid means friendships are constructed as part of a team built towards achieving a common goal, and it’s pretty much impossible to not make pals.
Being a video-game kid is quite a bit different. It involves letting someone else into your private space; letting them root around inside your bedroom, your console, your head. No matter what your parents said, this is socialising. This still counts.
As adults, playing video games with friends can act as a conduit to expressing your emotions. Fear, sadness and trust – these are all things that feel much more palatable when discussed while staring at pixelated carnage on a TV screen. It’s because this thing you’re doing: it’s just a game, and games are supposed to be fun, right? That makes this a safe space. You have carte blanche to get as real as you like in a space where nothing really matters.
FIFA, the perfect confluence of sport and gaming, has dimensions ideal for potentially awkward chat. Matches are roughly 20 minutes long with a diffusive half-time gap, perfect for talking just enough about your feelings before it all gets a bit too much. It doesn’t take so much concentration as to require total silence while needing just enough concentration for lessening the blame of what just came out of your mouth. And nothing feels better than punctuating your unconscious communication with a goal.
COD and GTA are more delicately balanced. They rely on shared cultural experience. These games are tentpoles – blockbuster movies that can last you months in a dark room. There’s a sense of “Were you in the sh*t?” A kindred alignment. It doesn’t matter that these are two of the biggest-selling franchises of all time. “Me too,” you say. You share your experiences of these deeply personal sessions – hours and hours and hours of them, tucked away on your own in your room, in your pants – and soon enough, barriers come crashing down. And you can play these solo games with pals – acting like a co-driver in a rally car or, more likely, a p*ss-takey sidekick in a bad action movie – and the multiplier of trust increases the connection further.
A trust exercise
“A lot of my research has confirmed the idea of social video-game play being a ‘safe space’ for players,” says John Velez, assistant professor of journalism and electronic media at Texas Tech University. “When we sit down to play, we agree to a set of expectations, an informal contract to help each other, and when
the other person honours that agreement we instinctively feel like we can trust them a little bit more. After playing co-operatively, people are more likely to donate money to their teammate – or even a random person – while trusting the other person to return the favour instead of keeping all the money. It shows that our actions in the game carry a lot of weight outside of the game.
“Discussing sensitive topics takes a level of trust between people, given the vulnerability people feel when ‘opening up’ to another person. We foster trusting relationships when playing with others, which should lead people to feel safer to discuss these sensitive topics and give men permission to be vulnerable.”
When everything else is going to sh*t, sometimes “One more game?” is all you need to hear. Sometimes a video game is more than just a video game.