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Games Don’t Just Let You Escape. They Also Help You Remember

Games, of course, are not just solitary experiences. While I’m a big fan of single-player games, and my early gaming memories are dominated by a single-player experience (thank you, slow internet connection), the social aspect of gaming adds yet another dimension to our experiences and memories of them. Whether it is the competition of an intense shooter (I have fond memories of nights of Unreal Tournament 2003 in a dorm), a cooperative puzzle game, or just chatting with friends in a shared world across many miles, we further deepen gaming memories by sharing them with others.

This is something I came to especially appreciate during this past year of gaming during the pandemic. Looking back a year ago— through the anxiety, the uncertainty, the fear of the early lockdowns—it is a gaming memory that stands strong, hopeful, and joyous.

My once-a-week game time with friends from grad school on the other side of the country, which had been dominated by loud matches of Rocket League, had turned to the epic RPG Divinity: Original Sin 2. Fortunate to all be working remotely, and safely inside, we suddenly had more time than ever to play together. A game I thought might take us easily more than a year started flying by.

In the game, we could be the (often bumbling and inadvertently dangerous to innocent townsfolk) heroes, in control of our destiny, saving the world and taking action. We had an entire world to explore and learn the history of, magic and combat to learn and perfect, and many new characters to speak to. Time passed, visits were canceled, but we still had our several-times-a-week gaming sessions.

Original Sin 2 will forever be associated in my memory with a tragic and deadly pandemic. Thinking of it will remind me of being inside, learning about Rt values, worrying about my parents, counting my blessings to be safe. But it will also remind me of everything constantly bursting into flames in the game world, laughing at my character’s complete failure at any persuasion conversations, turning enemies into hapless chickens, planning elaborate battle tactics, and (eventually) succeeding.

Through the magic of a shared game, we could stay connected, distant at our desks and couches but side by side slinging spells. Games have always been a way to connect, and this has been highlighted during a pandemic, when physical distance is needed and social closeness is craved. As time has worn on, there has been a clear benefit in being able to feel not alone while safely being alone. We can make good memories to help weather the long storm.

More recently, my gaming escape has turned to virtual reality. I thought it would be years before I would be playing games in VR; it always seemed like the future. After spending nearly all my time inside, other than for essential things like grocery shopping, it was a revelation to put on the VR headset. I was transported to an open world, my ceiling gone and replaced by a clear sky far away. I was no longer in my small living room, and the sense of new space made me a believer in the tech instantly.

Once again, there is this odd mismatch of a novel and enjoyable experience with the horrors of the larger circumstances of the world. And perhaps nothing better embodies the privileges I have in this time. I’ll never forget my first (literal) steps into VR, just as I’ll never forget why that became suddenly so appealing. While VR is an escape, maybe as much as anything can be, it doesn’t erase the other memories.

Rather, it weaves them together in a new way. This memory doesn’t render all the time I spent inside during the pandemic just a blur, doesn’t let it be packaged neatly away in an attempt to forget. Instead it has given me unexpected joys in a dark time. Gaming has helped me stay healthy and present, in a way that seems like the complete antithesis of trying to use it for escape. Games don’t make me forget but, rather, help me remember.

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