Monday 29 September 2014

Mistakes Were Made: Hideous Agency and Catharsis in Fallout 3

This post was written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table August - September 2014.

In the final year of my undergraduate degree (2008/2009), I took a reading course on game studies with the professor who would eventually be my dissertation supervisor. At the time, I was dealing with some fairly rudimentary ideas about immersion and play and, like many new and isolated game scholars, I could have really used a copy of Frans Mäyrä's Introduction to Game Studies.

But in addition to my relative innocence to the field and my boundless enthusiasm for thinking about play, I did have a small concern. Historically, my ability to aim and my experience with games in which you have to aim specifically at things have been very, very poor. The need to accurately target something in a limited time sets off my anxiety disorder something fierce. To this day, my characters in Skyrim don't use bows. First person shooters remain one of least-played genres in my game library. The dog in Duck Hunt haunts me.

At the same time, young me recognized that I wouldn't feel like I was entering the field in good faith without widening my playing experience to include some of the genres I still don't particularly enjoy. Nowadays, I would thoroughly roll my eyes at the idea that one must play certain genres to have scholarly legitimacy, but actively trying to widen my experience proved useful at the time.
It also provided the most intense moment of abject terror and horror I've ever had in a game. Allow me to explain.

I decided to further investigate Fallout 3, particularly due to the fabulous in-game set-up of being born into the world. But as I played through the escape from Vault 101, I accidentally shot Butch's mother. Not used to the game's targeting system (which is easily brought up, provided you know which button to press), I responded to my childhood bully's panicked begging for me to save his mother from rad roaches by firing wildly and killing her. The roaches survived and attacked me.

Upon realizing what I had done, I panicked further and shut off my XBox 360, overcome with horror. I sat there alone in my house, not wanting to even touch the controller. I felt physically ill at what I had done in the game. I had intended to save Ellen, despite the fact that her son was a bully, but her screams and his panic compounded  my own nervousness about aiming and suddenly she was dead. If I hadn't shut off the game system, I probably would have killed Butch, too. ...The roaches were relatively safe, all things considered.

I didn't pick the game up again. Because I had immediately shut off the game, if I restarted from my last save file, it would never have happened. Problem solved, right? But no. I had killed Ellen and for me that was an immutable fact, whatever the game did or did not register. The next time I returned to The Wasteland, it would be because a jerk in a bad suit shot me in the face. Maybe it was sympathy with the long-dead Ellen that brought my particular Courier back from the grave.

Perhaps the worst part of the feeling at the time was that it hadn't been some moral choice I was troubled by, but it was just an accident, one that confirmed my anxieties about my ability to handle a fairly common game mechanic. It simultaneously sparked a panic attack and more broadly fed into my insecurity about wanting to pursue game studies but feeling somehow inadequate as a player and scholar - because I can't aim, because I panic under pressure. For a moment, I had killed Ellen and proven all of those idiotic misogynist steroetypes about girls and games true.

 Hell of a thing to happen because I didn't know to press the right bumper.

Often the ability to provoke an emotional response is a mark of a game's strength, but in the case of Fallout 3, the anxiety kept me from playing the game again. At the time, I wasn't getting any kind of treatment for my anxiety, so it was something of a perfect storm of personal and professional anxities and just plain bad luck - both for Ellen and for me.

At the same time, I look back on this experience as something of a watershed moment for my academic practice. Nothing since - no imposter syndrome, no poorly received conference paper, no taunt on the internet - has ever been as bad as that was. Being medicated has probably helped, but the fact remains that I already experienced the worst anxiety and self-doubt my beloved object of study could muster in me. I had done my worst. Killing Ellen in Fallout 3 freed me to play and study in ways that worked for me, not for some imaginary standard to which I could never measure up.

A happy accident? Not entirely. But like many accidents, powerful.

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