The week of March 1, 2015
A mother and child inside a video game

Life, love, and labyrinths: Why I play video games

By Kate Cox

I have been hundreds of people in the last 30 years.

I am a writer, and I was a student for many years. I’m a daughter and now both a wife and a mother. But I have also been a space marine—more than once, in fact—and both a detective and a thief, a time-traveler and a fedora-sporting archaeologist. I’ve been an assassin and a prophet—never a tinker but definitely a tailor, a soldier, and a whole pile of spies.

I have been a dozen fathers, and probably twice as many sons. Too many widowers to count, though no widows that I can recall. I have been faithful partners and angry divorcés, lovers and beloved. I have been uncles and sisters, parental stand-ins, abandoned orphans, and coddled darlings. I have survived many armageddons, prevented many more, and succumbed to a few.

And above all else, in every skin, I have been an explorer. Always and forever, an explorer.

This is why I play video games.

• • •

I was about 8 years old the first time I found myself standing in an open field. It was a very particular open field, immediately to the west of a white house with a boarded-up door.

There was a small mailbox there and not a whole lot else. So I thought about it for a moment and then did the most sensible possible thing. I looked at the blinking prompt and typed:

>open mailbox

There was a leaflet inside. I took it, and it told me: “Welcome to ZORK!”

Zork is not by any measure the best of the classic text adventure video games, but it was one of the first and the most famous. It welcomed me to “a game of adventure, danger, and low cunning,” and tantalized me with promises of a “lost labyrinth” I could traverse and the treasures I could find within.

Twenty years after Myst, I have grown into full adulthood. The games kept pace.

There were no graphics, just a prompt on the screen, a harsh black-and-green, two-tone monitor. The text parser had nothing like natural language. It contained hard-coded responses to a small set of words that it could recognize and pair. If video games age like visual arts, then I was in the equivalent of a cave painting.

But I remember standing in that field where I never stood. I remember the way the paint on the house aged, the way birds out of my line of sight chirped. I remember the sound of a distant cicada, sepia-toned in a memory of my own imagination. I remember learning to look at every single inch of what was in front of me, separating the important from the unimportant, taking cues and clues from my surroundings.

The labyrinth of Zork and I did not get along for very long, and I walked away after one too many untimely demises. Learning, within the game, was punitive and repetitive, and I didn’t actually like it.

But I did learn: Search for things that seem useful, carry everything you can, pay attention to what your observations tell you, and always bring a light to explore a dark room.

A few years later, a book fell slowly from the sky and landed at my feet. Curious, I opened it. There on the first page was a desperately tantalizing image: a moving, shifting landscape, a panoramic flyby of a mysterious world.

I felt compelled to touch the picture and found myself falling through the page onto an abandoned island, full of mysteries sealed behind intricately locked doors that begged me to understand them.

This time, there were graphics—photorealistic and intense, by the standards of 1993. I had fallen into Myst, the “surrealistic adventure that will become your world.” And it did.

Above all else, in every skin, I have been an explorer.

I was older, growing into maturity, and so were the games I played. Myst invited me to explore not only a handful of worlds, but also (and perhaps more importantly) the forces that destroyed them. Concluding the story—“winning” the game, as much as you could—meant making a choice: After crawling through the letters and artifacts left behind by two men who clearly lusted after power and would stop at nothing to gain it, which one of them would you trust?

The answer, of course, was “neither.” I learned that when you have options A and B and both will do anything to preserve their own self-interest, protect yourself and search your hardest for an option C.

I explored. I learned. I grew.

• • •

Twenty years after Myst, I have grown into full adulthood. The games kept pace.

In text, in hand-drawn animation, in claymation, in pixel art, and in sweeping vistas more real than reality itself, I have continued to travel. To explore. To go to places that no amount of time or money could afford me.

I have seen Chichen Itza in its 10th century heyday, Da Vinci’s workshop while the master was still living, and Atlantis before it sank beneath the sea (and after). I have been to Mars, to the stars, to vaults buried deep beneath the earth. I’ve seen Renaissance Rome, revolutionary Boston, the ancient Greece of the gods. I’ve even been to Vancouver… in the 22nd century.

And then there is the other kind of exploration.

The worlds I wandered—still wander—are no longer the playgrounds of long-gone gods, laid bare for me to toy with. They are teeming with life.

I fell in love on the ramparts of a castle in the mountains. I was a prophet; he was a soldier. It was adorkably romantic. He was so sweet and meant so well.

I fell in love in the ruins of a mansion that was righteously stolen at swordpoint. I had risen in society by then; he was an escaped slave from a foreign empire. He was so angry and so passionate.

I fell in love halfway on a journey between two planets. It was my ship, and she was a scientist helping me solve a thorny problem. She wasn’t human, and I didn’t care.

There is always something worth finding if you go to the farthest edges of the map.

Sometimes games are facile with the depths of humanity. A game that promises meaningful choice might make those options as Manichean as “give money to orphanage” or “drown a sackful of puppies for no reason.” It’s a set-up, a feel-good moment as meaningful as reassuring oneself that, if only we’d been born a century or 10 earlier, we would have stood on the right side.

But then there are the harder choices.

A young girl’s parents have died with millions of others in a nationwide catastrophe. She looks to me for protection. I have stepped in as her surrogate father, even without meaning to, and I care deeply about her. After a close call with some scary people, I realize: I have to teach her how to handle a weapon, even though neither of us wants to. Making the choice, the necessary choice to teach a child how to take a life in our ruined world, makes us both sad.

In another world—another game, another life—I stand between two of my most trusted friends. They are from warring factions who at this exact moment are in orbit preparing to destroy each other once and for all. The choice before me is binary: action or inaction. Do something or do nothing. A people will die either way. But do I care about a far-away genocide of an alien people enough to sacrifice a friend within arm’s reach?

I have cheered on leaders and encouraged cowards, hated villains and loved heroes, in all the books and films that I have loved. But those are guided tours. In a game, my actions are my own, and I must learn to own them.

When you’re saving the entire world, the stakes are high enough that maybe it doesn’t matter if you hurt a friend’s feelings or if your own reputation suffers. Or maybe that’s when it matters most, preserving your shreds of self and humanity.

Do you stick to your first impulse, even if it costs you friends? Do you take others into consideration before yourself? Do you value the one or the many? How do you define the greater good? When a great harm has already been done, how do you possibly define “justice” while you seek it?

Is the search for power always wrong? What if you can use it solve the problems of a city or a soul? Or a thousand souls? How do you go to your fate? What do you believe in?

A new game to explore makes me light up inside like I’m still a kid, discovering the whole world for the first time.


When it matters, what action will let you hold your head high?

What will let me hold my head high?

• • •

I play games, and here is what I have learned:

The X button on a PlayStation controller is at the bottom.

Underwater levels are always kind of a pain.

There is always something worth finding if you go to the farthest edges of the map.

I don’t like to play mages or wizards.

I do enjoy being an archer, a sniper, or an assassin sneaking through shadows.

I value loyalty less than I value compassion.

I naturally gravitate toward diplomacy and the resolution of conflict.

I worry less about threats to me than I do about threats to the people I love.

I will rewrite the goddamned laws of spacetime itself if I have to, to save them.

It is not where I go that matters.

It is how I feel for having been there.

• • •

A new game to explore makes me light up inside like I’m still a kid, discovering the whole world for the first time.

I know so well what that looks like: My daughter is a year and a half old. She is just at the first, tentative, beginning steps of the lifelong journey of learning, and I want her to explore.

In another world—another game, another life—I stand between two of my most trusted friends.

I hope she sees the world, every continent of it. I want her to push the limits of the possible, to taste dishes I never dared and learn things I never learned, to travel to countries whose borders I never crossed. I want her to see and feel and smell all the glories of the world that is, to love and be loved.

But I also hope she pushes the limits of the impossible. I want her to feel out the boundaries of human imagination and see what’s on the other side.

I want her to explore haunted houses and labyrinths and ruins, to reach the stars themselves.

And as long as I can sit at a computer, I will be right there behind her.

Illustration via Max Fleishman