I've spent most of my career teaching adults to be 3-year-olds. In other words, I try to help them recover the playful, uninhibited selves they lost somewhere along the way. This is an especially tall mountain to climb for young men, most of whom have been taught that playing make-believe is akin to surrendering their manhood.
It's something we outgrow when we leave boyhood behind (they think), so when I ask them to dive into an imaginary situation, they typically freeze up or make a half-hearted effort, signaling to their classmates they're only doing this to indulge the teacher.
Inhibition takes over, and in my business, inhibition kills. It kills imagination, spontaneity, and creativity. It makes theater impossible; but worse, it squelches play and makes us feel silly or guilty. Even after all these years, I always find that a little heartbreaking.
When I reflect on why I find video games so interesting, I think it has something to do with the way they intercept this self-limiting process. Video games - especially the ones I'm most interested in (narrative, role-playing, performative) - liberate us from our inhibitions and encourage us to play make-believe in an electronic private garden. They make it possible for us play, free from judgment or self-consciousness.
This private imaginative space is vital. It's a happy outcome of dimming the lights in the theater or cinema. We create a temporary environment where we can feel isolated, even when we're inches away from the person sitting next to us. It's the place where my tough-guy dad can shed a tear watching Toy Story 3, wipe it away during the credits, and no one's the wiser. Or so he thinks.
But video games offer more than privacy. They foster something akin to the playfulness I observe when I watch my 2-and-a-half year old daughter put her stuffed animals down for a nap. She is utterly present in the moment, completely focused on her task, oblivious to people and events disconnected from her play world. She endows objects with meaning and significance beyond their intrinsic value. A tiny blanket is a baby's crib. An empty salt shaker is medicine.
When I wonder how a jaggy blob of pixels can pass for a warrior, I remember this. We can believe it. In my daughter's playful world, the lifelike doll who wets and cries 'real tears' is no match for the floppy cloth doll with the triangle nose. The raggedy doll is the one she carries with her in the car; the one she sleeps with; the one she believes in.
I hope video games never stop summoning our hearty imaginations. We're prepared to go anywhere. Take us to a special place and unleash our fabulous child.