A week after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, I bought a PlayStation 4. The console cost me $270. In the following months, I bought a dozen PS4 games, which cost me a few hundred dollars more. In June, I turned 30, and I blew $200 on a Nintendo Switch — a new, portable console that enticed me to buy several more video games that set me back another few hundred dollars. In total, I’ve spent a little more than a grand on gaming this year. I could’ve financed a vacation with that money! Novels, too, are a cheaper form of escapism, but my apartment has no room for any more of them. Instead, I played Mario Kart for the first time since George W. Bush was president. I regressed. Following Trump’s election, I turned to these childish machines, and their frivolous software, to help me withstand the most disastrous year in U.S. politics since 9/11.
Given the president’s chaotic nature and his cruel arrogance, the general stress of post-Trump politics is quite different from the stresses conventionally produced by caring about politics way too damn much. Under Trump, news and politics have accelerated to a grueling pace, and online discourse has become a fever dream from which there’s no waking. Quickly, it became clear that Trump’s presidency, and in fact the very sight of the president’s tweets, would provoke instantaneous rage or collective panic. My best bet was to unsubscribe.
So I bought the PlayStation and the Switch, and I told myself this: For every minute I spent hunting giant robot dinosaurs in Horizon: Zero Dawn, or whatever, I would be spending a minute ignoring Twitter. The PlayStation alone was entrancing enough, especially since I work from home most days, and so I’m perpetually tempted in bored and restless moments. Buying a Switch extended my available gaming potential even further. Now I can grind Zelda shrines on the train. On a sleepier Friday night, I might even haul my Switch to a bar and ace Mario Kart 8 courses between cocktails. I know that sounds rather intensive, and antisocial, and pathetic, and bad, but I saw friends, too. I still read books and maintained a decent level of civic engagement. I’d go to some protests, and I’d read several books about the Justice Department and the FBI. I read, wrote, jogged, boxed, cooked, and played. I even covered politics for The Ringer! Through video games, I unwound. I wouldn’t ignore Trump, but that didn’t mean that I needed to tweet at him furiously while descending into an indefinitely escalating state of shock. I would save my rage for a frightfully difficult video game such as Echo, an extravagant sci-fi puzzle with clones and guns. I would save my tears for NieR: Automata, a postapocalyptic fairy tale about violent, romantic androids. Unlike the news cycle, these games afforded me control.
Video games are exceptional in this way. There’s no other medium that invites you — the player, the reader, the viewer, the listener, the consumer — to exert yourself as the crucial agent within a work of art. The degree to which your eyes and thumbs might regulate the flow of a paperback novel is nothing compared with the power that your thumbs exert over the course a competitive game’s outcomes, a puzzle game’s configurations, or a narrative game’s events. Scripted, fictional events, but still: On screen, video games project even the smallest feats as transformative accomplishments. I spent much of the year playing two games, NieR: Automata and Prey, one a heady anime adventure, the other an American space horror shooter, both highly fanciful games that render mankind at an ignoble, self-destructive end. In both games, the player doesn’t save mankind. It’s too late for that. Instead, the player surveys the wonderful destruction and gradually accepts that this is, indeed, the end. Game over. It is relaxing to play these games in which the apocalypse is so beautiful and the stakes at the end of the world are surprisingly low.
Even as a medium for escapism — arguably, the most childish medium for escapism — video games occasionally place players in conversation with human history and the real world. In the legacy series Wolfenstein, the player slaughters Nazis. The latest Wolfenstein game, The New Colossus, chronicles an alternative mid-century in which Hitler’s regime has conquered the U.S. The player creeps through Nazi occupation in Manhattan, New Orleans, Santa Fe, and even as far as away as a secret military base on Venus, the Third Reich having locked down nearly every corner of American life. In reality, the U.S. suffers the broadest neo-Nazi resurgence since World War II, and the New Colossus marketing team amplified this resonance for the game’s own, promotional purposes. One video ad seemed to repudiate Trump’s post-Charlottesville hand-wringing about “blame on both sides” with a tagline: “There is only one side.” Another New Colossus tagline reads, “Make America Nazi-Free Again.”
As opportunistic as the promotional materials might sound, The New Colossus offers a thoughtful and passionate condemnation of Nazism; the game’s diverse cast humiliates top SS commanders and super soldiers not by winning (though they do win), but overwhelming them at every turn despite several tactical disadvantages and supposed genetic defects. At the start of Wolfenstein II, the player slaughters Nazi soldiers from a wheelchair. In this darkest, alternate timeline, the Black Panthers have the last word.
These alternative histories are false — but thrilling. My playing through them isn’t exactly productive, but I can’t say that my year-long gaming retreat has felt any more wasteful than the supposedly more mature engagement with politics by way of media, including social media. Wolfenstein II is escapism; and so, for the most part, is the ongoing debate about whether classical liberals should punch Nazis: They both induce fantasies about power and choices that most of us are unlikely to prosecute in the real world. Ideally, we organize. We lobby elected officials, we activate our neighbors and whatever followers we have, and we vote. But American progress is a long haul. In the grand scheme of Trump’s presidency, a 100-hour role-playing game is still a much more sensible way for me to squander my downtime than reading viral strains of conspiracy theory, surrendering what little serenity I have left in these dire times. If I want to obsessively watch the world collapse at the hands of a corporatist egomaniac, I’ll replay Horizon: Zero Dawn.