There is a certain kind of look I get when I tell people how much I love video games.
It lies somewhere between "You're not serious" and "Oh my God, you are serious." And by "people" giving me these looks, I mean adults of a certain age and outlook. Of course, given that I'm a 54-year-old tenured professor, these "people" are pretty much everyone I know (including my now adult children).
So today, I want to speak to all of you "look-givers" and attempt to explain why you, too, should become a gamer.
Basically, it comes down to robot dinosaurs.
I am just about to finish an amazing game called Horizon: Zero Dawn. I've been in its world, working my way through its story, for the last six months. In this experience, I've encountered all the great things a great game has to offer. This includes, but is not exhausted by, fighting robot dinosaurs.
Now wait. Just wait before you click away to that in-depth analysis of President Trump's most recent tweet. Give me a minute to explain.
First of all, there are lots of different meanings for the term "video game," and many of these hold no interest for me. There are the "platformers" like Mario Brothers, which are really just games. Their concept is simple and you basically do the same thing over and over again, which is fun if you're into it. But I'm not.
There are also the multiplayer first person shooter (FPS) kinds of games, where you "spawn" into the game's terrain (a "map"), and then you fight against other real people playing the game. These are mostly, probably 13-year-olds in Korea or Kansas who are much, much better than you. That means you'll probably spend a lot of time just dying. This is not the kind of game I want you to try either.
See, the kind of game I want you to try is the one with a story — a good, long, intricate story. And that story should be set in a wide-ranging and intricately imagined world. And just as important, that world should be brought to life through the eyes of an artist. That may mean a visual hyper-realism that leaves your jaw permanently dropped, or it can be an impressionism that serves the story at subtler levels.
And, yes, it will also be cool if there are robot dinosaurs.
So Horizon: Zero Dawn is what's called an RPG (role playing game). An RPG basically means you play as the central character in the game's story. For Horizon: Zero Dawn, the story is a hybrid, lying somewhere between science fiction, post-apocalypse tale and sword and sandal drama. It takes place 1,000 years after our civilization has fallen. This new world has been reclaimed by nature in the most beautiful, verdant way imaginable, except for one addition: robot dinosaurs (which, OK, might not really be robot dinosaurs but robot animals.) These machines, until recently, had been pretty docile.
The main character — a young woman named Aloy — begins the story as an outcast in a primitive tribe but is given the task of venturing out into the world to find why "the machines" (as they are called) have suddenly become dangerous.
To answer that question, you have to follow Aloy's journey by literally taking it on yourself. You will have decisions to make, battles to fight and discoveries to unveil. This is a lot like a great escapist novel you read on a long, lazy summer vacation — except in the game you get to be the protagonist.
Now, ultimately, it's this story that makes Horizon: Zero Dawn a great game. It's always the story that matters most. Technology alone can't leap over that hurdle. The story in Horizon: Zero Dawn is well-crafted with engaging characters you like or hate, and it slowly peals itself away in a manner that is both surprising and satisfying.
But, on the other hand, if that were all there was to the game then it would be just a hyped-up novel. What makes this kind of video game worth your time is the immersion. That's what makes it a new kind of experience reaching above the older narrative forms humanity has come up with.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is what's called an "open world" game. That means that you can go pretty much anywhere in its extensive map. While you work your way through the story of Aloy and her fallen world, you can just stop and go off to explore anywhere you want. See those beautifully rendered mountains over there? Yeah, go climb them. There's probably a giant robot bird-thing that will attack you. How about those islands on the other side of the lake? Wonder what's over there?
And did I mention the art? The world of Horizon: Zero Dawn is so beautiful to look at that sometimes you have to just stop climbing or running or fighting and just look. The game artists managed to take the most beautiful aspects of a rainy meadow or a mountain pass and turn them up to 12. RPGs may demand a good story to start, but the world you inhabit derives its felt quality from that world's art and design.
Now, I get it that you may not be interested in a game that includes fighting robot dinosaurs. That's fine (sort of, I guess). There are other games with other kinds of stories. Some are heavy on investigation; others have more fighting. Choose what you like. The point is this: I spent six months slowly working my way around Aloy's world and her story and, in the end, the whole experience was delightful and exciting and engaging.
But more than anything, it was a waste of time.
That might seem like a strange recommendation, but what I really mean is that it was a delicious waste of time. We live in a world of endless pressing concerns with so many competing avenues of being productive. A good game makes no demands other than the age-old pleasures of great story combined with the very modern possibilities of immersion. And none of it matters except the enjoyment of the doing.
That, I would argue, has real value.
Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4