Despite being in the prime of their lives, millennials can’t seem to catch a break. We’re unemployable because we’re too lazy, entitled, and what is a stable job anyway in the remote working wilderness of the digital age? We ruined dating with Tinder, Netflix and chill. Worst of all, we’re not doing our part to help the economy after having blown all our money on scrumptious avocado toast.
But if you’ve been paying attention to video games, you’ll see a different story.
Millennials are the gamer generation. The kids of the ’90s, now the 20/30something hipsters of today, grew up with home consoles, Game Boys and an ever-expanding variety of video games that let us live out our wildest fantasies. We could explore space, waste our enemies, drive fast cars, wield powerful magics.
Though now it seems ever more important that modern games offer us a taste of our wildest, most impossible fantasy — owning our own home.
Traditional video game protagonists are shifty, rootless types. No one asked which zone Sonic went home to to hang up his running shoes. Mario always had to move on to the next castle. Sure, we’d crash the crime lord’s mansion or Dracula’s castle and fuck shit up. We were home-wreckers, not homemakers. Our RPG heroes spent their lives on the road like rockstars, going from inn to inn, shop to shop, with no place to call their own.
After the year 2000, The Sims and Animal Crossing took the ‘life sim’ genre in a decidedly domestic direction. These games were focused on construction rather than destruction and allowed players not just a space of their own, but unprecedented control over its size, shape and decor.
This level of detail when it came to custom homemaking was still confined to a specific genre. But look at the hugely popular post-2008 games that gave the player some kind of control over their environment, especially the ones that allow mods.
Looking at the plethora of player homes â€” of every shape, size, and type â€” you might be forgiven for thinking that every big game has become The Sims. Millennials may not be able to buy homes in real life, but we’re investing hours of game-time and digital resources in make believe real estate, the fancier the better.
Homes For Heroes
Houses aren’t just for homebodies anymore. Even the roughest, toughest video game protagonist can enjoy some domestic bliss now. Player homes are the second most popular type of mod (the most popular is armor) for Skyrim, with over 3,450 listed on Nexus. In the Special Edition, homes are more popular than any other kind of mod.
What’s remarkable is that the vanilla game already offers six town houses for the player to move in to, and an official expansion, Hearthfire, adds the ability to construct three more out in the wilderness. Hearthfire‘s houses in particular offer a lot of customization options and interactivity, with various display cases and mannequins, kitchens, crafting stations, greenhouses and gardens â€” even domestic servants. The family-oriented Dragonborn can marry, adopt kids and pets, settling into a domestic routine with them at home.
But even this much housing, in a vast game with plenty of other things to busy yourself with, wasn’t enough for many players, as evidenced by the thousands of modded player homes available to download.
It’s not all about player ego, either. Sure, there are mansions and castles and exotic airships out there if you want them, but there are also humble, small-scale dwellings for the more modest gamers. Just like real life house-hunting, it’s all about that perfect location, size and decor. Given that money’s no object in a game, players are demanding something more specific to their taste.
The modern fantasy game hero is nobody without a fancy house, it seems. Geralt of Rivia, not known as the settling-down type, gets a mansion to take care of in The Witcher III: Blood and Wine. Dragon Age: Inquisition features a massive stronghold for the player in the form of Skyhold, with a plethora of upgrades and accessories available.
The Fallout series originally modeled their protagonist as a wanderer cut off from their roots. The original game stressed this point with a heartbreaking ending in which the hero was denied the right to return to his home vault after completing the game. Fallout 3 and New Vegas added homes, but Fallout 4 proudly takes up the trend by making player settlements bigger and more customizable, adding the ability to found and manage entire communities. And of course there are a ton of player home mods here too.
This isn’t just an RPG phenomenon. GTA V has a wide variety of houses to relax in after a hard day’s crime, and modders have added a bunch more options. GTA: Online DLC expands player real estate to include yachts, offices and warehouses. Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain vastly expands on the Mother Base mechanic introduced in Peace Walker.
Whether you’re a wizard, gangster or gun-toting mercenary, settling down and staying in is the in thing. Even more so if the player can build and customize the house themselves. There’s nothing that better illustrates just how domesticated we’ve all become than the sensation that is Minecraft, the best selling PC game of all time.
Minecraft incorporates aspects of adventure and even survival horror, but at its heart it’s a game about building in a world made of bricks. Constructing a home to protect oneself from the environment is essential, but players rarely stop there. In Minecraft, house-building can quickly escalate until you’ve built a whole village, even a city.
Not everyone who plays Minecraft goes to the extreme lengths described above, but the drive to build and build an ever nicer house is compelling.
Not everyone who likes to play house in video games is constructing a fortress of solitude, either. In the case of Minecraft, it’s not unusual to find couples or even larger collectives collaborating in complementary domestic roles:
That’s before getting into MMOs, where clusters of player houses form entire towns and communities.
The Joys Of Domestic Bliss
The appeal of player homes goes beyond a digital trophy. Players and modders don’t spend hours of busywork constructing their ideal house down to the last brick just to abandon it for adventuring. Plenty of players have a genuine emotional attachment to their houses and an appreciation for their surroundings:
These homes are built to be enjoyed. My highest leveled character in Skyrim currently enjoys his retirement, flitting between his numerous properties, checking up on the staff, playing with the kids, and engaging in a little recreational crafting and hunting (deer, wolves, bandits, giants) around the grounds. Sometimes I’ll chill at the local bar. Yep, every now and then I boot up Skyrim to roleplay upper middle class dad for an hour or so.
But for a generation who sees the secure home ownership enjoyed by their parents becoming an increasingly unattainable possibility, there’s an strong allure in the growing number of video games that offer a customizable domestic fantasy alongside starships and dragons.
Make no mistake, the gaming generation isn’t skipping out on housing because we don’t want it. Plenty of millennials know that in this economy, it’s going to take a lot of scraping and saving before we can think about escaping the rent trap. There’s always the fear that we might never make it out of our cheap, box-like apartments or parent’s basements, no matter how many brunches we skip.
It’s no wonder then that we turn to ever more prevalent and elaborate player housing in video games partly, I think, to soothe this anxiety. With an increasingly narrow range of options in today’s economy, video games aim to offer us that ideal, satisfying balance of reward for effort that often seems so out of balance in real life.
Part of the reason player homes, bases and strongholds are so effective as rewards in video games (and you typically need to invest a lot of in-game activity or currency in one, or spend a lot of real effort modding) is that they’re just the type of reward that we’re taught to aim for in real life.
Maybe not everyone aspires towards the classic American dream of a suburban house with a picket fence. But whether it’s a cabin in the woods, a city penthouse, houseboat, whatever, a lot of us are sold on the idea of settling down. For a lot of gamers of a certain age, virtual worlds offer are the only way to experience that satisfaction, albeit in digital form.
Beyond the monitor’s soft glow, there’s an escape from the empty ramen cups and peeling walls of the crummy holes we call home. Where we can be time-traveling assassins, badass gangsters, or mystical warriors. But no matter what role we assume, in whatever virtual world, one particularly unrealistic power fantasy is engaging players like never before â€” working hard for a place to call our own.
Where do you call home in video games?
This article originally appeared on video games magazine site NowLoading.co. The site is no longer online, but I’ve uploaded a selection of articles from my time as a staff writer there (2016-2017) here as portfolio samples.