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Why I play the games I play

posted on December 21st, 2006 by pat

While collaborating with the rest of the staff about yesterday’s article, I started to wonder a little more deeply, very much in the abstract way Jay was specifically trying to avoid, why I play the games I do. I think the answer to this question is very much the answer to the question of why play games at all, when there are hobbies/ways of life that are likely to lead to more sex/money/interpersonal relationships than video games.

A simple answer would be that I can never be a ninja, a WWII general, a wizard, an NFL quarterback, an etc, etc but video games allow me to come as close as I am likely to be able. I’m sure this is part of it, the desire to be immersed in a game to the point where I feel as though I am a part of it, but I do not think this is all, or even most of why I game. In fact, before some recent time spent with Guitar Hero 2 (and alcohol) I have never really identified myself as the character in a game.

Pat seems like he is merely doing boring financial work, but he is secretly designing Financial Accountant Master for the PSP.

I have spent nearly 20 years playing at being a plumber/superhero, but I have not, for all intents and purposes, ever been a plumber/superhero, nor even really felt like it. So it’s possible that the very small step from financial analyst (which I play in real life) to controlling someone who is a samurai in a video game is one small step on the journey to understanding why I play at all, but it still leaves me miles away.

Perhaps the answer lies in the genre of games I choose. I consider myself an RPGamer, but I also like adventure games, some action/platformers, and, to a lesser degree, shooters. Ignoring shmups (because I think there is an alternative explanation there, which I will cover later) the common thread seems to be that all these games at least approximate a plot. I also read quite a bit of fiction, so there is a possibility I just like interesting stories. The reason I reject this idea is actually a little embarrassing. I don’t think my love for interesting stories is the reason I play most games because I generally forget all but the most general details. I can remember if I have to save my planet/kingdom/girlfriend, but will probably not care enough to know her name (of course she is a woman, so…). For this reason, I think plots are relevant, but perhaps not in the traditional sense. In other words, I think I like to know that a game has a plot but I do not necessarily care what it is.

This desire to feel like a part of something significant is common. There are reports of soldiers in the Iraq war who had never heard of Donald Rumsfeld (while he was still Defense Secretary) and knew little to nothing of the politics of the current conflict. It seems they enlisted in order to have a serious impact and “do their part” but without actually knowing what that impact was supposed to be. While I in no way believe that playing a war game (especially since I usually go to war in a turn based fashion) approximates fighting a war, but I do think that there is a parallel between fighting a war you do not understand and doing basically the same thing in real life.

This also explains why I stop playing some of the games I do not finish. Once the illusion of taking part in some kind of epic struggle is shattered, the game loses much of its allure. Frequently this happens as a result of some event being too preposterous, or the plot getting too thin to fool me.

It’s probably best to just ignore any attempts at a plot in shmups.

I think this realization took me a good part of the way towards understanding why I play adventure and role-playing games. On the other hand, shmups usually eschew a story almost completely and yet I enjoy playing them as well. It’s possible that flying through space shooting what are ostensibly bad guys is naturally endowed with some degree of import. However, I think the real answer is the challenge of the genre. Another important aspect of games, and one that is present in all of the genres I enjoy (almost all genres besides sports and many puzzle games) is that success is largely a result of progress. Should a game be especially difficult, as most shooters are, the progress is especially gratifying.

The perfect example of a game that fulfills both of these broad criteria is Shinobi on PS2. The game makes mention of some plot, wherein you defeat your brother in a duel and then have to defend your city from some kind of supernatural invaders. Clichéd and basically nonexistent? Sure, but it does not matter because I was saving the world and too busy slaying monsters and tanks to concern myself with details anyway. Secondly, the game is hard. Beating a certain boss in that game basically made me jump off the couch in celebration. Most people will never understand my love for this game, and Jay and I argue about it frequently.

It’s possible he actually cares about the plot of the game, rather than just knowing that there is one. It’s possible other people share these criteria for enjoying a game, or emphasize them more or less. Also, it’s quite possible this whole piece is nothing more than nonsense mixed with intellectual masturbation and is completely unnecessary.


  1. Shota said on December 14, 2007:

    Hey, Pat, a part of me wants to dismiss your dismissal of plot. But maybe a better word to use would be narrative. Which is different from plot. As a primarily fellow RPG/adventure player I think we chose these games because of the narrative and the degree of control we can exert over it.
    This, I might add also relates to the larger question of video games as art. Which is easier to defend as an example of actual art – Tertis or Baldurs Gate? For me the answer is obvious and the key to that answer lies in narrative. But then again I happen to think that everything everywhere is always about narrative. I’ll stop here since i sense my cue to go fuck myself.

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