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Why I play the games I play

posted on March 22nd, 2007 by chris

Pat’s article here about this particular subject interested me, and was obviously the inspiration for this article. Props to him for coming up with the idea of a “why” article of this type.

Since I haven’t had much better to do with my thinking time lately, I’ve been thinking about why I play games. I love strategy games, RPGs, and some adventure/platforming games, but there are some things that will make me enjoy any genre.

The first and most obvious idea, as in Pat’s case, is that I could never do activities I do in a game, whether it be fighting ninja who kidnapped the president or managing a farm. This may be true (and it almost certainly is to some degree in most games), but this aspect is entirely dependent on whether I can empathize with the character. If I can empathize with a character, then it may actually feel like I’m the one fighting evil. If not, it becomes entirely a game of skill or strategy and I’m an entire layer of separation apart.

This is the main reason I initially got into Wild ARMs; I can really empathize with the characters as opposed to many other games in which the main characters are either jerks or overly whiny. So rather than feeling like I was aiding in preventing some inexplicable evil from taking over the world, I felt like I was optimizing the efficiency of someone who’s saving the world. If a game can manage to make a character I can sympathize with, and keep that feeling throughout, I will enjoy the game that much more.

I sympathize because I also have an enormous head.

The second part, which comes closer to a personal thing, is video games make sense. The real world never seems to. Whether it’s something based in emotions (which, to various degrees, I can understand) or it’s something that’s just weird and unexplainable, it aches my brain to try to think about it too much (not that I can usually stop)… In a video game, everything makes some kind of sense. Even an in-game event that’s entirely random has a reason behind it; you know for a fact it’s random, and not just arbitrary. The real world is arbitrary, unfair, and not really all that hospitable. Meanwhile, almost every game is completely beatable, and most are fair. Although it’s certainly not necessary for the game to tell me, for example, formulas to calculate damage, I like to have a basic idea of what helps me and what hurts me.

Really good games manage to strike a balance between being beatable and being difficult, and create an artificial barrier that the player can feel good about surpassing (a sense of accomplishment). A good game is fair in that you can, through practice or strategy, beat everything it throws at you. With each victory, you feel more confident, until you finally “beat” the game. Meanwhile, there’s no beating the game of life. No matter how well you are doing, somebody else is doing better than you by pretty much any measurement.

Beyond the fantasy and structured sense of games, there is an inherent accessibility to many games that makes them particularly appealing to me, more so than books or TV shows. You start a game when you want to, and in most cases you’re starting at the same point as anyone else starting the game. You stop playing when you want to, and you can continue playing at any point. The majority of games are built to require no prior gameplay knowledge; on the contrary, many who play games complain that modern games have too many tutorials. They are likewise built to have no need of external plot knowledge (though such will enhance the flavor of more interrelated games like the Suikoden series or Xenosaga trilogy). Games are like self-contained short stories, built to be experienced one at a time and highly accessible. Unlike short stories, though, they have a highly visual component, so they can be very easy to get into.

No knowledge of back (or front) story necessary.

I find games generally offer a deeper and more rewarding experience than movies as well. Games are easy to pick up and put down and they require no external experience, but they do build on each other in a mostly positive manner. This is why games can be a hobby that builds on itself; experiencing one game in a series can enhance the experience of playing later ones, usually by bringing back favorite characters or game mechanics. Although this can lead to a mere heightened sense of enjoyment, it can make video games pass into that dangerous realm of addiction. Though it’s certainly not the most harmful addiction possible, it’s still necessary to keep it at the lower end of the priority ladder.

Sometimes, though, I find myself playing something outside of those games I claim to enjoy playing most. The Harvest Moon games, for example, have little characterization and no well-defined goal. I still play the SNES Harvest Moon (there is none better I know of) because even a game with no predefined goal can still be relaxing. Particularly if life is hectic (Exam weeks or deadlines at work, take your pick), a game that doesn’t tell me what I should be doing all the time and lets me set my own goals can be quite relaxing to play for a little while. I love the feeling of accomplishment that accompanies some games, but in the end I play games to relax, and often the most rewarding games have some stress associated with them.

In the end, there are some guidelines that determine the games I love the most. I like the escapism of many games, and I like games with both comprehensible plot and engine, as well as any game that has an element of challenge. I do, however, still find myself straying from games with these elements from time to time, whether to take a break from the “norm” or to play a less stressful (yet less rewarding) game.

Why, then, write this article? I’m not sure. I guess I’m trying to look at why anyone plays games that have any depth, why they can give a sense of fun.

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