Why play games?

When going through life, it’s worthwhile to sit down and ask yourself basic questions. Lately, my basic question has been: why play games at all?

I’ve been a gamer since as early as I could hold a controller. It’s been more than a passing hobby for me; I’ve dreamed of making my own games, spent hours upon hours venturing through virtual worlds, and made a career decision to pursue making something out of this activity called “gaming.” That said, I’d be a liar if I said that I never wonder whether this is a worthwhile pursuit at all, or if I’m just wasting my time by trying to make a job out of talking about games. I think it’s because I sometimes doubt whether or not gaming itself is a worthwhile pursuit.

Today I put two, maybe three hours in to Halo 5. Though I can generally convince myself that playing through the campaign of a game is as worthwhile as reading a book (depending on the game and the book, of course), multiplayer is harder for me to justify. After an hour-long frag session with random players from around the world, have I really learned anything? Is the world a better place because of the time I spent pressing buttons and thumbsticks? Did anything change at all? With all of the challenges in front of us as a species: climate change, poverty, terrorism, political corruption, homelessness, racism… why am I spending my energy here?

Ernest Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One, displays a world ravaged by neglect. People live in trailers stacked to the sky, famine and overpopulation are global realities. And yet, the whole book revolves around an adventure in the OASIS, a virtual world that everyone who can afford to immerses themselves in. I can’t help but look at the OASIS as a form of escapism, a way to push aside the miseries of reality. There’s a time and place for escapism, but when do we take action? When do we turn around and face the issues we run from?

Thought-holes like these tend to travel towards nihilism: there’s no way we’re going to fix all of these issues, the planet’s going to fall apart or we’re going to blow each other up or something equally terrible, so why bother with anything? Nothing lasts forever, there are millions of books and songs that were written and published over time that nobody can even think about thinking about because they’re so far in obscurity, and even entire civilizations have vanished from our planet without us having a clue how they truly lived and performed some of the feats they did. The egotism that comes from assuming any work will “make a difference” is significant by that logic.

These things said, I still think there can be a point to this writing. I think there can be a point to gaming, to creating games, to play as a whole, to all the actions we take on a regular basis so long as we apply them to a goal. That goal doesn’t have to be as grandiose as stopping climate change or ending world hunger; sometimes the goal can be “spend time with my family” or “unwind after a long day” or “become a more tactical thinker.” But when the time we spend simply becomes part of a routine, an automated process that we don’t evaluate, that’s when our time is most likely to be wasted or lost, and that’s not exclusive to playing games.

So, why do I game? I game because I think critically about the real-world when I tackle situations in virtual ones. I game because it allows me to connect with friends and family I don’t live near and because I love learning about new situations constantly. I game because I want to win, to compete and cooperate and conquer. I game because it’s exciting, I game because it’s beautiful, I game because it’s gut-wrenching and painful and horrifying. I game because it gives me stories to share with others. I game because I hope to influence other people’s lives with the lessons I’ve learned through it. And yes, I realize that any number of other pastimes and activities could fulfill those reasons, but for me, I choose gaming.

I don’t think everyone is meant to cure world hunger or end climate change, but I do believe that we each have a purpose we can fulfill to make the world a better place. When we work towards that purpose we feel fulfilled, we’re happier, better people, and create a world better suited to tackle the big issues. I worked in IT for a while, installing systems that would improve healthcare outcomes, make care more efficient, save lives.

Only catch is that I was miserable.

I wasn’t connected to the work, and I felt like I was letting down my co-workers, many of which were also my friends. I felt guilty constantly. I drank too much, rested too little. I felt like a bad employee, co-worker, friend, family member…you name it. For a while I really couldn’t stand myself.

In contrast, when I talk about games and the stories they contain, the lessons they can teach us, I can feel gears turning that normally don’t. Gaming helps me connect dots between concepts that I’d never thought about before (hopefully you’ve seen some of that in other Intelligame posts). I’ve helped start conversations about gaming with people who don’t play, dissuade myths, and at the same time learn more about where the game space still has room to grow. I’ve helped people discover games they might not have otherwise, shown kids alternatives to the violent games their friends get excited about, and I’ve given talks to try and inspire others to write and follow their dreams.

For what it’s worth, I’m happy. I feel like a good person. And I think my friends and family notice the change, too.

I don’t know where any of this work will lead in the long-run, but I believe it will lead to good. It’s still me playing the games, and my social concerns, thirst for knowledge, and headstrong drive to change the world come with me. Those three hours of Halo 5 earlier today meant something to me: the campaign made me think about humanity’s interaction with technology, while the multiplayer forced me to evaluate my bad habits and tactically adapt to new situations. Not everyone looks at their play this way, and I don’t expect them to. But it’s what makes the experience worthwhile for ME.

Society’s issues are still around, and I plan to do my part to help tackle them in my own way. For me, games and changing the world aren’t in opposition: gaming adds to my change-the-world toolkit and inspires me like some get from movies, TV, art, or any number of other activities. Each game is a choice, and those choices provide me tools to change lives for the better. I know why I game: because I choose to.

 

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Intelligame. Lover of story-centric games of all kinds, arcade games, and mobile titles. Mac and Cheese connoisseur.

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Comments 2

  1. ToasterO

    I game so that I can make sure I am aptly prepared for a zombie apocalypse. Or a nuclear war with China. OR in case there is ever an invasion of ancient dragons!

    In all seriousness though, I asked myself this sort of question and almost left gaming altogether when I couldn’t find a good answer. Perhaps playing too much COD was at fault for that one. Bleh.

    I think some people game for the same reason some people read books or workout constantly or take long hikes and backpacking trips. It helps us take a momentary escape from the social issues that you discuss. It let’s us immerse ourselves in a fantasy world that we can take at our pace. It’s fairly taxing to worry about everything going on in the world and how you as an individual are mostly powerless to cause large scale change in a short time. At least, that’s why I game. It’s wonderful to sit down and just wander the wasteland for hours before I come back to reality. I also take seriously the choices that I make in games; whether it be a good or bad choice, whether to toss the bunny off of a cliff or just leave it be, ya know?. It sounds silly but it lets me actually sit down and think about how to address situations without having to make a split second decision. Unless of course, you are playing something like Walking Dead which forces you to make those sorts of decisions.

    Anyways, I’m rambling now. Good read!

    • Josh

      Haha, it sounds like you’d be ready for all of those potential situations, ToasterO! I’d only be prepared for a zombie apocalypse if I had a plethora of electric guitars to bash them over the head with, Left 4 Dead 2 style. And even then I wouldn’t be very good at it. 🙂

      Really though, I think there’s likely a point when most of us left undergrad where we had to ask ourselves how useful the time we spent gaming was, and I know we played tons of COD then. Still, I think that you’re right; a lot of people use games as a retreat/reprieve, and there’s a lot of value to that. I think Fallout’s actually a great representation of that; you’re roaming around in the wasteland, a giant world of death and destruction and mutation, but there’s this odd optimism and humor that manages to find its way through so much of the game…the real world itself can be a pretty rough place, particularly when you think about the large-scale scheme of things, but we manage to find motivators to carry us through to the next day.

      I think your reasoning’s great on this one, and I add it to my list of why I game. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

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