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The Problem Of Explaining Video Games

It has been a rough few weeks for people that make video games and the people who enjoy playing those games. Video game developers have been called “electronic child molesters” while people who take pleasure in their creations have been described as not having any authority to discuss said enjoyment of games. The saddest part is that these examples are just the tip of the iceberg in how those in positions of power have reacted toward video games in the wake of a string of national tragedies. However, I am not here to talk about those heartbreaking events or how people have erroneously targeted video games as the culprit behind them. Instead, I want to talk about an issue brought up by witnessing dialogues between those who play games and those who do not: how difficult it is to communicate value and enjoyment of video games to people who have little to no experience with them.

One of the troubles comes when trying to explain video games as art. There is little doubt in my mind that video games are art. As someone who has devoted a large portion of my life to the study of literature (yes that is an art form) and the playing of video games, I tend to think that there are things inherently valuable to artistic expression. While I think that art is valuable, I would be hard pressed in this article to fully elaborate on that topic. To quote Stephen Guest from an article that I just googled and read from the University College London, “while technology can feed, shelter, clothe, and heal us, art can do none of these things,” and yet it still has value (although I might take issue with video games being unable to heal). Many people have written about what makes art valuable and worthwhile and if I were to do so here and now I could neither do the topic justice nor add much that is terribly new. However, if games are an art form, an idea which the Smithsonian supports, then parallels can be drawn to other more widely accepted art forms like film, literature, photography, etc. that are incorporated into video games. The reason that these parallels are important to the question of why video games are difficult to talk about is that it provides a link to well-known examples with which people who don’t enjoy gaming have had interactions. It provides a link. Someone who might frown at the violence in Medal of Honor or Call of Duty just might be able to see a connection between that and Saving Private Ryan. Both pieces of media deal with war and death, but from different perspectives.

Using games as art as a means of explaining video games to non-players, though it has advantages, has one major defect. The biggest hurdle in such a discussion is that while one side holds the opinion that games are art and have intrinsic value, the other side might not share that same opinion. People that don’t play games do not need to think that games have value in order for productive discourse to begin, but they do need to have the open minds to believe that video games COULD have value. Ideally, such people would understand that since video games are already valued by so many people in such a passionate manner, that there could be some worth to games. Instead, politicians in places of power choose to vilify games as some strange “other” and use them as a scapegoat by claiming that, not only are they meritless, but that they are actively harming our society. I am willing to guess that either these people have never played a game or are simply using video games as an easy way out of tricky situations for their own ends. In either case, meaningful discussion cannot be held between the two parties because neither party agrees that video games are as valuable as other forms of art. Again, I believe this issue stems from the inexperience/uneducated (regarding video games, no disrespect intended) nature of the old guard of non-player politicians and organization leaders who never picked up a controller and who still view gaming as an idle pastime for children.

Are we coming to the end yet?


Another problem arises from the inability to articulate why video games are fun. This issue is not limited to video games either; any activity that is enjoyed has a similar difficulty. I had a comparable quandary when I wrote a feature a while back about the appeal of eSports and tried to explain why they are fun to watch as a spectator. In that article, I began by comparing eSports to more widely appreciated things like football and basketball and then tried to convey the effort competitors must put in to become master-level eSports players. To follow this up, I threw out a few statistics about how many people watch MLG’s eSports content and tried to explain the important parts of eSports coverage. However, at the end of the piece I realized that words were insufficient and people wouldn’t really grasp why I thought paying attention to eSports was worthwhile. So, I included embedded videos of a variety of eSports matches to embody what I had been talking about up until that point. Due to that piece, some people were turned on to eSports, while others found it interesting, though still not appealing. I believe that without those examples at the end of the feature for people to watch and decide for themselves whether they enjoyed eSports or not, my words in the rest of the feature would have been largely ineffective. To bring this around full circle, video games can be explained in minute detail (which can be helpful in game reviews or commentary), but explanation is not enough to convey why something is fun. Fun is subjective and is always a case of “show, not tell.”

A different issue is that, beyond simply describing the mechanics of the game and maybe giving a synopsis of the plot, words don’t successfully convey enough of what it is like to play a video game to a person who has never played a video game. Even games in different genres can be vastly different and unintelligible to veteran video gamers unless they’ve had a roughly analogous occasion with which to compare the experience. Without that basic familiarity with gaming, untried and untested people are left with unrefined impressions of what gaming is like. Our politicians with no gaming experience see a montage of violent video clips taken from games with names like Splatterhouse, Grand Theft Auto, and Gears of War that depict players shooting people, sawing them in half with geysers of blood shooting everywhere, etc. On top of that, they know that video games have the foreign element of interactivity. With focused, carefully selected video clips and without any context or, heaven forbid, actually playing the games, is it any wonder some politicians think that video games are an evil blight when organizations with ulterior motives come knocking saying they have proof that video games lead to violence?

Given the tricky situation in which people who enjoy video games now find themselves, how would someone go about trying to initiate change? One option that has been brought up many times before is to simply wait. Eventually, people who have grown up with gaming as a hobby will inherit the offices of power and influence. Another course of action is to rage, post angry comments on news stories or forum threads. Or, rather than standby and do nothing or be impotently mean, we can try and effect a smaller, more immediate change. Since explanation of enjoyment is insufficient to convey enjoyment, since the value of art is intrinsic and yet indeterminate, and that written versions of game mechanics are inadequate for expressing fun, then we must resort to action. If we find out that a friend, co-worker, or family member who has never gamed or has a poor understanding of what it is like to play a video game let us offer them the chance to play. By doing this, we can change gaming from being some strange unknown, to an accepted part of our culture as much as movies or television or books. Over time, the old-guard that neither cares for nor understands video games will be replaced by a younger generation. When that happens, the more people that support gaming, the more elected officials that will support gaming.

Besides, what is so terrible about sharing something you love with someone else?

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