If we defend the medium of games from its critics by claiming nothing in videogames matters because it's just a game, we betray everyone working on videogames with artistic aspirations by conceding that the medium of games is unimportant.
I see this kind of argument trotted out periodically on Twitter whenever someone like Jack Thompson decides to tilt at windmills. Usually the grievance is directed at violent games, at gun games, a vibrant part of the blockbuster market for games in part because it aligns so perfectly with the demographics which Sony and Microsoft have chosen to make central via their breed of overpowered boy-toy consoles. The temptation on the part of gamers is to reject these kinds of concern out of hand – playing Call of Duty does not make me want to pick up a real gun (the thinking presumably goes), much less commit murder, so getting upset about violence in games is stupid. After all, it's just a game.
What is actually at task here is the meaning of the fictional content of videogames, the interpretation of fiction within game worlds. Yet to assert that this does not matter because it's just a game is to claim – implausibly – that fiction in games doesn't matter because the fact of it being a game allows the significance of the fictional world to be ignored. And this is precisely an argument that games don't matter, they are artistically unimportant, they are second fiddle to novels and films.
It is important to recognize here that the reason that media such as film, theatre, and novels are lauded is because their fictional worlds matter. Shakespeare is still studied today, four centuries after his death, because his plays speak to the human experience – they contain eternal truths that can be exported (to use Tamar Gendler's term) from the fictional world. This is why theatre matters, even though some theatre is rubbish. Similarly, the films of Akira Kurasawa are not just about samurai warfare but about being human, and about the impact of history on human lives. These are examples of why films matter, even though most films are rubbish.
Precisely the reason that I argue in Imaginary Games that the fictional worlds of novels, plays, and films are part of a continuum of play that also encompasses games (including videogames) is that this is the most direct way of making the case that games matter, that they are a valid art form, and that their potential is at least as great as other forms of creative expression. But it is important to remember that defending a medium is not the same as defending any given instance. Call of Duty is not a great work of art, it is a popular work in an artistic medium – like Terminator 2 or The Avengers in film. It is not because it is ‘just a game’ that Call of Duty is artistically unimportant, it is because it is just a work of popular entertainment. This distinction is far more important than many gamers realize or admit.
If I recall correctly, I did once use this fallacious argument to defend the classic Flying Buffalo board game Nuclear War (pictured above) from criticism. My interlocutor was dismayed that anyone could enjoy a game that seemed to celebrate the obliteration of millions of people, or even the total destruction of planet Earth. But I should not have claimed this was acceptable because it was 'just a game' – I should have made the point that it was a satirical game, or perhaps a farcical game.
When Doug Malewicki designed Nuclear War in 1965, the threat it satirized felt very real, but he certainly didn't make the game to encourage an apocalyptic ending for all human life. It isn’t because Nuclear War is ‘just a game’ that we shouldn’t interpret it as glorifying atomic megadeath, but because it is a silly game, with country names like Bagmad and Little Bittyland, and a spinner for determining how many people are killed by radioactive fallout. The meaning of the fiction in games depends upon more than the simplistic binary opposition game-or-not. This is not so different from the situation facing films – did anyone really think Doctor Strangelove should be taken at face value?
Beyond the fact that the argument itself is erroneous, quite apart from its betrayal of the artistic potential of the medium of games, 'just a game' is also deployed hypocritically. The very same people who would dismiss conservative attacks on videogames by resorting to 'it's just a game' are vehement espousers of liberal ideals who would criticise the portrayed attempted rape of Lara Croft, question the use of black zombies in Resident Evil 5, or ask where the gay videogame heroes are hiding. But if it's 'just a game', none of these questions could matter. It seems as if this well-worn excuse is wheeled out solely to dismiss transgressions against other people's ideals (those that the gamers don't care about) because when their own ideals are violated, you can be sure no-one is dismissing these digital fictional worlds with the fallacious claim that it doesn't matter because it's just a game.
On this, as on so many issues, the community that cares about the medium of games must do much, much better. As a step in the right direction, let us ensure that no-one who genuinely cares about videogames gets away with the lazy defence implied by 'just a game'. If we value games, if we think videogames deserve greater respect, we should ask that those of us that enjoy playing games help discover how to properly appreciate this entirely misunderstood artistic medium. This step towards serious game criticism is long overdue, is more discussed than it is pursued, and has become necessary precisely because nothing is 'just a game' any more.