Games are about choices! Games are about challenge! Games are about avatars! So many banners line the battlefield of games, so many visions of “what games are”. Yet no-one who attempts to boil down games into a simple formula preserves everything that everyone loves about games, and that means games are always far beyond what you think they are.
Conventional thinking about games has crystallised into certain dogmas, sometimes stated, sometimes merely implied, that attempt to control the phenomena of games through the simple means of declaring what they are or are not. We should be suspicious of this, but not (as the academics say) because it is ‘essentialist’ but because we should never confuse our aesthetic values for anything fundamentally necessary – even though, as Kant observed centuries ago, we all desperately want to do this, whether for ‘art’ or for ‘games’.
Whatever you single out as essential to games will necessarily reflect your aesthetic values for play. That is no bad thing – appreciating any of the aesthetic experiences of life is a practice we ought to treasure, because it illuminates a certain joy we take in living, and that is always a precious thing. The problem is, we think our aesthetics can be applied to others. Kant noted that when we find a great artwork, we feel that our judgement should apply to everyone – and thus are often scornful of those who don’t accord with our own judgement. The same is true about games, where our aesthetic judgements are sometimes shored up by all sorts of strange methods, including invoking psychology as a weird source of authority (as if psychologists could somehow show what was really art or really a game...).
Three of my own bugbears about this phenomena will help illustrate my point, starting with the famous Sid Meier misquote that “a game...” (or, as he appears to actually have said, “a good game”) “...is a series of interesting choices.” Who doesn't love an interesting choice, you might ask? Aren’t the best examples of games built around providing meaningful choices? It’s true that evocative choices are one of the ways that games satisfy players, but we ought to be careful about confusing a way games engage players for the way games engage players.
Games are about choices in about the same way that action movies are about weaponry. Yes, firearms are a staple of the genre, but films like Deepwater Horizon or, long before that, The Towering Inferno are still blistering action movies (quite literally in these cases!) without a shot ever being fired. Similarly, games supporting meaningful choices can be great experiences, and can offer many rewarding moments. Yet zero player games like ProgressQuest are still fun, despite offering no choices whatsoever. Along similar lines, many Japanese RPGs craft the play experience so tightly that almost no meaningful choices are offered, yet the genre is still wildly popular, and not just in Japan (indeed, the design of BioWare games have increasingly cross-pollinated the Western and Japanese RPG lineages).
Then there is our relationship to our avatars. Katherine Isbister, whose work I greatly admire, claims we have a deeper bond with our game characters than with characters from other media that are ‘not interactive’, owing to what psychologists have called para-social relationships. Already, a massive assumption has been made here that clouds the water. For my five year old son, the Marvel comics I read to him provide the same interactive capacities as the videogames we play, at least in terms of what happens afterwards, when he is playing games about them. This is not just true for a child’s imagination, though: for many cosplayers, the same expanded scope of interaction applies. (If this feels odd because it looks at play ‘outside the game’, recall that while we are watching a movie our bond to the characters on screen can be immensely strong; the idea of a stronger bond with a videogame avatar is already founded upon thinking outside the game, at the draw of returning to playing.) The games we play with media never quite stay inside the lines we draw for them, and para-social connections are generated by nearly every medium.
Besides, do we really bond with game avatars (or at least, the digital dolls representing them) more than the protagonists of books, films and television shows? Harry Potter or Darth Vader are more beloved than any game character, so it would seem this is not the case. Our attachments to the dolls we play with in videogames feel more intense while the game has us in its grip, but the relationship tails off dramatically afterwards (not to mention that a TV ‘boxed set’ can hold us in its grip just as effectively as a videogame). Note that we never play a game the second time in the same way; we don’t recreate our previous avatars ever, no matter how much we loved them. Conversely, other media characters are eternal – and gain tangibly from it in terms of their appeal. It’s not a coincidence that cosplayers favour Japanese RPG characters, which are closer in form to the older forms of media. The shared point of reference among the wider community makes a huge difference in such matters.
Then there’s the psychological concept of flow, which many people have suggested is central to games, and allegedly keeps us engaged through a tight balance between the level of challenge and our own abilities. Yet this phenomena (while an authentic part of animal psychology) has little to do with the appeal of tabletop RPGs, exploration games, walking sims, nor most boardgames. To understand flow is to appreciate the ways a certain kind of game elicits our intense involvement, but it would be utterly futile to make this a skeleton key for game design. If we consider survival-horror games as just one clear example, it should be clear that remaining within the ‘flow channel’, where our skills match the challenges, is a terrible description of the enjoyment on offer. Most players of these games are avoiding challenge to conserve limited resources, and anxiety in these cases is not a sign that the game has ceased to be fun but the very root of our enjoyment.
Flow was the psychological secret of the arcade, the essence of the intense involvement of the coin op that was initially predicated upon forcing the player to fail against rising levels of challenge. That made a great deal of sense in the commercial situation of that time, where games had to be designed to facilitate coin drops, and so shorter, more intense play experiences were the order of business (at least until the first ‘microtransaction’ games like Gauntlet, which threw away the concept of one coin, one game). But the arcade is only part of the story of videogames, and we should never forget that the medium descends from both coin ops and tabletop role-playing games – and only one of these lineages is about flow. The other is about immersive presence, that capacity to enter another world that is also in no way the hallmark of games, let alone videogames, which did not even originate it!
Whenever you make a box and say “this, this is what games are!” I will show what you excluded and why others love those games just as much. This was the reason I had to disavow ‘games’, to deny myself any capacity to define “what games are” in order to try and understand everything games can be, which is always more than you think. This is the reason that I now argue for a liberation of games, a break from the tradition of trying to lay out definite boundaries for games or, for that matter for art – not to forbid such definitions, but to embrace them all in all their confused glory!
The liberation of games means no one can chisel the agenda for play in stone. Everyone’s aesthetic values have meaning, even those we hate, and there’s nothing to gain from denying this diversity, this wild landscape of play. I revel in this chaos because it is the only honest way to love games: no-one is mistaken in laying out their boundary conditions for what games are, but everyone who thinks they can defend games from a border they have drawn is deeply confused about what they are doing.
This is the ultimate truth about games: nobody owns them, not gamers, nor social justice warriors, nor governments, nor corporations – no-one. Games and art are bigger that any fragment of culture, greater than any definition, and beyond even our species. The liberation of games means accepting everyone’s unique view of games, whether or not we agree with it. This is not easy. But it’s the only way to allow games to truly be everything they can be.
With apologies to the incomparable Gil Scott-Heron.