Why We Seek Out Video Games
Since the advent of the cathode-ray tube amusement device in 1947, the fusion of play and electronics provided folks with novel tools for crafting one’s vision and rendering it like never before. This included novel ways for folks to interact with one another via leisure.
Enter the world of video games, in which text, images, and sound work to transplant imagination and input into a new plane of reality. It is a plane in which the unreal’s formed not just by the author, but also by those they reach out to. As the years added up, so too have the pixels comprising the unreal.
With technical leaps and a warming view of interactive entertainment on society’s part, gaming shed its image as a childish medium. The result? A multibillion-dollar industry that can host blockbusters like Days Gone (2019) and smaller works such as Return of the Obra Dinn (2018).
That wave of change brought new, increasing demographics to the medium such as the three billion video game consumers now around the world and the “more than 10 million Americans age 50 and older [who] became active video gamers [from 2016-19].” 1 Suffice it to say that video games are here to stay, with more potential homes—and lives—to set up shop in and enliven.
New setups also expanded the medium’s reach. Consoles and handhelds, motion controls and virtual reality, solo titles and games-as-services… Just as the value of the industry ballooned, so too has gaming’s impact across those demographics looking for controllable escapism in all shapes and sizes.
But games are more than just distractions from daily woes. As an interactive medium, gaming acts as a portal into a realm different from reality and made by developers wishing to share themselves—their imagination made manifest—with others. Those developers entrust audiences with the power to shape said realm and trigger a dialog between creator and consumer in the language of play.
With the ninth console generation settling in and COVID driving folks to seek remote forms of fun, interactive entertainment couldn’t receive a better chance to grasp folks’ attention… and some of their cash to boot.
So why does gaming—a well from which to draw thrills, insight, or both—matter? Why are “people looking to create games that are not just fun to play, but send a message to the player?” 2
To Explore, And Mold, Worlds Our Way
The first aspect of gaming’s appeal lies in the space(s) afforded to the participant. Whether it’s linear or open-ended, bespoke or procedurally generated, dark or colorful, the virtual world offers a break from the real one. It does so with gameplay obstacles (enemies, environmental hazards, etc.) and presentational details (audiovisuals, map layout, in-game lore, and the like) that compel players to engage with their surroundings.
From Assassin’s Creed: Origins‘s (2017) Egypt to Halo‘s (2001) titular ring, the realms carved out with keyboard and Wacom stylus strokes act as fodder for the human impulse to creatively shape and impact one’s environment. Be it via destruction, looting, or skulking through the shadows, how the gamer operates plays a key role in grounding them in the virtual space.
That is, provided the designer accounts for the gameplay possibilities generated by the game engine, as well as for the player’s exercising of game mechanics. For the sake of immersion, any action the gamer thinks of with regards to molding the fictional world—while still respecting the game rules—should be executable.
Few works wield the idea of playing games and God like Garry’s Mod (2006). In this sandbox game, players may freely summon and manipulate characters and objects to toy with across a series of user-created maps and game modes, with or without any set objectives or rules to follow.
Via Havok physics and the gamer’s imagination, Half-Life 2‘s foremost game modification offers the virtual equivalent of a junk playground.
In other words, a playground that “lets players experiment with a wide swath of creative tools and functions to build nearly any kind of experience they can dream up.” 3
This ability to dream up anything’s facilitated by the openness of maps such as Construct and Flatgrass. And in these, players may wield the multi-purpose Tool Gun to reshape virtual reality (including faces) or spawn random characters and weapons into said reality. All of these can beget all sorts of thrills, including those of playing a game of Prop Hunt that has one evade other players by disguising oneself as an object and hiding in a pirate ship.
Garry’s Mod invites players like how an empty canvas entices the artist to step up, let their thoughts pour out… and duke it out as they spawn into space, BFG-9000s in hand.
Factoring in technical limits and how well it lends itself to the gameplay rules, a virtual space defines a large chunk of the game’s identity. It also lets players define their in-game identity via spatial interactions that hone their playstyle and induce a “breadcrumb trail” effect of perpetual discovery.
For the humble human, discovery drives one forward. It can be on foot, in monster trucks, or on tamed Randy Savage dragons. What better place to find or craft thrills with style and no serious consequences than the world developers make for their stories and that of audiences?
Other Examples: Octodad: Dadliest Catch (2014), Red Faction: Guerilla (2009), Control (2019).
To Become And Meet Folks Unlike Us
A virtual world’s shaped as much by its populace as it is by player input. Enter characters. Be it their boots (avatars) or paths (non-player characters), a game’s cast invites interaction and empathy in a way that goes beyond what’s offered by “slab-shouldered space marines or lingerie models turned ninjas-for-hire.” 4
They can be the product of authorial intent like the party members in The Outer Worlds (2019), or of emergent play such as the Uruks from Middle-earth: Shadow of War (2017). Whether at the player’s or developer’s hand, characters in a game aim to lure the participant into their worlds, acting as ambassadors of sorts for the title’s narrative tone and gameplay style.
And once the luring’s achieved, said characters anchor the audience into the experience with a mix of catching personalities and impressive gameplay abilities that warrant further interaction.
Such interactions can include, in the case of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath (2005), catching said personalities or shooting them with personalities that form the game’s Live Ammo (Chippunk, Boombat, and the like).
Throughout his journey across settler towns and abandoned mines, Stranger captures bandits dead or alive to raise enough bounty cash for a mysterious operation that would clear his name and hide his true identity. With their crossbow’s ammo keeping them company, gamers traverse a realm whose Western theme’s the one link to human history.
“Everything from the characters’ wardrobe to the dusty towns screams wild frontier.” 5 It can be seen in the clucking Clakkerz in Gizzard Gulch, as well as in the antics of the fiery Flint “Explosives” McGee and matriarchal Jo Mama.
Whether friend or foe, quick or slow on their feet and of judgment, the cast of Stranger’s Wrath hardly breaks a sweat in the offbeat department, both in terms of gameplay tactics and comedic delivery. That the two combine to say something about the characters—like Packrat Palooka’s love of junk that begets statues and cyber minions in his Junkyard—also adds to the cast’s charm.
Coupled with the themes of exploitation and absurd cruelty that define Oddworld, the characters’ color and energy strike a chord with the participant. Stranger’s Wrath doesn’t achieve that just for the sake of entertainment. It also provides food for thought on human nature in as delectable and appealing a package (of personalities) as feasible.
From afar in Lemmings (1991), mid-distance in Overlord (2007), or up-close in Zeno Clash (2009), characters ground players in the world with their presence, gestures, and value. This fuels the cycle of (inter)actions that yield all kinds of emotions ranging from pensiveness to euphoria. This is thanks to the ways in which emergent play can shape characters and the scenarios they create and/or end up in.
Through narrative worth and gameplay function, characters don’t stop at drawing audiences into the experience like in other art forms (films, books, etc.). They also guide the participant, thwart them, cheer for them, taunt them. The designer that succeeds in crafting such figures is the designer that succeeds in transplanting bits of human nature they cherish and/or deconstruct creatively.
Other Examples: Spore (2008), Alpha Protocol (2010), TimeSplitters (2000).
To Find New Ways To Interact With Spaces
So games provide a space inspired by and, at the same time, unlike our own. Said space’s full of folks who bear goals, biases, and roles to play. Sounds like a world and tale one’d find in any storytelling medium. But where gaming’s concerned, that’s where the fun—i.e. audiences—comes into, well, play: Their ability to shape the story world and how they do so.
Do they criminally assert themselves in Grand Theft Auto III (2001)? Do they achieve super-powered feats in Prototype (2009)? Or do they restore color to the world in Epic Mickey (2010)? However one looks at—and does—it, games bear an alternative to how one controls themselves and shapes their environment as they go about their real lives. Digital escapism, after all, isn’t just about leaving the real world behind. It’s also about new modes of spatial awareness that can test one’s creative and abstract thinking.
Such is the promise that Superhot (2016) realizes with flying colors (and glass shards for enemy flesh). Taking place in a metanarrative involving a minimalist in-game program named superhot.exe, Superhot sees the gamer—their avatar a fictionalized version of themselves—getting sucked into a series of unconnected levels they must traverse on foot to escape the program’s clutches. Those levels host enemies in red and weapons in black, standing out from the white and gray environment.
All of this begets a fitting metaphor for Superhot‘s standing out not just from real life, but also from other first-person shooters via a twist on the genre formula: Time moves only when the player does. This compels players to think differently and tactically about how to take on one’s surroundings and leverage the space to achieve their goals with style. This is something Superhot highlights via a real-time clip of the gamer’s progress through the level upon completion.
Progress’s made by thinking on one’s feet while still having a chance to analyze the space around them for gameplay purposes. Flying weapons to grab, bullet trails to dodge, enemy positions to gauge before moving out of cover… These combine to craft not just a unique shooter, but also a swell way for the participant to interact with a 3D space.
It’s a bit like how one plays chess: With foresight, circumspection, and caution.
That the player hones those three traits in a Matrix-like space bearing an emphasis on wise shooting and wiser moving is a testament to Superhot Team’s ability to embed smart thinking into play. It’s a form of play whose mechanics and rules enable navigational ingenuity, “allowing [one] to carefully align a headshot, evade a punch, or take a breath and consider how to untangle the deadly knot [one finds themselves in].” 6
Humans come with their physical and technological limits, leaving room for one to speculate about how they could, say, breathe underwater or see through walls if they had the one thing that gave them such abilities.
And games are eager to grant such (power) fantasies in imaginative worlds governed by equally creative laws of nature. This helps audiences hone a vivid imagination that keeps that foremost driving force for intellectual health and growth—curiosity—going.
Other Examples: de Blob (2008), Watch Dogs (2014), Snake Pass (2017).
To Be Part Of And Impact A Story
Being able to interact with one’s surroundings and get “water cooler” tales out of their exploits makes for grand entertainment. The best and most indelible sort of entertainment, however, is the one that can potentially become grander if player-made stories contribute to a larger, more epic narrative.
Think of the high school hijinks one can get into with Persona 5 (2017), or of the existentialist journey the player undertakes across many planes of reality in Planescape: Torment (1999). Be it a party of chums, incredible odds, or weighty themes that underline the stakes, games offer audiences the driver’s seat with regards to guiding and making sense of the narrative.
This means that players “aren’t just shown how a conflict gets resolved, they’re [also] challenged to do [the work] themselves.” 7 And this being challenged serves as the catalyst for bringing out the good, the bad, and the innermost in the participant, boosting their level of emotional engagement.
Cue Valkyria Chronicles (2008) and its bespoke squad members who fight under the pall of warfare (and permadeath should gamers get careless). Set in the fictional land of Gallia, Valkyria Chronicles puts players in charge of the militia unit Squad 7 as it seeks to drive out the invading forces of the East Europan Imperial Alliance, which looks to seize Gallia’s natural resources.
This in turn serves as a chance for gamers to seize in terms of helping the underdog. And with the odds stacked against them, players are further incentivized to explore every avenue for realizing their heroic potential.
Bonds, for instance, can be forged with and between characters on the battlefield, leading to thrills such as getting one’s favorite soldiers to overcome Selvaria’s forces at the Battle of Barious. Players can even tackle discrete side tales to help particular squad members seek personal closure in the midst of a larger, more external conflict. Such a balance of the collective and the individual helps the game feel both epic and intimate without losing sight of the bigger picture or its finer details at any time.
All work to produce empathy in the player. It compels them to get better not just for the sake of progress, but also for that of souls the gamer’s entrusted with. This makes Squad 7’s triumphs all the more innermost to the player, and its downfalls—plot- and gameplay-induced—all the more heart-wrenching.
Like Ghibli films, Valkyria Chronicles doesn’t mince words about human cruelty, but it leaves room for hope and change that players promote in a colorful and daunting title “more interested in cultivating human bonds than putting bullets in enemies’ heads.” 8
Every person wishes to be the hero of their own story, one that intersects with and could even influence many others. With heroism comes a sense of agency and control, which games and their stories are built upon.
Ergo, one can deem games to be a sort of dialog between developers and audiences. It’s a chance for the latter to enter the former’s world(view) and explore such a perspective from that of characters the player can have fun with and as.
More importantly, however, games give folks a chance to exercise their desire to make a difference in whichever world they find themselves in. With reality housing its fair share of rigidities in the sociopolitical scene, interactive entertainment has a way of scratching that maverick itch in the participant.
Perhaps it can even leave audiences with something to think about in terms of their place in the world and how they can best leverage it for good.
Other Examples: Dragon Age: Origins (2009), 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim (2020), Oxenfree (2016).
To Bond And Create With Other People
With so many narratives to partake in and shape, it’s easy for one to bond with their avatar and the non-player characters they interact with. And thanks to gaming forums and social media, it’s also easy for one to share with other real-life people their virtual exploits.
Plus, with technological advances in online infrastructures and in-game creation tools such as mapmakers for designing levels, it’s possible to not only share said tales from afar, but to also craft content with others and forge “water cooler” stories with that user-made content.
On the couch or online, via competition or cooperation, with guns or pickaxes… Video games leave all sorts of options (characters, worlds, interaction modes, etc.) on the table. It’s a table to which all manners of folks—itching to make interesting choices on a global level—are invited.
Leave it, then, to the likes of LittleBigPlanet (2008) to craft a portrait of a small world. Taking place in a universe of artworks made by Creator Curators, LittleBigPlanet has the player take on the role of a Sackperson as they craft, share, and explore levels. All of this happens while a rogue Creator—the Collector—goes about stealing creations from other Curators and not sharing them with the rest of the universe.
It’s a universe that can bear sugarcane stickers, spiky fire hazards, cars sporting cardboard chassis and cheese wheels, and Dark Souls costumes for Sackpeople to don. And with everything/one coming together in the Map Editor and the level proper (without falling apart too easily), all possible PvE/PvP (player vs. environment, player vs. player) interactions may grace the aforementioned table and leave their mark on it in colorful ways.
Such malleability in the experiences one can have—and create too—by themselves or with others says a lot of Media Molecule’s vision, one aimed to make players’ dreams come true in the same virtual space. It promotes the sort of proximity that invites curiosity in others and what they make.
In a world of rifts and misunderstandings, to reach out to others and offer/receive playful (and playable) works symbolizing the human imagination makes for a gift in and of itself.
Like emotions, then, play’s infectious, universal, and capable of assuming any form. It’s a task that gaming—increasingly defined by its global outreach—is happy to take on. Titles like Among Us (2018) and Fortnite (2017) even began taking center stage in pop culture thanks to how they structure their spaces and mechanics to encourage new means of social interaction. However a game includes multiplayer into its framework, the great designer sees to that task in the name of letting individuals channel their inner sculptor in a shared comfort zone where experimentation reigns supreme.
Other Examples: Sea of Thieves (2018), Don’t Starve Together (2016), Monster Hunter: World (2018).
To Creatively Channel Our Emotions
So what do the above cases for play amount to and bear in common?
As stated before, video games make for more than just mindless play, what with their sundry components—from the social to the narrative—luring all kinds of personalities to interactive entertainment. They can also have players hone their reflexes, consensus-building, abstract/creative thinking, and the like.
What makes games stand out from reality is the leveraging of skills in a contained playground. It’s a playground unshackled from real-world ramifications and, if the designer gets any ideas, physics.
Case in point? People Can Fly’s foul-mouthed and—once the gore settles—foul-smelling shooter Bulletstorm (2011). As space pirate Grayson Hunt, players find themselves stranded on the inhospitable planet of Stygia following a botched attempt to shoot down the battlecruiser of the egomaniacal General Sarrano. What ensues is a planetary game of cat and mouse that has the gamer shoot their way through feral tribes armed with guns and a cannibalistic appetite.
With the trifecta of an energy leash, mighty boot, and scoring system that puts the “skill” in “Skillshot,” Bulletstorm hardly misses a beat with its tactile take on the shooter formula. This compels players to hardly miss a shot as they take on Stygia’s fiends.
Like toys cared for by the daycare youth in Toy Story 3, nary an expense—i.e. foe—is spared in Bulletstorm. Wish to send a bomb-laden enemy into the air with a well-placed flare? Go for it. Or how about juggling an airborne foe with shotgun blasts before letting them land on a pile of cacti? Can’t think of a better way to have two kinds of pricks come together.
No doubt that Skillshots and the four-letter words that come with them bear no real-world benefit. They are more likely to raise brows than lip corners. But as a power fantasy, one in which players can creatively vent their thoughts into a fictional realm, Bulletstorm doesn’t so much scratch that discovery itch as pepper it with virtual lead.
In a medium built upon speculative fiction, the game’s imaginative ways of dealing with the opposition only seem fitting. Bulletstorm pushes players “to use the creativity of their brains for a specific purpose.” 9
Play can be more than just fun ‘n games. They can engage from a presentational standpoint as with Ghost of Tsushima (2020). They can give players food for thought like Disco Elysium (2019). Heck, they can even question the player like in Spec Ops: The Line (2012). Whatever their design goals, though, games should provide an avenue for one to exercise their agency and see the chain reactions from actions not (easily) feasible in reality.
Whether a power fantasy or empathy trip, a choreographed experience or freeform playground, games serve as a conduit for emotional release. This conduit allows players to process their feelings in a novel fashion, to control the pacing of said emotional release according to their playstyle. And as technology expands, so too will the range of possible expressions.
Other Examples: Pain (2007), Everything (2017), Peggle (2007).
Raph Koster once said that games were “teachers, [with] fun [being] just another word for learning.” 10 Like hiding exposition behind conflict, then, relaying smarts via play can help draw the participant into the experience. It can have them come out of the experience feeling psyched, enlightened, and psyched for more enlightenment.
Ergo, games serve as venues for welcoming others into another’s world, for putting trust in others as they uncover the virtual unknown.
- Brooks, Khristopher J. “As the U.S. Ages, Older Americans Flock to Video Games.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 2 Jan. 2020, www.cbsnews.com/news/video-games-senior-citizen-video-gamers-growing-by-millions/. ↩
- Orlecki, Ryan. “Video Games As A Form of Expression.” The Toronto Observer, 12 Oct. 2017, torontoobserver.ca/2017/10/12/video-games-as-a-form-of-expression/. ↩
- Rivers, Buck. “What Garry’s Mod Is & What You Can Do With It.” ScreenRant, 18 Sept. 2020, screenrant.com/garrys-mod-steam-games-how-use-valve-assets/. ↩
- Birmingham, John. “Video Games as a Genre of Creative Expression.” The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Apr. 2010, www.smh.com.au/technology/video-games-as-a-genre-of-creative-expression-20100401-rh8z.html. ↩
- Millsap, Zack. “Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath Was Awesome – But It Didn’t Fit With the Series.” CBR, 30 June 2020, www.cbr.com/oddworld-strangers-wrath-unllike-predecessors/. ↩
- Plante, Chris. “Superhot Is the Unthinkable: a Truly Original First-Person Shooter.” The Verge, The Verge, 25 Feb. 2016, www.theverge.com/2016/2/25/11110138/superhot-review-video-game-pc-mac-linux. ↩
- Skolnick, Evan. “Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques.” Watson-Guptill, 2015. ↩
- Kriss, Alexander. “Valkyria Chronicles Is a Different Kind of War Story.” Kill Screen, 19 July 2016, killscreen.com/previously/articles/valkyria-chronicles-different-kind-war-story/. ↩
- Bossche, Andrew Vanden. “Analysis: High Aspirations for High Scores – Bulletstorm and How Points Change Play.” Gamasutra, Informa, 10 Feb. 2011, www.gamasutra.com/view/news/123353/Analysis_High_Aspirations_for_High_Scores__Bulletstorm_and_How_Points_Change_Play.php. ↩
- Koster, Raph. “Theory of Fun for Game Design, 2nd Edition.” 2013. ↩
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