Tuesday, January 01, 2008


Why Do I Play?

Every once in a while, Penny Arcade has a really funny comic, but that's not really the reason why I keep up with the site. I vastly prefer the blog portion of the website, where two widely experienced gaming enthusiasts share their insights about the medium as a whole and, on occasion, steer me toward an enjoyable niche experience that I would have otherwise missed, like Puzzle Quest or Chore Wars.

Last month, they did a comic about Gabe's experience at his grandmother's house over the holidays, which led to a brief, yet tantalizing discussion about the fact that people play games for different reasons.


People play games (videogames included) for a number of reasons, and those motivations make different types of games more appealing than others. We're not measuring laser-cut slabs of aluminum here, with precise angles and volumes. We're talking about a context in which the weight of each element depends on the person viewing it. I will often read a review of a game I have played and cry aloud at its content, as though they were making false claims about demonstrable, physical phenomena. It's like I am gesturing with my whole body at what is obviously a pumpkin, and being told that the object on the table is, in fact, an opossum. They aren't liars, or villains. They are gamers. They simply have a different sort of metabolism, one that craves peculiar, to my mind heretical fare...

...That's a pretty serious distinction - people who play games in order to excel at them, and those who play games as a conduit to fantasy - and its only one axis of the diagram.


...I realised I don't play games for the challenge. I don't need or want to be punished by a game for making mistakes. I play games for what Ron Gilbert calls "new art". I play to see the next level or cool animation. I don't play games to beat them I play games to see them. Coming to that realisation was actually sort of important for me.

And the whole thing has gotten me to thinking... Why do I play video games? What motivates me?

So I thought I'd take a look through my video game collection, look at some of my favorite games, and try and see if it reveals anything about what makes me tick, as a gamer.

Games as a Conduit to Fantasy

Tycho hit the nail on the head with this comparison. I've wondered for some time now what attracts me and keeps me coming back to some of the more obviously mediocre games that I own. There's one in particular: the Game Boy version of "Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues". It was a cash-in, a piece of filler material released between the first two Jurassic Park movies to make a little more money off of the name. It's a horribly average run and gun platformer, and yet I loved the hell out of it.

Given Tycho's explanation, the reason is obvious -- to me, the fact that I'm in Jurassic Park, running around shooting dinosaurs, is appealing enough that I can overlook the rest of the game's shortcomings.

The fantasy element seems to be the strongest factor in my gaming decisions. Games that let me be or do something that I've never done before instantly catch my attention. Whether it's leading an adventuring party, raising a profitable farm, performing delicate surgery, flying a gyrocopter, building a city or a skyscraper, defending the innocent in court, rampaging through a metropolis as a sixty-foot wolf, playing golf in the Mushroom Kingdom, surviving on a deserted island, cooking up a world-class meal, or simply playing the part of a character from my favorite movie or TV show, the role I play is one of the first things that comes to mind when I decide to buy a new game or, indeed, try to figure out which game from my vast library I should engage in.

When I'm playing a game to live out a fantasy, I don't necessarily need it to be challenging; in fact, a game that's too challenging can be detrimental. I basically want an interactive toy box -- I want action figures that can play back with me. I want to step on stage at a karaoke place and have the crowd go nuts. When I play fantasy games, I want to be powerful, in control. I don't mind being pushed, but I want to have the power to push back.

The fantasies I enjoy tend to be cartoony in nature. As a general rule, I don't like games with gritty realism, a lot of blood, or a heightened sense of danger. I prefer light-hearted, swashbuckling adventure. I don't want to play a game that's going to scare me out of my wits. I don't like being stuck in a first-person perspective, and I don't like being shot at.

Games as a Challenge

This is not to say that I don't like a good challenge. But there's a difference between a game that you have to be good to win at it, and a game where there's no room whatsoever for error, where you're stuck doing the same level over and over again for an hour, trying to beat it. I like games that require skill and strategy, but I hate games that require perfection.

The best action games are the ones where you know how to win, and it's simply a matter of applying your skill. There are countless excellent examples of games that I'll play for the challenge -- Rayman 3 for Game Boy Advance, Yoshi's Island, any of the Super Mario games, Wii Sports, Super Smash Brothers, Elite Beat Agents, Dance Dance Revolution, Space Channel 5, Game & Watch games, Wario Ware games, Dragon's Lair, Atari 2600 Adventure, Pac-Man, and so on.

And I love mind games just as much. In general, I prefer games that favor thought and deduction over games that require knowledge or experimentation. And by that I mean that I prefer a puzzle where I know all of the rules in advance, and the gameplay is simply an application of those rules. Games like Picross and Puzzle Quest and Tetris, games where you can't solve the puzzle just by "knowing the answer", like the obstacles in a Zelda game.

There are challenges that I don't like. I don't like games where I'm racing, whether it's a restrictive time limit or a physical competitor. I don't like games that require extensive exploration (this is in contrast to games that simply reward extensive exploration). And I don't like a game where my progress is blocked by walls made of obscure expectations.

The best challenges are the ones that are obviously possible, but require some effort to surmount them.

Games as Novelty

If a game is novel enough, I will desire it, and there's usually very little that can deter me. My disdain for games about the undead was overcome by the novelty of typing zombies to death in The Typing of the Dead. I bought a Dreamcast because I had to experience Seaman, and I got my PS2 primarily as a platform for Karaoke Revolution games. I tracked down a copy of Austin Powers: Oh Behave! for the Game Boy Color, even though I knew it was crap, because I was fascinated by the idea of turning a Game Boy into a palmtop. I revel in the absurd. The more crazy joysticks you need to use, the better.

About the only thing that can deter me from a strange game is the price tag. Much as I'd love to get a Rock Band set, I'd also need a new console to play it with. And much as it would be completely worth the expense, it's just not in the cards for me to throw around that kind of money right now.

Games as Narrative

A game doesn't need to have a good story, but it's appreciated if it does. There are games I will go back to time and again -- Dragon's Lair, Phoenix Wright, Space Channel 5 -- just because I love the way the story plays out. There are basically people of two minds about games that you can "solve". Some people don't like the fact that the challenge has been all sucked out of it. But me? As long as a game is fun to see in action, I'll go back over and over, no matter how easy it is.

But beyond the joy of a well-scripted game, there's also a certain delight to be had from a "story" that unfolds organically as you play. The earliest and most minimalistic RPGs are the best for games like this, although Sims titles are good for it too. Lacking any sort of pre-scripted behavior, characterization, or plotline, characters will sometimes start to take on a life of their own in your head, and stories will start to unfold that are uniquely theirs.

There was a moment that I'll probably never forget when I was playing Survival Kids on the Game Boy Color. I was up in the mountains, and my way home was blocked by a mountain lion. I was completely trapped. The only way to get to safety was through the mountain lion. Those things are dangerous -- they can rip you apart in two hits. I kept my distance and attacked with my bow and arrow. We pursued each other, day and night. I hunted by torchlight. I grew tired, but the mountain lion weakened with every strike. Finally, I brought it down, cooked it, and ate it. It was one of the most satisfying gaming moments I'd ever had.

Games have the capacity to tell us a story that's slightly different every time we see it. Many good games act as a conduit to storytelling.

Games as Games

And, of course, sometimes a game is simply a game. Nothing more than a leisure activity, a mental or physical sport.

I don't much like direct player versus player competition, simply because I'm not very good at video games and I get my feelings hurt pretty easily. But there are games that I don't mind losing to a computer. A computer won't gloat or brag or hold its victory over my head. I like having an opponent that's only as difficult as I want them to be.

When it comes to traditional sports games in video game form, I'm usually attracted to golf games, track and field games, and tennis games. I especially like the physical aspect that the Wii controllers bring to these sorts of games, and Wii Sports Baseball is probably the only video baseball game I'll play. I love Ham Ham Games for presenting its tournament of Summer Games as a week-long experience where you get to play each and every event, the only consequence being whether you win or lose at the end. I also like "sports" that are uniquely the domain of video games, like Super Smash Brothers or Super Dodgeball -- fantasy sports that resemble real games, but with distinctly fantastic gameplay.

And although video game adaptations of traditional board and card games tend to be a pretty good time, such as Monopoly or Ultimate Card Games, I also like the games like Mario Party, Pokemon Trading Card Game, and Puzzle Quest.

The neat thing about sports and board games is their potential for variability. They never unfold exactly the same way twice. No matter how bad you are, there's always the possibility that you'll squeak through with a victory, and no matter how good you are, the possibility for defeat always looms over you. This makes them a lot more interesting to replay than most adventure games or, indeed, a lot of arcade games, where the game world is set in stone from the beginning and will always react in the same way.

Why Do I Play?

A lot of reasons. I play to see new things, to do things I couldn't do otherwise. I play to see stories unfold and to find out what's going to happen next, how it's all going to end. I play to challenge myself, but also to comfort and reassure myself.

I think that's good enough for now.


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