Let’s ask a little more from our games

alliswell

The conversation was over as soon as the defense became, “It’s supposed to be entertaining, so that’s good.” If you must have context, this was from a nice journalist who received a questionable command from PR but chose to demo their game regardless. This post is not about that journalist because the context could have been anything in the entertainment realm: books, movies, theatre, podcasts. I’ve heard the statement multiple times in multiple conversations, and every time it seems an incredibly low mark to hit. It’s safe to assume any entertainment media manifests because a creator thought it would entertain consumers.

There’s an entirety of existence waiting for you, everything from the smallest dancing particle to the limitless expanse of universe. In your own mind lie fewer boundaries and the possibility of everything that has been and could be, or never be. If your criteria is “be entertained”, how do you narrow down what is worthy of your time? If you review videogames with that criteria, how do you convey your experience to others?

Entertainment is the end result, the aftertaste. Whining critiques of boredom with no outline of what goals the game failed to meet are worthless–the lowest form is falling into personal insults against the developers because the critic has no concept of their own standards, and therefore can’t judge the game itself. Similarly, game reviewers who praise a videogame for its entertainment value but do not define what contributes to that value are a waste of time. There is no safer nor worse review to give a videogame than, “It was fun.” That’s as helpful as saying, “Well, it was made.”

Like any solid strategy, you must first define success before you can decide if success is met or not. Take a moment to think of your favorite videogame. Don’t look at the genre, because eventually you’ll find that genre is less relevant when you have a game strategy. It actually is an excellent starting point to ask, “What about this game entertains me?”

Example: I could pick Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I’ve never played a game that gave me quite the same feeling of triumph–but that’s not my answer. A videogame designer can influence my feelings but I bring my own context to their creation, so what I’m actually judging there is my life context and little to do with the game. Still, I can narrow it down to what made me feel triumphant. Was it beating the game? No, that was only a sense of sadness that the adventure ended. “Adventure” is a good keyword! Exploration, puzzle-solving, defeating strong enemies by learning new tactics—I see a few more keywords. I liked having a world where the knowledge I encountered along the way unlocked new areas and knowledge to discover. I liked growing through my experience to affect change in the world around me. Now obviously this goes on for awhile, and I’m not going to pin down my ideal videogame design solely from one game I like. I can definitely say that the games I enjoy most do contain elements like stories that progress with my ability as a player and let me empathize deeply with the game world.

There are some fantastic effects from defining what you expect specifically from an enjoyable game. You might better recognize the difference between pining for a game that was and pining for the feeling of a certain time and place in gaming. Maybe you’ll break dull habits and develop more discernment in choosing new times and places to game, making gaming a more productive part of living your life. You can even appreciate a game without enjoying it enough to play it! You can even review a game without enjoying it and cite specifically in what ways it did not meet your personal standards, giving valuable feedback to the developer and insight to your readers.

My time is precious and I prefer living fully in every moment, so I think of this as asking more from my games. I don’t feel a need to fill empty hours or zap boredom, so why would I delegate a hobby (and job) I love to serving that purpose? Why would I read articles that don’t help me discover new games that fit my gaming strategy? I can be picky: my games have to prove themselves worthy of my attention, by my standards. Otherwise I’m the author of my own boredom.

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  • Very great points and I whole-heartedly agree. Your final paragraph really resonated. I, too, don’t really view games as time-fillers, though I do believe there’s a genre which is dedicated to this (so-called “casual” games like Peggle or the like, but those can also be meaningful). Games are far more to me than entertainment and I can easily say that entertainment is a beneficial side-perk, not the main goal of my gaming.

    I think the average gamer just wants to be entertained. It’s actually strange to think about it that way. It inspires familiar phrases like “games are for kids”, because we tend to think of kids as needing to be entertained, as requiring some dedicated space to allow their energy a non-harmful outlet. And aren’t those things we tend to think of games as? Hmm …

    • Maevrim

      Yup, that’s right along the same path, too! Kids are little sponges, and while they think they’re just being entertained they’re actively learning. That’s why I’m a big proponent of letting my kids play games to boost their critical thinking, reading, math. I’m also a fan of “if they want to read comics, be glad they’re reading because they’re STILL learning.” There’s the whole flipside everyone usually focuses on; much more negative thinking that throws the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. I use gaming to help my oldest work through pragmatic language issues and learn to plan & manage his projects (hint: a lot of Minecraft.)

  • I’ve been thinking about this post for a couple of days, mostly because I think my own reviews usually come down to the one question of whether the game is fun for me. I also tend to be the one who blazes through a 5-page game review to get to the conclusion and the author’s score/opinion. Perhaps it’s because I have difficulty translating text into how gameplay will actually “feel”, but I also suspect that 5 pages of analysis of a game typically feels like overkill. I *have* to read 5 pages of specifications for my day job, my hobby gives me the option of doing homework or “diving right in” to see how it feels for myself. I don’t want my hobby to feel like my job. That would defeat the purpose.

    Maybe you’re right, and I shouldn’t be the one writing game reviews. But I do think it’s important to go through the exercise of defining “fun” for ourselves. I think a lot of MMO players get into a rut of grinding and complaining because they feel like they have to grind to get to the “fun”. When in truth, what they’re working towards is more grinding – if grinding is not their idea of fun, then perhaps playing an MMO is the wrong way to go. This understanding is important. Time is precious, we should spend it doing things that we enjoy (…not reading long-winded game reviews :))

    • Maevrim

      I think you’re right on with what I mean. If the point of a game’s existence is to be entertaining, then you have to set a frame of reference for what you consider entertaining before declaring it “fun” or “not fun”. I adore author scores because they give me a quick view of what the author is looking for personally—reviewing is not an objective thing.

    • I blaze through game reviews because most are trash written as a hands-on preview but now with added opinion.

      I think as a culture and as gamers, we need to look more toward the field of literary criticism as our standard for game reviews. I don’t want this INSTITUTION TRYING TO BE OBJECTIVE nonsense we’ve been fed for so long. I want real people with experience in gaming to express real opinions about the quality of a released from their point of view or an assumed point of view.

      Frankly, fun is a terrible measuring stick because I am either reviewing a game because it was fun enough to finish AND worth discussing or it was not fun enough to finish AND worth discussing.

      • Maevrim

        EXACTLY!

  • Yeah, the ‘supposed to be entertaining’ thing is a bust for me too. Good fart jokes are entertaining, but humorous deconstructions of our culture that make us laugh and reconsider the state of affairs in a new way?

    That’s entertaining+.