Yesterday, after another quick (and disappointing) bicycle ride to the local retro game store, I started wondering: why do I actually still play video games? I’m 36 now, shouldn’t I stop doing that and find another decent and more respected hobby? That is what the funny looks thrown my way make me feel after talking a bit too much about games. I sometimes even feel a bit ashamed. Many friends have long moved on and focused on (what they think) more important things in life. The career ladder, kids, perhaps taking on an expensive hobby.
You’re all making a big mistake. Gaming isn’t about doing nothing or portraying as addicted couch potato as popular media might make you believe. Neither is it reserved for frustrated teens that like to run people over in Grand Theft Auto. As I contemplated on why I love video games, I came up with a list that indicates it’s not just about playing. And even if it would be, why would we stop being playful after our thirties? I think video gaming is misunderstood by many people—perhaps, at moments, even by myself, as the doubt and guilt is creeping back in because of the remarks of others. Time to settle things.
The psychology of gaming and many of the points raised here can be further explored in Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. A huge body of academic work on the psychological effects of video gaming exists. It would take this post too far to try and summarize them all. One thing that we have to admit is that for every positive effect (uplifted mood), another study exists that proves the opposite. Do bloody shooters and GTA clones affect gamer’s tendencies to take the shotgun to the streets? We can’t say for certain. What we can say for certain is that variation is key. As with food, a variety of dietary intake is what keeps us healthy. Murdering virtual civilians non-stop sure sound like it can negatively impact our mental health, but blasting our way though once in a while does nothing but relieve pressure.
I play because of…
Escapism. This is the same reason why I like reading fantasy novels. At times, we all want to escape the mundaneness of our lives—or life in general. What better way than to get lost in a mythical world full of exciting danger, where you get to play the hero (or villain) that patches things up? As a kid, games have helped me get through some pretty tough times. They didn’t judge. They were always there, and still are. Escapism isn’t the solution to our problems, but at times, it can help us cope with difficulties. Given that we resort to them in moderation. Something that isn’t exactly a problem when growing up: I can barely get in an hour every day. Games with mesmerizing worlds that take a hundred hours to finish are excellent was to escape: Morrowind, Dragon Quest, The Witcher.
The “pandemic game of 2020” has to be Animal Crossing: New Horizons. In Animal Crossing games, you can build a small town and interact with furry animal residents in a very, very relaxed way. It’s more or less the perfect escapism game. There’s nothing much to do really. Shake trees for fruit, craft some stuff, go fishing, talk to neighbors, buy new clothes. All the stuff we weren’t allowed to do when the first lockdown paralyzed the entire world. It’s a game that’s hard to explain, you have to experience it in order to understand its appeal. The music and ambience is so soothing. I loved playing the DS versions in bed at night, chilling out and collecting sea shells, or just listening to the waves.
Social interaction. This is a multifaceted point. First, as with all passions, video games makes me feel being part of a community of like-minded people. Fan-based websites, game magazines, podcasts on games that talk about stuff you can relate to, forums where you can voice your opinion—anonymously and without being the extroverted one in real life—clans where you can share tips and play together, … Second, the multiplayer aspect. I’ve always been more of an offline multiplayer kind of guy. That is, two or more people in the same room, co-op play, or just teasing each other to have a laugh. Some video games facilitate interaction and help you bond with others.
I dislike competitive gameplay but I can see why others might be into it. However, when looking at modern media, it’s as if a “gamer” is reduced to someone with a headset yelling at others killing stuff in Gears of War or Fortnite. Far from it. Playing Goof Troop, Mario Party, or Commandos 2 together is much more fun than killing each other in Call of Duty. For me, gaming is also about enjoying each other’s company. Worms Armageddon is not a competitive game: it’s about having fun with friends. That might include pushing their worms into the water. Just watch out for that Super Sheep revenge action next turn. We even used to play single player-focused games, like Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom, “together”, by dragging our PCs to a friend’s place, linking via TCP/IP, and then trading goods. That’s even the way we preferred to play Age of Empires II. Set the AI to easy, chill out and build our civilization, then together declare war to the PC.
Nostalgia. Many games take me “way back”. I grew up with the Game Boy and have a lot of good memories playing Turtles II by the swimming pool on vacation while others indulged in more crazy activities—like swimming. The hopefully soon to be shipped Analogue Pocket is a pure nostalgia ride for me, and I’ve started amassing a Game Boy (Color/Advance) cartridge collection in anticipation of it. I regularly (re)play retro or retro-inspired games that remind me of those days when my world and its games were less complicated and all I had to think about was making sure I brought four spare AA batteries with me.
For me, nostalgia is also a powerful driving force for self-reflection. Many notes in my journals start with “remember that?” sentences that ultimately help me in understanding myself and what drives me. This includes video games. If that sounds ridiculous, then try to look at it this way: don’t you also like to watch older TV shows now and then that you used to look at when you were young? Why do you do that? Certainly not because of the better image quality. Sentiment can help us to place more value on social connectedness or trigger us to re-evaluate our current state of life. Of course, again, nostalgia can be dangerous, as constantly looking to the past prevents us from accepting and living with the present.
Feeling emotions. Again, like reading a good novel, emphasis on story for certain games is sure to get something moving. Why do we read or watch TV shows? To laugh, to be in awe, to shed a tear or two. The same is true for video games—perhaps even more so, since it’s interactive and you’re partially responsible for your character’s destiny. Granted, too little games put enough emphasis on a gripping story. Rescuing Princess Peach from Bowser’s clutches isn’t going to win any emotional prizes, but some games do, and when it comes to emotional connectedness, it’s a mistake to treat all games the same way.
Want to exercise those laughing muscles? Play Monkey Island. Want to identify with a protagonist struggling to accept her own self? Play Celeste. Want to dive deep into political conflicts and feel its devastating long-term effects on friendship and different classes of society? Play Final Fantasy Tactics. Want to just feel joy by holding a brush and coloring stuff? Play Chicory: A Colorful Tale. There’s so much to choose from with ample emotional depth. Most of these games come equipped with beautiful soundtracks that only enhance those feelings.
Brain training. I love complexity in games. One of my favorite genres is the RPG genre, preferably turn-based, like the aforementioned Final Fantasy Tactics, that lets me play a battle like a game of chess. I usually get my ass handed to me, but that’s part of the fun (and has me exercising my cursing). Games like Baldur’s Gate II with the D&D 2 rules, weird THAC0 calculations and dice throwing all over the place, or games like Wizardry 8, with stats stats and more stats, skills to choose from and trees to specialize in. Or simpler but deceptively complex games like Into the Breach that take place on a small map and very closely resemble chess.
Besides power playing and stats, there’s also skillful platforming, nimble reflexes while dodging bullets in schmups, lateral thinking while puzzle solving in adventure games, and so forth. When looking at brain activity, video games are much, much better ways to pass the time than passively receiving information while watching TV, even if it’s just a simple but still enjoyable boomstick shooter such as DOOM or its modern variants. This is not just me claiming some random fact: this is scientifically proven. Games also facilitate creative thinking. I never understood why in some families, parents heavily restrict play time for their kids but let them watch TV shows all day—which is even easier nowadays: just chuck an iPad to them to “keep them quiet for a while”. Give them a Game Boy instead, perhaps with a copy of Final Fantasy Adventure. If that’s still to gamey for you, how about a 3DS and a few Professor Layton’s brain teasers? I even base many of my programming challenges for our class on Level 5’s masterful brain puzzles. Building a solver in code can be quite a challenge—and quite satisfying once it works.
Technical Learning. Next to the brain training potential of games, it can also spark interest in the technical side of it: software development and art design. My interest in video games is exactly what got me my master’s degree in computer science. Along the way, I programmed my own raycaster engine (Wolfenstein-alike), disassembled Game Boy games, created a 2D sprite engine for the GBA, programmed parts of emulators, learned about speciality frameworks, calculated the complexity of Z-buffering algorithms employed in early 3D games to efficiently render the scene, programmed AIs for Infinity Engine games, and so forth. In university, the usage of gaming-related material consistently spiked my interest.
If your kid is into gaming, chances are he or she will be into its creation. Start with something simple such as Super Logo, like I did back in the day, by moving a turtle around. The educational tools have been dramatically updated in the last twenty years, and so has interest and research in computing education—for youngsters and for graduate students. Since 2018, I’ve been involved in the SIGCSE computing education community, and our published work sometimes even is related to gaming. There’s no denying: gaming facilitates learning. It might even get you into hardware engineering, god forbid!
Appreciation for art. Many video games are much more than just games. They’re pieces of art. Their backdrops, their music, their branching stories, their sprite work, … Game developers and illustrators win countless of awards because of this. Playing a game is like watching a piece of art dynamically unfold, whether it’s modern art (vector-based Rayman Legends) or classic impressionism (pixel-based Loop Hero). The sheer variety of artworks produced by game developers never ceases to amaze me, from beautiful watercolor-like scenes in Japan (Okami) to hyper-realistic facial expressions (The Last of Us). Both works require a complete different skill set to pull off, which makes you as an end user of their product even more appreciative.
Why do we appreciate art? Because we can look at it in awe, and see that life is bigger than our insignificant set of problems and achievements. Because we can feel a sudden spark of inspiration bubbling up. Because it can provide the answers we seek, even if it’s not the one we’re looking for, or happening at a moment when we’re not quite ready to receive just yet. Many games are simply stunning. Both its aesthetics and psychological premise. As a retro gamer, I especially appreciate pixel art, but that’s just personal. My wife loves the cold concrete touch of modern art while I loathe it and would rather lose myself in van Gogh’s Starry Night. The point is that we both deeply enjoy looking at a piece of work that tells us something about humanity and ourselves.
I have two big posters printed out of Steve Purcell’s Monkey Island cover art, as you can see in the my retro desk setup post. It’s high time that museums exhibit high quality prints and screenshots of video game art, such as the art present in the many Bitmap Books works. Game artists should not be treated as inferior compared to classic painters or music composers.
Self-expression. Besides admiring the creativity and art of others, with gaming, I can take the first steps towards being the creative person myself. By choosing which games, installed modifications, and configured settings to play, I take my first baby steps to express myself—but there’s more. First, by playing open-ended sandbox games (Theme Hospital, SimCity, Zeus: Master of Olympus) in my own personal way. By building cities, hospitals, dungeons, space stations, in a particular way, I can express myself. This is still quite limited, of course, since with many of these games, there’s an optimal path to take, which power players tend to converge to.
Second, certain games come with creativity built-in, where the core of the gameplay is the self-expressive part (Minecraft, Super Mario Maker). You don’t need extensive modding or technical knowledge to lay out the tracks for a fun and unique design. Chances are very high you’ve created a quirky and original level that’s both enjoyable and perhaps even artsy. Even older games, such as Lode Runner reiterations, had the built-in capacity to create custom levels you could share with your friends on a floppy disk.
Third, for those who don’t want to stop at the limited level editor, there’s a whole video game modding world out there, that ranges from working with developer-provided tools such as the Aurora Editor to build custom Neverwinter Nights campaigns, to DOOM mapPack editors that let you recreate your entire high school environment in a custom DOOM episode, including pesky teacher sprites as shooting targets! And last but not least, if the game doesn’t natively support modding, with a bit of technical learning (see above), the disassembler will point the way towards possibilities for customization that the developers did not intent to leave open. People are creating custom Breath of the Wild mods and Super Mario 64 “total conversions”. Who is the artist now? Video gaming is much, much more than just entertainment.
If I had to quit gaming, I’d be in search of another hobby that would thirst my appreciation for art, technical learning, brain training, emotional evoking, self-expression, nostalgia ridden, social interactive and escapism. I’d say that’s close to impossible to achieve. Over the years, my preference for games hasn’t really changed, except that my time devoted to it has. It’s been tough to finish huge games, and I find pickup-and-play (handheld gaming) variants to be more appealing nowadays because of that.
I’m sure I missed a few key pointers here. But at least next time I start doubting why I’m still playing games, I can re-read this post and convince myself not to give in to the shallow remarks of the ignorant.
That said, I’m off to boot up the 3DS version of Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King. Wish me luck—I expect to be back in about eighty hours!