There are few expressions that irk me more than “It’s only a game.” Ironically, the phrase is tossed around by both detractors of games and apologists, and it’s equally misplaced by both groups. You’ve almost certainly heard it used in at least one context: someone is getting mad during play and one of the other players tries to soothe that anger by reminding everyone that “it’s only a game.” The phrase gets bandied about when the highly contentious topic arises as to whether games are capital-A “Art” or not. Often passionate gamers will reply (presumably with eyes rolling in contempt) that “they’re only games,” because, as we all know, Art is Not Fun. Film critics will sometimes refer to a movie as “like a video game,” and they never mean it in a complementary way (they are not, for example, lauding how immersive and engaging the film is). Instead, they’re almost certainly referring to how shallow and meaningless it feels.
In each of these cases, it seems to me that games are being taken for granted. Maybe that’s natural – after all, for many of us, our earliest childhood memories probably involve playing games. We DO take them for granted. And for some of us, the transition to the serious business of adulthood (sadly) has involved setting games aside. After all, capital-A Adulthood (like Art) is Not Fun, apparently. But games deserve better than to be denigrated with a word like “only.” Let’s take a moment to look at what people are actually saying when they say “it’s only a game,” and let’s give the humble game its due!
Let’s start by looking at the situation with the angry player. He’s losing, or has already lost. His competitive nature is getting the better of him and now he’s upset. “It’s only a game,” someone says. But what that well-meaning person is really saying is that games are a safe place where you can make mistakes and fail without consequence in the real world. Far from being something trivial, this is one of the most magical and wonderful things about games! It’s OK to fail and learn from that failure because we’ve all agreed that what happens within the game has no bearing outside the game. It’s OK. It’s a game. Games, by their nature, impose artifice on the real world – a set of rules that is arbitrary, but consensual among those playing. To be bound by those rules is, at the same time, to be liberated from the rules of everyday life. That’s magical – like the sense of being transported that comes from reading a book or watching a film, but with the added sense of participation that only engaging directly in an activity can provide.
Since we’ve returned to the subject of films, let’s revisit our film critics. I think many of these critics haven’t played many (if any) video games, and that bothers me, but let’s give our hypothetical critics the benefit of the doubt. When they draw comparison between a game and a film, they are almost always describing a film that is kinetic, violent (or at least dense with action), limited in terms of plot, and probably laden with special effects and computer animation. To be fair, that description probably applies to a large percentage of video games available today. And yet, games like that can still be richly engaging and almost hypnotically immersive in a way the film being described almost certainly is not. Maybe our critics are really saying, “I wish I was playing instead of watching this.” Because the missing element is interactivity. Games by their nature demand to be picked up, played with, experimented with. When that element is missing, the magic can vanish. This is the eternal bane of game marketing people: many games aren’t much fun to watch. To an outside observer, without the element of interaction, the game becomes confusing, boring, or both. This is also why you’ll often hear people struggle when trying to describe the experience of playing a game, sometimes falling back on “you just have to play it.” It IS experiential, and for the observer, the experience is incomplete.
This brings us finally to our game aficionados discussing whether games are Art or not. If you aren’t living and breathing the world of games on a daily basis, it might shock you how often this topic emerges and how heated the discussions can become. Many who claim to be the most dedicated and most invested in games are the most passionate that games are NOT art, while many others who have aspirations for the medium beyond Call of Duty 12 are equally passionate that they ARE. I’m going to sidestep the question (take THAT, internet!) in order to focus on why it is that this discussion is so intense. Games are personal.
I talked earlier about how early in our lives our first experiences with games occur. Games have been with us as a species for almost as long as we have BEEN a species, and playing games is woven into our DNA on some level. Add to this “genetic proclivity to play” the fact that the player’s experience with a game is shaped by his or her interaction with the game – the player provides the input, and that makes his or her experience with the game in some ways unique, even if modally those interactions with the game are limited – as well as the fact that the player is immersed within the game, and the result is an experience that is intimate and personalized. So when people passionately argue that “they’re only games” in this context, they are really arguing that “they’re my games.” Maybe that personal experience doesn’t bear out the thesis that games are Art, or maybe the ardent defender of games feels that external forces are trying to change or redefine what that profoundly personal game experience is and has been for the player. In any case, that personal connection to games is powerful.
So, games are experientially safe, immersive and interactive, and intensely personal even when they are shared communal experiences. They are powerful vehicles for transporting us as players. They stir passions. Not bad, considering they’re “only” games.