essay, play, video games

What happened to the fun?

As I continue to go deeper and deeper into the game studies field via the books I read, I’ve begun to wonder what happened. In the most academically dry works, in the many theories and papers, I’ve noticed a troubling pattern. Increasingly, there seems to be a trend toward ‘persuasive games’ and away from games are just ‘fun’. Instead of looking into the games of the now, many books start with the very first games, maybe highlight a board game and then jump into what they see as works, projects and organizations that are doing the most to be persuasive in their approach, toward works that blur the line between art and game.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like that many people are being, as Mary Flanagan uses the term, subversive. This is a good thing. It is a thing that is needed. As they continue to poke at the spaces and expand into areas such as locality based games, non-destructive hackivist works and other creative approaches to teaching, learning and spreading concepts via the medium of games, I am proud of their work. I am happy that I am a part of a time where games are being used to teach people about different perspectives, different peoples and different attitudes. I like that we can spur thousands of people into taking actions that will help the globe just via a simple a game. I like all this. I like reading about it. I enjoy it. But, and here is where I thought I would never get to, I am worried that in the race to show many other people how meaningful games can be, we are losing ground in what drew us to games in the first place, fun.

Art is important. It allows humanity to create and in turn translate some expression into a work that can be read by others. When auctions say that some pieces are worth millions of dollars, I believe them. Some sculpture or painted canvas shows us that humanity is capable of beauty, of expression in forms that are both pleasing aesthetically but that also molded, shaped and created in a way to demonstrate a thought. Art can show the best in us. And the worst. This is part of the equation.

While I enjoyed Critical Play, the middle portion of the book was troubling to me. As was many parts of Reality is Broken. As was some of Unit Operations. Had many of the same massive games and huge participatory events been around decades ago, I’m sure Homo Ludens would have included them too. What these all have in common is a trend toward trying to, I feel, justify games by bringing meaning into them, by making them more art. All of them, Humo Ludens especially, praise the ability of games to translate ideas, to influence people, via just content, rules and play. This is a fundamental and important aspect to game: they can teach. In order to play a game, you have to understand the world, the “magic circle” of the game, in some way. By using social issues to fuel innovation in a game space, players must also gain an understanding of the social dynamics within the rules of the game. In other words, in order to play you must first learn. Players, by being in contact with a game designed for critical play, will have to have a working knowledge of the social issue that was baked into the game. And while this is good, I am afraid it is leading to an academic obsession with meaningful mechanics and pedagogical play. Where is, dare I say it, the fun?

There seems to be an increasing mission of making more and more meaningful games. Reality is Broken is full of fantastic but fulfilling games. Each chapter outlines examples of how through small steps and some simple rewards a life or even an area, big or small, can be transformed. The book, if I were to sum it up in a sentence, is basically ‘anything is possible through the power of games.’ Critical Play too highlights many of the same games and social experiments that Reality is Broken does. They both like to talk about informing people as to what newest experimental game session invented what new way to change people, to mold people via just changing rules and using informative content. And while these are both good and, I think, needed for the long term survival of the medium, I feel that too often contemporary works are overlooked. Simple, mindless and repetitive games are not considered worthy of space next to ideas and concepts in game form that may change how group dynamics can work in the future.

I feel more than a little silly saying anything. After all, I am looking at a sky of people soaring higher and higher. The works of today might very well be the world-changing formulas for tomorrow. The social interaction experiments might lead to new avenues of change. Projects and teams of people working hard to encode new ways of thinking into games might be creating the ways of teaching for a new generation. As I read each professional’s, each expert’s, book, I feel like I am looking at a trail of ideas leading off into the sky. As they float away, I am looking at design notes I might use, others might use, to plan the next mission. Each looks at the horizon, points to where the study, the medium might go. We can go there. And there. We can go farther and do more. I can and do believe in their objectives. However, I am left with the feeling we might be losing something.

I stand among astronomists telling me of far-away blazing stars, new life to met and soon-to-be-had adventures. I hold a candle, a single small flame. They tell me that we will soon go to each new place, see new sights and discover the future. Do I dare ignore them, hold my candle tighter and risk burning myself? Or do I extinguish my flame and embrace the darkness not knowing when the new and marvelous light spoken of may finally come?