Why Do You Play Video Games?

Why Do You Play Video Games? That’s what Theology Gaming wishes to meditate upon this week. Do you know? Well, let’s at least talk about it.

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Seriously. Think about this for just a second. Why do you play video games? What made you continue to play them? Brian from Substance TV seems to know:

This metaphor strikes me as absolutely perfect. Did I ever use the snow for any reason other than fun? Perhaps beauty became a subset of it, reveling in God’s weird creation of turning water into a pure white substance I could throw at people. All in all, though, I cannot imagine my childhood doing anything with snow but playing with it. As Colossians 3 says:

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one anotherwith psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.

I try to do this, even in my video game playing. Our recreation (as in “recreating ourselves”) should involve some element of renewal, understanding, and perspective. Video games provide all of these things. However, developers seem to miss what makes them special. So do we all.

As it always happens, one gets swept up in the moment. One sees the graphical capabilities of a new system or game, a new style of storytelling, amazing musical scores that completely obliterate the sound chips that came before. The recent PS4 press conference showed everyone a whole lot of cinematics, a whole lot of high-fidelity graphical prowess, and a whole lot of epic trailers…but was there an actual game in sight other than Watch Dogs (which sounds and looks sneakingly familiar to a steampunk hacker Assassin’s Creed)? Not that I could see. I saw nothing new, nothing extraordinary, nothing amazing in and of itself that justifies the system or justifies the cost of buying YET ANOTHER piece of hardware. Sony presents this to the market and the stock holders, not the people who actually consume the products.

That, my friends, is sad.

Remember this?

FUN – Enjoyment, amusement, or lighthearted pleasure: “anyone who turns up can join in the fun”.

Remember having that, at all? I’m not sure when we got it into our heads that every hero must brood, every situation must look desperate, everyone must “grow up”, and everything must wallow in the depths of the worst possible things that could happen to human beings. Only one game in this press conference even began to look slightly different – that being Knack – but even then, themes of gritty war and conflict abound in a bizarrely meshed hybrid world that takes itself a little too seriously. This became something people wanted to watch, play, and learn about. A weird sort of empathy, sympathy, and Schadenfreude developed into the standard for any medium. It began in the highest of frivolities and the greatest of aesthetic and intellectual pleasures; now, it wallows in the mud.

They say our media reflects our mindset. In any case, what pervades our minds consists in a cynical look at the world. Nothing can ever be “fun” again. Even those games which show the slightest hint of amusement must find themselves stricken from the mainstream audience. Ironic and cynical products rule the day. Yet, I think this lack of fun really stems from a lack of focus. We’re a divided culture; we all believe different things, and see the world on very different trajectories. I am not talking about the common “pessimist/optimist” distinction – our beliefs about the world, religious and philosophical, also determines the messages and ideas inherent within our products. As a religious person myself, who does not find that entertainment from your particular perspective only rehashes what came before? Remember the Christian first person shooters? No one should remember them! Even those reflect a particularly dualist vision of reality that no Christian should share.

And, apparently, our media must try to shock and amaze us at every turn. Yet, like watching the latest Michael Bay film, we’ve all become de-sensitized to this sort of thing. The immediate pleasure of the headshot came and went; the meaning behind the games come and go. They hold no universal resonance. They speak to a particular cultural development rather than myself as a person. They insert ME into an experience, rather than giving me free reign to improvise with the mechanics I have been given. Or, as Tim Rogers would say:

Let the cleverness of the game designer manifest itself in the improvisational spirit of the player and the unpredictable nature of complicated on-screen situations. Give it a great soundtrack and a neat character design, and there you go.

The modern developer cannot do this. Why? Because who could take them seriously if they tried to emphasize something so simple and pure as “fun”? So ambiguous! Have you ever had fun any, lately, with a big budget game or an indie game? Does it give you that feeling of fun? Because I certainly was one of these people. I played games for graphics, or because it looked cool, or for the story, or for some artsy pretension. But it was all ultimately empty, meaningless. I got it wrong. When “fun” suddenly dissappears, we remove the central and essential element of games, structured play, and whatever other synonym you want to plug here.

Perhaps this is why I love Platinum Games and its developers so much. They know games, primarily, are about “fun”. The plots make no sense; the one-liners, crass and otherwise, come frequently. Though they require a lot of effort to play well and master, I feel like my time isn’t wasted. They’re entertaining me so much that I can’t complain. Anarchy Reigns, for example, perfectly captures the essence of a side-scrolling arcade game like Final Fight or Sengoku, even to the point of crazy costumes, eating stuff on the ground to get health, and people having WAY TOO MUCH FUN in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s the exact opposite of a Killzone or InFamous, only because it places one general principle above all else – fun.

Anarchy Reigns Big Bull

Look, when when of the characters in your game looks like this, fights like a sumo wrestler, and talks says “May the wind be at your back, brother!”, it’s hard not to crack a smile.

Fun, contrary to our inclinations, becomes a proper and fitting high ideal for a video game. We, as people, need to live off ideals. Christians live off the ideal of Jesus Christ, and to become more like him. Our culture tells us that no ideal could possibly be higher, that any attempt to do so dilutes art and the diversity of culture. Those same people degenerate everything in their path, all for the sake of a “freedom” that only ends in chains, a lack of a common vernacular with which everyone can speak. Once “fun” dissapears, what else could we say? G.K. Chesteron says in his book Heretics:
Now, in our time, philosophy or religion, our theory, that is, about ultimate things, has been driven out, more or less simultaneously, from two fields which it used to occupy. General ideals used to dominate literature. They have been driven out by the cry of “art for art’s sake”…The theory of the unmorality of art has established itself firmly in the strictly artistic classes. They are free to produce anything they like. They are free to write a “Paradise Lost” in which Satan shall conquer God. They are free to write a “Divine Comedy” in which heaven shall be under the floor of hell. And what have they done? Have they produced in their universality anything grander or more beautiful than the things uttered by the fierce Ghibbeline Catholic, by the rigid Puritan schoolmaster? We know that they have produced only a few roundels. Milton does not merely beat them at his piety, he beats them at their own irreverence. In all their little books of verse you will not find a finer defiance of God than Satan’s. Nor will you find the grandeur of paganism felt as that fiery Christian felt it who described Faranata lifting his head as in disdain of hell. And the reason is very obvious. Blasphemy is an artistic effect, because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction. Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it. If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.
Our “new” games do the same thing. They denigrate the old without understanding their purpose. They remove the very elements that make games successful and expect to succeed. They rail against conventions without understanding their meaning. Without some conviction as to the purpose of the game and for what it stands, can it be anything but a directionless mush? By removing them, they have nothing more to rail against. Seriousness and joylessness had its turn and failed. Video games already began the devolution; only fun will get them out.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.