Posted in Games

What we really talk about when we talk about games

If you mention the word ‘game’ in casual conversation, most folk will initially think of video games.  Some might think about board games or chess.  Some others might think of sports.  Or you might think of games you played when you were a child, like Mission Impossible.  Which, come to think of it, I still play.  Particularly when food-shopping.  Because, you know, food shopping is boring and playing Mission Impossible with your toddler, while your spouse pretends not to know you, is much more fun.  I digress…

The word ‘game’ carries with it a lot of associations besides how we might define it.   What are the first three words that pop into your head when you think ‘game’?

For me it’s: fun, play and flow.

Others might feel that games are what we do when the serious and important stuff is done (a bit like the creative, artsy things).  I think that, if we’re honest, even those of us who love games still associate them with childishness.

And because of that it’s easy for us to dismiss them.  So when a game comes along that has real impact, and everyone – or certainly lots of young people (it seems to bother us more if it’s young people) – are playing it, our go-to-feeling appears to be worry.  We ask why.  Why are they playing that game all of the time?  Right now that game is Fortnite.  But this piece isn’t about Fortnite.  It’s about the conversation behind Fortnite.

It’s to do with our assumptions about games, and our associations with them.

You see, I think that in our heads when something is associated with childishness or childhood, two things happen:

  1. We dismiss it – if it’s childish it’s not worth our attention;
  2. We romanticise it – if it evokes childhood then it must convey innocence and, indeed, be innocent.

So something odd happens when a game captures our attention because it is just… wonderful.  I’ll go so far as to say, when it is art.  Because games, like any creative medium, can be art.  And there are some truly amazing pieces of art out there that you can play.  When this happens we can’t quite believe it.  We seem to find it hard to articulate that a game has moved us so deeply.  How can this… this… childish thing make anyone feel deeply?

And something really odd happens when a game (which is associated with childhood and therefore evokes concepts of innocence), is not innocent.  When young people play that game, something must be wrong, because at some level we feel that anything undermining the concept of childhood innocence is inherently threatening.  That’s why children in horror are always creepy.  And, come to think of it, it’s the same reaction that people had to the video nasties of the 1980s.

So, what are we really talking about when we talk about games?

Well, I’ll go out on a limb here, but I think we’re talking about all of the above.  We’re talking about our fears and our hopes.  And those are pretty emotive topics.  But if we put all of that aside for a moment, let’s just try and look at the thing without prejudice.

Games are a creative medium.  Maybe we need to call games something else to get away from all that other stuff, but that’s not a job for this blog.

When we talk about games, we’re talking about something interactive.  We’re talking about something that engages people in ways that other media doesn’t.  The fact that games do this, does not make them superior to other art forms.  Nor does it make them inferior.  It makes them unique.  We can’t really compare a game with a book or a film.  We just can’t and we should stop trying.  A game is a game is a game.  And we need to start taking games seriously.

Author:

I lecture in creative writing, games and education. I write. I make the odd game. I work with the odd school to make learning more like playing a game...

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