“Why exactly do we play?” is a question that will no doubt continue to remain definitively unanswered for years to come. Some will argue that our attraction to games is simply a Pavlovian response. That gaming simply stimulates the part of our brain that responds to positive aural and visual stimulation. They’ve probably got a point too - anyone that’s ever played a Mario game can certainly attest to the warm positive feeling inherent with hearing that synonymous chime.
Others argue that gaming is a form of escapism. That we spend hours shooting people in the face, mowing down pedestrians, crashing head-on into other cars at 200MPH and slaying monsters or 100 foot tall robots because it's not something we can ever aspire to do in real life. They too would have a point.
Some people game to fine-tune their reflexes, to keep their dementia-addled brains from rotting away, to learn how to play the guitar solo for their favourite rock song or to increase their maths/word/problem-solving skills. Some people play because they're addicted to Bejewelled, Tetris, World of Warcraft or one of the many other recreational drugs/games of choice.
But what's most surprising about all of the above perfectly reasonable explanations is that none of them answered the question "Why exactly do we play?" with the response "because it's fun."
My recent gaming sessions have left me wondering just that and so as a result, I've come up with a number of reasons that one could argue explain why exactly publishers, developers and console manufacturers are reducing the impact of the single most important reason why we play games. Because they're supposed to be fun.
The advent of achievements has changed the way we play games completely. Whereas in years gone by you'd play a game, complete it, trade it in and move on to the next thing, thanks to achievement, we’re now rewarded for multiple play-throughs, for playing games in an unusual and unorthodox manner and for playing competitively and co-operatively. And while in the main Achievements are an excellent invention, there are times when they feel like a burden.
Take for example the recent release of Rockstar and Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire. I’m currently on the third disk and about 85% of the way through the game. I’ll be honest, I’m completely bored with it. The over-arching narrative hasn’t grabbed me, I feel nothing for the characters and the grind of traipsing around each and every crime-scene inspecting everything that makes my joypad vibrate until I’ve found all available clues, has quickly gotten tedious. But because I know the vast majority of achievements are awarded for progress through the main campaign, I feel almost obliged to persevere, and persevere I will. And not because I’m finding the game fun or even remotely fulfilling I hasten to add.
Achievements also often make me hesitant to play some games. In fact, when scouring through the list of games I’ve played and for which I’ve scored achievements, the games I’ve rented, played briefly and sent back in disgust with 0 achievements earned really rankle with me. Perfect Dark Zero, Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06, Tomb Raider: Legend, Pro Evolution 6 and Halo 3 (more on which later) step forward. And so as a result, a game which scores 3/5 and is only recommended for fans of the genre, but is something I think I might be interested in, might be a game I ultimately avoid playing for fear of it adding to my Achievements shit-list.
Maintaining a Healthy Ratio
Call of Duty: Black Ops remains a mainstay in my Xbox. It’s still my multiplayer game of choice and is almost always the first thing I turn to when I have time for gaming. But I’m not even sure why I’m playing it anymore. I’ve learned all the maps inside-out and know where each and every hot-spot and choke-point is. As a result, each round consists of me turtling into a corner, protecting the nearest entrace with a claymore mine while I silently and stealthily wait for enemy opponents to venture into my line of sight before I drop them with a short burst from my M16. Every round plays out the same way: I’ll pick whichever of my known hidey-holes is available and wait for the action to come me. Sometimes I'll do really well and dominate thanks to my killstreaks, while other times, a better more experienced player than me will know a way to spot and thereby kill me, before I've found then. I favour this style of gameplay all in the name of maintaining a healthy kill-to-death ratio. And for what? So that I can start all over again come November when the next game is released and I have to spend months learning the new maps/weapons/perks/kill streaks all over again.
Thinking back the last time I can remember Call of Duty being fun and not in exercise in e-penis-polishing was when I play Modern Warfare 2 not giving a fuck. My friends and I would create a class called STAB and would enable the Commando perk which let leap forward and gain an advantage when stabbing enemies, as well as the Marathon perk which allows you to permanently sprint around the map and Light Weight which allowed you to move much quicker than those without. We'd then charge hell-for-leather in circles around the map STABbing all that stood before us. A lot of the time we'd get picked off from a distance, but other times, mainly on the smaller close-quarters maps it proved to be quite an effective strategy. But best of all, IT WAS FUN.
Referring back again to Black Ops, am I playing because I enjoy it? Or am I playing because Call of Duty is often the only way I can get together with some of my friends and catch up and chew the fat?
Another current gaming staple of mine is Nimblebits’ Tiny Towers. Again, I don’t actually know why I’m playing it at the main game mechanics aren’t particularly engaging or fullfilling. In effect, I’m choosing to take on a role that some people do between the hours of 9 to 5 and get paid for. I’m managing a tower block and its occupants. I’m allocating resources to each department, I’m hiring and firing, I’m stocking and re-stocking. This isn’t what gaming’s all about is it?
And take for example, games like Zynga’s CityVille, FarmVille and Empires and Allies, if you’re not playing the game you’re pestering your friends and family members to play. You’re doing Zynga’s advertising for them for free and so much more effectively than they could ever do. And if you’re not playing or promoting then you’re spending real-world money in order to be able to play the game a little bit faster. In fact I’m not even sure there’s much of a game in either of the two aforementioned, they’re more or less mouse-click simulators with positive reinforcement offered for each click by way of a small increase in XP or in-game currency. Kerching indeed.
Role playing games can also be used to reinforce my point thanks to the recent trend of what’s known as min-maxing. Wikipedia describes this quite succinctly as “the practice of playing a role-playing game, wargame or video game with the intent of creating the "best" character by means of minimizing undesired or unimportant traits and maximizing desired ones.” Does that sound like fun to you?
When hearing people talk about RPGs you’ll also very often hear them talk about grinding, which is the process of repeating certain sections of the game over and over in order to boost their stats sufficiently enough such that they can blitz through the rest of the game unhindered. Again, I repeat, does that sound like fun?
What happened to enjoying exploring the vastly detailed worlds that the developer’s artists poured over for months? What happened to being sucked in and immersed into the carefully crafted world and narrative painstakingly put together by a talented team of writers? This isn't fun.
As an active member of this very site’s forum as well as others on the internet, I very often feel a sense of being out of the loop if I haven’t played a certain game. I often have to ask myself whether I’m playing a game because I want to play it or whether it’s because I want to be able to say that I’ve played it. Or that I want to be able to join in the discussions with like-minded people and have an informed opinion?
And how many people buy games just to have them in their collection? Games are not trophys or centre-pieces, destined to take pride of place on your mantelpiece. They're meant to be experienced, enjoyed and shared.
The Hype Machine
Hype also plays a hugely important role in the marketing of video games. Take the Halo series for example. Even though the first two Halo games were critically acclaimed and played to death by gamers the world over, I just couldn’t get on with either of them. And so when Halo 3 was announced, I vowed to learn from my mistakes and avoid the franchise in the future.
The eventual launch of the third game in the series was heralded by Microsoft as "the biggest entertainment launch in history". Somehow I believed the hype, convinced myself that this time things would be different and that I’d been wrong to dismiss the previous games in the series. There was another £40 wasted.
Emulating the Greats
Emulation and ROM-sets are another two examples of how the act of owning a game or series of games takes away from the act of actually playing and enjoying them. For my sins I've recently been putting together entire collections of ROMs for various old and obsolete platforms I've owned over the years. So far I've accrued complete NES, SNES, Megadrive and N64 collections. I've also even discovered the perfect system for presenting these ROMS and have already spent countless hours and Megabytes downloading hundreds, if not thousands of pieces of game art, logos, box scans and video footage for each and every game. Have I actually played any of them? Have I bollocks.
And so, to return to the original question of why am I even playing games? I have no fucking clue. Now out of my way, I'm off to re-stock my Frozen Yoghurt store, before planting some watermelons for my 'friends' and then before bed I'm going to see if I can achieve those last ten multi-semtex kills.