Look, I love games. I love talking about games, and I love writing about games. But it can be maddening at times. We like to say things as though they have meaning, but they don’t. For example, Attending the Game Developers Conference as a critic can be a wonderful experience. We, like most players, deal with the game almost exclusively as a final product, while developers deal with it as it’s made. This makes for entirely different perspectives and terminologies used for the same thing, which is often fascinating to see in practice. And then one of them describes how something can make games more “immersive” and it all comes to a screeching halt.
GDC can also be an effective place to find out that the kind of language people use to talk about games is faintly ridiculous, whether used by journalists, developers, or fans. We’ll all be much better off discussing games if we can get rid of some of the terms can mask meaning, instead of clarifying it.
I pick on immersive because it’s the word that so many people still use to describe the highest potential experience with gaming. There are some huge problems with the term, however. To be “immersed” is to be fully enveloped by water. There are negative connotations there—drowning—as well as odd religious, baptismal implications. Perhaps most importantly, this state of immersion is not something that can be discussed or pinned down. What traits make a game more immersive? Are the so-called “immersive sims” like Deus Ex and Dishonored actually more immersive than non-immersive sim games?
Perhaps most importantly, there are better, non-confusing terms that can be used. At GDC 2012, Richard Lemarchand, a lead designer Naughty Dog for the Uncharted series, gave a talk titled “Attention Not Immersion.” The presentation is worth reading in full, but even without reading it, the benefits of using “attention” are significant. It’s more accurate a descriptor feeling of how I play games, for one thing; great games grab and hold my attention, they don’t drown me. It lacks those odd negative or religious connotations. Perhaps most importantly, it’s something that can be studied, quantified, and tweaked. Lemarchand noted that people seeing nature for a few minutes, even just in pictures, could help relieve mental exhaustion—so the Uncharted series intersperses its platforming and shooting with slow, pretty sequences, like the village in Uncharted 2.
While we’re at it, let’s toss addicting in the bin, for similar reasons as immersive. The negative connotations here are even worse, as it’s generally used to describe drug and alcohol abusers. There are also scientific issues from multiple different directions—the question of whether games are addictive hasn’t exactly been definitively resolved, resolved. For another, I know I learned that addiction required the arrival of a foreign chemical in the body, which separates it from dependence, which can occur with anything. Our use of a term like that merely muddies these issues. Finally, like immersion, the use of addicting to describe a game in a positive sense comes across oddly. It implies that the player isn’t in control of when and how much they play the game, as opposed to an active desire to want to play a great game. I know which one sounds better to me.
A few other terms often used to positively describe games that don’t actually really mean anything: compelling, engaging, solid. If you’re using these as synonyms for “good,” sure, that’s fine, if limited. I quite like “compelling” along those lines myself. But they don’t actually mean anything other than that. “This game is solid” offers exactly as much insight as “this game is good.”
And that brings us to the ultimate synonym for “good” when describing games: fun. I’m not sure any term holds discourse back more than this, which implies that there’s some grand, nebulous feeling of “fun” that ties together all games (except of course for “serious games”). Am I seriously supposed to have the same feeling of fun while playing Civilization as I am competing at Soul Calibur, playing Rock Band with friends, looking for headshots in Mass Effect, or engaging in long conversations with squadmates in, uh, Mass Effect? The thing that ties these all together is that I like them. They’re similar experiences I receive from playing well-designed games. Even when I play a “serious” game like Fate Of The World, I still find its craft compelling enough (a-ha!) to hold my attention, even as the subject matter affects my external emotions. Discussing “fun,” especially as the primary goal of a game, limits discussion far more than it adds.
There are a few more rarely-questioned assumptions about what games are or should be. I’ve always found the idea that games are escapist off-putting and insufficient. There is an assumption about the player’s motivation in gaming there; the idea that we love games because we hate reality. On the other side, the concept of escapism is often used to defend the worst aspects of games. Because a game is deliberately unreal, that can excuse the excesses of racism or sexist or brutality or even just tackiness isn’t a problem worthy of criticism?
At this year’s GDC, game theorist Jane McGonigal tore into the idea of games as escapism, explaining that “expansive” is a far better term. I found it to be a superb argument, myself. But even without embracing her dichotomy between expansion and escapism, I think “escapism” is worth getting rid of. It adds very little to our understanding of games, and it negatively confuses discussion of why players play games.
An almost identical argument can be made against the concept of games as power fantasy. The idea that your in-game character(s) are supposed to grow an become more capable and become more powerful is ingrained in discussions of gaming as a cause of why games are popular. It’s certainly a seductive idea, and very similar to an argument I’ve made about how video games hold appear in part because they’re comprehensible in a way that the real world is not. But I think power fantasy is an effect of how games are built, rather than their cause.
When I was a kid, I played Doom almost entirely by opening the console and typing in ‘iddqd,’ the command that made you invincible. That, you could argue, was a power fantasy, but I’m not so sure. I think the fact that I wanted to see the whole game, and I kinda sucked (seriously, I used a joystick), was my main motivator. Both I and video gaming generally have moved away from invincibility and cheat codes. It takes a lot of work to play a game as that purest power fantasy. It’s also pretty boring. Trying to ensure that video games have the proper of level of challenge is one of the toughest jobs of a game developer, and failing at that can ensure that a game is poorly received. It makes far more sense to argue that games are a challenge fantasy—attempts to create fair tests of skill and cleverness—as we’re rarely tested on such things
Finally, in honor of the late Roger Ebert, let’s stop discussing games as art. The idea that if something is art, it’s somehow better or more deserving of respect is ridiculous. There’s lots of shit out there in the fine arts or in mass media commonly accepted as art. It’s just bad art. And there’s not going to be any specific video game that’s so artistically viable that cynics are going to believe that games are art. That’s why they’re cynics. Arguing about Platonic ideals like art brings absolutely nothing to a discussion other than one’s own baggage.
We can say good, smart things about video games! In fact, we do say those things. But they’re too often buried beneath meaningless, confusing conventions of language. Let’s do better.
About the Author:
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a contributing writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq, Gameranx, and Unwinnable.
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