What do we get out of video games?
Every self-reflective games writer (and I like to think that’s most of us) is dogged by one question above all others: “How do you measure the value of a game?”
When we review a game, the implication is that the game is being judged against some larger metric, but usually this is just a purely relative standard (“Game X is better than Game Y, but not as good as Game Z”), made to seem more complex than it is by rating games across a variety of categories (graphics, story, value). At the end of the day, this has some relative worth if you trust the reviewer, but still begs the question as to what it means for a game to be “good.” On top of that, using hard metrics tends to lead reviews to view games as the sum of their parts rather than as something greater or lesser.
I’ve found “What did I get out of playing this game?” to be a far more useful question. After all, some of the most rewarding games for me have been ones that are deeply flawed, and that I would hesitate to recommend to a general audience. But this question leads to another: what do we get out of video games in general? This is particularly relevant when most people outside the hobby see playing video games as at best an idle waste of time, and at worst actively harmful.
So I present you with the three metrics I use to give a rough, qualitative evaluation of a game when I feel the need to fall back on some sort of structure: Entertainment, Education, and Enlightenment.
This is the obvious one. Traditionally, the mainstream press has looked at video games only through the lens of entertainment (what mainstay EGM calls the “Fun Factor”). This is because that’s traditionally been the reason that games are made. They occupy time between more important tasks (making money, raising children, etc.) and have been used throughout history to briefly liven a dreary existence.
It’s easy to view this as a somewhat base value, beneath Great Art, but I don’t think that’s very pragmatic. Most of the things we do in life have some benefit; I go to the office and write technical documents because I get a paycheck. For most players (i.e. those not employed in the industry or as journalists) games are an ends unto themselves; if they aren’t directly and quickly engaging, they’ll move on to something that is.
Of course, one person’s entertainment is another’s torture; but I’m of the camp who things that trying to grade games objectively is a fool’s quest, and we can learn a lot – and transmit that learning – by thinking about the ways a game entertains us, and the ways it fails to.
“Education” is traditionally a bad word in video games. First, because most of the edutainment titles throughout history have failed to entertain; second (and not unrelated) because people tend to treat overt learning like work. We tend to avoid it when we can. It’s thus extremely difficult for a game to be fun and overtly educational; The Oregon Trail is arguably the only game to have really managed this.
By education, I mean something concrete; a game teaching us knowledge, skills, or modes of thought that are useful in our broader lives. In classical edutainment, this is usually core school subjects (math, reading, geography) but it doesn’t have to be.
If a game can wiggle this in without seriously detracting from the player’s enjoyment, it’s a great value. Often times it does so under the radar. The tidbits of nuclear history and policy thrown at me in Metal Gear Solid were enough to kickstart an interest in the subject and were an excellent counter-point to the arcade silliness of the main affair.
This is the area least covered in traditional game reviews, but which the gaming blogosphere is almost obsessed with. “How [Game Title] Taught Me [Revelation]” is the headline that keeps on giving. Part of the rush for this is a bunch of writers spotting an unfilled niche and filling it, but it’s also one of the core reasons many people (myself included) play games.
What do I mean by “enlightenment?” This is the yin to education’s yang. Rather than explicit, applicable skills, enlightenment is the discovery of new perspectives. Sometimes, this is as simple as a game challenging our notions of what a video game can be (as Dear Esther and Thirty Flights of Loving did for me.) Other time’s, it’s a revelation about life’s core truths, or death, or love, or storytelling.
This is, by definition, entirely subjective; I think that’s why it’s been ignored in the gaming press at large for so long. If you see a review as a product recommendation, than enlightenment doesn’t really enter the picture. Just because I exited a game with a new outlook is no guarantee that someone else will. But at the end of the day, the potential for enlightenment is one of the core reasons why I continue to game, and when evangelizing the medium it’s these experiences I’m most likely to share.
As I said above, this is a loose framework, in the vein of Tom Francis’ “What Makes Games Good.” It’s not a prescriptive rubic, and I think the most valuable take on a game is often the honest, no-holds-barred gut impression we’re left with. But when I need to take a step back, or try to explain to someone else why a game was so impressive to me, these are the three core tenets I’ll come back to.