Sorting perceptions
No more game shame

The problem with play

Schrute In my previous two posts I've been thinking about games as a form of play, games as toys, and perceptions of playful activity from gamers and non-gamers alike. I want to avoid being too theoretical here, partly because I'm not a psychologist or ludologist, but mostly because my purpose is to consider video games as a personal activity many of us engage in within the context of a culture that struggles to understand or fully accept games and gaming.

Many of us who study or write about games find ourselves in a perpetually defensive position, making the case for video games as artistically respectable, worthy of serious study, valuable as cultural artifacts. Stubborn resistance to this view, from both gamers and non-gamers, means we always have something to write about - and, believe me, I've written my share of plaintive posts on behalf of games.

But I've begun to wonder if we're making any real headway with this approach. Is it possible, in our well-intentioned effort to make the case for games, that we may be pointing at the wrong thing?

We keep arguing for the games. We describe how they astonish us. We marvel at how ambitious they are; how they immerse us in extraordinary interactive environments. We describe how they stimulate us intellectually; how they make us problem solvers; how they teach us to understand complex systems. We testify to all the ways they move us. And we say all these things with conviction because we know they're true. The case has been made.

But these arguments aren't getting us anywhere because the problem isn't the games. The problem is the play. When we engage with games, we play with them. We don't read them; we don't attend them; we don't view them in a gallery. We play them. And that's a big problem.

Confession time. I have a PS2 in my office with a small television sitting on top of it. The door to my office is always open when I'm in. On the rare occasions that I play a game during regular office hours, I invariably halt traffic outside my door. Students and faculty alike stop dead in their tracks when they see a grown man playing a video game at his desk in the middle of the day. But this isn't surprising. In the environment and culture where I work, it's a very unusual thing to see. So I understand.

Here's the confession part. When I'm asked what I'm playing, I always make sure to convey the idea that I'm working on the game somehow. Studying it. Preparing to write about it. Considering it for a student assignment. Evaluating it for review. I have never once felt comfortable enough to simply say, "I'm playing Shadow of the Colossus because I love this game." Had I been reading King Lear at my desk, or, perhaps more tellingly, watching Metropolis, I would feel no hesitation saying, "I'm watching Metropolis because I love this film." Truth be told, I am delighted to be found watching a great film in my office. It  communicates something about my priorities and my cultural sensibilities to my students. But a great game? Not so much. Even playing Shadow of the Colossus, I'm still basically goofing off.

Perhaps all of this says more about me and my insecurities than anything else, but I have a feeling lots of us struggle in this way. Why? Because, as I noted in my previous post, play is a bad word for grown-ups in our society. We are permitted to play, but only if it's in service of something practical, like staying healthy or entertaining our children.

It's possible that some game developers have targeted this cultural taboo on play and figured out ways to defeat it. Trevor Dodge posted a comment on my last post linking to an essay by Scott Rettberg called "Corporate Ideology in World of Warcraft." In it he writes:

"...Play itself is a kind of sin. A form of play that consumes hundreds and hundreds of hours would almost surely condemn a good soul to hellfire and damnation. Blizzard and other game developers have, however, found a way to integrate the protestant work ethic into the design of their games: they have created an alternative universe in which play is a form of work. Players are willing to spend hundreds of hours in World of Warcraft, not in spite of the fact that it often seems like tedious work, but precisely because of that fact. When play feels like labor, and one toils to achieve objectives, play does not feel like a waste of time. Play that feels like frivolous entertainment would be intolerable for the good capitalist. Play that feels like work, on the other hand, must be good."

I'm not sure I agree with Rettberg's contention that Blizzard has made WOW culturally acceptable by reinforcing capitalist values - it wouldn't pass my office self-consciousness test, for example - but I think there's something to his idea that WOW plugs into a concept of play fused with work that many gamers find appealing.

We are who we are, and that's part of the problem. I can't fully relax in my office with a controller in my hands because I worry I will be seen as unproductive. There's a time for work and a time for play. That's small-town midwestern values for ya, folks. I hate them. I really do. But they are pervasive and terribly powerful. In the end, I believe these misguided values - not the games themselves, not the violence in games, not the gamers in black trench coats - are the real barrier to genuine cultural acceptance of games and gamers.

In my next post - the last in this unintentional series - I'll try to make the case for play. Wish me luck.