About Gaming: Part 1 of 3 : Why I love video games

17 Nov

According to the Entertainment Software Rating Board , the average gamer is 34 years-old and has been playing video games for 12 years. Furthermore, if you have a look at the Pew Report on Adults and Video Games, by Amanda Lenhart, Sydney Jones, Alexandra Macgill (published in 2008), you will find that:

“More than half – 53% – of all American adults play video games of some kind, whether on a computer, on a gaming console, on a cell phone or other handheld device, on a portable gaming device, or online.”

By far, these statistics are on the spot when it comes to me and members of my generation. So, scratch the argument : “Video games are for kids” and also erase from your minds the traditional myths about video games . In the last few years video games have emerged as a respected and creative industry, denying it would be pointless and surreal as (for the United States alone) 32.000 people are employed by the video game software industry.

It will be no surprise then that I chose these circumstances to write about an industry that has always fascinated me. At first, when I thought about this article, I decided to jote down as many ideas as I could about video games. I realized then that were would be many themes to explore : video games as art, gender issues in the gaming industry, women gamers myths, gaming and education, gaming in public spaces (such as libraries), etc.  In the hopes of making my thoughts on this legible, I will separate this article in three distinct parts : the first one will be about my personal relationship to video games, their actual formats, the genres I play and (naturally), the many arguments about “real” game(r)s or not. The second part will broach another issue I find important : debunking myths about female gamers and women in this industry. Finally the last part will show how video games are becoming more and more important in education programs and how libraries are using them (and incorporating them) in their collections.

I love video games

This is a simple as it gets, I love gaming, I always did. In fact I have come to realise that I have played video games for the last 30 years. It started with Pong at the local arcade, then with the Intellivision console (do you remember the controllers?), then my first PC stricto-sensu, with 5.25 inch floppy disks, succeeded by 3.5 inch floppy disks.  In the late 80’s I remember a Commodore 64, our first Nintendo, the long serie of Microsoft Windows,  a Mac in 2003, back to a portable HP in 2007. Finally, add to this two Xbox consoles and my Android Smartphone.

Real Gamer or not?

This is all technical and hardware talk, nobody wants to know what I play “on” but rather…. what kind of video games do I like to play? I never realised until recently (when I started playing Halo on the Xbox 360) that the answer to the above question, in a world where video games have never been more popular, is suppose to define you as being a real gamer or not.

Most of the games that I started playing fifteen years agon were on a standard PC and remain my favourite games today: Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Age of Empires, Heroes of Might and Magic, Simcity, Caesar… you get my drift, I loved role-playing and management games. However, I also played with my brother and my father over the years games such as : Doom, Castelvania, Wolfenstein, Goldeneye… you again get my drift, the first-generation first-person-shooter. I chose to devote more my time to rpg and empire-building than killing zombies and monsters. Even before the advent of consoles and extreme virtual reality gaming, I was being categorized as a “soft gamer” compared to the (majority) of males playing “real games”. Call it a gender issue but I will detail my arguments about this in part 2, so you will have to be patient.

Yet that was not the core of the problem for me, I resented being called a soft-gamer simply because I never got into online multiplayer gaming. That last statement is not entirely true as I have devoted dozen of hours in the past  to play BBS games and MUD games but when World of Warcraft came out  in 2004, I gave up online gaming. Why? Because for me gaming was (and still is) a solo experience, be it with a keyboard/mouse or a controller. I wanted to immerse myself in storylines, not come up head-to-head with lone gamers spending their real money online acquiring a flaming blue mohawk and who wanted to crack my skull with an axe. Even digital.

Video games were a means to test my intellectual skills against an AI, develop strategies to achieve objectives and resolve puzzles that would take me further into a story or specific set world. By doing this, I believed I have acquired distinct skills and abilities over time that have enabled me to be more efficient, grasp complex issues quickly and find practical solutions to problems. I spent countless years as a teenager creating a complex machine that would enable me to fire up my toaster using a baseball, conveyor belts and fans.

The Incredible Machine

For the nostalgic: The Incredible Machine

As an illustration of the skills I hone regurlary, there is my ongoing addiction to Hidden Object Games, or more commonly know as HOG; it is clear to me that finding objects hidden throughout a scene keeps my observation skills sharp. As a matter of fact, this is not the first time that the cognitive effects of gaming have been researched. However there seems to be some recent counter arguments against this:

“Despite the hype, in reality, there is little solid evidence that games enhance cognition at all,” said assistant professor Walter Boot. “The idea that video games could enhance cognition was exciting because it represented one of the few cases in which cognitive training enhanced abilities that weren’t directly practiced,” Boot stated. “But we found no benefits of video game training.” Not only did some of his studies fail to replicate those earlier findings, but “no study has yet met the ‘gold standard’ methods necessary in intervention studies of this sort.” (Source) – Link to research article

As I am no psychology specialist, I will not even attempt to refute those arguments, their purpose is to highlight the fact that video games (enhancing cognitive skills or not) are part of my learning experience.

The PC vs Console argument

Another reason I was deemed being a soft gamer; it took me years to abandon my PC and it’s 2d isometric-view board games to make the leap to the new generation 3d games that were developped for computers and consoles. As more and more game sequels (and later on movies) were making the shift towards 3d, I had the distinct impression that it was killing storylines and scenarios of previous board games. A perfect example for me is the Heroes of Might and Magic series : I played the first three installments religiously, the launch of Heroes 4 marked the end of the era as nothing better could be achieved by means of replayability value and customization features…. there was simply no way that this game could incorporate lenghty video animations that 3d brought. And yet it did, with Heroes 5, that left behind most of the mapmaking abilities and scripting possibilities of  Heroes 3 and 4. For yet another example : try to imagine the empire-building game of a generation of gamers, namely Age of Empires, being remade entirely in 3d mode… can you imagine the difficulty of switching to your peasants and troops back and forth on a sluggish game engine? Some games (or so I thought) were simply not made to be virtual environments : especially turn-based and role-playing games. As years rolled on, I saw superb graphic combat animations in new games franchises, exceptional realism and immersive universe that you can spend hours exploring to the gradual loss of well-designed menus, dungeon-loot systems, customizing and modding abilities.

So yes, my initial disdain towards consoles was more due to the 2d-3d argument (read the 1998 post from Jakob Nielsen’s about it) than the gaming system itself, but then I realized that it was one of the reasons that made consoles so good: 3D is fun on a decent gaming console, as a player you are totally immersed, two hands on your controller, in the same way that we used to do it with keyboard shortcuts and a mouse on a PC. As stories and universes got more complex and detailed, I happily dived in with The Elder Scrolls series, Dragon Age 1 & 2, Mass Effect 1 & 2 and even Assassin’s Creed.

As this IGN articles relates:

“There was a time when there was a very strong separation of church and state between cinematics and gameplay – the cinematics told the story and then the player played the game and that was just how it was. In the last ten years, however, we’ve seen a very clear drive towards unifying both areas with a view to creating a form of storytelling that is unique to gaming.” (Source)

We love heroes, we want to be heroes

Long-time gamers like me may be nostalgic of our old classics and characters, but there is no way that we could go back to those linear games without cringing all the way through. Thanks to creative programers, artists and interactive storytelling we have the ability to immerse ourselves even deeper in complex virtual environments. Long gone are the days where we were told to follow a story rigidly : today we want to create, customize and craft our unique character(s), we want to claim their actions and decide their fate. This is why there is such emotional appeal to the stories that incorporate your decisions in the completion of a game. If you look at Dragon Age Origins, you have a clear example on how with choices comes… responsibility. The possibility for your character to do “the right thing” (or not) does not necessarily mean that you get what you hoped (quest completion, artifact, romance development) for also but considerably enriches your gaming experience by making you feel as a part of the universe you’re exploring. This is largely why I reject the theory that video games make people violent : violence is a part of us, we can choose to express or not and by that choice we accept consequences. By and all, we are crafting ourselves as heroes. Why? Because we love them, our cultural history is filled with them and now we have the possibility of becoming one.

In definitive, do games genres need to have an affixed “real” tag next to them or not? The reality of gaming today is not simply just about sneaking in the dark with a virtual sniper rifle pointed at your enemies in Halo or fierce-button mashing combinations in Street Fighter; gaming is not just about looting endless dungeons or exploring moutain caves in Oblivion; gaming is about our own human need for achievement. This is why we play video games: we are confronted by simulations and have to react accordingly in order to pass to the next level: we rack our brains, we sprain our wrists and thumbs, we occasionally forget to blink but enjoy every bit of the experience. As a experienced and demanding gamer, I could not be happier by living in an era where we have the ability to learn from our distinct gaming experiences, shape our unique stories and share them with the rest of the world.

Lastly, for the well-know skeptics out there who still think that video games are only some underground phenomenon, have a look at the superb online voting site for an exhibition (planned for March 2012) by the Smithsonian American Art Museum : The Art of Video Games.

Next week, part two of this article on gaming : more specifically about women gamers and women in the gaming industry.

Have any thoughts? Reactions? Comments? You are most welcome to join the conversation!


7 Responses to “About Gaming: Part 1 of 3 : Why I love video games”

  1. The Retro-ish Gaming Critic November 17, 2011 at 4:32 pm #

    Long-time gamers like me may be nostalgic of our old classics and characters, but there is no way that we could go back to those linear games without cringing all the way through.

    There’s a large “retro” movement for just that sort of thing. From the eight-bit Mario days on earlier, all the way back to the Collecovision and beyond, there are plenty of gamers who adore those old classics and still play them to this day. I just played a rousing game of Barnstormer for the Atari a little while ago, and it was fun as heck. No cringing to be had, here.

    • Marylene Goulet November 17, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

      I fully agree with you and it was certainly not my intention of saying that retro games should be avoided. On the contrary, I find that movement essential in : a) actively recording the history of video games. b) maintaining the enjoyment and the fan base for classic games c) simply maintaining the hardware! Maybe I should have been more precise about the genre of games I was referring to, in this case my favourite type : rpg & quest-based-adventure like Zelda, King’s Quest, Final Fantasy, etc.

      • The Retro-ish Gaming Critic November 17, 2011 at 11:30 pm #

        So, do you mean that going back to, say, the first Final Fantasy would be difficult, or…?

      • Marylene November 18, 2011 at 9:34 am #

        No, not “difficult” but linear (repetitive?): I wouldn’t get to battle the boss before i’m at the right level 15 as in today, If I want to take my chances against an bad-ass ogre at level 2, it’s up to me to figure it out. I’d love to go back and give the first Zelda or Final Fantasy a spin, but I know I wouldn’t enjoy it as much : missing the awesome graphics and detailed environments, combat system and the music as well.

      • The Retro-ish Gaming Critic November 18, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

        I see what you mean. I’d somewhat agree, too, with those examples.


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