The Meaning of Game

I recently participated in the Extra Life fundraiser alongside the staff of original-gamer.com A few days left before the event, everyone was busy posting in various social networks around the Internets in an attempt to raise more funds for hospitals in the Children’s Miracle Network.

One friend’s plea for donations added the statement: “Make gaming mean something!” I paused for a moment after reading that.  To me, it insinuated that playing videogames otherwise had no meaning, and I wasn’t sure that I agreed with that sentiment.  While I am aware that those words were chosen to make a point about doing something for a worthy cause, it made me think just the same.

According to some people, playing videogames is an activity that serves no purpose except for burning time.  I’m fairly certain we’ve all heard it from parents, relatives and significant others: they’re a waste of time, they’re rotting your brain, they’re burning your eyes out, why don’t you shut that thing off already, and so on and so forth.

The question then becomes: Why do we play video games?

One reason I play videogames is that they challenge my mind.  From Tetris’ never-ending rain of shapes to the hidden pictures of Picross, puzzle games have always had a place in my game library.  Outside of the realm of puzzle games, action-oriented games occasionally pause the action with an occasional brain teaser and many action-adventure games incorporate problem-solving into their gameplay.  As an example, the Legend of Zelda series features dungeons that challenge a player’s mind in addition to their reflexes, often requiring the player to figure out how to use the tools they have available to reach new areas.  The Ratchet and Clank series has the lead character solving puzzles in order to unlock doors.

Secondly, playing a videogame that intertwines its story with its gameplay makes me feel as if I am a part of the story as opposed to just passively watching one.  This isn’t easy to accomplish by any stretch of the imagination, but when it is done well, a player can feel more emotionally attached to the characters and to the story as a whole.  Gears of War occasionally forced the players to walk so that the characters could interact with each other without interrupting the gameplay to show a movie clip.  Final Fantasy VII went as far as to permanently kill a player’s character partway through the game, which added a significant in-game consequence to the actions that took place in the story.

Finally, videogames are fun to play.  I play video games to have fun whether it is by myself or with friends.  Early video game advertisements featured pictures of happy families sitting around enjoying games instead of watching television.  That ideal lives on in the family-friendly multiplayer games of Nintendo.  Rock Band can also provide hours of  enjoyment for a group of friends.

Many other games play to compete, those that relish the near-endless competition that is found online are catered to by Sony and Microsoft.  Across the country, video game tournaments large and small are held and there are even professional gamers (such as  this one) who make a living playing games.

One can also learn from video games, and indeed, one of the current trends in workplace training is to use simple games to teach repetitive tasks to employees.  On a more personal note, playing Pikmin taught me a lesson that I’m not sure I wanted to learn about war, of all things.  More on that later.

Video games are not meaningless, and the act of playing them is hardly a passive activity.  Just like any other form of art, a videogame can mean different things to different people.  As long as videogames continue to provide compelling experiences that cannot be reproduced in other media, we will keep playing for whatever reason they mean to us.

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