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Is A Game Really "Just A Game"?

Posted on Wednesday, December 1 @ 15:46:11 PST by Jesse_Costantino

The recent Supreme Court hearing on November 2 brings this issue front and center. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and state congressman Leland Yee argue that games are “just games” and should be regulated like cigarettes, porn, and alcohol. Meanwhile, the gaming industry is arguing that games have artistic merit and deserve protection under the First Amendment. Whether we realize it or not, we gamers are helping Schwarzenegger’s case by arguing that the mainstream media should stop taking games so seriously.

Part of the problem, though, is that we don’t know yet what “meaning” looks like in a game. Is there some deeper meaning to shooting our friends online with an M4? What’s so profound about playing a plastic guitar and fake drums? Are we willing to say that Wii Fit is as potentially powerful as Schindler’s List?

And to say that only some games can be meaningful relegates the rest to the giant scrap pile of hollow entertainment. Pulling a game like Flower out of your back pocket whenever you want to prove to non-gamers that games are “art” is like pointing to Yao Ming in order to prove that all Chinese men are “tall”.

If we say that only a few games have meaning while the majority is just hollow junk, we fuel the fire of public sentiment against the “juvenile”, “gratuitous”, and “senselessly violent” toy gaming industry. If we gaming apologists think that only a few games have any real value or meaning, we’re indirectly endorsing the non-gaming public’s prejudice against games.

Put bluntly, a creative industry that can only produce three or four meaningful games among hundreds of releases every year probably isn’t worth defending. Why do we hold up Flower, Braid, and Limbo as the artistic pinnacle of the industry rather than more typical fare like Halo, Assassin’s Creed, or God of War? What makes a few floating flower petals any more meaningful than a muscle-bound, blade-wielding demigod?

Every game has the potential for political, social, historical, racial, sexual, psychological meaning. So the problem isn’t on the side of those making the games. The problem lies with those of us who play and consume them. The onus is on us to find meaning in the games we play. We can’t expect designers to make smarter, deeper, more culturally significant games until we gamers start taking the current crop of games more seriously.

Does this mean we should stop having fun? Of course not. If anything, by taking something more seriously, we can enjoy it that much more. Does taking sex seriously make it any less fun? God, I hope not. Meaning is a type of investment; the more we invest, the bigger the pay-off. I mean, what could possibly be more fun than seeing Bowser as the monstrous embodiment of our basest sexual desires run amok? How much differently would we play Super Mario Bros. if we saw in those goombas a manifestation in fungal form of our feelings of sexual inadequacy?

If we ever want games to gain mainstream acceptance and respect, we have to be willing to take the good with the bad. If games can be racist, they can also challenge racial prejudice. If games can be sexist, they can also be sexy. If games can be inexcusably violent, well, then maybe they can also teach us about human anatomy. But if we really believe that games are “just games”, then we’re dooming ourselves to be treated like “just a bunch of overgrown kids” forever.

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