Why and How I Play Games (And Why Reviewers Should Be Telling You This)

Text version and youtube description:

Introducing Digisauros! My video game and film review avatar! Today’s discussion is on the nature of playing games, and how reviewers need to be exploring it.

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Digisauros drawn by Munchy: http://munchywearstinyhats.tumblr.com/

Cited Works:
Game Theory: Why You Play Video Games: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyUC_28HIvA
Extra Punctuation: Context, Challenge, and Catharsis: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/extra-punctuation/10816-Context-Challenge-and-Catharsis
A History of Cover Based Shooters (And Why They Suck) [The Examined Life of Gaming]: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6HCI0KF51A
Adam Sessler Reviews Bioshock Infinite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jchIi-vR_js
Zero Punctuation: Bioshock Infinite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rciyCHa6J4o
Errant Signal – Bioshock Infinite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJ2cSKBFBDQ
Bioshock Infinite Critique (Matthewmatosis): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdNhwb7iuI4
Reviewing A Game On Their Terms: The Increasingly Prominent “Review Event” (Kotaku): http://kotaku.com/5416788/reviewing-a-game-on-their-terms-the-increasingly-prominent-review-event
Zero Punctuation: Final Fantasy XIII: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmnAL60mfSg

End Card Stuff:
Digibro After Dark: http://www.youtube.com/user/DigibronyAfterDark
“Autumn Nights,” by Jeff Burgess and the Bad Mares: http://jeffburgess.bandcamp.com/album/autumn-nights
My Twitter: https://twitter.com/Digibrah
My Tumblr: http://scarletmonochrome.tumblr.com/
Thoroughly Analyzing “Arpakasso”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1JZMEudR18
Thoroughly Analyzing “Rarity Takes Manehattan” [MLP:FiM Episode 73]: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2r134EZXI6c

The book Glued To Games posits, and this Game Theory video explores, the idea that we all play video games for feelings of Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness. Competence meaning that we feel like we’re good at something, Autonomy meaning the ability to control and express ourselves through something, and Relatedness being the ability to relate to others through our play. Game Theory suggests that different people may resonate particularly with any one of these three over the others, as well as that Relatedness mostly involves play with other people.

I would posit, and mind I haven’t read the original book, that relatedness also involves the player’s relation to the game creators, or to the greater human culture. This is the artistic element of the game, wherein the player is connecting to something on a core level of resonance, either emotionally or intellectually.

By that modified definition, I would say that the two elements which I come to games for are Competence and Relatedness, with no interest in Autonomy at all. I’ve always hated customizing characters, I hate sandbox games or any kind of game where I’m left to make my own fun, I hate having to figure out builds and stuff in RPGs, etc. I prefer games that give me clear goals and ask me to complete them, and for those goals to present a challenge for me to meet.

But I also appreciate games on the artistic level, which is where I think most elements of the production and design of a game lie. My favorite games are ones that take place in interesting and engrossing worlds, and the ability to engross me comes from connecting to me on a human level. This is a sort of complex connection to explain or achieve, but it’s something that unmistakably comes through when it’s done well.

Legendary games critic Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw posits that individual games can appeal to players through Context, Challenge, and Catharsis. In this case, context more accurately refers to what I described before in the Relatedness category, and encompasses the story and writing as well as all parts of the design that convey an emotional resonance.

However, personally I find that the word “relatedness” better approximates what engrosses me, because I don’t usually care much about the story or goals of my character in the game. For instance, if I were to describe what my goal is in a Zelda game, I’d probably say “beat all the levels and the boss,” rather than, “beat all of the temples and rescue the princess by defeating ganon.” I don’t really think of games in terms of their narrative context so much as their artistic one.

Challenge relates well to Competence, though again I think that competency more accurately describes what I look for. Challenge implies that the player must overcome something, and that the feeling of having done so is where the pleasure comes from. However, in the case of competence, the game doesn’t necessarily need to push the player for them to enjoy themselves, and this is why the modern AAA games market of games that can be easily mastered and breezed through is so prominent.

While I appreciate difficult games, I also don’t usually like spending too much time playing one game, and will typically get into something else and never finish a game if it takes too long. Games that require a degree of mastery or an extreme length of time to complete tend to go unfinished by me. I’ve found that most of my favorite games are ones that don’t require me to achieve a high level of mastery, but simply require a level of attention or thought to engage my senses for the duration of play.

Catharsis, which can be closely related to Challenge, can stand between Competence and Autonomy. Catharsis essentially refers to a game’s ability to release something in the player. It’s the feelings of satisfaction that a player gets from whatever they’re doing. Its appeal is on a more visceral level, and I think that it’s one of the things which video games are generally best at giving a player, yet the subtlety of mastering catharsis is what seperates good games from great ones. It’s the ways that melee in The Last of Us feels so much better than melee in Skyrim, and the way that combat in Tera Online is so much more satisfing than combat in World of Warcraft.

Altogether, I think that the feelings of Competence, Catharsis, and Relatedness are the things which most appeal to me in video games. I care about feeling good at something more than I care about achieving full mastery of it. I like to feel a catharsis from the actions that I perform in a game. And I like to relate to video games on an artistic, emotional level, with or without paying attention to the narrative context of the game.

Words I would use to describe games I like are ones like: satisfying, adventurous, and engaging. Words that don’t appeal much to me are: frustrating, complex, and narrative-driven. It needs to be clarified however that the main reason I don’t tend to like narrrative-driven games is that so few of them have appealing narratives. The only game which has ever really appealed to me on the narrative level is the Mass Effect trilogy.

Most of my favorite video games tend to fall in the spectrom of action-RPGs, because they have a habit of hitting the sweet spot where all of my preferences lie. I love exploring dense and interesting worlds, which is why games like Mass Effect and many of the Zelda games appeal to me. I like to play games with a satisfying and cathartic combat or controls, which is why games like Super Meat Boy and Persona 4 Arena appeal to me. When you combine these factors, you get some of my favorite games, like Tera Online and Dark Souls. However, in the case of Dark Souls, I still have never finished the game due to the time dedication that it takes to master it. Even though I love and appreciate the game’s difficulty and complexity, by my nature I’m more likely to take to a game I can be competent at than one which is truly challenging.

Now, you might be wondering why the hell I’m talking about this, as if you care about why I play video games. Well, my purpose here is twofold. It is both to introduce you to one of the most overlooked and yet direly important aspects of games criticism, as well as to ask you to look inside yourself and determine what it is about video games which appeals to YOU.

Every piece of media is experienced subjectively, no matter how many subjective experiences may appear to be similar. When everything is broken down, people don’t all come away with the same feelings, and the entire purpose of an analysis is to break down what in a work caused the analyst to feel the way that they did. It is impossible to divorce the subjective experience of the work from the feelings that it creates in the audience, and this is never more true than when it comes to video games.

The number of variables, however subtle, in how a player will experience a game, are functionally indefinite. If you’ve ever watched a friend play a game which you’ve played before, and seen how completely differently they go about it, then you’ll know what I mean. For instance, I’m the type of player who scruitinizes every detail of every area that I visit in a game, to the point that observers will get mad at me for taking too long. I try to do and experience as much as possible on my first go-through because it’s rare for me to return to a game once I’m done with it for at least a year or two.

One of the things I find most disturbing about professional game reviewers in the mainstream media is that they approaching games from the playstyle of a games reviewer, which is often completely different from how the average player experiences games. Game reviewers typically plow through games, play nearly everything, are compiling their reviews while they’re playing, and are trying to beat it by a deadline. They’ll play through the main storyline without doing too many side-quests or collecting, give the multiplayer a quick shake, and move on.

But the average gamer isn’t likely going to play this way. They’ll take their time and drink in the experience, often playing to completion, replaying, dicking around, spending tens or hundreds of hours in the multiplayer, and maybe even get into the modding scene or fan community of the game and have an experience so vast with it that the perspective of a typical reviewer is completely unrelatable to them.

I don’t consider this a problem on the part of the reviewers, but I do think it’s a problem on the state of the review landscape, and the general perception of game reviews; that they are meant to be objective, or to represent the needs of the typical gamer. Ideally, the audience for a review should understand the experience that a reviewer has with a game including their individual biases and unique playstyle so that they can better grasp where the reviewer is coming from. And there should also be a greater variety of playstyles and opinions represented on the review landscape.

I tend to play and review games long after they’ve been realeased, which gives me both a broader cultural context to view them in, and less pressure to complete my review in an established time frame. I typically end up muting the game audio and playing over it with my own music, because I can’t stand hearing repeating tunes and sound effects. I usually play through a game in a couple of super-long sittings. I get really pissed off if a game has what I consider a bad death system. I scrutinize even the games I enjoy very heavily, and unless the game is called Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy, I’ve probably got something to bitch about. I never play online multiplayer, and I only play fighting games and racing games on local multiplayer.

None of this is to suggest that you need to play games the same way I do in order to get something out of my reviews. However, if you come to them expecting that I’ve played through the game the same way or with the same intentions that you did, then you may walk away unsatisfied. My reviews exist to explain my perspective, and if that can help you to figure out some things about your own feelings, then that’s cool. However, my purpose is not to have a broad appeal to popular or common opinion, and criticism that I’m not “playing the game correctly,” or that my criticism isn’t helpful to you on a personal level, is kind of missing the point. I for one find this to be true of ALL reviewers, not just myself, but I want to make it clear that for me at least this approach is intentional.

Now, if you will, I’d like to ask that you try looking inside yourself and really figuring out what you look for in video games. Yes you’re having fun, but what is fun to you? What is boring? What seperates the games you just kinda played from the ones you keep coming back to? Let me know what you come up with in the comments!

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