I love games.
I grew up playing video games — some of my earliest memories are of staying up all night long to play through classics like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES) or learning world geography predominantly via long voyages in Uncharted Waters: New Horizons (SNES). I dropped out of the console game world early in the fifth-generation–the last system I purchased was a PlayStation, which I still keep on hand for playing some classics like Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy Tactics (which is now available for PSP and iOS, apparently).
Later on, I made the move to PC gaming. My own first computer was fairly obsolete shortly after we bought it (an unscrupulous salesman at Circuit City took advantage of the fact that neither I nor my parents knew much about picking out hardware at the time). However, I was still able to play dozens of great titles from the age of 3.5″ floppies and early CD-ROMs. Some were commercial successes — Others were ahead of their time and deserve to be rebuilt for modern hardware: Birthright: The Gorgon’s Alliance foreshadowed many of Paradox Interactive’s signature gameplay features; the original cyberpunk game, Shadowrun, is coming back; and the aforementioned Uncharted Waters remains my all-time favorite in the sea voyage & pirates genre.
Games bring us together.
I’m more of a gamer than a partier–I’d much rather sit down and spend a Saturday night playing one of my favorite classic video games, or the hottest new title from a favorite developer. In fact, when my closest friends and I do get together to ‘party’–something that unfortunately only happens a couple of times a year these days– we gather around a board game. We were never RPGers; we’ve always preferred strategy games like Risk 2210 and Axis and Allies. In more recent years, we’ve adopted Dominion as our game of choice–and most recently, we added Settlers of Cataan to the mix.
Board games are great for helping old friends reunite and catch up, while offering something to do, a focus point that helps ease over any awkwardness that comes after months of being apart. In one sense, I feel that I know my friends best in their gamer roles. And now that we’re starting our own families and having children, it won’t be long before we’ll get to teach these games to the next generation of gamer nerds. That’s one of the guiding motivations for me to start this blog: I want to create something to preserve the memory of games that will be decades old by the time my own (hypothetical) kids play them. With the relentless march of GPU technology, I’m sure today’s blockbuster hits will seem stodgy and blocky to the next generation, just like the 8- and 16-bit classics I grew up with now seem even to me. But who can deny that Civilization was one of the greatest games ever created? Sure, there are more recent incarnations–but the latest, Civilization V, is disappointing (more to come about this later). The original version still bears playing: blocky graphics aside, Civ is able to transport players to another world–a reality sustained in the interface between their computer and their own imagination–to lead a civilization through the millennia to ultimate victory, by the sword or the stars.
Games are valuable.
Some may say that games are a waste of time; that we should spend our free hours learning new skills or spending time with loved ones. I answer that those are precisely the things that games allow us to do, in engaging, novel ways that enhance our learning and social interactions.
Games can also provide an escape from reality. Anyone who has spent a substantial amount of time playing a game will be intimately familiar with this aspect. At worst, games can be addictive. They can draw us away from our loved ones and away from other activities that actually make us feel better than, say, a 10-hour gaming binge. Part of the issue is that games can be more appealing than reality in important ways. Well-designed games can present an interactive world that rewards our actions even more effectively than the real world; they can offer narratives that are more engaging than our post-modern condition allows; and games follow rules of leadership and governance that are clearer than those provided by our own political leaders, who lately prefer partisan bickering and backstabbing rather than democratic compromise.
In a nutshell, the beauty of games is that they are simple. Even the most complex, immersive MMORPGs are still ridiculously simple compared to the messy wider world of humanity that we occupy in our offline hours. When we’re engaged in a computer game or sitting around a game table with friends, we get to stretch our imaginations and enjoy interactions because the limits of the game allow us to do so in a safer way, without being overwhelmed by limitless possibilities. In other words, constraints can be liberating–at least occasionally, contextually, when we need a break and desire entertainment. And why should games be any different than other forms of artistic escape? Games can provide the best of literature and sport; they can offer aesthetic beauty as well as unique social opportunities. Games, like good books or film or poetry or art, allow us to learn more about ourselves and each other. And they’re getting better; the golden age of gaming is still to come. So as a gamer, and an anthropologist, I think it’s time we paid more attention.
Like my blog? Why don’t you treat me to one of your favorite games? Or something from my wish list: