Imagine the aftermath of a British Christmas. Evening is drawing in, elderly relatives’ snores are muffled in the fetid, post-Christmas-dinner air, and the talk turns to the rapid advance of technology. My mother wonders at the speed at which email and text-messaging appear to have overtaken all other forms of communication, my dad complains about not being able to work his new television, and slowly but inevitably, the subject of the recent Wii launch comes up. Drifting slowly back to consciousness from my over-indulged, semi-comatose state, I listen, as my aunt explains her confusion.
“I cannot grasp how releasing more and more of these games consoles makes any difference,” she says. “Surely it’s just the same old thing, you know -” she sticks her hands in the air, forefingers outstretched, “- blam blam, vroom vroom. Same kids wasting the same amount of time, only it’s more expensive for their parents!”
Everyone laughs, throwing me the occasional glance, expecting me to leap into the defensive. I rise to the bait. Foolish, I know, but I can never resist; my family does this to me with monotonous regularity. “It’s really, really not just time-wasting,” I interject, beginning a spiel which any long-suffering enthusiast will recognize. “Games are incredibly complex now, they’re compelling, they’re edifying. We haven’t been spending our time just making more and more versions of Tetris. People are creating real art, these days. Games are as intelligent a leisure pursuit as anything else.”
The living room resounds with familiar, tolerant laughter. My aunt shakes her head, smiling, and leans forward in her chair. “Come on, Kelly,” she says, looking about as mischievous as a middle-aged and middle-class Edinburgh woman can manage, “you can’t possibly say things like that and expect to be taken seriously.”
And yet I do take games seriously, and so do thousands and thousands of others. Too seriously, much of the time. Every facet of the entertainment industry has its fanatics, but seldom are they as enthusiastic, vocal and extraordinarily organized as videogame fanatics. Talented enthusiasts pour hours upon hours of their time into fansites and databases, mods and skins; fanboys scream at each other over forums about whose console or series or whatever is best; we argue ourselves hoarse over upcoming releases and forgotten treasures, games’ merits and failings and potential, over minutia; Ocarina of Time vs. Majora’s Mask, Morrowind vs. Oblivion. We stand up for gaming as a worthwhile pursuit, band together to defend it, whether in front of our families, obstreperous newspaper columnists or Jack Thompson. We, as intelligent people, love games, and it is a love that is often complex and un-frivolous. We are not a clamoring mob, hypnotized by flashing lights and high scores into wasting our lives in front of a screen. We engage with games on a significant level, and that often has a considerable impact on our lives.
All of which begs the question: Why on Earth do we bother?
Once or twice a year, mired in the repetitive, cynical profiteering rubbish that seems to constitute so very much of videogaming as a whole, I ask myself that question. Cast a relatively neutral eye over our industry – an eye like my aunt’s – and it can be difficult to see why anyone takes us seriously. Games are pointless, meaningless and ridiculous; men shooting other men in virtual space in an enormous variety of ways; the eternal quest for the next meaningless shiny thing, or higher number; a sea of sheer, mindless drivel punctuated by the occasional example of something more worthwhile, so infrequent as to be irrelevant.
This is a crisis most gamers in my acquaintance seem to go through with distressing frequency. It passes, of course, usually when the next exemplary title arrives to remind us why we love games in the first place (last year’s was Okami, for me). But I still never come out of it with any sense of clarity about exactly why games have influenced (and continue to influence) my life more than any other medium. I want to know why people who love games seem so much more enthusiastic about their hobby than their film- or book-fan equivalents.
It is quite possible to be seduced into entertaining the notion that gaming must have something over its entertainment contemporaries in order to inspire such devotion. But that analysis strikes me as self-indulgent. Every once in a while, when a new landmark of interactive entertainment comes along, it’s easy to believe games can touch us in ways nothing else can, but even assuming that to be true, it is foolish to think games are intrinsically better than books, film or television and therefore inspire a greater degree of fanaticism.
Indeed, our medium’s negative aspects are blindingly obvious, glaring from every piece of licensed trash or gore-soaked tabloid bait lining the shelves of the world’s Wal-Marts. There are particular shining examples that stick out from the rest, games of merit that do much to negate the influence of the endless dross, but these alone cannot be solely responsible for inspiring fanaticism. It is gaming as a whole that we love, not merely the occasional exemplary instance of it.
It’s possible the very ubiquity of crap, rubbish or pointless games fuels some of our fanaticism. We are desperate to champion games that display the potential of the medium, waving our copies of Planescape: Torment and Half-Life 2 in the faces of people who don’t know games can be edifying as well as entertaining. I know my own intellectual enthusiasm for games is sparked by my consistent need to discuss, defend and justify them in writing and conversation. Perhaps my fanaticism is awakened – even exacerbated – by the fact I am always being told it’s not justified.
Actually, that seems rather likely; perhaps it’s underdog syndrome. There is no denying that games and gamers are victimized in the modern media. Whoever heard of a film buff being forced into a corner and made to defend his pastime from accusations of dangerousness or, possibly worse, worthlessness? Either is insulting to anyone with any passion for games, but without such harassment, there would be nothing for us to rile against; no reason for us to convince ourselves and others so vehemently of games’ intellectual worth.
However, in casting ourselves as underdogs and characterizing our inexhaustible defense of games as a natural reaction to a skeptical and dismissive general population, we are in danger of overlooking the most obvious reason for our often-unreasonable love of games: As a medium, they are entirely deserving of our attention.
Games are a new, exciting, multi-faceted, complex and challenging passion. We feel compelled to treat them as something more than toys because they are more than that. Ultimately, we are so passionate because we are among the first champions of what is still, in many ways, an emergent art form, and we are often called upon to defend it. As the rest of the world comes to take games as seriously as we do, I would not be at all surprised if our fanaticism were to diminish. But with any luck, our passion won’t.
Kelly MacDonald is interested in everything from rock’n’roll to German literature, but videogaming was her first love. She sold her soul to game journalism when she was 16.