Friday, October 24, 2008

Obligatory Play or The Analysis Game?

For gamers, fall is always special: it is the season of big budget, high profile game releases. This year seems especially crazy, and I think Leigh Alexander phrased it well when she wrote:

"Really, to be honest, the avalanche pace of these truly stellar releases is actually making me feel a little clammy and short-of-breath. Anyone else?"

My answer, Leigh, is an emphatic yes. How could one hope to work their way through all these games that are glutting the market? However, what motivates me to play these games most is something a bit different from immediate social pressure. Of course, I want to be able to join in when folks discuss the latest big releases, but most of my anxiety stems from a desire to be well-versed in the larger conversation on video games: Which games are changing the medium? Which are shaping the industry? What are the most popular gameplay styles? Which will be looked back on as landmark achievements.

There is a high correlation between games I find important and games I find fun, but this philosophy also works as double-edged sword. Lately, I find myself increasingly compelled to play certain games that do not interest me. The sick thing is, I am unsure of whether I can change this, or even if I want to change this.

Every medium or discipline has certain landmark works that serve as reference points for wider analysis. Theories, methodologies, archetypes and traditions are anchored in common works and experiences. Once these works are established as common reference points, personal feelings towards them are often subverted in favor of recognizing their importance in the overall field.

For example, if you are a U.S. historian, it really does not matter whether you enjoy reading W.E.B. DuBois. Regardless of relative pleasure one derives from studying his writing, one can not claim a thorough understandng of Civil War Reconstruction, African-American history, or American intellectual history without having read some of his works.

I consider myself both a fan and a student of video games, and I approach them similarly to how I study history. There are certain games out there that I believe informed gaming enthusiasts must play:Tetris , Super Mario Bros., Doom, and Final Fantasy VII are some classic examples that come to my mind. This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor an objective one. Part of the fun of analyzing games is discussing (sometimes arguing!) their merits and contributions to the medium.

The reality is that this metaphorical list (or do I dare call it a "canon?") will continue to grow, and not all games added to it will appeal to all people. There are old games and upcoming games that I think are important to play and analyze even though I have no desire to play them for fun. It is a trap of my own construction: In order to feel like I am well-informed on current events, but most importantly the overall history of video games, I feel the need to play certain titles regardless of whether I enjoy them.

Oftentimes, filling the gaps in my knowledge is highly satisfying in both the immediate and long term sense. After finally playing the demo of Bioshock , I cannot wait to dive into the game. It is a title that is changing the way folks view the medium and I also find it damn fun. Conversely, after the first entry, I have grown less enthusiastic about each subsequent Metal Gear Solid game. Despite this, I (and many others) see Metal Gear Solid 4 as a landmark game. Multiple attributes like its story, graphics, and creator make it an important game within the medium, one that I believe that I must play in order to consider myself an informed gamer/critic/enthusiast. Regardless, I am already looking forward to being finished with a game I have not even started (sorry Leigh!).

It seems that I am ending up in a paradox (or maybe a contradiction, you logic-types can correct me): I enjoy videogames because I like to both play them as well as analyze the medium as it changes over time. However, in order to experience this enjoyment fully, I must force myself to push through games I do not find all that fun.

As I mentioned earlier, I am not sure there is any solution to this, nor should there be a solution to this. Analysis is a meta-game in a way, a game that has certain rules I do not like, e.g. having to wade through games I'm not crazy about.

I know that both LittleBigPlanet and Fallout 3 will both be huge games in terms of sales, scores, and long-term impact on gaming culture. I look forward to analyzing them both, and watching what they do to the medium and the industry. However, I only look forward to playing one of them...

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