March 27th, 2008

Beat It

Last year there was a documentary released entitled The King of King: A Fistful of Quarters (Tagline: “Don’t get chumpatized”) about the world of competitive videogaming. Many of you, I suspect, weren’t aware there was a world of competitive videogaming until just this moment. Not only is there, but it’s a booming business and full of drama and intrigue, apparently.

The documentary follows Steve Wiebe as he attempts to break the official worldwide high score in Donkey Kong. The score he was attempting to break was 874,300, set in 1982 by Billy Mitchell , who also held records in Pac-Man and Centipede. I won’t give away the rest of the movie, as it is strangely fascinating, even if you don’t play videogames yourself. (Note: if you live near me and would like to borrow it at some time, just let me know!)

Donkey Kong is a particularly hard classic game, and anyone who has even gotten to the elevator-filled third screen is even now shaking their head at the remembrance of it. Games have changed significantly since then, and many modern games don’t even have a point system. In the early days of videogames, though, the points were the thing – indicators of skill, bragging points, and goals to be reached. Twin Galaxies has, since 1981, been the “official” keeper of gaming records, and as the documentary revealed, the process of submitting a score is quite rigorous. One referee talked about the eight hours of videotape he was needing to watch to verify someone’s attempt a breaking the record for Nibbler, a game I was only just barely aware of.

While I loved videogames from the first time I ever saw one, I’ve never been all that good at them. The idea of breaking any sort of record for Q*Bert or Defender is so foreign to me that it passes into the realm of the laughable. I found out somewhere along the way that there’s always someone you’re better than… but there is also always someone else who’s better than you. My ability to finish Guitar Hero in Medium might be impressive to someone who struggles with Easy, but someone who can play a song flawlessly in Expert puts me to shame.

That mindset has filtered into the rest of my life, for better or for worse. I don’t have a desire to compete for the most part because of it – I know the chances of me ever being the best at something are so ridiculously slim that I’ve learned to get to a “happiness level,” a place where I enjoy what I’m doing but am not stretched to push myself further. It doesn’t take a very sharp eye to see where the problem lies in that outlook. While it has, for the most part, removed certain stress causers, it has made me complacent and even stagnant.

These days I play through videogames for the stories. I want to enjoy them like I enjoy movies, and even fighting games have a layer of storytelling to them. I want to beat a level so I can see the next part of the story. A really engaging game can be a 10-, 25-, 0r 100-hour movie, and I want to see what happens next. That’s carried over into other areas, too. I enjoy what’s going on right now, and I’m curious to see what happens next.

I’m just hoping against hope that I don’t get chumpatized.

April 4th, 2007

Why I’m A Gamer

I’ve been playing videogames longer than some of you have been alive. While that seems to lend itself to a “and I walked uphill in the snow five miles there and back” narrative, that’s not necessarily what I’m getting at. It’s more to set in your mind the thought that I like to play videogames, enough that I’ve been doing it for a long, long time.While I don’t remember the first game I ever played (my earliest gaming memories are of a Pole Position standup arcade unit at the local Dairy Queen and Pac-Man on a friend’s Atari 2600), I do know that from the outset I heard a refrain from others that would become familiar over the years:

“Why do you play those games?”

More often than not, that’s followed up with

“They’re such a waste of time.”

While I won’t claim the task of speaking for all gamers everywhere, I’d like to set forth my reasons for playing.

* * * * *

Great games tell great stories. Some are heartbreaking, some are intriguing, some are hilarious… and some are dumb. Just like any other storytelling medium, there are ups and downs. While the basic mechanics of a game might be “move this box” and “climb this chain,” there’s a narrative running throughout the actions, a “why” to the actions. I become invested in the characters and want to know how things are going to work out for them and what will happen. It’s like watching a movie, only I have some input as to how the movie turns out, and the movie might be 10-20 hours long. (In fact, some games are even longer – I put at least 83 hours into Final Fantasy VII back in the day.) Games can be sad, scary, and funny, and often the story of the game is more important to me than the playing. There’ve been many times I’ve used a walkthrough (a guide that tells you exactly what to do to advance the game), just so I could see the story and not have to worry about trying to figure out what to do next.


Just as you might watch A Walk to Remember alone but you’d watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail in a group, there are games meant to be played alone and there are games meant to be played with others. Getting a few people together for the express purpose of playing games can be a great time for bonding and getting to know each other. I used to hold 5-player GoldenEye sessions, where the winner of a 4-person round would sit out and let the next player in. Now I occasionally have a few people over to play Guitar Hero. While some are playing, the others are talking, and good old-fashioned friendship ensues. The advent of the newer systems’ abilities to be online means that I can play with or against people from all over the world, or even just talk to them while we’re playing separate games. Even single player games lend themselves to working together – figuring out what to do next can be a lot easier with someone else’s different perspective on the problem. Frankly, that leads right into the next reason…

Life Lessons

It’s common to hear phrases like “mind-numbing” or “rot your brain” when people talk about how bad videogames are for people. I see them differently, and feel there’s a lot people can learn from games:

  1. Persistence – Many times there are puzzles in games that require a certain set of actions to be done in a certain order, and it can be difficult to accomplish the actions on the first try. Sometimes it can be difficult to accomplish these things on the 7th, 13th, or 20th try! Fast mechanical actions are the biggest challenge for me, and sticking with it to get it done is a good reminder to me.
  2. Problem solving – Sure, most things that need to be solved in a videogame don’t have much bearing in real life – I mean, it’s not often that you need to find a red gem from an ancient statue so that you can open a box that has the magic feather you need to open the door to your kitchen, after all. But the idea that problems have solutions is a solid one. Issues can be worked out.
  3. Creativity – as technology has advanced, so has the ability for games to offer multiple solutions to a given problem. “Sandbox games” (defined as “games that let you interact with the whole game world rather than limit you to specific areas at a time”) are very popular, and YouTube is full of videos of
    people doing crazy things in-game that the gamemakers never intended. See that building way off in the distance that looks unreachable? Let’s find a way to get to it! Sure, the creativity is still limited to the confines of the game, but it’s still an important skill to cultivate.
  4. Learning to work in a system – Have a job? There are specific ways you have to do things, right? TPS Reports must have a cover sheet, taxes have to be filed, and procedures must be followed. While “thinking outside the box” is encouraged and better solutions are generally welcome, there will always be rules a person needs to follow. A videogame gives the player specific abilities and a specific world where those abilities can be used, and it’s up to the player to determine how best to use those abilities in the confines of the game world.
  5. Team-building & Organization – As I’ve already mentioned, working on a solution to a presented problem with someone else can make all the difference. I might only see the ledge and a switch, but someone else might notice that the animal carcass is movable and can be placed on the switch. Guild leaders in games like World of Warcraft spend hours organizing people from all over the country to accomplish tasks that sometimes require 40 people – imagine trying to do that! Granted, I’m not interested in doing organization on a scale as grand as that, but making plans of attack for two-player games can still teach planning and organization.
Personal Accomplishment

There is a definite sense of satisfaction I get from beating a game or a level in a game – whether it’s winning the Super Bowl in a football game, clearing a pyramid in Q*Bert, or defeating the ancient mystical being that’s been causing problems the whole game. Finishing a task is a good feeling. The Xbox 360 builds on this aspect, as each game allows a person to earn “gamerpoints.” The points do nothing more than indicate the gamer has accomplished certain in-game feats, but ask anyone who owns a 360 and they’ll tell you: when that “Achievement Unlocked” notification comes up, so does the “Aw right!” in the brain.

Vicarious Living

Videogames let me experience things I would never get to (or, in some cases, never choose to) do. While I could probably ride a snowmobile in real life, I wouldn’t feel safe, and I sure would never get the chance to ride one through an active volcano or jump it over a helicopter. I’d get debilitatingly claustrophobic in a mummy’s tomb. There’s no way in the world I’d jump on alligator heads to cross a stream. If someone gave me the opportunity to drive a Dodge Viper, I’d be too nervous to drive the speed limit, much less crank it all the way up, and I sure wouldn’t smack it into other cars. In videogames, I can do all those things and get to experience a little picture of what it would be like.


There are so many things in life I don’t have control over: how people react to me, how other people drive, what birds flying overhead are going to do – all that. With a game, my onscreen avatar does what I tell it to do, no more, no less. The old computer term “GIGO” still applies: “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” I determine what happens, and when I no longer want to play, I shut the system down. I am the boss of what happens, and that’s nice to feel every once in a while. (Of course, if I’m no good at a particular game, that’s also my fault, so it’s a double-edged sword…)


Last, but not least, videogames are fun. For me, they’re fun for a combination of the reasons I’ve given here. If a game isn’t fun, I don’t keep playing it (unless I’m reviewing it…). My 360 tells me I’ve played 63 games on it, but it also tells me that I haven’t achieved any gamerpoints on 19 of those games, which means I didn’t enjoy those games enough to keep playing them.

* * * * *
Can all of these things be experienced in other avenues? Sure. That’s not my point. I wanted to explain why it is that I play games. And, yes, I also know that playing too much is a bad idea – just like most things that aren’t bad by themselves can be bad when not done in moderation. Eating is good, but eating too much is bad. Sleeping is good, but sleeping too much is bad. There needs to be balance. I do not play videogames to the exclusion of everything else – I read, I spend time with friends, I write, I philosophize, I watch movies – really, I do a lot of things. If I’m not careful, I can let any one of those things get out of hand, and I sometimes do.I know that this manifesto won’t change anyone’s opinions on the matter, and that’s fine. I personally think that spending money to fertilize and water a lawn so that you can spend more money to cut it later is ridiculous, but if that’s what you like to do, go ahead and do it. I might even help you do it once in a great while, but it’s never going to be something I choose to do on my own. Your love of doing it won’t affect me one iota, so it’s easy for me to understand that my love of gaming won’t change your opinions on gaming at all.

We can agree to disagree and still be grand friends. I believe that in all sincerity.