Finding the meaning in video games: Yes, they have value beyond entertainment and self-improvement

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By Andy Robertson

New art forms are polarizing. We love or hate Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde animals or Tracey Emin’s unmade bed but roundly understand that avant garde art has value, the artist trying to challenge us and make us think something.

Video games draw similar fire. Detractors hem and haw that they’re all about shooting guns and wasting time, and worry about the harm they may be doing that we haven’t identified yet. Supporters congregate into defensive groups, highlighting not only their entertainment and relaxation value, but touting that they have educational and self-improvement benefits too.

Having spoken about the meaning of video games at TEDxExeter, I read the recent TED Blog posts “10 online games with a social purpose” and “7 talks on the benefits of gaming” with great interest. However, even with all the talks available, the posts still focused on justifying games by their secondary benefits. Games are redeemed by their ability to “be more effective than pharmaceuticals” or “help people heal from injuries” and “achieve greater wellness in the face of disease.”

Don’t get me wrong — this is a significant and fascinating piece of the puzzle. But it isn’t the whole picture. The irony in this equation is that if we judged novels, films or music solely in terms of potential harm or self-improvement, we’d miss their value in just the same way as we are missing a key part of what makes video games culturally significant.

A better way, I’m suggesting, is to not rule out the possibility that games may have intrinsic value beyond the harm or improvement sphere. This leads to the risky step of suggesting games can be about something more than entertainment. Like books and films, games engage our minds and emotions about particular topics. But unlike books that tell us a tale or films that show us a story, games invite us to overhear and interact with their narratives.

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Although video games like to think they are leading the pack, board games have actually been doing this for years already. Brenda Brathwaite’s TEDx talk, “Games for a Change” is a great explanation of how her board games challenge the player to think, reconsider and reflect in a way we usually associate with books and films. Only here, as Brathwaite explains, the player is culpable in the story in a totally new way.

Games for a Change changes how we see topics, changes our perceptions of people involved in those topics and it changes ourselves,” she says in this talk. “We change as people through games because we’re involved.”

This is new thinking, and hard to grasp at first because of our preconceptions about what games can be. In fact Brathwaite’s meaning-focused talk was renamed to be more educational sounding — “Gaming for Understanding” — when it was re-published recently on TED.com. Of course there’s no conspiracy here, but this curation reflects our tendency to file positive stories about games away in the educational or self-improvement pigeon hole.

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Another interesting TED talk on this topic, that shows this idea has been brewing for a while, is David Perry’s “Are Games Better than Life?” from 2006. Although a little overshadowed by advances in realistic visuals, at its heart, this is Perry’s case for understanding games as more than entertainment. As he sums it up at the end, “Games on the surface seem like simple entertainment, but to those that look a little deeper, the new paradigm of video games could open entirely new frontiers to creative minds that like to think big.”

(In his talk, Perry brings onstage Michael Highland, who’s gone on to do some really interesting thinking about gaming as a spiritual state, which he shared at TEDxPenn. While this is “games as religion,” rather than “games supporting religion,” it’s fascinating nonetheless.)

My TEDx talk, “Sustainable perspectives on video games,” is about critiquing video games on a similar level to books and films, while at the same time allowing them to be themselves. In it, I make the case that we need to start talking and thinking differently about video games if we are to capitalize on their unique version of storytelling. This talk led me in surprising directions, as people were both perplexed and intrigued at how a video game could offer a meaningful cultural experience. One such direction — an invitation from Exeter Cathedral to incorporate a video game as an integral element of their Sunday worship. I have to admit I was both taken back at the invitation and surprised by how well the game we chose, Flower on the Playstation 3 (pictured at the top of this post), fit into the spiritual setting. Even the Cathedral clergy agreed.

It’s perspectives like these that will enable us to escape our polarized harm-or-improvement mindset when it comes to video games. Instead we can be honest about the existence of problematic game experiences and consider whether there is more than entertainment here.

This year’s Turner Prize winner was just announced: Elizabeth Price for her 20-minute video dealing with a catastrophic 1979 fire in a Woolworths department store in Manchester in which 10 people died. There was a time when “video-artists” were separated out from “artists.” Now, of course, that distinction doesn’t remain. It will be interesting to see how long it takes video games to make this same crossing into the cultural mainstream.


Andy-RobertsonAndy Robertson (@GeekDadGamer) is a video game critic who specializes in family gaming. He shares alternative video game responses on his website GamePeople.co.uk and produces the Family Video Game TV YouTube channel.