Andy Robertson, a colleague and long-distance friend of mine on the other side of the Atlantic, recently delivered a TEDx talk in which he argues that people need to begin working harder to connect the games they play with the human experience. You can check it out in the side bar. It's only 11 minutes long and well worth a watch.
He takes the position that video games can enrich our lives by providing fresh perspectives on human issues that can help us better understand ourselves and the world. Books and films perform a similar function, but the interactive nature of games means that players are forced to engage with a work's ideas and messages in an unusually compelling way.
Think about Heavy Rain, in which a man experiences extreme distress following the disappearance of his child, or Limbo, which sees a boy lost in a strange place and desperate to reunite with his sister. Players don't just watch events in these games, they become involved in them. They feel the panic of the father and the fear of the boy in a very immediate way. Hence, Andy argues, games are particularly well-suited to help people find new meaning in their own lives.
The trouble, of course, is that people don't look at games this way. Most folks are still largely skeptical and dismissive of games' potential to serve as meaningful cultural assets.
Andy has been trying to change this attitude for a while now. In addition to serving as contributor on Wired's popular GeekDad blog, he heads up www.gamepeople.co/uk, a site staffed by critics who tend to relate personal gaming stories in unusual ways (expect reviews in haiku, song, and even scripted theatrical format). These pieces sometimes swerve between insightful and just plain weird, but their authors and performers share one thing in common: They're trying to make sense of interactive experiences in ways that go beyond simply assessing graphics and mechanics and assigning arbitrary scores.
Clearly, Andy would like to see more of this sort of thinking in the games press. Beyond that, though, he's calling for a "new priesthood" of critics composed of players themselves. It's in social environments, he says, that some of our most interesting discoveries about games are made. He believes that when families, friends, and other groups of people begin talking about humanistic elements within games they're bound to find new meaning within them.
In a particularly provocative example, he suggests that people might discover the dark and violent games that often prove most popular in our culture actually serve a purpose similar to that of the dark and violent stories found in religious texts, and that their existence may in fact be a sign of a healthy society.
In his words: "Perhaps in the way that we used to teach our children of the horrific tale of Noah's flood and the conquest of Canaan in Sunday school, the presence of dark games helps us avoid inoculating ourselves and our children against darkness, loss and danger, and helps us engage with these difficult subjects."
I happen to agree with a lot of what Andy says. That's why I'm going to give you a little homework assignment. The next time you're in the company of friends or family and a suitable opportunity arises, ask them about the latest game they played. After you've heard what's fun and cool about it, dig a little deeper. Get them to connect the game to something in their lives. Ask if stepping into the shoes of a different character provided them a fresh perspective. See which of their basic human itches, if any, the game scratched.
Then, if you have time, report back here. I'm interested to see what we all might learn.