Playing videogames: a rambling essay about hating what you love

How does anyone find the time to play videogames?

I’ve had a hard time getting around to playing videogames recently, and this has led me on a path towards understanding why that might be. It’s not just that I don’t have time; the truth is, if I really wanted to play some videogames every night, I probably could. But I’m conflicted about a few things.

It might make sense to ask: what does it mean to “play videogames”? It has come to my attention that my idea of “playing videogames” is probably quite different from other people’s. From the ages of ten to about thirty, I always had a “primary game” or two, which, if they were good, which I’d keep playing for the next two to four years. While that game was in that primary slot, I would play that game for at least an hour a day, but more often much more. I was like this for the vast majority of my life. To me, playing a game for hours and hours per day, and then continuing to do that for years, is what “playing videogames” has meant. Playing videogames has also always meant playing games that look like Quake and Counter Strike. Games that look like StarCraft and Street Fighter, Final Fantasy and Fallout. Mostly competitive games, games with violent settings, and games with nearly-all-male player bases.

Also, a property of these games, and players like myself, was this belief that we were the true gamers, and that these were the true games. There’s a gatekeeping element here, both in terms of the kinds of games that I liked playing, but also that I had the incredible amounts of privilege to have the time to play three, four hours of videogames every day.

These days, and maybe for longer than I’ve consciously realized, I find myself really conflicted between the things that I enjoy the most—or perhaps, the things that I know best how to enjoy—and the things that I feel represent my values and who I feel that I am now.


Playing videogames now

Over the last few years, my overall time spent playing videogames has been dwindling. This past year, 2018, has seen probably the fewest Keith-videogame-hours since about 1988. Here’s my conundrum: if I play videogames, I feel kind of ashamed, but if I don’t play videogames, I feel kind of ashamed.

I’m a game developer! And a person who writes about games! Sometimes, even for money! So it seems obvious that I need to be playing games, at least to some extent. I think, unless I wanted to completely quit my game development / design theory writing career (I don’t), there is no reason that I shouldn’t be playing games.

On the other hand, there are a few pressures pushing me away from playing games. On the harshest end, there’s of course the “entrepreneur in late-capitalism gig-economy” anxieties: “I should be working during that time! I should be studying! I should be doing general ‘adult responsibilities’ things!” These are not terribly hard for me to dismiss, though, because I know this is the path to ruin. I know that I can’t be working all the time, and that part of self-care is allowing myself to just chill out, turn my brain off, have fun, etc. Shaming myself about that is this hyper-work-obsessed neoliberal brainwashing and I’m pretty good at not letting that affect me too much.

But there’s another complicating factor that’s harder to dismiss on the “feeling ashamed of playing videogames” axis. With a few exceptions, videogames tend to make me feel less fulfilled, particularly for the sorts of games that I tend to enjoy the most. Watching shows or movies, reading, all feel more compelling than playing videogames to me these days. But by far, the strongest counter to “playing videogames” is “doing creative work”. Nothing is as much fun as creative work. Really, nothing even comes close, and that’s especially true for creative work that I can spin to myself as being good for my career in some way, like making games. Because of that combination of fun and productivity, it’s so hard for me to choose “playing games” for a free couple of hours over working on the latest thing I’m making.

There’s other stuff going on that’s factoring into this now that wasn’t factoring into my game-playing even five years ago. I look at games much differently now than I did before.


Over-watch vs. Under-tale

Last night, I played Overwatch for six hours straight. A few friends who know me and know about my struggles with videogames, asked if I enjoyed it. This is… actually a really difficult question.

So, of course, on the face of it, I enjoyed it on some level. I mean, I played the game for six hours. That’s a really long time! But afterwards, I just felt kind of gross and empty. I felt more like I was addicted and pulling on a slot machine lever the whole time than anything else. I was changing classes, and hoping that this time, things will kind of fall into place for me and I’ll kill the whole team!

And that’s another thing. I cannot just… “proudly like Overwatch“.

Overwatch is a superbly well-made game. Yes, part of that is because they had infinite resources, but part of it is also because those infinite resources went to actual artists and designers who worked together to create a miracle of human achievement. Really: the more experience I get doing game development, the more stuff like the UI in Overwatch blows my mind.

It’s just… beautifully functional. Everything is really clear, smart, intentional. But that same “perfect intentionality” makes the ugly aspects uglier, in a way, too.

Overwatch is a game where you and a bunch of other people, mostly young, mostly male, enter a little warzone arena, and try and kill each other with guns. Yeah, you’re doing other stuff too, but mostly you’re killing each other with guns at all times. You and the other players are stratified, sorted from one another along the lines of who is the best and who is the worst. When you’re better at someone in Overwatch, you express that by putting something that looks like a gun up to a thing that looks like a human, a human which represents them, and pulling the trigger. Much of the strategy revolves around reducing your opponents’ agency as much as possible, either through debuffs, placing obstacles, surprising them, etc. Killing a player results in them being unable to access the game for a few seconds. You spend the game literally trying to remove other players from existence, to exclude them from play.

I have a few problems with the theme, like the way that several of the female characters are presented. I hate that so many of the character voice acting lines do the “serial killer chic” thing where they act as though violence and war is the most fun thing a human can ever do. I don’t like that it exploits people with the random booster packs that it sells. Actually, you could argue that the primary driver of all multiplayer online competitive play is “hoping to get opponents who are much worse than me”; there’s certainly other stuff you’re pursuing, too, but each new match is a big pull of that lever.

Oh, and I hope you like racist, sexist and homophobic language, as well as just general aggression and bullying. The toxicity of the chats in these games is well-documented, as is the heroic and brilliant, but still mostly-futile attempts of developers to do anything about it. As far as I know, the only way devs have been able to combat toxicity in online games is to completely restrict all communication.

Most of this is not remotely unique to Overwatch. In fact, Overwatch, as that linked article about the gender ratio brags, is much better than most games of its kind in some ways. But to people who aren’t as steeped in this toxic sludge I call “the kinds of games I was brought up on”, it looks just… gross. And it reflects on me if I were to come out and say I like Overwatch, in a way that I find unacceptable.

With all that said, I played it for six hours last night.

Listen. There’s a little boy inside me somewhere. He has been training for thirty years to go into the little arena, with a gun, and exact violent dominance on a bunch of other little boys, no matter how many homophobic slurs they might be wielding. The muscles for this, and the muscles for enjoying this, are all big and toned. All that stuff above, which I really hate about the game? There’s something comfortable about all of it, too.

Meanwhile, I recently picked up Undertale on the Switch. I’d already watched my girlfriend play through most of it back when it came out, and I know about the different endings and many of the qualities that make the game super-special, but I figured I should also go through it myself. I listen to the soundtrack often, and in general, I totally get it. I understand what Undertale is, I think it’s important, and I love it. I feel warm feelings in my heart about Undertale. I find it inspiring.

With that said, about 3-4 hours in, I think Undertale is very boring to play, and I… just simply don’t want to play it. I find it repetitive and I don’t enjoy the bullet hell minigame at all. It’s stressful, I feel annoyed when I get hit and I don’t feel any satisfaction from not getting hit. Part of this may be because I already know the story. Part of it may be that I played Earthbound nearly 25 years ago, which Undertale takes much from. Some of it’s probably generational, too; Undertale seems more geared toward audiences in their 20’s who didn’t already play too many (way too many?) old-school JRPGs, as I have.

But maybe part of it is that the gross little boy inside me is not as excited by a game where I become friends with the monsters. Maybe the gross little boy misses the machine guns and toxic masculinity. I love Steven Universe, as in like, I-own-five-Steven-Universe shirts love it, and as in, I-sometimes-watch-fan-theory-videos love it, and as in I-learn-the-songs-from-it-on-ukulele love it. Steven Universe is every bit as much not “a toxic boy’s club locker room environment” as Undertale, but perhaps I have a different little boy spirit for TV shows than I do for games. I can tell you this: I very rarely enjoy the things which are the TV/film equivalents of Overwatch, which would probably be stuff like the Star Wars or Marvel movies.


What do I actually like?

For a long time, I’d have told you that the reason I wasn’t interested in Overwatch was that it was too derivative (specifically of Team Fortress 2, which I had played way too much of), that it was too execution-heavy, and that there wasn’t much strategy. That’s all still true in my mind, but I don’t know if it really ever mattered as much as I said it did. I’m wondering more now if the aesthetic, political, and even demographic aspects of games like Overwatch have been part of my motivation for such hard rejection, without my even knowing it.

Feminist Frequency‘s motto is “be critical of the media you love”. But… as I mentioned to Carolyn Petit in our interview, sometimes that feels like not enough. Especially as a hyper-privileged white straight upper-class guy, I feel like it reflects really badly on me if I call stuff like Overwatch “the media I love”. Can’t I change which media I love, too? Can’t I learn to align the weird little spirit that lives inside me with my social and political values? Isn’t this maybe what real “growth” is? If I can say “oh X, Y, and Z about Overwatch are really a problem”, but then play it all the time and tell people I love it, aren’t I actively doing damage by elevating Overwatch, when I should be doing the opposite?

This is one of those “difficult to navigate” areas, because at the same time, I do kind of enjoy Overwatch. It’s an extremely well-made game. Maybe the answer is to play it sometimes, but less than I otherwise would? Or play it, but don’t advertise that I do? Or, and I’d be happy to accept this, that maybe the right answer is to just not play it. Yes, I should be playing games, but there are a lot of games out there, popular ones even, that have a tiny fraction of the toxicity. Maybe it’s just a good excuse to expand my horizons into kinds of games that I am less “trained to enjoy”. I played a few of the HTML games, for example, that Anna Anthropy mentioned in this interview. I appreciated all of the ones I played. I am tempted here to write something like, “but I didn’t enjoy them nearly as much as Overwatch“, as though “enjoyment” is of course the universal default and only valid value of games.

I guess that’s part of it. The frivolous enjoyment I get out of my young-male war-fantasy libertarian-hellscape games is intoxicating, but I know that that’s not what I really want out of games. On some level, we are the games we play. Or at least, we are slightly more like the games we play, when we play them. We are engaging with these things, and it says something about ourselves, if not to the world, just by the mere fact that we are playing it. The fact that I sat there playing Overwatch for six hours, itself, is a sort of self-reinforcing story about myself, that both reflects and perpetuates a certain kind of person that I am.

It will take time and effort, but I think I can probably, at least slightly, steer myself into liking different things; mostly, by trying new things, giving stuff a chance. Values that we all pretty much accept as positive anyway. My past is, and will always be, a part of who I am, and I have to accept that and maybe even love it in some strange, careful, complicated way. There is a role for doing something that is comfortable, sometimes. But my future—all of our futures—are up for grabs, right?


Special thanks to Jenny Bee, who has been a major inspiration for this whole way of thinking.

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