What makes a video game fun? If you’ve ever peered over the shoulder of a gamer powering through an ultra-violent universe, messily dismembering aliens (or Nazis, or zombies) with some elaborate weapon, it’s not hard to assume he’s being drawn in by a fantasy of total power and control, the kind of thing most of us never get to feel in our daily lives.
Or… maybe it’s a fantasy of something else.
“In some ways, games are better when they are – and this is a peculiar-sounding phrase – a vulnerability fantasy,” writes Jim Rossignol at the gamer blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun.
Rossignol offers an interesting counter-reading of what makes a good modern video game so compelling. It’s actually not control or power, but rather the complexity and sheer interestingness of the ways you can get into trouble. The games that really pull you in, he finds, are the games where you face an immense, imaginative roster of potential dooms. It’s an insight familiar to anyone who likes great thriller movies, or comic novels: moving through the world smoothly isn’t interesting. Getting tangled up and figuring a way out – that’s interesting.
It’s a common complaint of gamers that the rest of the world doesn’t recognize what’s artful about a good video game, and this kind of thoughtful reading is the kind of thing that could help bridge the gap. But it also reminds you why gap exists. In advancing his theory of game appeal, Rossignol opens a window into a world that the rest of us may not realize is quite so fertile a realm of creativity. About one game he loves, Day Z, he writes:
What’s thrilling about Day Z is the way in which any encounter can leave you horribly maimed, the world turning pale as your blood drains away, in desperate need of food, medical attention, and even antibiotics. Your chums might be in an even worse state, and need immediate attention to keep them on their feet. The terror of realising you need to find your way into a hospital if you’re going to survive, or that you are just too weak to survive another encounter with an enemy, is where Day Z excels. While it’s rare to actually starve to death, it’s not impossible, and the sheer variety of ways you can end up with flies buzzing around your corpse has turned Day Z into a sort of death-simulation anecdote generator.
And, as a serious gamer, he means that all in the best possible way.
H/T Kill Screen
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.