Thursday, March 6, 2014

Conversation on Conversation, a Love Letter

I play games for a lot of reasons but one of the main things that really gets me about videogames is the conversations. Not the ones in games, although I have an appreciation for those too, but the ones that people have about videogames. Videogames get to be new and novel in a way that some other mediums can't anymore because of how well distributed and appreciated they are. This isn't to knock film, literature, or theater, all things that I love, but instead I mean to say that they've been around so long the don't always have the "newness" that videogames can have.

A few weeks ago I was sitting on the subway and I overheard a conversation that made me smile. A group of middle-aged people all looking in at one iPhone while their friend played Threes. It's not entirely accurate to call it a "childlike fascination" but it was a smile inducing conversation that was full of joy. They wanted to know so much about the game, which I think their friend had only recently acquired, they wanted to get the game and then talk about the game.

If there's been a silver lining to the new mass of  mobile and casual games it's been a kind of democratization, a whole new swath of people being brought into games. I don't look down my nose at them because of conversations like these, conversations that people could be easily having about sports or movies or anything. But they're talking about games and that makes me happy.

But it doesn't end with casual games. The reason I'm writing this is twofold, an amazing conversation I got to have with Miguel Sicart (some who is much smarter than I am and a much better writer), and a lot of conversations I've recently had about Mass Effect, one of the few games that a lot of my friends have played.

Sicart pointed me to the heart of something I'd been dancing around discovering for awhile, that games (in the largest sense) are playful and social. There are tons of verbs to be associated with videogames but we play them. We do so by ourselves, with others, early in the morning and sometimes late into the night. We talk about them, allow their fiction, their gameplay, and their aesthetics to become topics of conversations with other people. When talk about games we loved or hated we breathe new life into the game. They do not stop when their programs cease to be executed, they grow and change, they expand beyond themselves.

Anyone who plays a game to their satisfactory completion and then sets it down to never think about it or speak of it again totally mystifies me. That's not say that their interaction is invalid or not meaningful, I just believe that there is a richer world that is enabled through conversation.

The thing about Mass Effect that makes it meaningful to talk about so many years after the trilogy has concluded is the way in which it annoyed people with it's choices. We all made different choices that brought us to similar places. The biggest plot points didn't change so their stability helps ground conversations in immovable set pieces. But the moments between them do, the journey changes and another person's playthrough becomes alien to me, a whole other narrative for me to think about but placed entirely within the same game. We're both playing Mass Effect but we're not playing the same Mass Effect and that's wonderful.

But a compelling narrative or choices don't define these conversations. Telling someone about the moment my father discovered the strangeness of "respawning" or reminiscing about a particular song in a game are other ways I've reinforced my connection to games as objects of play, objects of study, and cultural objects. It's one thing to have had a "moment" with a game, it's another to talk to someone that experienced something similar. This is the nature of play, something that Sicart reminded me of, I do a thing and then take that experience and talk to someone about it and that conversation allows me new access into the thing that I played with, the moment that I had.

This is why accessibility an openness is so important to me, conversations get better when we have more voices. There is room for dissent, there is room for unpopular opinions, but there is no room for hate or exclusivity. Games are fun and great by themselves, they're meant to be enjoyed (sometimes through peculiar means), but we should be talking more about them, talking to each other about them, in order to get the maximum from them.

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