Why Do You Play Video Games? A PBS Game Show Response

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Why do you play video games?

That question seems a bit absurd, I know, but I ask because every once in a while, I find myself in the thick of a quantity vs. quality debate. It’s an important conversation to have, for sure, as countless games have been padded to manipulate our perception of value. However, these discussions often take such a disheartening turn, that I can’t help but feel like I’ve wandered into an alternate dimension, one that could only befit an episode of The Twilight Zone. Expectations of gaming are going to vary from person to person, sure, but there are certain arguments I’ll just never be able to wrap my head around. Jamin Warren, host of the PBS Game Show, is my latest source of bewilderment, because he’s making the case that video games are too long.

I was intrigued to see if Mr. Warren could produce a reasonable argument in his video segment, but it took less than a minute before my eyes had rolled to the back of my skull.

To showcase the extreme amount of time we, as gamers, have to invest if we’re to play through today’s hottest games, he begins by pointing a finger at Forza Horizon 2, which takes about 10 to 15 hours to complete. Personally, I wouldn’t classify that as a long game, but to each their own.

Next, he brings up the considerably longer Grand Theft Auto V remaster, which boasts at least 30-35 hours of gameplay. Acknowledging he’s already played through the last-gen iteration, he’s still willing to tackle the lengthy heist drama once more.

Now, this is where my head begins to spin. Not because he’s willing to invest up to 70 hours on a single title, but because he’s already invalidated his opening argument. A 15 hour game is, apparently, too much to handle… yet he’s justifying a 35 hour game – twice, no less – merely because he likes it.

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Of course, in the same breath, he has to go that extra sensationalist mile with Dragon Age: Inquisition, as he says the prospect of its 40 to 80 hour campaign made him ‘weep inside’.

So, one 70 hour investment is fine, yet the other is not?

But then things get interesting:

“Games are, far and away, on average, longer than any other medium on the planet. For example, during the 276 hours that this Tumblr user spent playing Call of Duty, I could watch every movie on the AFI 100, finish the works of Tolstoy, and listen to most of the major works of 20th century pop music.”

He goes on to explain that while video games are a wonderful way to spend our time, it’s hard for a responsible adult to squeeze in such drastic minimum completion times, as we still have to juggle family, friends, work, etc. As a result, at least according to him, this is why only 10 to 20 percent of people ever complete their games. I’d like to respect the correlation he’s making, because there’s undoubtedly a link between completion rate and the amount of time people have in their day-to-day lives, but I have to wonder how sincere his ‘games are fine’ asterisk is when he follows up his train of thought with:

“So I can’t help but notice when I feel like games are wasting my time.”

He immediately goes into some explanation about how other forms of entertainment don’t require your undivided attention. You can simultaneously listen to music and read a book, for example.

Subjective.

I’ll agree that music can be more liberating than other media, but it depends on the person. There are plenty of people who don’t just use music as background noise, but as something to become immersed by. As far as books go, some can deal with distractions, while others can’t. Also, the pace at which each individual reads should be taken into consideration. According to my Kindle, I still have 13 hours left on a Stephen King novel I’m reading, but I’m sure there’s people who could probably knock it out in half the time. Film and television are also ingested in a variety of ways. Point is, no one person is alike, so blanket statements need to be left out of the equation, here.

He then states that the medium is experiencing a ‘crisis of audience’. Games now appeal to most age groups, and naturally, they all carry a different set of expectations based on their lifestyle. They all want different things.

That’s a crisis? We’ve reached a point in time where games aren’t seen by most as children’s toys… and that’s a crisis?

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

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There has ALWAYS been a great deal of diversity amongst video games. You could seek what lurks in the dungeons of The Legend of Zelda, or collect fruit in the preciously adorable Bubble Bobble. Enter a castle dripping with atmosphere in Castlevania, or hop on a pogo stick as ‘Unca Scrooge’ in Ducktales. Get your face hacked off by Jason in Friday the 13th, or roam around in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Regardless of what someone sees through their rose colored glasses, there was a variety of gameplay at the ready, and not a single game was beloved by everyone. But, because video games have only become more diversified over time, there is something for everyone.

But, you know, that’s apparently a BAD thing.

Mr. Willen even goes as far to suggest that games come equipped with a story slider – very much like the ones we use for graphics and difficulty – to reduce or extend a game’s narrative. This would allow for any given game to adapt to what WE require, and not the other way around. For example, those who are turned off by the beefy Dragon Age campaign would now have reason to play it.

Now THAT’S a slippery slope if I ever heard one.

Let’s say they did this. Let’s say Dragon Age: Inquisition offered a ‘story slider’. If you abridged the story, you’d have to alter the game mechanics too, wouldn’t you? I mean, how could that even be done? The entire game would have to be re-invented multiple times to suit multiple types of gamers. Keep in mind the devs spent at LEAST three years to bring this game, as is, to retail. To ask that they retool EVERYTHING to appeal to whatever YOUR schedule dictates, would seemingly add a lot of unnecessary time – not to mention cost – to the development cycle. That means MONEY, Mr. Willen. Where would the cost of extra time and resources get passed down to? You guessed it. The consumer. Do we really need to give publishers another reason to inflate the overall cost of games?

Now, as far as game length is concerned… well, that’s nothing new, either. Many classic platformers can be beaten within a couple of hours, and there wasn’t much accommodation. Many of these games had no saves, no passwords, nothing. Just you, the controller, and whatever the game had in store. But we also had Final Fantasy VI (Final Fantasy III on the SNES), in which the primary quest could take 35 hours. Including side quests, you could easily have a 40 to 50 hour game on your hands.

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And besides, even the SHORT games could chew up lots of time. I mean, you can technically beat Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts in less than 2 hours, but personally, I’ve NEVER been able to beat that game legit. I still play it to this day though, and I’ve probably invested well over 100 hours of my life to it.

So, who cares if Dragon Age takes 40 or even 80 hours?

I understand that life doesn’t leave much time for gaming. Most nights I only play for an hour or two, and sometimes not at all. Does that mean developers should compromise their vision to appease me? Absolutely not. It’s no secret that Dragon Age, or many of the other lengthy games out there, require a substantial investment. If you don’t want to invest the time, then don’t. Don’t buy a game if you think it’s too demanding for your lifestyle. That’s the beauty of having so many diverse experiences available in the marketplace. If one game doesn’t meet your needs, there’s plenty that will.

As a side note, despite my lack of time, I still play really long games. If I want to play it, I see no reason to skip it. Sure, it’ll take an extremely long time to beat them, but I’m fine with that. I mean, what’s the rush anyway? To get it out of the way so I can move on to the next? Personally, if a game is fun enough, I’ll see it through to the end. Know when I will step away? When it stops being fun. Otherwise, I’ll be content knowing my $60 investment could last for MONTHS.

Anyway, Mr. Willen argues that even if you DO have a lot of time on your hands, it’s still a precious commodity that shouldn’t be wasted on side quests.

Again, subjective.

Who’s to say what should constitute a waste of time for ANY of us? Some people really like the side stuff, and for a variety of reasons, at that.

One person cannot judge how valuable a game’s content is, or isn’t, for anyone else. Same goes for our tastes in books, music, and film. Some think The Lord of the Rings – as written by JRR Tolkien – is a literary masterpiece. Others believe it’s needlessly padded with an overwhelming amount of detail. Some people prefer listening to single songs, while others prefer the experience of a complete album. You can’t please everyone, right? Right. So, let the artists bring their vision to the table, and let the consumer decide what’s right for them. There doesn’t need to be a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Choice is the spice of life, after all. But, hey, if that’s what you want, guess what? There’s plenty of games that already do that, and more are on the way.

Which reminds me that Mr. Willen conveniently ignores something else, though. If quick satisfaction is what you need, there’s already an entire market dedicated to you: Mobile gaming. If you own a tablet, phablet or cell phone, the options at your disposal are almost limitless. There are games that cater to those with only mere minutes to play. If you like the episodic style of Telltale Games, their titles are compatible with virtually every modern device. If you want truncated versions of major AAA console titles, mobile has that, too. Dead Space, Mass Effect, Battlefield, Hitman, Madden, Call of Duty, and Batman have all made the jump to smaller screens.

So, let’s address the elephant in the room: Is Mr. Willen even all that interested in gaming anymore?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying he needs his ‘gamer card’ revoked, or anything like that. But, what’s the most important part of any game? The gameplay… which is ironic, because this PBS Game Show host no longer seems to care about that aspect of the experience. No, he just wants to get in, get out, and walk away with a satisfying narrative… which is fine.

What’s NOT fine, however, is that he’s asking for a complete overhaul of the industry mold, and he’s doing so without considering the repercussions. I mean, let’s say developers around the world began catering to the ‘short and sweet’ crowd en masse. Polygon’s Ben Kuchera – who tends to agree with most of Mr. Willen’s argument – implies this could lead to consumer savings:

“A shorter game can be made for less money which leads to lower prices which means more people buy it… and so on.”

But does that even remotely echo reality? Mr. Willen’s specifically addressing AAA console games, but would publishers like Ubisoft, Activision and Electronic Arts REALLY reduce the price of their games if they cost less to produce? Of course not. One needs to look no further than Call of Duty, an annual franchise featuring 5 hour campaigns and a minimal multiplayer experience out of the box… unless you buy a season pass, of course. And yet, this game has the same MSRP as the time-consuming behemoth that is Dragon Age. If anything, I think these companies will stick with the $60 price tag regardless, and bank their savings from development to improve profit margins.

And since we’re talking about money, EA’s fiscal 2015 third quarter earnings call held some intriguing info about Dragon Age: Inquisition… You know, the game allegedly too daunting for the masses:

“Dragon Age: Inquisition captivated fans and critics worldwide as it launched in November, and it quickly became the most successful launch in BioWare history. More than 113 million hours have already been spent exploring the depth and detail of the single-player experience in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and more players are joining each day. Named “Game of the Year” by 32 media outlets around the world, including IGN, Game Informer and the Associated Press, Dragon Age: Inquisition is a true masterpiece from the team at BioWare and a game that is sure to be played for a long time to come.”

“In particular, Dragon Age: Inquisition had by far the most successful launch in BioWare’s history, exceeding our expectations. In addition, game sales for last-generation consoles were also much stronger than we had anticipated.”

“Outperformance versus our outlook was driven by the record-breaking Dragon Age: Inquisition performance.”

Not that there’s a strong correlation between game sales and game quality, as hype can go a long, long way… but Dragon Age is a well-established franchise. The devs themselves even more so, thanks to their success with the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur’s Gate, and Mass Effect series. People knew what they were getting into.

More than anything, I think this shows that Mr. Willen doesn’t truly understand what gamers want… just what HE wants.

So, in retrospect, maybe the question isn’t why do YOU play video games – since we see the kind of a response that elicits – but why do WE play video games? As I’ve gone through painstaking detail to point out, there isn’t a simple answer for that. Never has been, never will be. We ALL have our preferences, and as we grow and mature, those preferences are likely to change. As a result, self-inventory should take a large role in our internal conversation, especially if you’re echoing the sentiment that games are too long, wasting your time, and find yourself rushing through them ‘just because’. Games should not be, as Mr. Willen puts it, a chore. Yes, some games are needlessly padded, but this happens across all mediums.

At the end of the day, it’s up to the INDIVIDUAL to decide what’s best for THEM.

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