In Defense of the Meaningless Video Game


One thing that struck me about this year’s Game Developers Conference was how so many people seemed to be sitting around nodding their heads at each other about how terrible it is that games do not feature enough meaning. Everyone agrees, or seems to agree, that video games just Don’t Mean Enough right now, and that’s why we aren’t being taken seriously by Roger Ebert and all his irritating friends-in-opinion. Onwards the march towards Great Import by injecting more Seriousness, more Sadness (games must make you cry, apparently) and more moving, tragic Reality.

Now, I like to think I have a fairly honed sense of aesthetic, so it is slightly incredible to me that I find myself here defending the notion of games as entertainment, period– of games as what they are, games, and that no matter how fantastically smart and poignant and affecting they may attempt to be, they are still things that are experienced by being played, by being interacted with by an audience. That interaction is what opens games up to such a wide spectrum of interpretation, and, crucially, it’s what makes the meaning of a game so difficult to plan in advance.

So do our most favorite, treasured games in the world mean something? Of course they do– they mean something to us as players, because of the way in which we have interacted with the world of the game. The games we sink ourselves into reward us with meaning even if those games hadn’t intended on imparting meaning to us from the very beginning. Ask any dedicated player of World of Warcraft if the game “means” something to them, and it’s clear that it does, even though the actual game on its own makes no earnest claims about The World Today or Freedom Versus Security or Mankind’s Place in the Cosmos.

If you tried to glean some kind of commentary about the world we live in by the way World of Warcraft works, you’d find yourself in an intellectual abyss. Life is a series of quests? Everyone is greedy? Nothing ever changes? When you try to interpret the game on its own terms, sans the experience, you come up empty for meaning, because it isn’t meaningful per se; it’s only trying to be a good game, and the reason why people fondly remember the game today– the reason why it means something to them now– is because of their participation, and their sense of ownership of the events that occurred to them.

In other words, World of Warcraft means something (to millions of people) because it provides the framework for meaningful occurrences, not because it, itself, contains and delivers meaning. And the possibility of interpretation-of-art-as-the-art-itself is, in fact, nothing new– one of the whole points of Dada, by my reckoning, is that meaninglessness can be in itself a kind of meaning, depending on the context in which the conversation between artist and audience takes place. But quickly turning away from the hand-waving theory and getting back to the point: if you sit down at your desk, roll up your sleeves and think, “now, I am going to make something that really means something”, you are already on the wrong track– no matter what medium you are using.

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