In the 1950s and 60s there was a whole series of films that asked the same fundamental question: what the hell are we doing when we go to the cinema? Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, are all about the process of viewing and interpreting, often with a distinctly voyeuristic undertone. It’s as though film-makers of the era were suddenly having a sort of existential crisis about their craft, and their audiences. Hang on, they were saying, what the hell are these things we make and why do people want to see them?
I think games are going through something very similar at the moment. The rise of experiential titles like Gone Home and Dear Esther, the dawn of expressive and autobiographical indie games (especially on the Twine platform), and the transformation of mainstream triple-A titles into glorified Hollywood blockbusters has led to something of a dislocation. Developers are worrying about what a game actually is and what the fundamental elements are – and audiences are joining in with the scuffle. As we’ve seen over the last year, a type of culture war has exploded between gamers who have a certain idea about what these things are for (Fun and shooting) and – on the other side – artists, designers and media critics who hold to a very different philosophy and set of references, and who have begun to expand their own definitions This, as far as I’m concerned, is fascinating, and it says a lot about how important games have become.
And this is why I cannot call games a hobby. I know, I know, a lot of people do – and that’s fine, it’s up to them. I just think they’re sort of wrong. Now please, I don’t really want to get into dictionary definitions of the word ‘hobby’. That’s because heading into an argument with a dictionary definition is a bit like complaining that a particular parody of Star Trek can’t be funny because it mentions the wrong version of the Starship Enterprise – it’s really quite boring, and it trivialises the discourse in a smug and reductive way. I suppose that, to me, a hobby is something that we enjoy, that we spend time on, but that doesn’t necessarily tie in to other areas of our lives, or how we perceive the wider world. It is a discreet enjoyment, and its meaning can be almost superfluous.
But video games aren’t really like that. Video games are an expressive medium, a cultural platform: like movies and TV, they have something to say and they fit together with other ways in which we communicate with each other and explore ideas as a society. Playing a game is not just a fun experience that stimulates your brain and reflexes – whether the creators meant it or not, every game feeds into the wider (look, I’m going to use the word and I apologise) zeitgeist. Just like all movies and television programmes, every game says something about the era and culture it was made in; games are a testament to socio-cultural trends and obsessions. For example, there’s a reason there are so many zombie games around at the moment and it’s not just because they’re fun and gory – zombie fiction is all about apocalyptic paranoia and dread, as well as the fear of infection and the dread of overcrowding. Zombie games tell us we live in a society that is worried about disease, war and immigration. We don’t have to listen to what games like DayZ and State of Decay are saying, but we have to understand them as part of that unconscious conversation we’re all having – as a society – underneath talking about the weather and Taylor Swift’s latest boyfriend.
And games aren’t always a fun experience – sometimes they’re a terrible trial. Dark Souls creator From Software makes games that treat player frustration as a core component, and this philosophy of outward cruelty is intricately built into the bullet hell and masocore sub-genres. Most games, to some extent, want to kill you. Dara Briain has a really interesting stand-up routine based around the antagonism of game design – about how no other art form denies you access if you’re not good enough. But yet you play on. Of course, this is partly about the mechanical brilliance of great games – those core compulsion loops that hit us right in the dopamine centres. But we also play games – even when they’re horrible to us – because the experiences they provide are more profound than just this is a nice way to spend twenty minutes of my time. The artistry, the atmosphere, the subtexts, the dramatic tension, the social connections that games engender – these are all vital elements. Your time with Dark Souls may actually be largely unpleasurable, but yet you draw something from it, as you do from all cultural experiences.
Also, the word hobby can be a quietly dismissive, almost pernicious – it sets an activity outside of the rest of our lives. Games no longer belong in such an enclosed space. Society tends to demean emerging cultural forms by pigeon-holing or denouncing them. It happened with novels in the early Victorian era, with rock n roll in the fifties, with genre cinema in the 60s and 70s. At the same time, fanbases have often performed their own gate-keeping rituals, jealously controlling access and credibility. Games have moved beyond these possessive behaviours. To call Cart Life, Consensual Torture Simulator, Don’t Look Back, Prom Week or just about any Jason Rohrer project a hobby – it seems weird. Yet they are very definitely games.
Honestly, I love the fact that we’re living in an era, 40 years after the commercial beginning of the games industry, where we’re thinking about what games are, what they can be, and what does or does not qualify. But we should also think about what it is we’re actually doing when we’re playing these things. What’s going on in our heads? Why do we do it? These were questions that Hitchcock and Antonioni concerned themselves with in relation to cinema and the results were fascinating and important. And of course, neither Hitchcock nor Antonioni saw films as a hobby. Those guys knew what every pioneering artist knows: it is something wonderfully captured by that famous line in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie all too easily dismissed as trash: everything means something, I guess.
So really, I will never call games a hobby, because I feel that intrinsic within that word, in the context of this medium, there is something reductive, something controlling. We should never have to dismiss or corral anything that gives meaning to our lives.