Twice in the past week or so here at SVGL, we've leveled our narrowed and skeptical gaze on the familiar "it's only a game" chestnut. First, we examined it as a defense for Resident Evil 5 against all criticism, and then I wondered at the correlation between my gleeful anticipation of city street mayhem in GTA IV and my ill-concealed distaste of the residents in my neighborhood.
Steven Totilo has also been mulling the "it's just a game" refrain lately, and currently asks of the community, "Are games our fantasies?"
He hits on something I've also said recently -- essentially, that gamers are so terrified of unfair attacks that they've become resistant to any kind of criticism; therefore, games are sophisticated emotional art when they want it to be and "just a game" when they want it to be.
As Totilo says, "it's just a game" worked when they were just pixelated nonsense. But we've spent all this time calling for more evolved, more immersive experiences; we don't want games to be just lightweight toys, at least not all of them, and pretending they are whenever they make us uncomfortable is a total cop-out.
I understand the community's anxiety about the criticism. I am not suggesting that any games ought to change, or that they shouldn't ask us hard questions. I'm just demanding of all of us that we be more willing to look at the answers to those questions and the relationship between video games and our culture.
There are a lot of connections -- and even from much earlier days, there always have been. Over the previous weekend, the Pope came to New York City and held a gorgeous mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral. Watching it on TV, the processionals and the beautiful music, I thought to myself, You know what? This looks exactly like an RPG.
Easy to make a joke that I ought to get out more, but it's nonetheless true. It's actually rather obvious when you think about it -- we associate role-playing games with heroics, saving the world, fantasy monsters, and of course, grinding. But they also tend, to the last, to feature timeless human spiritual themes like resurrection, deification, the corruption of power and questions of what people consider sacred.
Do a quick mental scan-through of any RPG you can think of. From the classics, like Lunar and Chrono Cross to the prevalent Final Fantasy series. Even my current occupation, Persona 3, is practically a morality play, heavy with metaphors for sin, purgatory and the soul.
One can make the argument that all fantasy, not just games, can be traced to religion, despite the fact that the two tend to have conflict in the current era. The genre itself largely developed from allegory that aimed to explain the world's less-explicable workings, or to repackage intense religious concepts for easier consumption by children. But then, that's all the more compelling an argument for the legitimacy of gaming, in that they can sustain the type of cultural dialog that's been part of the human experience through the ages.
When an RPG hero battles with his inner conflicts and negative emotions, we make fun of him, of course. But when the dark power that divides his spirit manifests as a massive, world-dominating spread-winged devil, and the hero must invest in values like home and kinship to ward of an apocalypse, as bizarre as it all seems, it's a repetition in symbols of the language of religion.
We see these timeless conflicts, triumphs and metaphors repeated over and over in RPGs -- which, by the way, often feature a large-scale war as a central conflict, much like real-world mythology. It's a startling mirror for the things that have historically occupied our minds, almost universally, across the eras.
The idea that play of any stripe is always an irrelevant diversion is a misconception. Children often act out these conflicts and concerns on the playground; baby animals practice survival skills by playing with one another. Play is a way of practicing our value system and experimenting with our sense of self. On the playground, somebody has to play the bad guy, and it doesn't mean he's a bad kid or that he even wants to be. But that doesn't mean that what he's doing is emotionally useless.
Given the depth and nuance of experience that today's games are capable of offering, they may still be play -- but that's far from "just a game."
By maintaining an appropriate mirror to the most timeless values of humanity, games have demonstrated they're not just meaningless play. You can make moral decisions, oppose evil, sacrifice, rescue and pray in certain types of games -- and in droves the audience demands opportunities to do more of this. If you can do that, you can certainly consider your relationship to those actions in a larger context. In fact, you might be missing something if you don't.