Why Play Games? (part 1)

Many of you know that I work as a youth pastor at a small church, and as part of my job, I am always interested in games.  Not just MMOs and video games, but games involving people running around and doing things.  I’ve probably learned a lot about game design and theory from leading countless games over the past decade-plus (in addition to making up several games from scratch as well).  This past Sunday, in fact, I hosted a community-wide Nerf Gun War in our church that had to be structured with some semblance of rules (three hits and you had to go score a point for the other team on the markerboard, couldn’t shoot someone from closer than three feet away, etc.).  I’m always thinking about how to set up games to work well so that they’re not just fun, but inviting and involving for everyone.

One of my “go to” resources is a book called “Best-Ever Games for Youth Ministry” by Les Christie.  I’ve met Christie a couple times, and he is a hyperactive older gentleman who has a wonderful passion for working with teenagers.  This book is mostly a series of quick, easy and (importantly) safe games, but he has an interesting preface section in which he defended why we should play games (some youth groups believe games to be counter-productive or a waste of time).  In two pages, he lists his main argument as to why games are important, and I thought it might be interesting to pull this list out and see how it may — or may not — apply to the MMO space, especially since there are those who do attack us for playing games when we should be doing more “mature” things like… I don’t know… buying stocks and going to Tupperware parties.

So I’m going to do a short four-part series, with each part tackling two of his arguments.  Starting… now!

1. Games are universal 

People are different with radically varying interests, personalities, and comfort levels, but most everyone in the world loves playing games of some kind.  Kids begin their life by playing games, and we’ve continued that well into adulthood with our fancy-schmancy video games.

One of the things I love about MMOs is that this “universal language” of gameplay has brought me in contact with people of all ages from every walk of life.  It’s simply not weird any more for a 60-year-old grandmother to be doing a raid with a 12-year-old teen, because they’ve accepted that notion of universality.

2. Games are ideal come-and-see, entry-level activities

One of the later points that Christie makes is that he sees it as a negative thing for teens to be so involved in single-player games and that it’s far better for us to play together than apart.  I remember a talk by some of the Warhammer Online devs prior to the game’s launch where they were talking about how multiplayer gameplay is “natural” to us because we grew up playing with others, and it’s only now that video games have the capacity to bring what was a previous solo-dominated field back to where it should be.

Whether you like or dislike the path MMOs have taken as of late, it’s hard to argue that they’ve gotten more difficult to get into.  On the contrary, what was once an extremely niche, hardcore activity now is available to the most casual player (depending on the game), as the games have increased in accessibility and user friendliness.  You can just “come and see” MMOs without feeling obliged to spend money these days, or invest more than an hour or two of time, or what have you.

I’ll end today’s post with a quick personal story.  In high school I was extremely introverted and had few real friends (or means of making new ones), so I’d spend hours alone either gaming, reading, or writing.  Looking back, I wonder if these MMOs had existed back then, would they have provided me with an easy way to plug into a wider community of like-minded people and make friends?  Who knows, but it’s a thought.

4 thoughts on “Why Play Games? (part 1)

  1. Remianen January 31, 2012 / 1:58 pm

    Pssst, Syp? 12 years old is not ‘teen’, it’s pre-teen.

    And I know it does me good to see youth pastors with passion for what they do. You’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t, having probably met several as I have) how many lack passion and basically treat the position as some kind of means to an end (i.e. “I have to do this so I can get my own ministry”).

    It’s funny though. I can recall having many people you wouldn’t expect playing one of the least casual friendly games of its time. During the height of my time in EverQuest (1), I was in my late 20s and my guild leader was 59. His sons, daughters-in-law, and grandkids all played (not always together) and he managed to get his non-gamer fiancee (who was in her mid-40s) to play as well (though rarely without him). When we all met up at Fan Faire in Baltimore (which should tell you how long ago this was), it was great to see the wide range of ages we had in the guild (ages 9 to 65, if I remember right). So it’s not just ‘casual friendly’ that draws diversity. Accessibility adds more people, in general, so there’s bound to be diversity by the very nature of being open. But when I was a youth counselor, I used to use games to teach kids critical thinking and problem solving. Many kids I know develop those skills without even thinking about it, because they’re so used to being presented with non-obvious obstacles (in games, primarily). It’s a good parallel to the old school “solve this puzzle”, in your face/on the spot method.

  2. rowan January 31, 2012 / 4:10 pm

    My degree is in Recreation Management (though my career has been about as far that as possible), so this is right my (bowling?) alley. One of my (and everyone else’s) favorite classes was Social Recreation, nicknamed the Games class. I left that class with a great collection of icebreakers, party games, and other materials to get people up and playing together. I still have that book, and have been able to use it on occasion.

    As far as the universality of MMOs, I would add not only the age range but the geographic and socioeconomic ranges, too. I’ve been able to play with people from all over the world and all walks of life, as well.

  3. Bronte February 1, 2012 / 9:20 am

    1. Couldn’t be truer.
    2. I actually don’t agree with the WAR dev. Sure it SOUNDS like multiplayer should make primitive sense to us because we are used to playing in numbers. But most of those times, the others aren’t trying to kill us to rake up their honor points, so I would amend that cooperative multiplayer may feel natural, but competitive multiplayer is not all that natural.

    Of course you could always make the argument that competition and the need to excel compared to others is as natural a human attribute as it gets!

  4. rowan February 1, 2012 / 10:07 am

    @Bronte, You hit on a couple things. I am in qualified agreement with the WAR dev (partly because I don’t know the whole context). I also want to say I am not big on PvP, for some of the reasons you mentioned. RL sports often pit teams against each other, therefore requiring both cooperation and competition with other players. Battlegrounds in MMOs correspond with this. Many are even based on RL games (i.e. Warsong Gulch = Capture the Flag). There are plenty of 1v1 RL sports as well, boxing immediately springs to mind. Where MMOs differ IMHO, in Open World PvP is the opportunity to grief players far below your character level. IRL, you would never pit a black belt against a red belt in true competition.

    From a societal/evolutionary perpective, humanity–a rather limited jack-of-all-trades species–has always relied on cooperation to accomplish anything. You could say cooperation-in-competition is the defining trait of homo sapiens. And the fact that we’re so good at killing things. XP

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