Video Games – What Are They Good For?

Video games are for nerds. Or kids. Or guys. Or pathetic 1,000 pound shut-ins. At least that’s what most folks seems to believe. In spite of the expansion of the game industry and the marketing muscle of companies like Microsoft, games are still the least-understood and most misrepresented entertainment medium in our culture aside from clog-dancing. And unfortunately, as with anything having to do with the media, it’s often the vacuous, sensational, do-nothing offerings that get the most press. How else do you explain the perennial popularity of Paris Hilton?

Games are rarely seen in a positive light; the average person doesn’t have much notion of what games are outside of the headlines and those tend to represent them as mindless and vaguely unhealthy at best and at worst, the catalyst for social degeneration. It’s not easy in that context to explain how gaming could be a worthy entertainment outlet for anyone.

Sadly, the negative press ends up burying the good that can be gained by playing games. Like any creative medium, there’s good and bad, fluff and substance, ham-fistedness and sensitivity. My favorite games have not only tested my reflexes—they’ve touched my emotions, exercised my problem-solving abilities and piqued my intellectual curiosity.

Don’t’ believe me? Here’s a laundry list: the Gabriel Knight series inspired me to visit New Orleans and to read up on Bavarian history, Wagner and the Knights Templar. The Longest Journey, Ico and World of Warcraft allowed me to visit strange and beautiful places I could never see outside my dreams. Other titles let me try my hand at different professions—I’ve been a lawyer in Phoenix Wright, a journalist in Hotel Dusk, a pirate in Monkey Island and the savior of France in Jean d’Arc.

Games can be so much more than blasting zombies. In fact, I would argue that great games provide as much edification and entertainment value as the best movies, books and art, and just like those better-established media, shouldn’t be judged solely by the titles that get the most press. The market is saturated by unimaginative movie tie-ins and Bruckheimer-esque shooters but thankfully some developers continue to make really smart and interesting games.

As a people, the Japanese can be counted on to churn out some wacky stuff. Witness the Katamari series, Loco Roco, Lost in Blue, Eternal Sonata or Cooking Mama. Leave it to them to figure out how to make addictive gameplay out of rolling up bigger and bigger balls of crap, being cast away on a desert island, righting political wrongs as the 19th century Polish composer Frederic Chopin or chopping carrots.

Many European developers like the Adventure Company also continue to contribute titles that buck the heavy artillery/bouncing boobies trend. Their games are generally heavy on story and problem solving, light on T&A. It’s the difference between watching a Cohen Brothers movie or Die Hard.

You know, it does me good to know there are game developers who are crazy enough to think people are interested in things other than blowing shit up. I’m hoping those wild-eyed visionaries one day create a real life Holodeck—you know, like Star Trek? I for one won’t rest until someone else puts in the hard work necessary to makes my escapist dreams a reality.

While I’m waiting, I’ll focus my efforts on ferreting out those rare titles that contribute something to my consciousness while proclaiming their value to anyone who’ll listen. It’s not an easy job but somebody has to be unnaturally obsessed with it.

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