The Weekend Discussion: Entertainment Vs. Experience

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Here at Digitally Downloaded, we take our games seriously. One of the debates that has been going on for years in the industry is “graphics vs. gameplay,” but that’s a silly debate, because the graphics and the gameplay aren’t like jelly beans – you can’t pull the black ones out and pretend they don’t exist.

So here’s an evolution of that debate for the weekend discussion this week. Oftentimes we are told by gamers, game developers and the media that “gameplay” comes first, that a game’s only role is to be “entertaining.”

If this were true in all forms of art, then the only films that would be made would be directed by Michael Bay.  The only music we’d ever listen to is clones of whichever pop star is currently lighting up the charts (for argument’s sake, let’s say at the moment it’s Lady Gaga). The only books we would read would be written by the teenage pop lit icons – the J.K Rowlings’ and Suzanne Collins’ of the world.

No, in every other form of art we, as consumers and critics, the media and the producers, all agree that at times a film/ music album/ book can be challenging – even to the point where it’s not entertaining – but it can also be an important book to read, song to hear, or movie to watch.

The key here is that those other forms of art have examples that are not fun, but they are rewarding.

And so to, should the games industry.

What do you think? Do you agree that a game can be considered “great” while not being all that much fun? Or do you think that games are more like sports than art, and the only purpose for them is as skill testers and casual entertainment?

Sound out in the comments below! And apologies if we’re a little slow to respond this weekend. We’re all playing Wii U’s 😛

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  • "for argument's sake, let's say at the moment it's Lady Gaga" Aviator's still out on schoolies, isn't he? Hahaha

    anyway, I think that both have merit, just like in every other industry. I think if a game wants to be about the experience, then it's better suited towards the indie or freeware crowds so people don't feel ripped off when they buy a 60 dollar game and don't get their money's worth. I do enjoy experience based games, but I find myself more reluctant to buy them, especially if I know it's going to make me sad and existential.

    I particularly enjoy the alternative-storytelling experiments done by GregoryWeir in the flash medium; google him if you want and try out some of his stuff – it'll take you about 15 minutes and will definitely get you thinking.

    On the other hand, I figure that videogames deserve a "blockbuster" category just like movies – there are games which are made to satisfy adrenaline rushes, and there are even games which bridge the two boundaries, like something by Christopher Nolan or Joss Whedon. There's nothing saying that any of these can't be good, it all depends on what one expects to get out of gaming really

  • I consider it a form of art with potential, and can reach more of it when people in general have more money. What especially makes it special is the fact that viewers can interact with it. If you can manipulate people's psychology or create terrifying haunted house-experiences during Halloween, you are capable of designing captivating games that can be enriching and engrossing.

    For example, I played Dear Esther, an independent game that gave you the role of exploring an abandoned coastal land. While it may be boring to other people, I haven't felt lonelier in a video game than most of the ones I've played. It made me long for some sort of contact with somebody, and I just took my sweet time looking around. And it's so interesting to explore various land that seemed to have their own histories. Seriously, those were memorable moments.

    Another thing worth mentioning is that video games don't necessarily have to be immediately entertaining. For example, when there's too much thoughts rushing in my head that it interferes with my studies, I open up Little Inferno and start burninf things to see what happens. It doesn't get me pumping like Super Crate Box and its intense gameplay, but it sure soothes my head :3

    We'll see what the future holds for video games. There are certainly some kinks to work out, such as blending narrative, expression, and the actual mechanics into an engrossing experience. Another issue is the production and development of such games, since they are interactive. Handling software development of a game's elements and handling the aesthetics and the holistic design of a video game project is indubitably no easy task to handle.

  • Hmmm… I think that games have to have some entertainment value (even if it's of a strange nature, such as getting to grips with the rules in Pride of Nations), simply because you invest something of yourself when you interact with them. Quick example: The Binding of Isaac. I really, really dislike the tone, so I'm never going to play beyond the 10 minutes I've already wasted on it.

  • I think Binding of Isaac is a brilliant example – that game made me uncomfortable to play as well.

    But I like to compare it to Irreversible. That movie was brutal, and not "fun" in the slightest. I found both game, and movie, to be thought-provoking though, and so I got something out of both as well.

    For me, the problem is when a game/ movie/ whatever fails to give something in return to the time and money I put into it. It doesn't have to be entertaining, but it has to be something.

    I think game developers are only now starting to understand that games don't have to be fun to find an audience, and so I think the game art scene is in for some great years ahead as it starts to finally find a voice.

  • I had a similarly primal experience with Ninja Gaiden 3. A game that was hated by the vast majority of people out there, but I loved it for a simple reason – it was majestic in the bloodletting.

    Where you felt loneliness in Dear Esther, I felt like a dancer in Ninja Gaiden 3. It got to the point where I barely registered what was even going on around me, I was simply moving around in an explosion of lights and energy.

    That kind of interactivity is almost impossible to describe in terms of the stimulation it provides, and it doesn't necessarily make for a great game, but on a very deep level it was a hugely compelling experience for me.

    Game developers are only just now working out how to tap into those very primal levels of humanity, and it's exciting to think just how deeply they can challenge and engage with us.

  • I do think that you've hit onto a key point with the price – games are perceived to be an expensive hobby, and as such people don't tend to take risks with their money. A blockbuster is a far safer option than an artsy game that you might hate.

    Which is why I think the art development scene is going to do great in the downloadable space. $15 for Unfinished Swan? Easy sell. $50 for the same game on a disc? Heck no.

  • This one has got me thinking! I wonder, if Irreversible had been a game, would you have completed it? I doubt that I would.

    I take your point – art doesn't have to be nice – for example, I recently managed to finish one of Nick Cave's novels, despite the fact that it left me feeling dirty and revolted, and I was depressed for a week afterwards. The Binding of Isaac is tame compared to that, but the level of interaction makes me complicit in the narrative, somehow, and that's not somewhere I want to go. If I'm getting involved then I need to be entertained, too. But that's just me.

    More generally, I think that there's an interesting question here. I'm assuming that games are more involving than other art forms (and I could be wrong about that – has anyone got a brain scanner I can borrow?) If so, then 'game art' has the potential to be very powerful and could transcend its entertainment-based roots. We're at the early stages – Isaac and Dear Esther spring to mind – but I agree that it'll continue to develop and mature as the years go by.

  • It's a great question, one that I have thought about many times – would I play Irreversible: The Game? My honest answer is 'perhaps not', but then I think to myself 'perhaps I would force myself to.'

    I deeply believe that art exists to challenge people. To make them think, to question what they had thought was acceptable or not. I make a habit of going out and seeing art that will upset me so that I can challenge myself. I've read Nick Cave's novels, too (which one did you read? The Ass Saw The Angel is brutal, but brilliantly so, IMO). I watched Irreversible. Look up Stelarc – I studied him at university.

    All this material upset me, but I was left thinking. And the thinking is what I feel the games industry lacks. It's not about enjoying or not enjoying the material. It's about engaging with the social and political limits (to use a term from Foucault) that we can determine whether a practice is or isn't repulsive.

    By the same token, you are right. Games are more personal, and intense, because they are more involving. So here's the question – are not games the perfect platform to challenge the public?

    At the moment it's the film and music industries that are responsible for pushing the boundaries and challenging audiences. Over the coming years I feel the games industry will have to step up as the audience is just too large and important not to challenge.

    The number of people who will willingly allow themselves to be challenged is small – Irreversible earned less in the box office than a trailer for a Bond film does. But at the same time, capturing that audience is crucial for developing the artistry of games and making them important from an academic point of view.

    When things become important in academia, historically they become important socially. So these games that almost no one will play, let alone enjoy, will be the games to break down those barriers where mass culture perceives gamers as socially inept basement dwellers, even thought they will never be credited as such.

    That is going to happen, I feel. And this is a long response to your question, but yes, because I feel that it is important to challenge morals and good taste, when the Marquis De Sade of the games industry emerges, I will be there to play his games.

    What is your thought? Do you think that Nick Cave-style 'challenging games' is a path to academic and then social acceptance of games? It's a good discussion to be having!

  • Great response! And I agree; art is there to challenge. But I'm still slightly uneasy, and that's because I don't think that the climate is quite there for games yet. For example, nobody expects to that the average person will listen to Murder Ballads and go on a rampage, or that they'll read Umberto Eco and turn into an anti-semite; yet the debate over 'immoral' and 'corrupting' games crops up once a year or so.

    The good news is that this is changing fast – I'd say that the current generation of journalists and commentators tends to view disparate forms of media as having equal worth (as evidenced, well, by you!) To me, that's the way forward: when games are seen as just another art form, then we'll be able to evaluate mature, thought-provoking (and even extreme) content in a wider context. So keep banging the drum!

    By the way, the book was The Death of Bunny Munro. I found it utterly abhorrent, but I suspect that such was Nick Cave's intention. Or maybe not… I don't think it'd be too wise to dive into his psyche, to be honest!

  • That's a great point – the mass perception of games is that they're still relentlessly juvenile, and so when a game tries to be more serious, it's immediately decried as a potential corrupting force for the youth.

    So I agree with you, and my line of thought is much the same as yours. This is the way my thought process is working: What we have right now is a perception that the industry itself doesn't help foil. All those criticisms about E3 this year targeting the teenage boy market with hyperviolence and sexploitation are reasonable criticisms to level at the event. But the positive there is that E3 this year was also the first year that I can remember the games press called the developers and publishers out over it.

    The games industry is finally being held accountable. The developers of Hitman did not get away with that trailer. The developers of Borderlands 2 did not get away with the 'girlfriend mode' comment. I see these as positive signs. The more the media holds the industry accountable, the more the industry will be forced to mature.

    An improved social perception will follow on from that, and *then* we'll see Irreversible: The Game released. Of course it will be controversial, but the discussions around it will be productive.

    At least, I hope that's what will happen, and I'm certainly trying to do my bit to drive the discussions that way.

    Bunny Munro is the stuff of nightmares – but I did find it relatively moderate compared to The Ass Saw the Angel. A former co-worker of mine has had the pleasure to meet and interview Nick Cave on a few occasions, and apparently the guy is an utter genius. I can only assume the music, books and screenplays he produces are therapy.

    Mind you, I genuinely like Nick Cave's music. It's a little depressing at times, but especially his later work has a real human element to it too – quite powerful stuff.

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