Over the summer I’ve been revisiting old games and trying new ones, so I’ve been thinking about video games and how they fit into my life and the lives of others around me. Let me begin by cutting a broad distinction between games that one plays to get lost in, and games one plays to be good at. The latter category includes electronic sports, and the former action-adventure games like Zelda as well as the obvious candidates such as hard-core RPGs like Morrowind. Now, plenty of games can be one of these two for one person and the other for another—for example, speed runs convert any game to get lost in into a challenge of skill—but I think my distinction is sound on the grounds that for me, games are one or the other. They play very different roles in my life.

Immersion games first. Possibly the best reason to have grown up when I did rather than at some other point in the 20th century? I had Tiberian Sun, Morrowind, Wind Waker, Diablo II, Final Fantasy VI, Oracle of Ages, Pokémon Crystal. Indelibly marked in my memory are phrases like “not even death can save you from me”, “you have quite a treasure there in that Horadric Cube”, “move it move it get back to the base!” and moments like Celes’ opera sequence and attempting to beat Veran atop the Black Tower for the fifty-fifth time, and failing once more. The immense challenge (at the time) of fighting your way out of Hyrule Castle when it comes out of the time-freeze! “Stay a while and listen.” Hearing Tina’s Theme—IMO the best piece of game music of all time—upon entering the overworld for the first time! You’ll have to have about the same age and taste as me to get particularly riled up by this, I imagine. But hopefully you can share in my nostalgic remembrance of the joy of working your way through a series of challenges to advance a plot to save the world.

My favourite game of all time deserves its own paragraph but there isn’t much to say because most people just haven’t heard of it: Skies of Arcadia. A proper turn-based RPG, and the best I have ever played.

The thing is, that was then and this is now and it’s just not the same anymore. It’s been a long, long time since I got lost in a game, and even pasted over with nostalgia old ones aren’t the same because the challenge has all but disappeared: I am presently blasting my way through Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time (even with Master Quest turned on) with no difficulty at all. I imagine if I sat down with Tiberian Sun or Diablo II it would be the same. I never actually finished Final Fantasy VI, come to think of it, and maybe that would be harder.

The other difference is that I have A Lot Of Other Things To Do now, and it’s not so great to lose a week of vac (heaven forbid term) to a game. This leads me to question what place this kind of game can have in my life. The next thing upcoming is Skyrim in November, which we are all desperately hoping will be the best of both Morrowind and Oblivion—for even just that, with nothing ‘new’, would make for an earth-shattering RPG—and I am looking forward to hopefully playing it at Christmas. Aside from must-play titles like this, should I continue to buy games? This sounds like a stupid question if I enjoy them as much as I have been making out in this post. The point, though, is that this often isn’t the case and what I really don’t want to be is merely a consumer of games. I’m not talking of the usual form of material consumerism that grips our society but am just considering books, films, television, etc.: with these, there is still a danger of falling into consumerism, though it’s different. When I am waiting for some water to boil and have flicked on the TV to find something to watch, that’s consumption; there is a vast, vast swathe of things that I only watch because they use up time, even if I don’t sit down with that intent, and the same applies to books and films too (I hardly ever go to the cinema, sadly (too expensive), but for an example look to the stream of superhero movies we’ve had over the past few years).

All well and good, but how does one tell the difference? When you hear of a new game coming out, how can you decide whether or not to try it out? Reviews are rarely much use and on particular games friends and I have wildly diverging opinions, so, how can you decide where to put your time?[1] The bottom line is that I don’t want to play bad games, and I don’t want to play mediocre games because game-playing is what I do—it isn’t anymore—and there aren’t enough great games around: I want to play great games and leave it there, but finding out whether a game is great is pretty challenging without playing it yourself.

The other category of gaming as described above is only something I’ve done very recently, because it’s only for about seven years or so that I’ve had enough people around me who also play games for this to be an option. I imagine this is the same for most. Games I play/have played to beat other people at (with minimal success) are Left4Dead, Supreme Commander, and DotA All-Stars, and there are probably others but not in anything like the numbers of immersion games. Right now there’s a powerful opportunity to get involved in this kind of gaming with the advent of StarCraft II and its world-wide community of obsessive RTS players,[2] and at some point we’re going to get a Valve version of DotA with exactly the same mechanics, oh those joyous mechanics, deny deny last hit! deny deny deny, but presumably with well-organised multiplayer match-making, the present lack of which means that, even for someone like me with a reasonable amount of DotA experience, DotA is extremely hard to get into and improve at.

Now, I have two friends who play StarCraft seriously and know various people at university who play, but I don’t know how seriously: unlike DotA, it’s something I could get into as a game to play as something to get better at rather than a world to get immersed in, and I’d have people around me to do this with, which makes it a lot more fun than struggling through DotA “pubs” on Battle.net. I’ve downloaded the new Starter Edition, which is essentially a demo, and have played it to its limits really; the AI level available is not at all challenging. Choosing whether or not to buy the game is a significant decision because £33 is basically the sum total of my disposable money. It would take me some time to get into the game, and I don’t even know if I’d like it that much: I only assume I would because I like strategy, but I’ve not found the first four campaign missions and Terran skirmish against Easy AI particularly thrilling. I’d be buying it for an interesting diversion that doesn’t use up very much time as games are short, and can be played casually due to the ladder system. Do I want that?

The final thing to talk about is how these two categories of games affect my mood. The latter is generally always positive, because it’s usually multiplayer, and because you’re not leaving the real world and are trying to use a skill, it’s always a positive experience as using any skill is. You are left a little like one is left after exercise; it’s great. However it’s not quite the same with the former category. I tend to find that ordinary games put me in a bad mood after I’ve played them, and I’m left angry and short with people around me—perhaps for them dragging me away or the game shoving me away by getting stuck? My short spell of playing Minecraft reminds me most of this. I found myself always left in a terrible mood by playing Minecraft because I wanted more I guess? Not sure.

[1] I’m ignoring the question of where to put your money.

[2] So it’s a year old, so I’m late to being aware of just how big this community is, I admit it.