How Does it Feel to Play a Video Game?

August 6th, 2008

mega man artwork

Since I first picked up a controller and pressed the buttons, to see visual confirmation on the screen, I became fascinated by games. As a child, I played them for hours on end when I could, discussed, defended and debated them in the playground, drew pictures of them during free time and art classes, read about them and wrote stories about them. Despite my interest in the medium there was and has always been resistance. By my parents who restricted play time, from classmates who stigmatized me and my friends as social inadequates, in the media whom link video games to negative social behaviour.

Throughout all of the hard times though there was something to keep me going. Something that I have faith in. Allow me to try and explain to you what it is:

When we play games there is a psychology deeply rooted between us and the experience. With the experience being feedback generated from gameplay. The interlocking of player and experience builds up an affinity within us, creating an obvious affection towards this medium. We receive visual confirmation on screen and hence relate to that, even in the slightest form. It is this affinity that I’m attempting to describe that is the core of the playing experience.

When discussing the social difficulty of being a gaming enthusiast it is easy for me to lay the blame on those outside of our collected group. This is not the case. The reason why our parents, friends, media feel this way towards us is because we have a disconnect created through misunderstanding. They have never been hit by the same impact from games that we have and no one has ever sat them down and tried to explain to them how it feels to have that impact. In a nutshell: they fail to understand and we fail at explaining it to them.

Deep down within all of us enthusiast there is an utmost love and respect for the games we play and overall we only want the best for our industry. This is, of course, very much influenced by the ‘experience of play’ which I tried to describe.

Our problem is that we fail to correctly inform our peers of the impact that games have on us. We fail to technically justify what it it exactly, within the game and all its mechanics that send endorphins rushing through our head. Infact, worse than that we still fail to justify this to ourselves. In which case how can we possibly describe it to others.


As an industry we need to very quickly realize our medium for what it is worth. We need to frame video games as something special, something important which should garner high discussion and then justify this with deep analytical thought proving why video games are so very dear to us, with relevance to the culture, experience and life. Our writing should reflect our passion so that it can be celebrated, discussed and understood by gamers and non-gamers alike. Instead we often seek to inform though fact rather than converge through opinion, even modern game reviews are just bullet points outlining a game’s components and only contain glimpses of subjective opinions. This has to change.

I believe this in this so strongly that between us and the game there is something important. There really is, even 8-bit games, infact, especially in 8-bit games. Something worthy of discussion that has remained dormant since the birth of games.

We are undoubtedly a long way away from becoming a widely respected medium, you don’t need to look far to see that. Which is why we need to concentrate our efforts on higher thinking to prove our importance to others.

I feel as though I’ve placed a heavy burden on your shoulders, dear readers. This is by no means the intention of this piece. What I am trying to preach is perhaps a lessen of consequence. We’re all familiar with how it feels to be brushed side ways as a result of bad press towards our favoured past time. Our medium is worth more than that though and I believe so strongly that deeply down embedded in the very thing we love is our answer.

So I urge those of you who read and write about games, to think hard about what exactly it is that drives your interest in this medium and try to express this through your writing. There is talk among us bloggers about forming new vocabulary to translate these feelings into literature, I have a great respect for this. For now though, I think that it is best if we all just try to think a little harder about games, to think critically because once we reach that mindset, the vocabulary will soon follow and so will understanding.

  • One major problem I often see when people try and express their feelings on video games is that they resort to comparing games to other mediums. This is also true when people get into the whole “games are art” debate.

    They try and compare games to movies, citing their cinematic value as the main trait. They compare games to books, citing the literary qualities to the game’s script. Then they go on to compare games to sports, citing the adversarial competition.

    What does that leave the non-gamer with? Hmmm…something that’s cinematic, has a script, and is competitive. Oh, and it has music, too. Is it really any wonder that the video game idea isn’t being communicated in situations like this?

    Video games are their completely own beast. Comparing certain elements of games to other forms of media and art not only completely misses the picture, but in fact degrades the medium as a whole. Games are not movies + books + music + sports. Games simply are what they are. And to us, they are an entirely separate medium that are so much more than interactive movies or mindless time wasters.

    In order for we the gamers to be able to even begin to express our medium to outsiders, we must first acknowledge it’s existence as a wholly unique form. Then, we ourselves must be able to identify it. Only when we are comfortable with our own identities can we begin to let other people in. It might be a young medium that’s changing drastically with every passing year, but it still has the same soul that started back in the 70’s.

    Thankfully I fully believe the question is not if, but rather when and how, we as a community can begin to express that soul to the outside world without it being bastardized and compromised.

  • I agree with most of what Frankie Leet said.

    It is very dangerous to directly apply the criteria of good films/literature/music to video games. But, the theory behind that criteria is still very applicable. For example, the strength of film as a visual medium can help structure one’s approach to thinking about the visuals and forms in a video game.

    Recognizing games for games (ie. not movies, stories, or art) is the first step in understanding what games are and how they work. Interactivity sits at the heart of the video game medium. So, no matter what, interactivity must have a higher priority. Once a good foundation is set, only then is a cross medium comparison a smart move.

    @ Daniel Primed.

    Thanks for mentioning my blog.

    I’ve done so much in efforts to communicate what gaming is like for me. As a top ranked tournament level Super Smash Brothers player, I’ve been around the country and fought against people from around the world. But there’s just something different about the community of smasher/Nintendo fans that runs deeper than the love of the game and competition. I’ve tried writing some of these stories down, recording podcasts recalling good times, and even filming a webTV show about what our journey is like. I haven’t had much success with these attempts mostly because I’m busy playing the game/enjoying the company of my friends. It would have been great to have a documentary crew following me around.

    The first article on counterpoint the my Mario Melodies series explains from my view why video games are art, or rather why they’re just like anything else that can be considered art. How a work reflects life is what makes it appealing to me. And I have yet to find a medium that can communicate, regulate, and reflect action/functions/mechanics like video games can. I’ve always felt this way from my first N.E.S.

  • Thank you both for the excellent contributions.

    To add to your comments, I think that we can apply criteria from music, film or literature to video games but only where it makes sense. Games have music, narrative and sequences of film in them, no doubt, so applying similiar analysis is sound. As you point out Frankie, games are individual, so for example, while we can apply music theory to music present in video games, it would be terribly wrong of us to disclude mention of nuances such as how the music is implemented, does it suit the mood created by the gameplay. In fact it is this that should have priority.

    What both of you say really well is that we need to recognise the medium for what it is and this goes leaps and bounds above the other stuff that I just mentioned.

    I’ve been trying to bring forth my own feelings of the impact that games have on me through my writing, slowly tieing this in with game mechanics (using your work as a guide, Richard). It’s pretty tough actually but I think that I am making some progress. Not much of this has been posted up on this blog yet, alot of it I’ve been formulating through other writing.

    I see this blog as playground for my own the minute transformation towards that style of discussion. Bit of a journey I guess to describe “how it feels”.

  • Well said, Daniel. I think part of the problem is that criticism as it is practiced in the other arts tends to privilege theoretical or structural analysis, or comparative studies, or any number of accepted approaches…but rarely how the art feels; how it stirs us; how it lives inside us. This kind of response is often seen as intellectually inferior.

    But with video games, these are precisely the conduits into the art. Personal experience, interactivity, emotions – these are essential aspects of what it means to be a gamer, but we rarely give them the critical attention they deserve.

    I’m hoping that, as Frankie and Richard point out so well, games criticism diverges from established modes developed for other media and acquires a language and tolerance for writing that takes into account the things that can’t be listed on the back of a box.

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