Dear Chris, Stephen, and Jenn,
I was glad to see several of the letters in the first round of the Video Game Club touch on something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: time.
Stephen, I found something a bit haunting in the question you posed about button-tapping games like Cookie Clicker, and the emptiness you either found or feared at the top of your invisible mountain of little clicks: “And, yet, what was it all for?”
Your description of Cookie Clicker also describes, at least mechanically, one of my favorite games of the year. If anything, Porpentine’s Everything You Swallow Will One Day Come Up Like a Stone is even simpler than Cookie Clicker, offering players nothing but a black and white screen with a number counter and a plus and minus sign beside it. In practice, it’s exactly what you describe: tapping a button over and over to make a number incrementally larger. But rather than generating increasing numbers of cookies, it simulates the day-by-day experience of living through trauma; each click feels a bit like checking off a day on a calendar, accompanied by evocative little snippets of text that build into a deeply moving experience that has made me weep every time I play it.
Although both games lay their simplicity bare and offer themselves to players almost completely unadorned, that which feels infuriatingly hollow in Cookie Clicker—tapping and waiting, tapping and waiting—feels enormously weighty in Everything You Swallow. It’s a reminder that if you can find a way to wrap a brilliant game around a laughably simple interaction—guess what, it’s still brilliant.
But you seemed to be looking elsewhere for deeper satisfaction, not only to the more complex systems of games like Shadow of Mordor, but the immersive lure of massive multiplayer games like Destiny: “I never make the time to commit deeply to multiplayer games and so I feel like I’m missing the purest forms of gaming.”
Perhaps this was simply a poor word choice, but particularly on the heels of Gamergate, I’m more than a little wary of the idea of that certain forms of gaming are “purer” than others. I’m particularly unenthusiastic about the idea that legitimacy or purity in games can be determined by the amount of time you devote to them, a line of thinking that is used with alarming frequency to discredit women who play casual and mobile games, and dismiss them for not being “real” gamers.
If we’re going to talk about time in games—how we spend it, and how that defines us—I think it’s also important to acknowledge that time is its own form of gatekeeping. Over the last several months, I’ve spoken at length with a lot of women who make text games in Twine, the accessible, no-frills game creation tool. Over and over again, I’ve been reminded how crucial it is to have games—and game creation tools!—that can fit inside the lives of people without a lot of discretionary time or income. All of us here in the Video Game Club write about games professionally to varying degrees, and yet we’ve already talked quite a bit about how difficult it is to fit them in our lives. Imagine how absurd it would be to add a 50-hour game to your schedule if you were poor, marginalized, working two jobs to survive, or disproportionately carrying the burden of housework and child care, as women often are.
The realization that many mainstream (and largely male) gamers have when they become spouses or parents—that they feel excluded because they can no longer devote as much time to games—is truly a matter of them opening their eyes to same reality that lots of other people had been struggling with all along. I’d like to see more people asking the same questions my colleague Chris Kohler posed: “Who is this for? Whose life does this fit into?” And even more importantly, the inverse: Who isn’t this for? Whose life can’t this fit into? Who aren’t we inviting to participate?
Stephen, I also confess to feeling a bit perturbed by your suggestion that it is time to “[push] back a bit against our comfort with lauding games that are interactive stories.” But lauding these games is not comfortable at all for some of us. Indeed, one of the defining cultural events of the last year involved gamers viciously attacking and discrediting female players, developers, and critics precisely for valuing games that resemble interactive stories. How can this be a comfort zone when it still feels like a war zone? I think we all know the names of women whose Twitter feeds we could read at this moment and still see the fires burning.
Conversely, the idea that massively multiplayer games have value isn’t exactly a marginalized or underrepresented perspective. If anything, as Jenn pointed out, it represents the new normal, the sorts of games (and gamers) that the biggest companies are already spending money hand over fist to affirm as the most valuable and important.
It is of course perfectly reasonable to long for the game experiences you aren’t having, especially since the intense nature of multiplayer games offers some very attractive rewards in exchange for all the hours it demands. There’s no denying the deeper connections you can make with games—and the people you play them with—when you invest dozens and dozens of hours together, the sublime moments of intricate strategy and intuition that can emerge when you become a well-oiled machine within a game that is already a well-oiled machine.
I think of my brother, who has been playing World of Warcraft at an extremely high level for over 10 years now. Although he has mastered that game in ways that I will never fully understand, he’s also sacrificed breadth for depth. There’s a reason he simply calls World of Warcraft “the Game.” It’s the only one he needs, and also the only one he has time to pursue.
I admire his commitment and his mastery, but I wouldn’t trade places with him. I revel in my grazing, because if there’s anything I want from games right now, it’s more: more diversity, more experiments, and enough time to experience them all. Admittedly, I just spent more than 60 hours on Dragon Age: Inquisition, and yes, I’ve happily given dozens of memorable hours of my finite existence to Final Fantasy III, Persona 4, and other time-intensive games. I hope that there will always been room for special games like that in my life. But lately, more often than not, I find myself less inclined to invest myself deeply in time-intensive games. Cutting a potentially endless, massively multiplayer black hole in the middle of your life can be a lot of fun, but it’s also great way to leave very little behind for either the people you care about or anything else you want to do.
Stating as much, of course, is a very efficient way to end up dismissed as a fraud or a dilettante, especially if you’re a woman in games. Deprogramming your fears about daring to enjoy things deemed insufficiently hardcore requires continuous work, especially after you’ve spent months witnessing the brutal, sustained harassment of women around you for doing exactly that.
But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned this year from the utter bullshit that I’ve witnessed and my own self-examinations of what I play and why, it’s this: I don’t care anymore what people think. I like what I like—often smaller, less sprawling games that focus on character and story—and I don’t particularly have any interest in being skeptical of that anymore. And since time is nothing if not precious, I don’t have another minute to spare worrying whether or not it makes someone skeptical of me.