About two years ago, I gave up video games. Not permanently, of course- or else I probably wouldn’t be writing about them now. But there was a space of about a year where I voluntarily stopped playing video games.
It was rather nice. I started teaching myself guitar and piano, finally got around to reading the books everyone was gushing about two years before, joined a gym. It wasn’t a permanent decision- I didn’t sell all my games, still enjoyed games, and still felt I would come back to them. I had just decided that for that particular space of time, I would pursue other things.
Perhaps it was because I had just felt burnt out. Video games were frequently just too damn long, and I really wanted to complete them, learn them, experience them- but as soon as I had completed one forty-hour epic, another one twice as long was always ready.
Over at Slate, an essay by journalist Michael Thomson has caused quite a ruckus talking about this very thing. Writing about Dark Souls, a medieval fantasy game that critics considered one of the best games of last year, he puts forth a pretty damning critique of Dark Souls’ length, and of video games in general.
Like I did two years ago, Thomsen speaks of various other more “worthwhile” pursuits that can be accomplished within a hundred hours, like reading War and Peace or driving cross country. As a college senior about to graduate in two months with more than enough to worry about, it makes me wonder- what if this guy’s right?
Games appeal to our most compulsive traits. They speak to the completionist in all of us. They’re systems that beg to be learned and interacted with, understood and mastered. By their very nature, they’re time sinks.
But wait. That’s the point. In a well argued response to Thomsen, Edge magazine’s Jason Killingsworth states that Thomsen’s argument is flawed from the start. Games cannot be compared to other pursuits, because playing games is a worthwhile end in and of itself.
Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton sums it up best: “By taking the mechanism through which a game finds meaning and naming it the reason the game is a waste of time, Thomsen seems to be arguing that games, in general, are a waste of time. That they cannot have meaning and worth on their own terms.
Both articles are worth reading in their entirety, and if you don’t have the time, at least take a look at Hamilton’s breakdown of it all.
There’s an entire spectrum of experiences that can be had within the medium of video games. I came back from my gaming hiatus because I realized that all games were not the same, and with a little discernment, I could find games that were worth all those hours, that I could finish and walk away from feeling that they were worthwhile.
And if it turned out that I was playing a game that wasn’t worthwhile to me, I could always stop.