Whys are more important than hows.
by John “Who else?” Everett
Hello, there. In my article on Oregon Trail, I briefly explained the reasons for doing this series. Now I would like to add more detail. If you are not a gamer and you’re skeptical about the virtues of this medium, I hope that this will convince you to appreciate games. Even if you are a gamer, I think you’ll still have something to gain from this.
1. Games Are Good for your Health.
To avoid confusion, let me clarify that sitting on a couch for hours on end is not good for you. But when you play video games you’re doing so much more than just vegging out (especially if it’s a physically demanding game like Wii Fit or Dance Dance Revolution). You are engaging your brain. You are strengthening neural connections, improving your attention to detail, and so much more. Gamers are routinely better than non-gamers at pattern recognition, spatial puzzles, and problem solving. And because gaming is so diverse, different games can benefit you in different ways. Tetris improves your efficiency at packing boxes (no, really). Grey/brown shooters such as Gears of War imbue you with superior perception of contrast (the difference between shades of grey). Super Monkey Ball 2 has long been used in physical therapy and recently has been adopted as a warm-up exercise by surgeons as well. Games like Team Fortress 2 foster cooperative thinking and a great ability to quickly assess the risk-vs.-reward ratio of helping a teammate in any given situation. The benefits of gaming on our mental faculties are clear. One of the reasons I’m so eager to share gaming with others is that, purely speaking from a utilitarian viewpoint, they’re good for you. And the wider variety of games you play, the more plentiful and diverse the benefits they will bestow upon you. This is even before you consider that games have the power to enrich you culturally as well.
2. Games Enrich Us Culturally.
Sure, if you play a game where you have to crush candies, then no, you won’t be very enriched by it–it’s not exactly opera. But think a little deeper. Games, just like books, have the inherent ability to transport us into a new world, and when the developer leads us with a loving hand, we can experience great things. Such enrichment can be as simple and blunt as looking at paintings in Civilization V: Brave New World or Assassin’s Creed II.
It can be as subtle as an allusion to Thus Spoke Zarathustra in Fahrenheit. But I don’t just mean exposure to works of art in that manner. I mean that games themselves are works of art, and that they have many wonderful moments to offer us. Whether a game is purely gameplay-based and excites us with a “close call,” or is story-based and allows for a touching moment like the hug between Alyx and Gordon near the end of Half-Life 2, gaming has the power to give us experiences that no other medium can, because it allows us to live these moments ourselves by interactivity. The ending of The Walking Dead, Season 1 could not have been nearly as powerful had I not agonized over the decision myself. But I did, and I bawled like a baby. Seriously, the tears were streaming down my face. There are even moments that don’t happen during the story, but as the gamer acting by himself. When I played Jak & Daxter as a child I would often go to Sentinel Beach at night and wait for morning, just so I could watch the sunrise. Seeing the Sun come up from behind the ocean was wonderfully relaxing.
But beyond these personal experiences, there are still things games have to offer us that are present in other media, such as music, art assets, story, and so on. The happy image of Mario, the timeless music of Final Fantasy, the act of pondering the weighty themes of Metal Gear Solid, the satisfaction of solving a puzzle or beating a boss–these are treasures. I don’t mean to oversell it, of course. Games are games, and life offers many millions of other things, after all. But I’m speaking from the heart, and this is what I have to say. Games are not just toys or distractions. They are powerful works of art and are worthy of passion.
3. Other Reasons too Numerous to Mention
In the infographic of #1, you saw that cooperative/competitive gaming can also strengthen our relationships and build camaraderie. Some single-player games can provide valuable data for researchers, and others can teach students–either direct lessons such as geography (Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?) or indirect lessons such as how to manage time (The Sims). They can be intrinsic (Pokemon Gen 3 teaching you a bit of braille) or extrinsic (wishing to learn more about Los Angeles after playing L.A. Noire). They also provide common experiences that we can talk about. Everyone who has played Star Fox 64 can relate to the satisfying feeling of boosting through a gate as it’s closing, or the exasperation of having to rescue Slippy for the dozenth time. Such a common base can be even more powerful than a certain moment in a movie because every player will play the same thing, and yet experience it in a personally unique way. This can lead to “meta-storytelling” about a game; in this manner even a game lacking plot–Asteroids for example– can become a tapestry for a story. Video games can inspire fan stories, fan art, and fan just-about-everything-else (mirror).
“So if video games provide these benefits, then just go out and buy some new games,” you may be telling me. “Why run Games Appreciation articles on these dusty old relics? Just get a cell phone and go to town on the app store!”
a. Quality Matters.
Now that I’ve spent the past 1,000 words talking up video games, I have to do a reality check. Most video games are a waste of time. Just as most movies or books are bad, so are most games. Now, there’s nothing wrong with picking a game because you like the box art, but if it makes you dislike a certain genre of gaming (or the whole medium) because it left a bad taste in your mouth, that’s not cool. My job in this series is to hand-pick the very best of the medium, the timeless classics of gaming. These games are listed chronologically, but other than that are equal. Super Mario Bros. 3, despite being old, is just as great as any modern game. If I include a game here, that means it’s timeless. I won’t include Pole Position with the caveat that “It was great for its time.” That’s just a weaselly way of saying “Gamers had lower standards back then because there was no Gran Turismo to compare it to.”
b. The Old Must Be Renewed
Have you heard of the game M.U.L.E.? If you’re a hardcore gamer or old, you may have. Otherwise, I’m willing to bet that you haven’t–I didn’t until I did research on gaming’s history and got to the year 1983. This is a crying shame, because M.U.L.E. was an excellent game and ought to be as familiar to us as any recent game. The trouble is that you can’t be aware of these old games unless you go looking for them, and if you just pick a game at random you’ll probably pick a bad or mediocre one.
I will showcase the best games so that there’s no guesswork on your part. Any game you pick from my list will be a slam dunk. Because of personal tastes, you might not like it, but at least you’ll be choosing from champagne and caviar instead of garbage burgers and grease tacos. My job is also to exclude the games that are good but not great (or, more accurately, great but not outstanding). This means that there will be plenty of other games out there that are good and enjoyable, but are not guaranteed to be classics. I have very strict standards (which I’ll go over after the second generation is over in 1982) primarily because life is short, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time with a less-than-stellar video game when there are plenty of books to read, plenty of songs to listen to, and plenty of non-entertainment activities to be doing. You could be volunteering at a local charity instead of sitting on your sofa, so it’s prudent for entertainment to be about quality rather than quantity.
Good video games aren’t just competing with other video games; they’re competing with everything else. Plus, there are so many great video games out there that will take up your time; I don’t see the point. Sure, you could have a lot of fun playing Burger Time, but not as much fun as you would have playing Pac-Man. Also, there are more games released every year. If games are recommended too liberally, then someone in the year 2200 would have to spend 12 hours per day playing old games in order to catch up to the present time–not to mention all the new games coming out week after week. Any person in that position would either stop playing old games, only play them for a minute each, or pick random ones and miss out on most of the truly great games because of the randomness involved. I’m here to prevent that.
My job–and I take it very seriously–is to sift through the pile and find the games worth playing. I believe that this is at least possible with games because of their unique nature. It is very difficult, however, to tell whether a game is truly a classic or merely excellent.The better a game is, the longer it takes to make the final determination. The mechanics of fighting games are so intricate and subtle that it could take hundreds of hours of gameplay (and/or extensive data-mining) to see if it can stand the test of time. Remember: for a game to be a timeless classic it can’t just compete with the past. It has to compete with the future too. I have to keep all these things in mind, so please be patient.
At the time of this writing I’ve played about 90% of the several hundred games that were made in 1986, and I will likely write appreciation articles on about five of them. My goodness, I am so very tired. Someone please kill me.