Video games are far more popular than the niche-attitude of the hardcore culture could justify. It’s simply impossible for the entire audience of video games to consist of over-educated geeks and obsessed hobbyists. Not with sales numbers this high. There’s simply not enough people in the world who are nerdy enough to think that collecting all the gold coins on a trail or shooting all the nazis in a dungeon -or doing it as fast as you can- is “cool”. Something else is going on in video games. Something that appeals to people far outside the hardcore niche.
Games have been around for ages. They’ve always been a popular pastime. But video games, especially of the more recent generations, have become far more important than any other form of gaming in the past. They reach a much larger audience and are starting to have major cultural impact.
Video games must be so popular because they offer something different, something unique, something that the player cannot find anywhere else. This unique thing can not be their design in terms of rules and goals. While essential to most video games, rules and goals are hardly unique to the electronic medium. Playing a game is something that can be done in many ways. You don’t need a computer for it. A piece of paper and a pencil suffice. So why blow these huge budgets on something that can be done in a much more simple, cheap and convenient way? Or more to the point, how come it makes economic sense to do so (given that video games are popular enough to return on the huge investment)?
Because there’s something about video games. They give us a kind of experience that no other form or entertainment can. They allow us to lose ourselves in virtual worlds, to travel to places that could not exist, to become friends with people who you would never meet. In the previous century, cinema replaced books as the major source for story telling. The reasons are obvious: cinema is easier to consume and more efficient in terms of story-telling and evoking emotions. Watching a film can be a deeply sensual experience with an immediacy that is virtually impossible to achieve through reading a book. Games take the physicality of cinema one step further. By putting the viewer in the scene.
Books solicit sympathy, cinema actively encourages empathy but video games generate involvement. This goes far beyond playing soccer or chess! This is not merely a competition or a measuring of strength or intellect. We’re involved in a fictional world, we care about the characters in it, we feel like we’re there. In a much more visceral and direct way than was possible in any other medium before. Sure, the underlying systems may be cold logic and obscure code. But the effect is direct: video games gives us the sensation of falling down the rabbit hole ourselves.
And this, my fellow amateurs, is where our focus should be. On creating an involving experience for our audience. This is not just about games, no matter what the internet experts might claim. Most contemporary video games might be games in essence. But this is not what makes them unique. And it is its uniqueness that makes the medium appealing. And therefore its uniqueness that designers should focus on.