Taking Games Seriously

April 20, 2007

I started writing this last-minute with an eye towards submitting to Cerise, but decided against it because it wasn’t really polished enough – or conclusive enough. I might work on this more, if I can come up with, you know, a point.

Name, age, gender, race, hair and eye color.

I rolled a wizard character in a friendly game of Dungeons and Dragons once whose identifying traits were his black hair, greenish eyes, and his absolute lack of money for anything, including spell components. I had to borrow a few bucks from a fellow party-mate for those, and I ended up buying a giant bag of rice, which in turn elicited a series of friendly jokes that I really was role-playing myself, not because of the wizard (I’m not) but because of being both broke (I am) and the affinity for rice as a signifier of Asian American identity (I am).

I bring this up not to bemoan an awful incident of racial insensitivity (it wasn’t) but simply to point out that there is an uncanny, yet appropriate, resemblance between a tabletop role-playing game’s character sheet and an application for a school or job. Allow me to explain.

Why do you take video games so seriously?

Video games are a unique medium for reasons located in the name alone; they are the unholy union of two separate media, the “video” and the “game”, and so there is substantial variation in how game consumers, producers, intellectuals, and all of the other groups of people who engage video games opt to approach them. While we can treat games like static, unchanging texts, that doesn’t seem to quite do justice to the player’s agency, particularly with “sandbox” games like Grand Theft Auto or more “elastic” games like Deus Ex or Indigo Prophecy. Unlike film, we are inclined to consider both the game-producer and the game-consumer as agents, because anything that happens in a video game happens as a result of constant exchange between the game-producer’s creation and the game-player’s decision. In order for people to decry the capacity to kill female prostitutes for money in Grand Theft Auto III, it took players who were willing to try it out.

The medium we love is a medium that provides us a text, laden with narratives, within the context of a game, which, when we think about baseball, poker, Scrabble, or freeze tag, are simply a collection of rules that organize people’s behavior to give us a “winner” and a “loser”. Taken by themselves, the rules to baseball, poker, Scrabble, or freeze tag are fairly innocuous. But place them within a text, and all of a sudden what we have are rules that govern people’s behavior, not in the form of abstracted symbols like a Queen of Spades but in contexts that are, if not a passable simulation of the real world, than at least a simulation of a purposefully designed world that holds some relevance to our own (think Star Trek).

So we have the same potential for meaningful narratives that we do in film, except now the consumer is complicit in all the wonderful, terrible things that can occur in those narratives. Since the narratives associated with the “video” part of “video game” can hold the same kind of weight that a film or a book could have, the rules that govern our behavior in video games aren’t quite removed from the impacts as the rules of freeze tag. No, they mean something in a way that a triple-word-score does not. Video games provide us with a set of rules that have us shape our behavior around real-world issues and problems and signs that cannot help but teach us about how our behavior applies in the real world. And that isn’t to say that we will without a doubt go out and kill prostitutes after playing GTA, but it does say something that “kill” is one of only three potential action verbs that GTA gives us. From here, it shouldn’t be such a stretch to consider that who we are, whether in the “real” sense or the character-sheet sense, is in direct conversation with any video game we play.

There is something else, out there, that provides us with a set of rules, which takes us as inputs, and encourages certain kinds of behavior with those rules to yield certain “winner” outputs. We call them institutions. We approach an institution – whether it is a company, or an organization, or a school, or a prison, or a bank – because we want something, and it places us within a certain set of rules that reward and punish certain kinds of behaviors, which cannot be separated from our identities any more than our role-playing interactions can be separated from our character sheets. Just like video games, institutions give us rules that structure how we are expected to deal with certain situations. And, as I imagine is abundantly clear to you, dear Reader, the situations we are expected to deal with, both in video games as well as in real-world institutions, often involve negotiating issues of marginalization, along the axes of race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, and so on; but of course, in neither case are the lessons we learn confined strictly to the world of the game or the world of the institution.

And so, when people ask me – usually with a somewhat pained expression on their faces – why I take games so seriously, my response is a genuine how could you not? What we learn in the world of video games runs parallel to the rules of the institution. Institutions that reward certain kind of racialized, gendered, and classed interactions produce individuals that are trained to respond to those interactions. Video games provide us the same framework, only within our TV screen.

pat m.



  1. Well said! I hope you’ll consider submitting to Cerise again – I would’ve loved to have included an article on this theme in the lineup for our first issue. πŸ™‚

  2. Why don’t you focus on the REAL issues? Like starving children in Africa and the Iraq war and global warming?

    Just kidding. πŸ™‚ Nice analysis, Pat. I get the same criticisms for focusing on the intersection of race and pop culture.

    Btw it was so great to meet you in person last week! Albeit briefly. Thanks so much for coming to my workshop. πŸ™‚

  3. […] Take Games Seriously […]

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