The growing fascination with and popularity of video gaming as an art form and a hobby is great news for gamers and non-gamers alike. For those who’ve been considering jumping into the ever-widening pool—and for those who’ve been swimming in it since before they could walk—a significant question looms: what makes gaming so important and valuable to us? What pushes it beyond the boundary of fun and turns it into a fundamental part of our lives and identities?
Some claim it’s because gaming is so engaging and interactive. It hits all our pleasure centers while requiring minimal focus from us (which betrays a severe lack of knowledge about the medium). Others claim, perhaps more fairly, that the immersive aspect of gaming is what makes us “latch on.”
But maybe it’s something more important. Maybe gaming has something that everyone, from disillusioned children to bored creatives, from marketing executives to sportsmen, desperately need, nowadays: an outlet for creativity.
Welcome to the Toybox
In Will Wright’s game design masterclass (which, unfortunately, you’ll need to pay to access), the famed developer of games like Spore and The Sims says, “I’ve always thought that the coolest stories are always coming from the players. I mean, it’s nice to have a backstory or here’s the world and all that, but really you want every player to basically encounter their own story, create their own story by what they do in the game.”
Will Wright claims that part of the appeal of gaming is that it gives us a set of toys with which to create our own stories. We’re given all these ingredients and a huge degree of agency in how we use them. So, we begin to craft our own tales the same way we would, as children, if given a box of action figures and tons of free time.
Wright saw this in his own experience with The Sims. People would talk about what was happening with their characters as if they were real people suffering real diseases, getting married and living their lives. It is a game about making your own reality. Animal Crossing is similar to The Sims, and it reaches a similar audience. You can create your own worlds populated with charming characters, and your own personal stories seem to come naturally as a result. The most recent entry’s strong online play added a community aspect to this kind of storytelling and creative play, as mentioned in a May 2020 article in The Guardian:
But this is part of Animal Crossing’s magic: you really can play it the way you like . . . “Animal Crossing is a communication game,” says Aya Kyogoku, who has worked on every Animal Crossing game since 2003. “I hope that through their life in the game world, people enjoy communicating with each other, whether it’s through playing with other people or talking enthusiastically about the game. What would make me most happy is if people with all kinds of different tastes come together and enjoy the game in their own ways.”
Further along that spectrum are purely online games, which have a long history of being places of play that spawn incredibly important stories. In 2005, a bug in World of Warcraft’s new dungeon resulted in an uncontrolled spread of an in-game status ailment that has since become part of the game’s unofficial lore and has actually been used by epidemiologists to model real-world viral outbreaks. And, in 2020 the hardcore MMORPG EVE Online saw a massive battle involving [over 8000 players whose main conflict lasted more than 14 hours that has also become part of the game’s history.
Events like these, though they take place inside the world of a video game—a toy, really—become part of our own personal stories. They’re tales we tell to our friends, full of colorful characters that seem pulled from the best of fiction. And yet, it’s all framed around something fun and playful. The effect is more pronounced in “sandbox” games, whose core design philosophy centers around giving players a set of tools and letting them run wild in a responsive game world.
However, less flexible games also offer storytelling opportunities. Listen to gamers talk about single-player favorites like The Last of Us, Dark Souls, or God of War, and you’ll hear them regale each other with tales of encountering glitches, overcoming enormous odds, and crafting creative ways out of steep challenges, all interwoven with the drama of the game’s main story.
Our ability to make choices in a game, even if it’s as simple as which door to take, adds a level of agency to games that transforms them from a consumed medium, like movies or books, into creative storytelling devices. Even if all we’re changing are the details, we’re still playing a part in creating the story in front of us.
Why Is This Important?
Creative outlets are hard to come by these days. In many cases, you need physical resources, space and instruction. For many of us, finding that unique combination is tricky. Besides, any and all arts require tons of practice and work. Books and movies are cool, but they don’t allow us to play a part in making the story in front of us. They’re easy, but they aren’t a creative outlet.
Gaming allows us to balance fun with creativity. It’s a way to tell stories and engage the part of our minds that craves craft and ingenuity and the sheer act of creation, all while being told a story and having a chance to relax.
Most of us are under stress. Work, school, life, politics . . . having an outlet that balances our need for creation with our need for relaxation and levity is more valuable than ever before, and I strongly recommend it for anyone looking for a way to take the edge off the sharper sides of life.
And if you’re already sold on the matter, take a look at some of our other articles, including our introduction to getting into gaming.