John Reeser on meaningful games

Next Sunday, Jenn Colt and I are offering a workshop of sorts, a space for people who want to make games that are personally meaningful in some way, with guidance and development support for those who want it.

In preparation, I thought I’d share a few of the games that have had an impact on my life.

One game that caught me by surprise, and changed the way that I think about games, is Puzzle Quest. In Puzzle Quest, the play area is a grid filled with gems, and on your turn you swap gem locations. When you line up three or more like gems in a row, you deal damage to your opponent. At the same time, your opponent is also making matches and damaging you. Whenever a match is made, the matched gems disappear and new gems are randomly selected to replace them. Along the way there’s a forgettable story and a character progression system blah blah blah. So what was it about this game that shifted my perspective? I started noticing that when I was playing I would use a lot of expletives. I was getting very angry at my opponents for their good luck, and cursing my bad luck, when one of my opponent’s matches would turn into a chain due to new matches created by the randomly replaced gems. While experiencing it, this offense seemed very real; while observing myself playing, this seemed very silly — I was taking randomly selected numbers personally, as if my artificial opponent were in control of the situation and had personally affronted me — merely because they benefited from the situation and I did not. I became better at observing myself while playing, and started consciously choosing to be calm and patient during play, even expressing gratitude and congratulations to my computer opponents when luck was in their favor. By the time I had completed the story mode of the game, I had significantly leveled up my “patience” skill.

Thus began my conscious search for games that provided opportunities for personal growth. I’m certain that I had been affected by many of the games that I had played before; but after Puzzle Quest, I started playing games with an intention for growth.

Another game that surprised me was Super Columbine Massacre RPG, a re-enactment of the Columbine school shooting as told through the lens of a Japanese-style role-playing video game. I decided to play this game because I try to stay on top of video game news, and this particular game — and the controversy around its existence — was causing quite a stir. The game’s introduction is a presentation of the facts that had been gathered about the shooters, their home life, and their school, presented in a “walk around and interact with objects” kind of way. Oh, important note — you play as the shooters. You gear up and head to the school — and thus begins battle sequence after battle sequence, pitting two teenagers wielding automatic weapons against… unarmed schoolchildren. The game’s “protagonists” walk through the halls, and battle by battle (presented in the format of Final Fantasy battles, a game series that I had had hundreds of hours of experience playing) you gun everyone down. In case you’re wondering, I played this game through to its completion. I felt that I owed it to humanity and to the game’s creator to do so. And in case you’re wondering, I felt sick. The whole time. Just thinking about it today threatens to induce nausea. I generally try to avoid news as much as possible, and knew very little about the Columbine event; this game put it all right there, in front of me, for my consideration — and because I was the one who had pulled the trigger, I was less inclined to write the shooters off as “Other” and “Bad” while I was “Good” — I, who was responsible for thousands upon thousands of virtual deaths, who had, without a second thought, slain orcs, goombas, aliens, sentient robots, radscorpions, and countless other automata; who am I to judge? I, who even though I knew where the game was going, played it to its conclusion? Super Columbine Massacre RPG has been praised for shining a spotlight on the media’s sensationalizing of school violence; for me, it shined a spotlight on some previously uninspected dark corners of my soul, and initiated the introspection of my enjoyment of simulated violence, an introspection which continues to this day. (For those who are interested, Super Columbine Massacre RPG is available for free online, and there is also a documentary of the game and its reception.)

Then there are games like The Sims, a playground on which to observe my consumerism; and Kudos, a life-simulation game that instigated a deep look at the importance of my friendships. One day at the grocery store I realized how much Tetris had influenced my cart-stacking choices. Solo-grinding for the next level of weapon and armor in Terraria, I realized how much effort I was putting into striving for something better with the expectation that someday I might share it with others —- instead of spending time with them at whatever level I’m at right now. Most recently, a game called Dear Esther had me contemplating grief and loss.

For me, it might be easier to answer: “what games have I played that *don’t* have personal meaning?” But that’s me — I’m particularly attuned to this medium. What about you? What games have had meaning for you?

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