One thing that often bothers me in discussions of video games is the way that many people within the games community want to pidgeon-hole them. I find it really bothersome how frequently I hear that games should only be X or should never do Y.
In the end I don't know that this really holds games back at all - people who want to make games that do Y are probably going to do it anyway. But it does hold back our discussions about games, and in the end, I think the ability for certain kinds of games to be widely enjoyed.
I'll give a couple of examples of statements I've often heard to try to illustrate what I'm getting at here.
Games Should Be Fun
This is probably the one that bothers me the most. It is, in all likelihood, because we use the word "game" to describe our medium. And a "game" generally means a leisure activity with a clear set of rules for determining a winner and a loser. And that kind of thing does sound like it should be fun, doesn't it?
But that doesn't really describe all video games. They all have clearly defined rules, as any piece of software must, but those rules are not necessarily there for the purpose of determining a winner or loser, or even an overall objective. The rules can simply be a framework within which the player works interactively.
I recently created and released an abstract art game over Xbox Live Community Games (in order to avoid this becoming a discussion about my game specifically, I'll avoid mentioning its name). I got a lot of interesting feedback, but one of the things I heard from a significant majority of the people who played it was that it wasn't fun. "I really like the idea, but you need to find a way to make it fun" is typical of the responses that I got.
Now, issues of execution with this particular game aside, why does a game have to be fun? Not only was the game not fun, it wasn't supposed to be. I find it extremely strange that so many people feel the need to make games fit into narrow categories.
Some of my favourite books (Crime and Punishment), movies (Before Sunset), and music (Stars of the Lid and Their Refinement of the Decline) are not fun. They all still add things that I find quite meaningful to my life. Personally, I would love to see a game that was quite similar to Crime and Punishment.
The point I'm getting at is that we shouldn't be judging games on whether or not they're fun unless being fun is the intention. If a game isn't trying to be fun, then it can not possibly fail at it.
There is plenty of room in interactive media to engage the player in ways that are not intended to entertain them. I'm not really a huge fan of entertainment. I want to engage in activities that I feel enrich me as a person. If you don't, that's fine, but there's no need to act like only one particular thing should be available.
Games Shouldn't Talk About Politics
The wording there is important. If any particular player doesn't want to play games that have political messages, then that's cool. The problem is that many people claim that no game should have a political message, as in, no one should be playing political games.
This actually ties in to my previous point, in that people who don't want games to be political often simultaneously suggest that one of the reasons is that games are just "fun" or "entertainment".
And again, if that's all that you personally want out of games, then feel free to only play those games that are intended to be "fun" or "entertainment". But please stop trying to tell the rest of us that we shouldn't be able to enjoy something different.
I know this may seem like hyperbole, but I have heard quite a few people say things along the lines of "video games are just entertainment, stop trying to make them serious!" or "I hear enough about politics everywhere else, I don't want to start hearing about them when I read about video games!"
In fact, I think that games, like every other method of communication between humans, should be used to communicate the full spectrum of ideas that we have. I don't think that anyone should be forced to play political games if they don't want to.
But I also feel that games, because of their interactivity and their ability to ask players to reflect on their decisions, could be an incredibly powerful tool for discussing politics, so to say that "games shouldn't be political" is just silly.
Games Should Be Interactive
OK, at a really basic level this is obviously true. Interaction is pretty much the thing that makes a game different from a movie or a novel. What I'm against is the idea that, because interaction is the defining aspect of games, that games must always focus on interaction.
The argument against parts of games being non-interactive (especially cut-scenes) is usually something along the lines of "movies/novels already do that better, game should focus on what makes them different."
Well, I've never seen a movie whose characters were as strong and well-defined as the characters in the best novels I've read. So are we now also going to say that the thing that makes movies different is motion, so they should stop pretending they can do characters well and just try to take advantage of their visuals? Of course not.
We fully acknowledge that there are a wide variety of techniques available to film-makers to use their medium to obtain different effects. Why do some people want to take this priviledge away from game-makers? (There is a corollary to this, which is people saying games shouldn't try to do narrative at all, but I think that argument has pretty much been settled, right?)
Now, I'm not trying to convince anyone who doesn't want to play serious games, or political games, or less interactive games that they should change their mind. But can we all at least agree that there is no list of things that games "should" or "must" be and just accept that other people might view games differently?
There is a huge variety of things that we can do with games, and it strikes me as silly that so many people seem to want to limit other peoples' ability to take advantage of that.