Games and the Value of Comfort Zones

Game designer Jonathan Blow is getting people riled up today with this quote:

“If every movie were a porn movie, most people wouldn’t see movies. The majority of games are basically porn—the onus is on us to make more things that are worth a reasonable person’s time.”

To give Blow’s view proper consideration, he’s not saying that “porn,” or games as they are now, shouldn’t exist– just that they shouldn’t make up such a large percentage of the gaming landscape. I can agree with that much, certainly. The idea that gaming as a medium could be offering a much wider variety of experiences than it does currently is hardly a new or radical idea; in fact, I remember the staff of Electronic Gaming Monthly writing sundry editorials about that all the way back in the ’90s.

Where I part ways with Blow is the supposition that games as they are now aren’t “worth a reasonable person’s time”– implying (or I guess, outright stating, really), that people who enjoy today’s games are unreasonable people. Putting aside the fact that that’s just begging for a George Bernard Shaw-inspired burn, as one of the so-called unreasonable people, I would like to make a case for the value of unreasonability.

Now, this isn’t about Jonathon Blow: I haven’t played Braid, but critics I trust have called it an absolutely brilliant game, and I have no particular reason to doubt them. This is about a pervasive view, which Blow is just the latest to voice, that playing most popular video games is an intellectually bankrupt pastime, and that people who enjoy them are depriving themselves of more enriching experiences. Some go as far as to say that people should be ashamed of enjoying genre games, while others simply look upon fans of shooters and formulaic dungeon crawlers with a kind of paternalistic disappointment. There’s a sense of “Oh, if only you poor, misguided gamers would just venture out of your well-worn comfort zones; imagine the (desperately needed) journey of self-improvement you could undertake!”

I do not object, one iota, to more intellectually challenging games being made; in fact, I support it wholeheartedly. The more games, the better. What I do object to strongly is the notion that people who enjoy genre games as a comfort zone are somehow lesser– either intellectually, emotionally, or simply as human beings. There are a lot of reasons for this objection, but in order to fully explain why I feel this way, I have to get personal for a second– about as personal as I’ve ever gotten on this blog.


When I was a teenager, I used to have a pretty serious binge-eating problem. I would eat entire boxes of cookies for no apparent reason, eating past the point where I felt sick. Fortunately, I suppose, compulsive overeating is probably the least dangerous of the eating disorders; it’s unlikely to kill you– or at the very least, if it does, it takes a really long time. One psychiatrist even went so far as to tell me that I didn’t have a “real” eating disorder (and pretty much every mental health professional I’ve met since has wanted to find out where that guy lives so they can punch him, but that’s another story.)

Of course, as a teenager with minimal self-esteem and an expanding waistline, the fact that my particular disorder was relatively benign from a medical standpoint was small comfort. I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t; I could resist binging for a few days, but then I’d have a really bad day, and that would be that. It became my go-to response to stress, disappointment, etc. To my parents’ credit, they got me in treatment with an eating disorder specialist rather quickly, but that didn’t “cure’ me; I was just able to go longer between binges. Eventually, by the time I got to college, binging became more of an occasional response to a REALLY bad day than a frequent affair, but I still felt like I had little control over it.

And I would still go through bad patches where I would binge every day.

For years, my standard behavior was to binge and watch television; it didn’t matter what it was. I’d sit in front of the TV watching some dumb ’80s movie with training montages, or Buffy reruns– whatever. However, as I got more into video games– and JRPGS in particular– something changed. At first, I would just binge while playing, but that was a pain; I hated getting the controller all gummy, plus it was just annoying logistically to have to keep reaching into the bag of cookies or chips while I was playing. Over time, I ate less and less, as my time logged in virtual worlds increased. Eventually, I switched to just sipping some tea or coffee while I played, which is more or less what I do today. It was a slow transition, and it certainly wasn’t perfect– in fact, I still associate playing the .hack games with Little Debbie’s Snack Cakes*– but it was a definitive change. As I write this, I haven’t binged in almost a decade, and it’s partially thanks to video games.

Now, I don’t mean to oversell the case; it’s possible I would have gotten over binging even without games. Obviously, growing beyond the teenaged years helped; meeting my wonderful husband helped too. But regardless of how things could have developed differently, the fact remains that playing RPGS– and specifically formulaic, “grindy”-RPGs– were a part of my recovery.

Today, when I have an awful day, my first thought is not “I want to eat an entire cake,” but something more along the lines of, “I want to farm some monsters for rare drops.” Because I have a comfort zone I can retreat to, I don’t need to venture into the realm of self-harm, ever. However, I have to acknowledge that my comfort zone is about comfort, or else it doesn’t work. People generally don’t come home from an awful day of work and say “I really want to take on some challenging puzzles and test the frontiers of my intellect right now!” When I want to play games, I play games that bring me comfort– period. If it’s about “challenging the very idea of games as a medium,” and so on, forget it.

That’s not to say I never challenge myself, because thank God, books exist. I’ve read books by Jules Verne, Thomas Wolfe, D.H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Madeleine L’engle, Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami– great authors from all over the world. And I’m not just talking about required reading back during my English Major days; this is the stuff I read for fun.

However, literature and gaming play different roles in my life. This is an oversimplification, but in general, when I’m feeling good, it’s time to read; I’m ready to take on a challenge. But when I need to take a break from being intellectual, or just had a bad day or two, it’s time to game. I cannot substitute one for the other; as much as I love to read, books do not fulfill that almost visceral need for comfort that video games give me.** I’m pretty sure if I tried to replace my special RPG time with Eco’s The Limits of Interpretation, I would probably drive myself right back into the Chips Ahoy School of Stress Management.

I know others are different. I know that many other people aren’t necessarily the biggest fans of doorstopper 19th-century novels, but perhaps enjoy challenging their intellect with games like Braid. That’s great; just don’t look down on people like me who stimulate their intellect in other ways, and for whom gaming serves a different, but important, function. I’m sure there are people who read literature extensively and also like their games to be of an intellectual bent; good for you, but don’t look down on me because I don’t choose to be intellectual in the exact same way as you. No one can intellectually expand themselves all the time– you have to sit back and process what you’ve learned from time to time. Or, have some time to enjoy being your current self, before the process of gaining more knowledge irresistibly turns you into someone else.

You could say that I’m an aberration; that I have a specific reason for playing genre games that doesn’t apply to most people, and many gamers would still benefit from broadening their gaming horizons more often. Maybe that’s true. However, love it or hate it, one thing that Gamergate has wrought has been a lot of people talking on Twitter about what games mean to them, and I’ve been paying attention. People have poured their hearts out about how Final Fantasy, or even the reviled Call of Duty, were there when they were sick, depressed, stressed, or just needed some fun in their lives. During these times, trying to expand your mind with intellectual challenge after intellectual challenge generally isn’t a realistic option that’s on the table; it’s all you can do to keep body and soul together. Of course, reading a bunch of tweets about how “Dragon Quest VIII stopped me from giving up when I was on dialysis,” does not pass muster as proper research, but I will say this; at the very least, there does seem to be a lot of us for whom gaming works this way.

TLDR: Lobby for more challenging, genre-busting games. Make them, review them, love them. But you can do that without denigrating those of us who have a love for genre games, and– if you give me, and people like me, the proper consideration of not showering us with automatic, blanket disrespect– I’ll have all the more reason to believe your sincerity.

Oh, and one more thing; if you think that the fact that I like to play games where I kill palette-swapped monsters over and over again means that you can win an intellectual pissing contest with me, because I must be a simpleton, then at least say that; don’t hide behind this whole pretentious idea of games needing to transcend my pedestrian-ass expectations in order to buff your self-esteem. Now, I’m not terribly confident that you’d win said pissing contest, but at least I’d appreciate the honesty.

*I had a pretty terrible backslide when I lived in Albany, but that was because my whole life pretty much fell apart for a while there. Alternately, it could have been an entirely sane response to the Albany winter, which strongly motivates one to cultivate an extensive layer of additional body fat.

**Okay, maybe Terry Pratchett’s Discworld— occasionally. But that’s the token exception!



5 thoughts on “Games and the Value of Comfort Zones”

  1. This whole smarter games thing seems pretty dumb to me. A high is a high is a high. Those “porn like” mainstream titles have just as much room to be memorable as anything else and Blow’s approach doesn’t even sound different to me. Then again when does someone make a comment like his publicly comparing something to porn without being either ignorant or disingenuous? Comparing gaming to (insert “evil” of the day here) is like some kind of mental disease for high horse “intellectuals” who hate gaming. And you know what? I really don’t even like mainstream gaming much myself. I’m just more annoyed by the attitude of folks like Blow.

    I wish gaming helped me with food. Actually it kind of did… There was a point where I was so busy playing WoW I would forget to eat until I started blacking out from hunger/lack of nutrition. By the time I had become anemic I decided to start eating and I uh… over compensated. I guess that wasn’t help so much as a new problem entirely. I am now trying to fix the problem caused by years of ignoring the fact that I was eating too much. I wish I could rely on gaming as a distraction/alternative, but I go too far when I do that. lol

    Thanks for sharing by the way. I’ve been trying to write up a personal story of my own and I think reading this will make hitting the publish button just a little bit easier. 🙂

    1. Yeah, the funny thing is I don’t even like mainstream gaming that much myself. The only time I was really playing AAA titles was during the PS1 days; when I was still new to gaming and experimenting with everything. For the past more-than-a-decade, it’s been all niche-market RPGs and dungeon crawlers for me.

      It’s just that I can’t stand these people who denigrate having fun in the guise of being so-called intellectuals. If you don’t understand that people use media in all different ways, and that calls for all different kinds of experiences– even those you consider vapid or shallow– then you’re not an intellectual, you’re just an insecure snob.

  2. Jonathan Blowhard is simply another indie dev bully on a high horse.

    Let people enjoy what they enjoy, you fucking hack.

  3. This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend this past weekend about the types of games I play. He wondered why I never bothered to play MMOs and PC games. I told him that I like narratives and things like that. I like 1-player games more than anything, because it allows me to be with my own thoughts. It was kind of an interesting conversation to say the least.

    From my personal experiences, JRPGs have shaped my personality. I think FFX-2 (no matter what people think of it) made me think about my own inner femininity more than anything during the time it came out. Even re-playing it in the HD Remaster made me go “Well, I’m still affected, huh?”

    1. I never quite forgave FFX-2 for it’s pre-game coverage that led me to believe that Paine was Auron’s daughter, thus he would still be in the story somewhat, albeit posthumously. When the actual game seemed to go out of it’s way to pretend that Auron never existed, that pissed me off.

      That said, FFX-2 had a lot of really interesting stuff in it that I think was under-appreciated because the whole dresspheres/girl powah! thing soaked up all the attention. I loved the whole subplot about Zanarkand; here they are, knowing better than anyone that the whole Yevon religion was a complete sham, yet they still feel a need to protect the sanctity of this place, because they sense the distinction between dogmatic religion and humanistic spirituality. So cool.

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