Video Games Shouldn’t Have to be Fun

I attended my first Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCCs) this past April. As the largest conference in a crowded field, it is a pretty big event. It’s basically the E3 of composition conferences. Part of what makes it so big is that there is a lot of overlap with other fields, like rhetoric and my area of interest, game studies. So I was very excited to attend a panel called “Performing Games/Performing Composition: Playing, Imagining, and Creating Embodied Rhetorics in the Writing Classroom,” one of the few video game-centric panels at the conference. The panel itself was a mixed bag, but there was one moment that really struck a chord with me. During the Q&A portion, one attendee framed their question with “Video games are supposed to be fun…” And, after furrowing my brow and biting my tongue, I tweeted:

CCCC tweet

It’s not exactly a new sentiment, and I’ve ranted about it with friends before, but I guess the reason that it bothered me was its source: a video game scholar. If a person who never plays games is under the illusion that video games are supposed to be fun, that’s one thing; but when someone who (I assume, to be fair) studies the medium seriously and academically says it, it tells me that the problem with society not taking video games seriously as art might not be constrained to non-gamers.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, as I cracked open issue 315 of Game Informer magazine. In his editorial about the upcoming handheld system Playdate, editor-in-chief Andy McNamara says “Games are supposed to be nonsense. Games are supposed to be fun.” Then, on last week’s What’s Good Games podcast, episode 116, host Andrea Rene says “games are supposed to be fun,” in discussing the controversies surrounding the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s violence and realism.

I don’t know that either Andy or Andrea would actually argue that all video games are supposed to be fun, so I’m not about to read too deeply into their individual statements, but I couldn’t help but be struck again by how common this notion is. It’s not just non-gamers that seem to believe it – it’s professionals that people trust to have expert insight or an educated opinion. Again, I’m not slamming any of these people individually, but I think the fact that it’s not an uncommon refrain, even from prominent proponents of the medium, means something is wrong with how we talk about it.

I’ve taken several graduate courses that covered the history of the film industry, and in each class I found myself noting how similar the film and video game industries are. They are both industrial, collaborative art forms, there was an element of spectacle to them early on, and neither was widely considered a serious art form for decades. With film, it wasn’t until André Bazin and others began writing about movies in a serious way in the 1950s and 60s that critics and scholars began studying movies as texts, with authorship, meaning, and relevant cultural markers. Even western movies, once thought of as cheap, shallow entertainment made for kids, received serious study, elevating the genre’s status in the process.

I don’t think video games have reached that point yet. Popular film, in its first few decades, was “supposed to be fun.” It was meant to captivate and astound, to entertain and bewilder. Now, after years of both refinement of the form and criticism of it, very few people would argue that film is not a serious art form, and (I would wager) few people would claim that movies “are supposed to be fun.” A Clockwork Orange isn’t “fun.” Brokeback Mountain isn’t “fun.” Schindler’s List isn’t “fun.” Movies aren’t “supposed to be fun,” and we’re okay with that. We don’t expect them to be. So when will we become okay with that for games?

The reason this matters is not because I love video games and want to feel better about playing and studying them. There is a certain guilt in studying something that so many people view as a juvenile waste of time, sure. But in the last few weeks we’ve seen, yet again, news commentators and armchair social activists turn their attention toward violent video games and their (mostly fabricated/exaggerated) influence on people. It’s been a long time since we as a society have allowed the same kind of allegations to be lobbied at other art forms. But for many, video games are still meant for kids and teenagers, and when we casually claim that “video games are supposed to be fun,” we don’t exactly shift their reputation away from that and toward being taken seriously. Gamers want games to be called art and want them protected as such, but they don’t want them to “be political,” which art inherently is. It’s those same kinds of gamers that would hear a prominent games scholar or personality claim that “games are supposed to be fun” and feel vindicated for their belief. After all, “fun” games don’t have politics, right?

I might be making a mountain of a mole hill, but words have power, and if serious game scholars, critics, and commentators choose their words loosely, video games will continue to be considered an immature, unevolved art form, and game developers (both AAA and indie) will feel less inclined to use games to explore all aspects of the human experience, as other art forms do – and, more immediately, politicians and exploitative media outlets will continue to get away with making baseless claims about a diverse art form with which they have very little experience.