I had barely scratched the surface of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, the epic fantasy open-world game that features well over a hundred hours of action/magic/sword-fighting gameplay, when I decided to sit down and play Gwent, an optional card game within the game. The game crashed after my first win, and I haven’t been back since. I think I need a break from all the seriousness of gaming.
See, I don’t think I have had fun playing games lately, at least not the jovial free-spirited form of fun that I associate with child-like playfulness. The world of The Witcher is dark and rough. Geralt, who sounds like someone constantly waking up from a nap, lops off heads and runs quests for murderers and racists. It’s not exactly a light romp through magic-land.
Of course, this is no fault of the game. The Witcher never promised to be anything else but a very adult fantasy tale. Likewise, Arkham Knight coming just around the corner promises all sorts of gadgets with which to electrify, bludgeon, or otherwise incapacitate loads of burly dudes. I have grown accustomed to the violence of the games industry. It’s what we expect. We know Tomb Raider and Call of Duty are coming this year too and with them a big hefty serving of murder.
I am excited for these games, I really am, but I’m also tired. I can see the porous border where we as an industry lose people. The land where people stop caring and turn away from games entirely. I feel weighty fatigue, like I’m stumbling from sheer exhaustion too close to that strip of desert.
It’s not just the dark tone of so many games that tires me. The multiplayer games that I still enjoy deeply right now, Destiny and League of Legends, require significant mental commitment. The desire to improve and take on new challenges in these games is satisfying, especially when I see progress, but it is also taxing. When I play, I must commit. While compelling, these games lack the frivolity of joyful play.
There is a deep joy in play without obligation. As a kid, using your imagination, especially alone, was the ultimate expression of this free play. Reality was no limiting factor to the worlds in your mind. A simple stick could become a lightsaber, or a flying broomstick, or a wand, and then back to a piece of wood at your whim. When the time came to play something else, it was easy. Nothing was lost by moving between undirected whimsies.
These days, I feel the need to commit to play as something more than fun. Of course this is partly to shine light on the very real intersections between games and society. The Witcher can be a sweeping gorgeous experience and an opportunity to discuss race in games. As someone who cares deeply about social issues and a minority myself, I already feel the occasional acute guilt at backing away from sensitive issues in games. Rarely do I talk about race in games, not because I don’t think it important (it is), but because my passions often draw me elsewhere. I take critical play seriously, so it can feel like a betrayal to step away and enjoy something frivolously.
Sometimes you have to remind yourself to play without obligations. That to do so is healthy and human. I agree in this perspective with the guru of play Bernie De Koven in his discussion of fun:
Fun isn’t the hard thing. The hard thing is remembering to have it. Even when you spend your lifesavings on something that you think will be the most fun that you’ve ever had or will have, you forget… Or you start believing, maybe because someone told you, that you have to earn it, or deserve it, or get wise enough or enlightened enough or have sacrificed enough or been good enough.
There is a race among those who care passionately about games to find the ones that truly matter and share them with the world. It is an admirable goal, one I firmly support. There is great beauty and wonder and, yes, even horror to find in games that is important to share, discuss, and learn from. But sometimes we also need to play when it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s by plunging into a kids game or replaying something old but cherished. Or maybe it’s not playing anything designed at all, but instead picking up a stick and imagining.
There are great games on the horizon, dark gritty violent worlds, shooters, experimental narratives, adventure games, and everything in between. Take a little time out of your schedule to play something, just for fun, and you’ll be ready for them.