Since October 25, 2011, I have played at least 123 hours and 45 minutes of video games, an exact number that I can reference because my Battlefield 3 Battlelog tells me precisely how long I’ve been playing. Among other stats, the game tracks how many people I’ve killed (3,526), vehicles that I’ve destroyed (407), and matches that I’ve won (320). Throughout my time playing the game, I’ve run the gamut of emotions, from exhilaration to terror to frustration to hope to disappointment to excitement.
But Battlefield is not the only game I’ve played since October 25. I’ve logged at least double-digit hours into Skyrim, Skyward Sword, and NBA 2k12, and I’ve also played Bastion, Warp, Grand Slam Tennis 2, and a host of other games. Video games, both as a form of entertainment and cultural exploration, have largely taken the place of movies, music, television, and reading for me in the last 12 months. As such, I take exception to a recent review of Dark Souls written for Slate.
I’ve never played the game, so any comments about its gameplay or story are lost on me, but the review grapples with another question: Is a 100-hour video game ever worthwhile? The takeaway:
Indeed, more than any other medium, video games blur the distinction between a depicted act and participating in the act itself. Dark Souls insists that players participate in their own undoing by burning hour after hour in search of the small burst of relief that comes after each round of punishment. Everyone who has played a game of this length knows too well the hollowness that waits at the end, brain numb, uncountable weeks and months piled on the trash heap at their backs, and no idea of what to do next. Why did I do that? Why did I keep playing? What was I after? Where am I now?
These are questions victims ask, people taken advantage of, left with less than they started out with. The purpose of art is the opposite of this, to leave you with more at the end than at the beginning, to give you something you can carry with you. There’s no reason video games can’t provide that, and many do. But none of them take 100 hours.
Author Michael Thomsen broaches the crux of the argument (medium) without actually discussing it. Video games are unlike any form of traditional art, which is one of the reasons why so much literature is dedicated to proving whether it is or isn’t art. Regardless of your opinion on the topic (IMO, yes, they obviously are), you should believe that video games need to be approached differently than other forms of artistic expression. Would you critique a live concert and Modernist painting the same way?
Despite video games’ status as artistic expression or even simply entertainment, its closest analog is actually sports, which is one reason why sports games have always been so successful. Both are rule-based institutions that require you to play within (experience and react to) the confines of the game. Obviously, competitive video games (online FPS, sports games, etc) harbor this comparison more readily, but even single-player games are governed by a set of rules and strictures that require compliance.
Thomsen essentially proposes that the use of hours without tangible gains leaves you hollow and numb, but frankly, those are the beliefs of someone who has either never (or sparingly) played video games or someone who has been playing the wrong games his entire life. Put aside the ability to share stories from your adventures–games like Skyrim are ripe for this, but even Battlefield offers players stories to share with fellow gamers–video games offer experiences, which are far richer than he’s acknowledging.
Games will always struggle to be accepted as a proper artistic medium because of a player’s involvement in the final product. If the purpose of art, as Thomsen argues, is to ” to leave you with more at the end than at the beginning,” dismissing the experiences games offer–and the evocation of real human emotion–discounts the medium as a whole. Video games now often force the player to make decisions, invoke empathy and a host of other emotions, and offer progressive storylines that can sometimes be bent or broken depending on a player’s choices. But it’s how you get to your ultimate goal that sets games apart. If you don’t recall any specific moments from a game, you’re just playing a bad game.
This is also why players often replay games. I can think of at least a dozen games in which I’ve run through the single-player campaigns multiple times to find new secrets, pathways, storylines, and events. Video games are more about how you’ve completed them, not simply completing them.
The review also implies that the stories that drive games aren’t valuable on their own merit*. Does the fact that you control the action of Cloud Strife in Final Fantasy VII diminish the game’s storyline?; Do you feel robbed of your time when you’ve finished a Joseph Conrad book after hours of dedication? Thomsen’s retort against this argument would be that the experiences offered in games can be portrayed in far fewer hours to the same effect, which is bullshit, or at least very hypocritical. Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway can range the gamut of human emotions in few words and fewer pages, but that doesn’t mean Tolstoy or James Joyce are lesser for it.
Ultimately, it’s a combination of the story and experiences that define games. If you’re playing Skyrim just to kill some dragons, collect some skrilla, and help settle a civil war, you’re doing it wrong. There’s a reason games extend beyond 100 hours, and while many games do carry on too long, condemning an entire medium to a certain preferred length is just as ridiculous as saying no book should run longer than 140 pages.
*EDIT: After a Twitter discussion with the author, his argument is that games can run 100 hours, but no existing games really warrant it. I still find his conclusion (“The purpose of art is the opposite of this, to leave you with more at the end than at the beginning, to give you something you can carry with you. There’s no reason video games can’t provide that, and many do. But none of them take 100 hours.”) problematic. The implication drawn from the conclusion, given the original question (Is a 100-hour game ever worth it?), is that this upper limit to game length applies more broadly. Placing such a limit on game length discredits stories that may need 100+ hours to complete.