ven now, well into the second decade of the 21st century, we tend to view video games as a guilty pleasure. For anyone over the age of 25, they’re often something you sneak off to do when no one is at home. They’re a furtive treat, filled with the cultural equivalent of empty calories.
Partly this is to do with how video games have been marketed for the last 30 years – predominantly at teenage boys. The games industry has taught us to see games as loud, brash and arcane. On top of this, the most visible titles tend to conform to familiar stereotypes: Call of Duty is about killing enemies; Candy Crush Saga is about killing time. When you’re not entrenched in games, these highly marketed titles become representative – you don’t see the other things going on behind these entertainment monoliths. It’s just like, if you only go to the cinema in the summer, you’re in danger of thinking that all movies involve indestructible people wearing capes.
But the last five years has seen a huge renaissance in video game design. The democratisation of the medium (through cheap development tools and the rise of super-fast broadband) has brought in new voices and ideas. Fascinating things are happening.
So here are seven reasons why, if you haven’t played many video games in the past, or still feel a little self-conscious about your Xbox or PlayStation, you should try more video games this year – and not feel bad about it.
As the global economy shows few signs of drastically improving, getting the most out of our entertainment choices is going to be important this year. And video games remain astoundingly good value. A big mainstream release like Witcher 3 or Fifa 2017 will cost around £50 on console and less on PC, but they can provide hundreds of hours of entertainment. Take the online shooting game Destiny. A year after the game’s release, a study of player patterns found that the average session was three hours, and the average player had put 77 hours into fighting alien monsters. That’s an enormous amount of entertainment for that initial £50 outlay.
Most titles have replayability features built in. Big adventure games like Dishonored, Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider are filled with sub-quests, hidden areas and collectible items that encourage and reward replay and exploration. Competitive multiplayer titles such as Overwatch, Fifa and Rocket League effectively function like sports – you play and improve over many months, discovering new skillsets and features. And of course, waiting a few weeks before buying a game, or looking out for sales on download sites like Steam, Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, will get you those experiences for even less money.
They’re culturally prescient
A lot of the people now making, producing and funding television and movies grew up playing video games – and that influence is becoming ever more obvious and important. Two of the most interesting television programmes of 2016, Mr Robot and Westworld, were inspired by game design and conventions – the latter has been widely read as a comment on the sorts of interactive immersive worlds we find in games. We’re now seeing the very structure, culture and design principles of games being expressed and explored in traditional narrative media.
From the deeply interconnected Marvel movies, filled with easter eggs, clues and puzzles, to the rise of immersive theatre productions, we’re being asked to take more of an active role in the entertainment we consume. So playing video games is effectively preparing you for the future of broadcast media, and ensuring you understand what’s going on in, say, the next Ready Player One, or Stranger Things or the films of Alex Garland, JJ Abrams or Duncan Jones.
The popular stereotype of the lone gamer sat in a bedroom staring at a screen was never particularly accurate, but now its laughably out of date. Most titles have multiplayer components that let you easily play against other people online – but if that’s too intimidating, there are also a lot of “local” or “couch” multiplayer games that you can share with friends in the same room. Recent examples include the hilarious cooperative kitchen game Overcooked, the crazed VR experience Keep Talking and No One Explodes, and the beautiful puzzler Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime. But you can also pick up a cheap old Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, grab a copy of Rock Band or Guitar Hero and enjoy many nights of terrifyingly incompetent karaoke fun.
But in a lot of important ways, almost all games can be shared. I know a lot of couples who sit down and play adventure games like Life is Strange or Walking Dead together, taking turns with the controls, helping each other, discussing tactics and options. We learn a lot about our friends through play, and how you cooperate on video game tasks is a pretty good indicator on how you will cope with real-life challenges. In short, video games will save your relationship. I’m only half joking.