Why we enjoy videogames

I’ve recently started allowing my five year old daughter to play Red Dead Redemption.

Okay, I’ve immediately left myself wide open to accusations of bad parenting, but please; let me explain. She sees none of the sex (of which there is practically zero anyway), none of the violence, none of the blood, and none of the bad language. She saw me start to play it one night just before she went to bed, and loved it. She’s currently into the whole cowboy thing thanks to Woody from the Toy Story movies. A dream come true for her!

So now, after school, she’ll sometimes play a bit of Red Dead for ten or twenty minutes. Yes, it carries an 18 certificate; but all she does is ride around town and the countryside on the horsie, sometimes jumping off for a wander around before climbing back on again just because she can. She’s taking a wonderful, innocent pleasure in the experience of being a cowboy on the TV screen. Isn’t that what a lot of us do when playing Red Dead at times? Oh we’re, uh, not supposed to admit that to other adults, are we?

The point, I realised after I’d started typing this sentence, is that the fundamentals of how and why we enjoy gaming are much simpler than we may suspect. Staying with Red Dead Redemption for a moment; it’s a great story, some of the moral choices are interesting, and there are so many set objectives both big and small, it’ll take you dozens of hours to do everything. Not to mention the multiplayer modes. But come on; are you telling me you didn’t buy that game because you get to be a cowboy? Not at all? You get a horse and a lasso and everything!!

I have played, do play, and will play dozens and dozens (and dozens) of games online. The only ones in recent years that consistently get me swearing like a trooper when I’m losing are Call of Duty games, FIFA games, and Mario Kart Wii. Three very different online experiences, but they all share one common factor. What is it?

They all allow me to pit my skills against other players, but so does pretty much every other game I’ve ever played online. The difference is that these are all games I enjoy immensely and crucially, games that I feel I not only could but should dominate. Call of Duty, because I’ve always enjoyed FPS games and tend to progress through the singleplayer modes with little to no difficulty; Mario Kart, because I’ve loved the games since the first SNES title and am familiar with every facet of the franchise; and FIFA, because I’m English and therefore must have some congenital magical power that makes me a footballing god in every context.

BOOOOOOOOO!!!

The fundamental here is proving to myself that I am in some way more skilled than my fellow man or, if you prefer, electronic willy waving.

Back in the nineties, the phrase ‘Nintendo Magic’ was very popular amongst game journos. It was used in an attempt to define the undefinable; that ineffable something that Nintendo somehow wove their very best games from, particularly Super Mario titles. The first steps of the Wii seemed to threaten the death of this but, thankfully, Nintendo can still now and again pull a timeless classic out of nowhere. The two best examples on the Wii are the Super Mario Galaxy games.

If you dismiss these titles as childish and/or unworthy of your time, then you certainly can’t have played them. Either that, or you have no soul. Ironically however, the word ‘childish’ which is sometimes used to criticise Mario games perhaps epitomises everything that is wonderful about them. There’s no point denying that the visuals of a typical Mario game have childhood qualities. Bright colours, big chunky backgrounds, relatively simple character designs. The soundtracks, too; bright cheery tunes punctuated by sparkly sound effects and the occasional ‘woo hoo!’ from Mario himself. And, despite having much more depth than critics give them credit for, Super Mario games are always built around a simple yet versatile control system. Easy to learn, difficult to master has never been more appropriate.

Both consciously and subconsciously Super Mario games epitomise and are evocative of childhood; a simple world, a fun world, a world that’s easy to understand and even easier to enjoy yourself in. This is why children love them and adults love them even more. Videogames, after all, are all about escape from the prosaic nightmare of adulthood for many.

Play it; it'll remind you why you started playing videogames in the first place.

Rather than tackle the impossible task of detailing the most basic appeal of every popular game I can think of, I’d like to think that I’ve planted a seed in the minds of at least a few of you. When you’ve got a spare minute or two, think about your most loved games, past or present. Can you reduce the pleasure you get from them to the most basic fundamentals, fundamentals that could apply to a child just as easily as they apply to you? I’m sure you can, no matter what the game, no matter what the age certificate.

Give it a try.

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Written by Luke K

He plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. He doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

6 comments

  1. KrazyFace /

    YOU LET YOUR CHILD PLAY RED DEAD!!! I’m SHOCKED! I’m ANGRY!

    I’m just kidding. Absolutley true, I DID buy Red Dead so I could ride around on a horsie. But I also bought it coz I think Rockstar have a magic touch when it comes to building open world games and I had been looking for a wild west simulator for a long time.

    Also, I have no soul! I’m sorry, but that sporradic waggling of the pad is exactly what put me off Mario Galaxy. Which is a real shame, because I’d like nothing more than to finish it off (I only got about halfway through). But it just ANNOYS me! Strangly though, I did enjoy Zelda on the Wii.

  2. Fragpig /

    I let my 4 year old daughter play…because she loves horses, she’ll ride them around until a wolf eats one then she demands i rope another one, previously she loved the cars demo, and the katamari demo, both easy to control for 4 year olds.

    I mostly like games for the multiplayer competition, but i have to say recently RDR and Arkham have been thoroughly enjoyable single player.

  3. half_empty80 /

    I let my son play GTA San Andreas when he was four. I made him leave the room, I’d go and “borrow” a fire engine, then let him back in and we’d do a couple of the firefighter missions together. I’d drive (because he was rubbish) and he’d spray the water.

    Games are about pretending to be something you’re not. I loved pretending to be a cowboy in RDR, most of the fun I had was just the scenery and the ambience of the thing as a whole.

  4. Anthony H /

    I’m fairly sure the enjoyment of tethering people to moving vehicles in Just Cause 2 transcends all age and gender barriers. Has your daughter’s horsie fun been spoiled by a surprise encounter with a gun wielding cannibal in the outback yet? Or is that when cowboy Dad steps in and helps?

    • KrazyFace /

      See, that’s what I’d be worried about happening; a pack of wolves, some crazy trigger happy mexican, or one of those bastards that wants “a ride into town” coming along. Is there an area that’s safe from all those encounters?

      Maybe a locked world on multiplayer perhaps?

    • I must admit, she did run into a few wolves the other day. I quickly jumped in to take ’em out, but it was too late for horsie.

      “Is he dead?” my daughter asked, cheerily.

      “Er, no, he’s gone to the horsie hospital.” I said, swerving the camera away from the rapidly expanding pool of blood.

      “So you have to wait for another one!” she beamed.

      So contrary to what I’ve previously said, she’s now run into a little violence – which didn’t faze her in the slightest. What disturbs her is losing at Mario Kart.

      If you think about it, she’s going to experience more casual violence in Spongebob than she ever will in Red Dead.

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