Each week in Play in Process, Richard Clark shares what he’s been playing and why it means something to him.

Well, I haven’t really been playing all that much lately, mainly because I’ve been too busy writing. One thing I’ve been writing is this post for Gamasutra, about how games make us more aware of our own flawed nature. It’s a subject that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately, and it’s the motivating factor behind my most recent post here, The Beautifully Dark Side of Video Games. If you read that post, and weren’t sure what to think, I recommend you read the one at Gamasutra, which more specifically focuses on kind of spelling out the implications of the article I wrote here.

Ultimately, the whole point of all of this is one of two things, depending on where you’re coming from. If you think videogames are too violent, then I would challenge you to consider whether maybe a little violence, rightly portrayed, isn’t a little bit good for us. After all, it forces us to come to terms with the reality of what we’re doing, as well as the ugliness of sin in general.

But, if you’re the type of person who wishes that games were more meaningful and resonant all the time, I would simply say that games seem to be most resonant when they focus on our depraved nature. A game that’s “just about fighting” can actually be about more than that. We can deal with those games on a case-by-case basis, but the best example is Far Cry 2, a game that years after its’ release, people simply cannot stop thinking and writing about. That’s because it provides the means to put our own evil nature on display. In fact, we can’t stop writing about it ourselves – this Tuesday, Drew Dixon will be posting his “Moment that Matters” with Far Cry 2. Take it from me: it will blow your mind.

In the meantime, I would encourage you to try playing games this weekend with your own depraved tendencies in mind. Why are you doing the things you’re doing in the game? Why are you doing them that way? And why does a particular mechanic or storyline resonate with you so much? Sometimes, it’s okay to ask, “What is wrong with me?” Games can help with that.


  1. I think that the games people find most meaningful will vary depending on the person and on what they find meaningful. Personally, games whose high point is a focus on depravity don’t so much do it for me. I mean, sure, that’s great and all, but it’s hardly all there is to gaming.

    I find games that provide an enjoyable experience much more interesting than something that harps on personal or social depravity. And I would find games that explored literary themes or presented a challenging narrative demanding interpretive chops more meaningful than a game that delved into the corruption of humanity. It’s fine if you want to find games that treat the capability for awfulness in the human creature, but honestly, that doesn’t interest me at all (my personal taste finds depravity-exploration rather one-note).

    The point is to find what sparks your interest without presuming that it should do the same for others. There aren’t rules governing this stuff and to pretend there are just creates arbitrary dogma that will alienate those who see things differently.

    Here are some of the games that have been most meaningful to me:
    • Lucidity
    • Morrowind
    • World of Warcraft
    • Machinarium
    • Unreal Tournament
    • The Legend of Zelda
    • Persona 3
    • Grim Fandango
    • Age of Mythology
    • GTA: SA
    • Shadow of the Colossus

    All of these created in me and experience that I would describe as meaningful but had nothing to do with depravity. Even a game like GTA: SA, in which some pretty depraved stuff happens, wasn’t for me about depravity. It was about a whole lot of other stuff, but never depravity.

    So it’s fine that you want to have a game put your evil nature on display, but for a lot of us, gaming isn’t about that. I have a good sense of my own mind and soul, so gaming as a tool to reveal myself to myself is unnecessary and wouldn’t even end up working (as I’m too invested in games qua games to see myself in my avatars).

    Personally, my experience of games is so divorced from what I read in your articles that it’s hard not to feel like you’re just making things up for the sake of a “meaningful” article. A lot of what you come up with feels like overreaction. Like when I was taking pain response modifiers, restructuring the way my mind perceives physical stimuli, I had a relevant experience. My insurance stopped covering the modifiers and so I was forced to quit cold-trukey when really they strongly advise ramping down. For about the space of a week, I was pretty deeply chemically unstable. My brain was midway through being re-ordered and was marooned in a sort of no-man’s land. I grew hyper-sensitive to things. One day, I saw a leaf fall from a tree and I began weeping these racking sobs because of the tragedy of it all. It was, obviously, an exaggerated response to something that in reality meant little. That’s what I feel when I read your experiences playing things like that boat game or the one with the rain or the sorcery thing you just reviewed. You talk about these experiences you’ve had and the things these games mean and all I can think to say is “Huh. Really?…”

    I mean, I have faith that you’re not making things up—that you really do believe pretty deeply in all the stuff you think is going on in these games—but really, that’s what it comes down to for me: faith. Trust in invisible things. I don’t see any evidence for the things you talk about, but I simply have to trust that you see them or believe you see them.

  2. I don’t really disagree vehemently with anything you’re saying. I agree that to create rules for the medium isn’t really productive. Really, all I’m harping on about is what I feel videogames are uniquely suited to do: draw attention to us, and our depravity. Even if this isn’t your favorite kind of thing, maybe we could agree that games might do this better than some other medium? If not, that’s fine too. People are different and respond to different stimuli in different ways.

    But I think there is some amount of actual Truth to what I’m writing.

    Depravity may be one note to you, but for me the implications are myriad and infinite. Every day we uncover knew ways to disappoint ourselves, one another, and God. I find this horrifying and fascinating at once, and games are one way I like to explore this issue.

    I’m not surprised to find you are bewildered by my game stuff. You are a very different person, in the emotional realm, than I tend to be, so I get that. I think there are plenty of people like you who play games – but people like me exist too, and I think that in the sense we’re talking about, people like me are increasing in number. They may articulate their feelings about games in the way that I do, but I do think they are there.

    I probably do overreact to or overthink games in a sense – but in another sense I think I just find it a valuable pursuit to treat things like that with a sense of seriousness – even if they don’t seem to call for it. In the case of “the boat game” , that was definitely an example of what you would call “overthinking it”. Even the developers thought it was “hilarious!” which is telling it. But for me it was less about what the game was meant to be and more about why it resonated with people. That’s really what it’s all about for me: things resonate with us for a reason. They are fun, or funny, or heartbreaking, or satisfying, or infuriating because they connect with us in some way. I was just exploring what I thought was a probable reason for my deep love for that boat game.

    Those other two games are games that I sought to explore on their own terms. Strange Rain was about surreal, lonely sadness, and for me, sitting down with it when I was in a really extreme funk – that game was a huge deal for me. Sword and Sworcery just kind of felt magical in a very real way. I don’t want to throw out that lame “you haven’t played them” argument, but in these two games’ cases? You really have to play them, and especially in the case of Strange Rain, you have to be in a certain mood. Even Ben enjoyed Strange Rain, you can ask him. But he had to be in a certain mood to enjoy it.

    Thanks for having faith in me. :-)

  3. That’s fair enough. We both think about games, clearly. But its the directions from which we approach our gaming experiences that end up framing the ways in which we are to think about games. Correct me if I’m wrong but I think the primary difference in the way we interact with narrative games could be distilled down to (if we are to be so gauche as to turn binary for a moment) This Game Is Story vs. This Game Is My Story.

    My perspective is that by my participation in game, a story unfolds—a story that does not involve me or a world that bears any necessary relevance intellectually, morally, or spiritually to my own. Game story may have meaning but it is, for me, a meaning of its own that I access in the same way I would through a book or film. Your perspective is a little less clear to me. Since coming from outside and not really being able to empathize with a vantage point that is so alien to my own, I obviously will suffer some level of disconnect from the experience you describe. But from what I gather, you tend to throw yourself (to some degree) into your avatar’s experiences. (I think Brad probably does this as well, judging by some of the things he’s said in the past.) If your PC rapes the horses and rides off on the women, you feel in some sense responsible (whether morally or emotionally). From your starting point with games, you seem to seek immersion (a kind of method acting for gaming) and your desire to experience gaming worlds as worlds pushes you to see them as such whereas I am psychologically incapable of immersion of that kind, never being able to remove gaming from my interaction with gaming worlds.

    That’s just my take-away at any rate. Feel free to revise as you think fit.

  4. @Seth

    Wouldn’t you say that videogames at least ask the player to bring meaning into a game in way that books or movies do not?

    Is there not value in game writing that plays out the experiences or emotions games produced in us at least in part because of our participation in the medium?

    I don’t always feel responsible for the bad things my avatar does but I do sometimes and at the very least there may very well be a lesson for me there. I think you’d be surprised by how many people connect with the type of game writing that Rich tends toward.

    That said, I think I understand where you are coming from and your perspective is a helpful one, especially in light of the many uninformed fears people have about videogames.

  5. @Drew:
    In a way that literature and film do not? I’d say no, but then I’m also not sure exactly what you mean. Here, I’ll explain how I see meaning generated in books/movies and you can tell me how games are different.

    In both mediums, the two apparatuses for meaning are the same. There is 1) meaning conveyed through the vessel of the text from creator to audience and 2) meaning created through audience participation with the text. This author/reader source of meaning seems to be present in games as well.

    While games historically have majored on reader-meaning (Snakes and Ladders and Monopoly aren’t invested with pages-worth of author meaning, leaving meaning mostly to be derived from audience participation), there have been exceptions. Role play has long been a bastion in gaming for author-meaning (e.g. cowboys and Indians, Dungeons & Dragons, etc.). Still, even today, much of gaming majors on reader-meaning over author-meaning. Non-role-playing table-top games, generally, convey very little in terms of author-meaning. Settlers of Catan‘s entire story is “You and others are building settlements on an island of limited resources. Some of you will succeed more apparently than others.” Pandemic‘s is “There are diseases a foot. Will they be stopped?” Actually, the author-meaning of these games can be explored almost entirely on the backs of these games’ boxes.

    Videogames, however, often try harder to employ author-meaning into games while leaving plenty of room for reader-meaning. The games that seem to get the most love on CAPC are these games. Red Dead Redemption features a character with a back-story and an unfolding narrative: author-meaning. It also features the ability for players to roam around doing whatever they want within the mechanics of the game and applying whatever value the experience merits to each individual player: reader-meaning.

    So really the apparatus for meaning-generation is the same in books, films, and games. I suppose that in games, because reader-interaction is more overt, the opportunity for readers to be cognizant of their created meanings is potentially more apparent. This isn’t a big nudge because those who aren’t aware that they are creating meaning when reading books or watching movies, probably aren’t going to be aware of that when playing games either.

    “Is there not value in game writing that plays out the experiences or emotions games produced in us at least in part because of our participation in the medium?”

    Again, participation in games is no different from participation in other narrative mediums. (I always think its funny that there’s a game genre called interactive fiction because every piece of fiction is interactive, so long as it’s read.) So yeah, of course there is value in game writing. It’s just not a different value from that which already exists in books or film.

    And this doesn’t affect the valuation of games either.

    One person might think Tetris or Mario Kart (low author-meaning) are the best games ever made. Others might think that Heavy Rain or Red Dead Redemption (high author-meaning) are far better because of the story they contain.

  6. That was a helpful comment. I think the difference between you and Rich and I (if I can speak to him) is that I tend to throw myself into the game to a greater degree than you do. I don’t know if most people do this or not. I think some games at their outset ask you to do this–Far Cry 2, Fallout 3/NV, Mass Effect 1-2, Oblivion, The Witcher and even Half Life 2 to some degree. In these games, you are the protagonist or at least you can be. In these games I find myself making decisions based on who I am and what is valuable to me. I suppose I think of myself as Shephard and perhaps that is why his experiences sometimes seem to resonate with me more powerfully than some literature. At the very least games ask you to participate and consequently take some responsibility for the actions of their protagonists.

    The Brothers Karamozov is a story I observe, as is Fallout 3. The authors of Fallout 3, however intends for a myriad of responses with the game based on our participation with it. Even if we aren’t given many choices (HL2) we are still doing the necessary jobs to progress the plot. I think F3 is inviting me to bring meaning into the game in a way that BK is not. That doesn’t in any way make one greater than the other. BK is more meaningful than F3 if you ask me for the simple reason that its a much better written piece of fiction. Nonetheless my participation in BK is vastly different. I will grant that not everyone plays this way.

    I think there is a lot of value in playing games in a detached way–that is why I find this whole conversation interesting. I have been learning to appreciate games more the way you seem to see them though. For instance in Red Dead Redemption, I was able to see very clearly that I am not John Marston and that helped me to appreciate the game. I actually envy you in being able to detach yourself from your avatar–that just hasn’t been my experience. I think I am learning to do so and learning to appreciate games from that standpoint.

  7. I like this discussion. It’s fun and valuable to think about this stuff and see it described from other directions.

    One thing I think should be cleared up here has to do with involvement. I think it would be a mistake to say that your involvement in the games and their stories is more intense than my own. I think, rather, our involvement is different. Not counting involvement in gameplay (where I presume the degree and kind of our game experience is probably rather similar), your involvement seems to have been (not counting your recent experiments in detachment) at least in large part via avatar identification. That is to say from inside the character. I also become highly involved in the games I play, though for my experience, I approach from outside the character and often even from outside the character’s world.

    I think both are probably valid approaches. I simply find coming from outside suits my desired game experience better. Plus, there’s too much cognitive dissonance for me if I tried to sit in the shoes of, say, CJ from GTA:SA. It’s not that what he’s doing is too bad for me; it’s more just that I can’t identify with the morality of the world he inhabits (as its starkly different from our own), and so it’s easier to take on that sort of game from the outside (especially since we have very few clues as to the morality of the GTA universe).

    I still find the characters and their experiences very interesting (and I even believe interesting lessons can be drawn from those stories). I just don’t believe those stories bear any necessary reflection on myself.

    For instance, Fallout: New Vegas. My first playthrough, I played a character who was well-intentioned (though still a thieving varmint), kind of a Chaotic Good on the AD&D morality scale. I sought an Independent New Vegas because I thought that’d be for the good of the people. It was a fun story to take in. I played a second time as someone straddling the line between Chaotic Neutral and Chaotic Evil. I took this character through a number of choices opposite those I did before. I helped the Powder Gangers take out Goodspring, I ran missions against the NCR, I became the hero of Ceasar’s Legion. I took the character through a story in which she was not admirable at all. And it was as fun and interesting as the story of the Chaotic Good character.

    I felt no relationship between my morals and my avatars’. I was in it for a compelling story mixed with fun gameplay. And I got both of those things both times I played. It may even be that the story that came about in the Chaotic Neutral/Bad character had more interesting things to say about life and the world around us that the more morally safe character.

  8. Yeah definitely, I agree. Its interesting because I set out to be good in FNV and got progressively worse. I am not sure if this is due to me just wanting to get ahead and do things the way I wanted to do them or if it was because the world became increasingly less meaningful to me.

    Perhaps I need to pick it up again, but early on, in my first bouts with the Legion, I was invested and felt like I needed to fight to end the tyranny of the Legion but as I progressed, I guess I kinda got jaded. This made me wonder about game worlds–I think I approach game worlds differently the less gamey they feel.

    But the more I think about it, the more interesting it seems it would be to see what could be learned by forcing myself to be the terror of the wastes.

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