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A few reasons why I'm thankful for video games

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Gaming has suffered a tough year of culture hate-mongers, self-serving corporations, death threat nutters, broken games and derivative designers.

So it's difficult to talk about gaming's sparkling orbs of goodness without sounding a tiny bit Pollyannaish.

Even so, this is Thanksgiving, and gaming really does offer a host of joyful, life-affirming moments that ought to be celebrated. These are mine.

GAMES ACTUALLY EXIST

games

Last night my wife went out for dinner with her friends, so I put the kids to bed and settled in to relax and do whatever I wanted. I thought about watching some HBO or reading a novel but in the end, I decided to play Powerstar Golf on my Xbox One.

It's not the greatest game ever made. It's not even the best golf game. But I like it. I shot my farthest drive and I putted from 30 yards and I levelled up and I bought some new clubs with in-game earnings. It was a happy hour-and-a-half. When my wife came home, we watched Nashville.

When I was about 10 years old, my mate's dad invited a few of us lads to his offices in Luton. He showed us a computer. It was the size of a truck. It had a little screen with green writing. He talked about what the computer did. Something to do with engineering. I was bored. He showed us a text adventure on the computer. The computer reacted to the things I typed in. It was like the best magic show I'd ever seen.

The fact that an art-form and an entertainment exists in which there is an in-built expectation of audience participation, in which the quality of that participation is the defining factor in its worth, is a source of never-ending wonder.

Look! If I move this way, some corresponding, rational, intriguing thing happens on the screen. Amazing. It's something we take for granted, and yet it has only existed for a few years.

You know how it is when the cooler sort of old person looks at a video game and says, "I wish we had these when I was a kid". That's what I'm talking about.

OPEN WORLDS

dragon age

Have you played Dragon Age: Inquisition yet? You should. It's great.

Like the sublime Skyrim, Far Cry 4 and others of its ilk, it just lets you wander off into beautiful blue yonders, poking around at stuff, climbing up mountains to find a better view. There are quests and urgent things to do, of course, but half the fun is just stopping, turning around and going in that direction, just because you can.

Isn't this what we always wanted, alternative worlds where you get to dress up and pretend to be a mage or a warrior or a princess or a god and just do stuff? I like to stand in a little valley and gaze up at the rock formations and the pretty cottages and the swaying trees.

POKEMON

pokemon

For me, Pokemon is like a wrapped up present that someone left at my house by mistake. I know it's for someone else. I know that if I open it, I'll find a set of hair-curlers or a Coldplay CD or a book about Jesus. It's not going to be for me. And yet, there is always the temptation to take a look inside.

I love that there are all these games that I probably won't get around to playing, but that other people really, really like. My colleagues all have gaming passions that I can admire, without being able to fully share them.

Griffin is super into Pokemon. Justin likes FMV games. Danielle enjoys fooling around with avant garde interactive fiction. Charlie is mad about flight sims. Owen plays American sports sims inside and out. Megan knows all about weird Japanese dungeon-crawlers. Mike is into fighting games.

All these genres are just waiting to be unwrapped. The fact that there is a whole multiverse of games out there that I might one day be into, just like my friends are, is something to sit back and enjoy. In the meantime, I'm going to take another look at my pile of shame and pick one at random and just play it and see what happens.

E-SPORTS

esports

Here's something that never used to happen: people who pay money to watch other people play video games.

Such is the complexity of games, such is the expertise demanded of their best players, that they are celebrated with all the trappings of stardom. We begin to recognize that being the best player of League of Legends or Call of Duty or Hearthstone takes an immense amount of practice and skill and dedication.

Whether we choose to classify games as a "sport" or not is irrelevant, because e-sports have redefined what it means to root for someone doing that thing you really like, really, really well.

If video games were merely puzzles to be solved and monsters to be slayed, e-sports wouldn't exist. It's popular because certain games, played against humans, offer limitless potential for self-expression, invention and cunning. And unlike other spectator games like chess, they are very suited to the modern age and to those who like to stand in bars and holler for our favorites, because they move really, really fast.

CHARIOT

chariot

For the past few weeks I've been playing this Xbox One game with my kids. Chariot is a local co-op game, in which two players try to haul a great sarcophagus through a 2D maze of tunnels and platforms. It's challenging and frustrating and pure fun.

Through this game, my kids and I are on an equal footing of competence. We work together at figuring out the puzzles and executing the tricky manoeuvres. Sometimes my kids will see solutions that I completely miss. This is an immense pleasure to me.

Chariot is just one of those games that you get to play with (and against) other people, and through which you get to enjoy other people. The publishers like to talk about games as "social experiences," but beyond the servers and the leaderboards, there's nothing to beat sitting on a couch with the people you love most and just playing a game.

THE CRITICS

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In the past year, a small number of people who took the time to investigate gaming's shortcomings, the areas where it can do a whole lot better, were rewarded with vilification, threats and harassment.

Yet, what the likes of Anita Sarkeesian have done is offer a service of immense value. I have always understood that gaming's portrayal of women is crass and offensive, but I've never understood how, until someone with an understanding of broader feminist issues laid it all out.

As I've said before, I believe this work will have an immense difference to the way games are made in the future, not because the makers of games feel shamed, but because they're better informed.

It's not just Sarkeesian and it's not just the treatment of women. It's the documentary-makers, reporters, YouTubers and commentators who are prepared to take on the many flaws currently in gaming and the many organizations that seek to exploit those flaws.

STEAM

Steam Universe logo on blue background Image: Valve

In 2014 you can turn on your computer or your console or your smart phone and press a button and start playing a game. Sometimes you can do it without paying any money.

Of course, we do not live in a digital utopia. There are times when games don't work or games are crappy or the game-makers keep bugging you with annoying requests for money.

But when that happens, lots of people get angry and the world knows about it, through forums and news posts and social media.

You can always choose to be informed enough to avoid that game and go and play a different game. You can always just never play that company's games again because they treated you badly or they tried to fool you. There is more choice now, more immediacy and more options to play games on a budget than there has ever been.

THAT DRAGON, CANCER

that dragon cancer

The greatest innovation in gaming right now is not about design or technology. It's about individuals of limited means being able to tell deeply personal stories through games. I don't know if That Dragon, Cancer is going to be the slickest game ever made, or the most fun. But I played it for an hour and found it deeply affecting. It's a story about a family who suffer a dreadful loss.

A confluence of game development tools, digital distribution, crowdfunding and social media is allowing individuals to share personal experiences and viewpoints through a medium that is only just beginning to be explored, as a deliverer of big emotional ooomph.

Games like Depression Quest and Never Alone tell stories that literally no-one else was telling before, through this vast medium. Thank goodness it's possible for small organizations and for individuals to address us with their all their strangeness and their stories.

DESERT ISLAND GAMES

fifa 14 review hero

We've all got them. A shortlist of games that we'd take to that fabled island, where we'd be stranded and alone. I'm not talking about games that tickle some nostalgic fancy, but games that you know you'd play for a very long time, over and over again. For me, I'd take DefenderCivilization 5 and the latest FIFA game. I'd also take a big RPG like Dragon Age and a puzzle game, like Candy Crush.

In a way, games themselves are desert islands where we get to escape from all the shit: the grasping corporations, the ranting ideologues, the endless wars, the grinding injustices and humiliations of real life. This is what we have to be thankful for: an infinite variety of other places where we can escape and hide.