I just got home from a friend’s house-warming/birthday BBQ. There were between 30 and 40 people in attendance and out of everyone there I knew exactly two people… one of which was the hostess. I’m very introverted, especially in new situations and environments, so even though I tried to make small talk with the other guests, the first hour was basically spent standing around in the backyard, doing nothing but listening to everyone else talk to each other. Finally I gave up the pretense and went back inside to ask if there was anything I could do to help in the kitchen. I love food and cooking so for 30 blissful minutes I was in my element, but then the prep work was done (or the parts that I could help with anyway) and I was forced, once again, to face the idea of mingling among strangers.
When I initially approached the women in the kitchen I had mentioned by way of introduction (and to forestall them shooing me away) that I was introverted, very bad at mingling, and loved to cook. Once my assistance was no longer needed one of the women I had been helping basically dragged me into the backyard and introduced me to a friend of hers by declaring that we had something in common. This forced her friend to ask me what it was that we had in common (apparently we’re both introverted and “nice people”) and a conversation ensued. She was a chemical engineer and the other participant in the conversation was an ex-software developer who had become a QA/QC engineer. The fact that all three of us had technical/scientific backgrounds gave us something in common to talk about and we managed to blunder awkwardly through a variety of small talk for almost an hour. But then the conversation faltered and I excused myself to address the two beers I had already consumed by that point.
On my way through the house I noticed a young boy sitting on one of the couches. There were no other kids at the BBQ and I was probably the closest to him in age despite being (in all probability) at least 20 years older than him. He was sitting by himself not really doing anything but staring into space and it was obvious he would really rather be anywhere else but at this party. When I eventually made my way back from the bathroom he had moved from the couch; there was a cat in the corner of the room basically hanging out and ignoring people and he was attempting to interact with her. By now my tech comrades had moved on to other conversations with people they actually knew. Having lost my window of opportunity I grabbed another beer and stood in the yard feeling a little lost. Then I looked back into the living room at the boy. He had given up on the cat, moved back to the couch, and was staring off into space again.
It’s hard enough being an introverted adult at a party full of strangers, but being a kid who doesn’t know anyone at a party clearly meant for adults? It made my eldest-sibling senses tingle; I figured he had to feel at least as uncomfortable and out of place as I did so I decided to go talk to him. He was, understandably, a little withdrawn when I greeted him and his answers to my questions were addressed to the floor rather than me. At first the conversation centered mostly on the cat and how she seemed to shy away from him: “probably because [he has] a dog and she can smell it.” Eventually, I asked him what he liked to do when he’s not in school.
“I play games.”
“Oh?” I asked. “What kind of games? Video games?”
“What’s your favorite game?”
He answered me, but I couldn’t really hear the answer (although I’m pretty sure it started with an “R”) because he was mumbling and speaking very quietly; I think he figured I was humoring him so he wasn’t investing much in the conversation. Rather than ask him to repeat his answer, which might have made him think I wasn’t paying attention, I just kept going: “I don’t think I know that one. Is it a puzzle game? A first-person shooter? …”
At this point I think he realized that, just maybe, I actually knew something about video games and he raised his head so he was looking at me instead of his shoes to interrupt my question: “It’s like both. It’s a mix of a bunch of types of games.” I told him that sounded kind of fun and asked him why he liked it (because he could play with his friends), if it was a PC game or a console game (PC), and if he primarily played consoles or PC (PC, but he sometimes plays console games at his friend’s house). By now he realized my interest was genuine and he started actively participating in the conversation.
“Have you heard of Halo: Reach?”
I told him that, yes, I had heard of Halo: Reach, but I hadn’t had the chance to play it yet. “I’ve heard it’s pretty fun. Do you like it?”
For the next hour I was regaled with stories about matches in the “R”-game (whose complete name I never did catch but it apparently includes zombies and guns that you can only fire once?) and about “this one time” in Halo: Reach where he managed to beat his opponent with a double explosion by deflecting a rocket launcher attack with a hammer then throwing a sticky grenade before the reflected attack struck. After a while I mentioned that I liked playing Arkham Asylum and the conversation moved to Lego: Batman, a game that both of us had played, and we discussed the pros and cons of the different characters. By then he had warmed up to me enough that when I mentioned I liked playing as Harley Quinn because the double-jump suited my playing style he felt comfortable making a joke about how the rest of the characters were bound by the laws of gravity but she and the other high-jumping characters weren’t.
Eventually we both got called away to get some food – he by his parents and me by my stomach – and I got caught up in a conversation with the one other person there that I actually knew so I didn’t get a chance to talk to him again before his parents decided it was time to head home. They went out into the backyard to say goodbye to the hostess but had to come back through the living room on their way out. Without any prompting from his parents, he stopped long enough to say “See ya” and give me a high-five/handshake combo as he went past me. Of everyone there, I was the only person other than the hostess to whom he said goodbye.
There are plenty of people out there who will tell you video games are dumb, and plenty more who will tell you that:
- video games are art (regardless of what certain critics might say),
- video games are an immersive storytelling medium that can’t be matched by other visual mediums (although the bibliophile in me would argue books are at least as good),
- video games have a substantial, albeit frequently misunderstood, presence within the public eye, which gives them increasingly significant mainstream, cultural weight, and
- probably a billion other reasons why video games are awesome (many of which I would likely agree with)
But if you ask me, the reasons listed above – and others like them – aren’t why games matter.
Video games matter because, unlike television or movies, it isn’t about that one game that happens to be popular right this moment. It’s about the act of playing within a set of rules that are well established and well understood; it’s a framework. And certain elements of that framework are familiar to all gamers – regardless of the kind of games they like to play or whether they are casual or “hardcore” gamers. Whether you’re trying to solve a room puzzle in Zelda or Resident Evil, trying to take out an opposing team in co-op play, or just trying to beat your own best score in your favorite arcade game, the frustrations and triumphs are basically the same. The beauty of video games is that you can talk about them even if you don’t happen to like the same kind of games; it’s not about having a game in common, it’s about having a common language.
Earlier that evening, three people who were (theoretically) peers with similar career and educational backgrounds struggled to maintain a polite conversation for just under an hour. But thanks to video games, two people who had absolutely nothing else in common: a bored pre-teen boy who would “ditch school if [he] could” and an introverted, 34 year old woman who’s a total nerd, effortlessly maintained an engaged conversation, as equals, for nearly two hours.
When’s the last time a television show or movie did something like that?