There’s a lot of reasons why we play games. Some do it for the competition–a game is a contest between two players to determine whose skill is superior. Some do it for the distraction–all they want from a game is a simple amusement, a time-waster. Others still play a game for the immersion–for the ability to enter a virtual world and perform great feats therein.

Most, though, play games to win.

Victory

The carpal tunnel was totally worth this little screen.

This may be a bold statement, but I think that a game is only a game if you can win it. Every game has a goal–from board games to tabletop RPGs. There’s a “victory condition”. The games rules and the manner in which it is played exist to facilitate the fulfillment of this goal, or else increase the difficulty in which the goal can be achieved.

This means, for those paying attention, that I don’t classify Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games as actual, well, games. Yes, the word “game” is there in the title, but they aren’t really games-they are exercises. It’s like playing basketball by yourself–yes, you are “playing” basketball, but without another person it is not a “game”. A game in and of itself indicates a sport, a contest of some kind–either between you and another person or you and a computer. If you can’t “win”, then it isn’t a “game”.

The drive to win is at the very core of gaming. Back before there was any semblance of story, when graphics were poorly rendered, incomprehensible pixels, the only reason any of us had to play games was to win. Sometimes victory meant getting the highest score, sometimes it meant reaching the end of the screen or beating all the bad guys. Then victory meant rescuing the princess, getting the Tri-Force, beating Mother Brain, saving the world.

High Score!

Even now, even as gaming has become ten times more complex, with flashier graphics, intricate storylines, and more varied game modes and characters, oftentimes the basic goal is still the same–win. It’s no longer the only goal–games like Red Dead Redemption and Fallout 3 have victory conditions and end games, yes–but that’s hardly the point. These games exist to provide immersion, to have the player enjoy simply reveling in their virtual world.

The growing complexity of games, and the growth of immersion-based titles has developed a sort of schism between gamers. You have gamers who play games solely for the sake of victory–completionists, high score junkies, leaderboard competitors. Gamers who consider trophies and achievements to be the ultimate reward at the end of a gaming session. On the other end of the spectrum you have gamers who are in it for the escape, for the context–gamers who care why they are running to the left, who the princess at the end of the castle is, and how they got there. They don’t care about getting 100% of the game finished, getting the high score, or min/maxing their character until they’ve completely broken the game engine and can annihilate the final boss in three hits. Like with the Kinsey Scale, most gamers fall somewhere in the middle of these two camps, with different genres appealing to different fans.

In my mind, there’s little better illustration of these two types of gamers than in Gabe and Tycho, the creators/main characters of the popular gaming webcomic Penny Arcade. Gabe is type A–the scorehound, victory-hungry win-at-all costs, while Tycho is the more introspective one, who cares more about context and story and characters and all that–the type B. This is illustrated perfectly in this comic:

Gabe is in the yellow shirt, Tycho in blue

Gaming culture is becoming more and more diversified, yet some things I feel remain cornerstones of the very appeal of games. Even as they grow and develop as an artform, games remain at their core contests–tests of skill, where the player’s primary obligation and only assumed investment is the desire to win. This is why games can be too easy or too hard–both extremes make achieving that victory condition either unsatisfying or near-impossible, thus eliminating the gamer’s investment.

Gameplay and story in video games have long been segregated, initially due to technical limitations, later due to stylistic choice and difficulty in balancing the two. A good game manages to make the actions that the player undertakes–the steps and actual “playing” of the game impact and shape the story, whereas a bad–or perhaps, for lack of a better term, lesser–game offers the player no control at all, making gameplay almost separate from the context and actions in the games narrative. Role Playing Games, especially Japanese RPGs, are especially guilty of this, with most modern ones (like the utterly abysmal Final Fantasy XIII) not even giving the player the ability to give a main character a name.

This segregation mirrors the dichotomy between the two types of gamers–a dichotomy which I feel can and should be bridged. Like any art form, gaming culture is a mirror of its most popular and influential examples. As gameplay enters into a new age, and as we experiment with things like motion controls and cameras in our search for the next big innovation, I think it should be prominent in every game developer’s mind what kind of gamers they are appealing to, and how they can. It may not be possible to please everyone, sure. Yet with a little creativity, a little innovation, we can see games that appeal to both sets of gamers–where the “high score” is the conclusion of the story, where the narrative is the gameplay. We’ve come close, a few times–but we’re still not there yet. But hey–gaming is still a young medium. There’s plenty of time left–and I think gamers everywhere can get behind the idea of a game for everyone, can’t they?

I’m curious to know what you think. Send me a tweet @8bitscholar or an email at 8bitscholar@gmail.com. I’d be curious to know what other types of gamers you think are out there, and what distinguishes them from each other–as well as what kinds of games might have wider appeal to these different groups. I’m eager to hear your thoughts!

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