Is it Really “Just a Game”?

Posted: September 25, 2008 by Kendricke in General Game Concepts

At least once every day, I see an argument where someone uses the phrase “it’s just a game” to push a point.  Usually, the point being raised has something to do with how we shouldn’t take MMO’s so seriously.  To be fair, there’s a certain amount of truth to be found there.  After all, when we remove all the discussions about mechanics, art, balance, servers, and what have you, what we’re really discussing is simply “just a game”, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

For most players, the answer may very well be just a yes.  After all, I think most players – the ones we don’t see posting on forums or creating blogs – are content just logging in, playing an hour here or there, and then logging out.  These are the true “casual” players, because they’re just playing a game.  When they’re done with the game, they’ll shut it off and go back to whatever else they may have been doing.

For the rest of us, it’s not really “just a game”, is it?  Frankly, the moment we start posting on forums for anything more than technical assistance, the game takes on social aspects that didn’t exist otherwise.  The moment we start looking at guild forums or joining chat channels for more than the occasional game related question, the “game” becomes something not quite what it was.  Certainly, when we start to care about the names on our screens as something other than someone to help us achieve goal X or Y, the game becomes more than just puzzles and numbers.

I play several “just a games”.  When I’m riding the bus to work in the morning and pull out a PSP, that’s just a game.  If I stop off at the Block E Gameworks here in Minneapolis for a beer at 5, I might stick around long enough to play a few “just a games”.  When my brothers bring my nieces and nephews over to my house and we pull out the Wii, I might play a few “just a games” with them.  We may even fire up several of the PC’s or laptops in the house to play a few quick rounds of Team Fortress 2 or Company of Heroes or Dawn of War.  We’ll load it up, play a few rounds, and then log off.  It’s really no different than if we had put up a Volleyball net or went out to play pool.  At that point, the game is simply a way of spending time.  We might keep score or we might not.  Maybe we care about winning or maybe we don’t.  In any event, the game is just that to us – just a game.

So what’s different with MMO’s?  Generally speaking, I get more involved with other people in MMO’s.  I get to know where they live, whether or not they have kids, who’s in school, who’s in the military, who’s retired – I get to know the people I play with.

Now, again, you may ask how that’s any different than playing pool against my brothers.  After all, I know my brothers fairly well, too.

However, I knew my brothers before I played pool.  I would play pool with or without my brothers present.  Many times, I wouldn’t keep logging in to the same MMO without my guildmates there.  In fact, I’d argue that if not for my guild, I wouldn’t be playing Everquest II on a regular basis – certainly not as much as I do.  I’d argue that many of my guildmates log in more for their guildmates than they do for themselves.

The MMO, by way of the guild, has become a proxy social hub.  The gameplay becomes secondary to the social ties.  We end up accepting that the actual gameplay of an MMO is only one part of the whole – the MMO itself is more than the sum of its parts, of which gameplay is merely one among many.

In other words, you don’t really compare an MMO to pool.  Rather, the MMO is the bar you go to play pool at.  If I log in to Everquest II, I don’t have to “play” at all.  In fact, there have been nights where that’s exactly what’s happened – I log in and end up spending an hour or so just chatting with guildmates while I check the broker or organize my bank.  I’m not “playing” Everquest II at that point any more than I’m automatically playing pool just because I walked through the front door of a bar.

MMO’s are many things to many people.  However, to classify them as “just games” misses their real point.  MMO’s are really about the people – otherwise you may as well be at home playing an RPG on your 360.  Game designers who get this and design games that encourage and captilize on these social needs will generally see longer subscriptions, I’d wager.  After all, if the game is built around socialization, you’ll keep players logging in long after they’ve grown bored with your game itself.  If, instead, your game is built around soloing and competition, then players only stay so long as the game itself is fun.

I’d wager it’s a lot harder to continue to develop content to keep gameplay fun than it is to create tools and features which encourage players to socialize with each other.  Of course, I suppose that perspective depends on whether you’re trying to design “just a game” or not.

  1. Illuminator says:

    I think the most balanced term is “an expendable sport”.

  2. pigletsa says:

    I agree. To use your analogy, I sometimes just like to go to the bar and play pool by myself. While there are lots of interesting and friendly people there, I mainly just greet them and typically only join them at pool if they ask. However, I really enjoy meeting my own friends from RL at the bar and playing pool with them. I think the socialization takes on a whole new level if you can get some of your RL social circle into the MMO.

  3. Beau Turkey says:

    They ARE just games, and discussing them (as I do on my podcast and my wife does as well) does not mean we elevate them above anything else but games.

    A hobby can be talked about and enjoyed, and even used a social conduit..and still remain just a game.

    If has become EVERYTHING to you, it is no longer “just a game” but “an obsession” and you might need help.

    Not picking on the article, it’s a great read, but just throwing out some ideas! 🙂

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