I have grown up with computer games, as have many of my younger peers (though my family did not have any console systems till I was in college). The arrival of the arcade in the home raises quite a few interesting questions (such as whether games are, or ever can be, art. My brother and I debate this one). One interests me here: what is the end of gaming?
I am, as may be evident, a philosopher (hopefully in every significant sense of the word). As such, I am given the opportunity to address things in ways that the modern world tends not to. For example, since the late middle ages one concept that has been fading in the popular mind is that of ‘ends,’ or telos (the latter is the Greek word for the same thing). It does not speak of the cessation of something, but rather as the goal, the ends of the phrase ‘the means don’t justify the ends.’ Thus I am looking at the idea of the goal of gaming, or its purpose. One plays a computer game to accomplish what?
The immediate — and not wrong — answer is that one plays a game for relaxation, pleasure, enjoyment, etc. But this is an insufficient answer in several respects. First, it presumes a certain value to pleasure qua pleasure, as opposed to specific pleasures in specific circumstances (e.g. the pleasure of eating should be attached to nourishment; bulimia is bad). Secondly, it fails to address the question of time. Few modern computer games can be won (if winnable at all) in less than 10 hours and all have vast replayability. How much time is legitimate to spend on a given enjoyment?
Thirdly, and the actual (though still limited) focus of my thought here, is the idea of involvement and production. Unlike film, books, opera, etc., video games demand the intimate presence of the enjoyer and the level of success depends on their involvement (you can come to the end of a novel even if you only commit a few minutes a day; it’s completely possible to never reach the end of a game’s story because one is not committed enough to develop the skills necessary to beat level X). Modern games in particular are projects; the gamer, in playing, creates a digital something, be it a character, a ranking, or a profile full of achievements.
There are two types of hobbies: the productive and the collective. The productive hobby, as the name suggests, produces things. This can be a dinner, a chair, a poem, etc. Collective hobbies are those which do not produce, such as stamp collecting, reading, and so forth. Gaming is fairly unique in that it is, internally, productive but externally collective. That is, the gamer feels as if he is producing something while to others it appears as if he is collecting something.
This is problematic, in the end, because it really doesn’t produce anything. Let us pick a specific hypothetical example: a young woman dating a young man. When he holds a productive hobby, she can say “You should taste his chocolate torte,” or “He made the chair you’re sitting in” and be quite proud of this. But how honestly proud could she be saying “He has five level 90’s”? The gamer may feel he is creating but the outsider does not.
This is not to say that games therefore are bad. But the problem is that gamer can easily fall into the belief that he is partaking in something greater, for he is ‘accomplishing’ things and producing something (albeit something more-or-less wholly limited by the structures built into the game). Thus a gamer achieves ‘success’ physiologically while not leaving any external success. If one is unreflective he is in grave danger of being overtaken by this illusory success, of lauding himself for something that is not.
The end of gaming is then this pseudo-success, this creation of a character, a ranking, a profile of achievements. And this telos is unending, but also, essentially, unreal. The gamer is not fundamentally involved in becoming more human, nor in helping others become more human (it may be that one does become more human but that is almost certainly incidental to the game itself). Insofar as the gamer is using games for relaxation and legitimate leisure they are not problematic. But there is always a danger that the illusion of production will exert an unnatural influence on the gamer, resulting in a hobby that is fundamentally dishonest.
(NB: There are dozens of tangents I have chosen not to pursue in this post and thus it is, in many ways, importantly limited. I hopefully will address at least the questions of hobbies (in general), productive hobbies and relationships (broadly speaking), and the other types of telos in games).