What Happens When Video Games Aren’t “Fun”?
Internet Good Guy Jeff Cannata got some heat for his tweet-thread review of The Last of Us Part 2 a few weeks ago:
The Last of Us Part 2 is a masterpiece of video game narrative. Nothing else even comes close. The story is brutal, challenging, bold, and almost never "fun". It is harrowing, forcing the player to confront violence in a way video games never do
The number of replies he got saying something to the effect of “how could it be a good game if you don’t think it was fun, you pretentious ass,” as well as “it has ‘game’ in the title, if it’s not fun, it failed.”
Okay, let’s back up for a second…
I think we can all agree that movies and books are entertainment mediums as well. Avengers was fun! Ready Player One was fun! “Are you not entertained?” and whatnot.
But what about Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a film I watched a few weeks ago and truly adored, but would I describe it as “fun”? No, I wouldn’t. What about Under the Skin? Was that a fun piece of entertainment? What about Roma, or Shoplifters, or Room, or Requiem for a Dream? I wouldn’t describe any of these movies as fun, but I would describe them as great movies I am happy I watched.
So when we shift the conversation over to video games, I don’t understand why some people have an issue with games not being non-stop thrill rides. To me this feels like looking at film and suggesting that anything that’s not an action movie or a pure comedy is “not an escape” then therefore not a good movie. If you personally only like action movies and comedies, then okay you do you, but you surely have to understand that your taste does not translate to everyone else. The same goes for video games: you may enjoy some types of experiences, but that does not mean that other people will like having other experiences.
The Last of Us Part 2 is far from the first game to have this sort of controversy. I think back to games like Firewatch, Gone Home, Death Stranding, Life is Strange, and many more…these games were accused of being “walking simulators” or not being “real games” because some of them didn’t always have fail states or any real challenges. While I’d agree that these games have less traditional appeals than something like Mario or Halo, I don’t think that makes them any less valid video games that people can enjoy, or even love.
Outside of the cultural problem of “gamers” being the worst (a thing I feel like I have to bring up all the time when talking about my hobby), I think we have a problem with naming. “Video game” is a catch-all term that works, but it plays into this idea that all games much be fun escapist entertainment, it says “game” right on the box, right? But I think “video game” is an archaic term that made sense decades ago, but is less accurate today. We keep using it because that’s just what we’ve always called them and no one has a better idea.
This is similar to phones. The device I carry in my pocket does a whole bunch of stuff, and has revolutionized the world in ways that make phone calls one of the last things you’d ever want to do with it, but we call it a phone. Out of curiosity, tell me how many times you see a phone review where they get into phone call quality or reliability. better yet, when was the last time you saw one that went into more detail than, “people said I sounded fine, so I guess call quality is fine, just like every other phone.”
“Phone” is an imperfect name for the communication devices we carry around today, just like “video game” is an imperfect name for the interactive experiences we have on our game consoles.
Same as ever, my argument is one of inclusion, not exclusion. If you think a video game can not be primarily narrative-driven or if you think a video game must be escapist fun, then I think you are discounting both the medium and the audience who feels differently from you. My position is that video games are a relatively new form of entertainment, and just like movies, books, and television, there is room for games that satisfy different people’s tastes.
If you don’t enjoy games like The Last of Us Part 2 because you prefer to have video games be an escape for you, that’s fine. I would just ask that you have your discourse around these games show that you understand that other people are looking for other things from media.
Oh, and a bonus note here at the end: the internet, and social media especially, has made us looooove to talk about the things we hate. I really like Star Wars, and I particularly loved The Last Jedi. For the past 2.5 years I don’t know if I’ve ever gone more than a day or two without seeing someone complain about how terrible that movie was. People literally can not stop talking about how bad they think that movie was. Meanwhile, I really, really disliked The Rise of Skywalker, but as far as I can tell, this is the first time I’ve brought it up since December last year. I’m not saying you need to shut up if you don’t like something, but maybe consider spending more time telling people why you love certain media rather than why you hate others.