Written for Haywire Magazine.
It’s hard to talk about games with people who don’t play them. They’re often discussed exclusively among, and only for, gaming audiences. It’s worth making an effort to explain some of the appeal of games more broadly, for those outside of gaming spaces.
Games are at times difficult to quantify. They can be simple playthings designed to while away the hours, and also serve as emotional journeys that invade one’s thoughts and rewire mental pathways. They’re sites of triumph, failure, friendship, and absence. They’re places where people socialize, or where people go to escape the pressing surge of voices and expectations without abandoning connection with the world altogether. Games are a great many things, and for both mundane and complex reasons, they are difficult to write about.
Part of the difficulty lies in finding the right words to share not just details about a game, but the feelings that accompany those details. This War of Mine is a game about surviving a war as a small group of civilians. None of these survivors initially have any weapons or training, and the winter months are about to start in earnest, exposing their shelled-out refuge to frost-bitten danger. The decisions players will inevitably have to make are harsh. Coming from a world where I have running water, constant power, and a wide variety of supermarkets in easy reach, the contrast is frigid and sobering in a way that’s hard to really distill into a handful of words.
I have made decisions I am not proud of, decisions that I never would have made without the looming threat of death for my withering group of survivors. Decisions like robbing an elderly couple just trying to weather the worst of the days after a week of struggling for food. Decisions like getting into a gunfight with other desperate survivors over scrap plywood and nails to help bolster the barricaded house. Decisions that ultimately didn’t matter, because my survivors died due to later decisions in a crushingly long sequence of mundane tragedies that killed them all, one by one.
I do not enjoy the quagmire of emotions I face when playing This War of Mine. I also recommend This War of Mine to everyone who asks me about it.
Finding the language for why I feel this way is not easy. It isn’t a fun game. “Fun” is a word that doesn’t really gel with what This War of Mine does well. It’s a harrowing game about uneasy choices and difficult scenarios. It’s unlike what many people think of when they think of videogames, with the snap decisions and quick button presses of a Super Mario game, where the timing of a button press is more important than whether to press it. It’s also not like text-based and narrative games that go at no particular pace, drawn forward only when the player enters the next room or explores the next detail. It’s a game where the full consequences of your decisions don’t become apparent right away, but as the days drone on, your missteps and missed opportunities compound. It finds a different kind of strength in that sense of attrition, and creates a deeply personal sense of dread around what tragedies the next day may bring.
Would you steal from someone defenseless if it meant you got to survive another day, even if it meant they probably wouldn’t? Why would you ever willingly put yourself in a position where you would need to face that choice?
This War of Mine feels so meaningful because its sole focus is shining a light on a position we would hate to find ourselves in. If every movie was The Expendables, where heroes go into skirmishes thick with muscles and the bass-thrummed barks of automatic weapons, then one could be forgiven for finding guns and war exciting, even jubilant. By contrast, when the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan pours gallons of blood onto the sands of Normandy beach, the glitz and glamour of bullet ballets very soberly loses any luster. Watching soldiers fight and die for what seems like no reason is halting: not a pleasant viewing experience, but a necessary one. In the world of videogames where games like Call of Duty and Battlefield are enormous, decadently built glorifications of bullets and bravado, the quiet desperation of This War of Mine feels necessary.
But games are also capable of joyful, lighthearted experiences, and those are no less necessary. Even when games step away from the darker and more difficult decisions, the simple act of play can be far more meaningful than just mindless entertainment.
Games can present worlds full of inviting questions. In contrast to movies, books, and television shows, games often specifically place challenges between the player and progress, giving them room and opportunity to apply their personal problem solving processes toward their goals. They’re places where the problems aren’t just solvable, but solvable with the tools and knowledge the player has readily available. Worlds where anyone willing to put in a bit of time can defeat giant, fire-breathing dragons, or disarm tense situations, or pay impossible bills, or bring allies together to assist with grand conflicts. Games are full of conflict, but conflict that can be solved with the player’s input—a gentle reassurance that even when things seem dire, there’s a solution given enough attempts.
Games provide their players with a world of known conflicts, a variety of tools, and the motivation to solve these conflicts.
The world outside of games is often murky, messy, the folks writing the rules seem to have a vested interest in keeping things from getting any better. The worlds inside of games are full of interesting questions, whether they’re mired in the swampy moral landscape of surviving a war-torn country, or allow you to sail through the air on a hang glider, watching the mountains pass below. Games inherently hope to generate circumstances that put their players in front of all sorts of questions they would likely never face otherwise, and the hope that players will marry their interesting questions with equally interesting answers. Sometimes in the form of simple and visceral pleasures, and others in shining a light on the darker parts of those visceral pleasures. Both Battlefield and This War of Mine provide different kinds of questions, and the answers can be equally interesting, for vastly different reasons.
In life, things are often hard because the problems are enormous and the simple solutions are out of reach. Sometimes we all need a space where our problems are easy to parse, the solutions are within reach, and the answer tells us something we may never have found elsewhere. Games give us what life sometimes can’t, and the process of taking the game-solving steps can give us the confidence to quell the real-life problems too. Just take a minute and watch some buildings explode. The problems can wait a second until we have our feet under us.
While it’s easy to think of games as just escapist fun, and that’s absolutely what they can be, games also remind us that problems don’t have to stop us in our tracks. Problems don’t have to remain unsolved. Sometimes they can be rewarding, even when they seem too big to handle. Sometimes they teach us something about ourselves, without having to put us in harm’s way to gain that wisdom.
Games can also show us that the harrowing questions we encounter in life aren’t just there to beat us down, but to give us a sense of gravity to our decisions. It can show us new perspectives on painful issues, and give us a little slice of something we may never face otherwise. They can give us a place to confront difficult situations, and practice skills that could get us out of binds later in life. We don’t have to become crushed to learn a new type of decision making, don’t have to die cold and alone in a broken down house to find empathy for a tragedy we hope to never face.
For those reasons and more, games are worth sharing, even when I can’t always find the right words.