I Play For Fun: The Four Dumbest Words in Video Games

Synopsis: Humans have a biological urge to compete and win. From it, “I play for fun” was born, the idea that those who play video games with a greater intensity than others are not enjoying themselves. It’s bullshit. Most everyone plays video games for fun. If they didn’t, they would do something else. “I play for fun” is a defeatist response to superior skill and play, the implication that “If I competed and trained as hard as you do, I’d kick your ass.” This philosophy has been egged on by popular video games, whose mechanics often reward playtime over skill. Ultimately, it’s an excuse. It’s a means to diminish the pursuit of playing games skillfully, the idea that anyone better than you “needs to get a life”. The value of a pursuit is largely irrelevant, and judged by the body of history, most people are irrelevant. If one seeks to play games at a high level, they have that prerogative. If you don’t like it, you have two ways to deal with it: Get better, or stop playing. While you do that, skilled players will be winning more than you, and having fun doing it.

Let’s return to the group of scrubs. They don’t know the first thing about all the depth I’ve been talking about. Their argument is basically that ignorantly mashing buttons with little regard to actual strategy is more “fun.” Superficially, their argument does at least look valid, since often their games will be more “wet and wild” than games between the experts, which are usually more controlled and refined. But any close examination will reveal that the experts are having a great deal of this “fun” on a higher level than the scrub can even imagine. Throwing together some circus act of a win isn’t nearly as satisfying as reading your opponent’s mind to such a degree that you can counter his every move, even his every counter.

David Sirlin, “Introducing…the Scrub”*

People use this crazy “internet” to talk about video games. Some people talk about the market for the games, some talk about the games, some even talk about game systems and game mechanics. Many of the best games have demanding learning curves. StarCraft? That’s one of those games. Call of Duty? Eh, sure. For the sake of an example, we’ll consider it valid. As we’ve been discovering during the last half-century, man’s inherent curiosity also lends itself to electronic rule sets. It’s our competitive nature. We don’t care if it’s other people or whether it’s computer code. We want to examine it, we want to learn it, and we want to get the better of it. We want to win.

Some pursue their goals more passionately than others. Thus, “I play for fun” was born, and we were all dumber for hearing it. It’s an excuse that would never be tolerated in any other form of recreation and only gets a free pass because “it’s video gamez lol why are you takign this so seriously??” So, allow me to be blunt here: If “I play for fun” is one of your talking points, you really, really need to shut the fuck up. And yeah, that may sound a little bit crass, but I’m not pulling punches on this one. The phrase needs to go.

Let’s think about the statement for a moment. “I play for fun.” What does that even mean? Who doesn’t play video games for fun? Let’s bite hard on that statement and prod for answers. Well, video game testers, for one. They work seventy-hour weeks to document the innards of broken video games. Despite the failure of advertainment television presented in terrible shows such as The Tester, game testing doesn’t seem very fun. What about professional gamers? That’s another. Yeah, they enjoy the game to a degree. No doubt that a level of genuine interest and passion accompanies that world-class talent. But few people go into professional gaming saying “Sixty hours of video games a week! Glad I passed on college for this!” How about game reviewers, where you have twenty-four hours to dissect a game and to come to a conclusion that’s consistent with the final rating that Activision demanded? Speaking as someone who writes video game reviews at his own leisure and schedule, I can’t imagine hitting a deadline to half-ass a review would be much fun, either.

I’m sure someone in the minority may digress on the matter of whether these jobs are fun, but do you notice a common trend here? All of those qualifications are professions. Those people are paid to play video games for a living. There is a dependence and a commitment involved. They do it because it is their job. And sure, some amateur endeavors possess a degree of dependence and commitment. Think of the wasted, tedious nights you spent raiding Naxrammas for the fourth, fifth, and sixth time just to make sure that your Guild Attendance remained spotless. That’s an extreme example, and I wouldn’t do that to myself. However, as I will explain in a bit, that’s their prerogative to do so. Quite simply, most everybody else plays video games because they are fun. For most people, there is no dependence and commitment to those games. It’s an Occam’s razor ordeal. If video games were not fun, people would find something else that is more entertaining to spend their time with. It’s simple stuff. The grand majority of people play video games for fun. The only debate is how much fun one is having. And I would propose the player that seeks to learn every strategy, every nuance, and every counter is probably having more fun than a pair of sloppy players who “play for fun”.

With that out of the way, allow me to propose what people are really saying when they say that they play video games for fun: “You play the game more than me. You study the game mechanics. You play the game with a competitive edge. Those are the only reasons you can beat me. If I took the game seriously and put as much effort into playing as you do, I would embarrass you.” And as a man who plays a lot of video games, studies game mechanics, and plays games with a competitive edge (all in the pursuit of playing video games for fun), I know that is bullshit.

Most people who use the moniker “I play for fun” describe themselves as playing the games casually. They don’t give much thought to the development process and don’t quite care about being the best video game player who ever lived. That would be okay, if not for one important consideration: There has to be a reason that you announce this to your peers and contemporaries. You don’t hear people say they read books for fun or watch films for fun or play sports for fun. Maybe they play sports “for the exercise”, but not “for fun”.

There is a precipitating cause and a motive. Here is the thought process for that motive: The “I play for fun” crowd doesn’t care much for video games. But hey, based on their limited experience with the medium, they conclude that Call of Duty is pretty fun. They can grind out a couple of hours each week, but that’s all they can handle. Any more Call of Duty, and Call of Duty becomes boring. During these play sessions, the “I play for fun” crowd discovers that some gamers operate on another plane of existence. They’re one-man armies, the masters and commanders of their virtual world. The “I play for fun” crowd becomes frustrated with these impossible odds. Hey, losing is never fun. That’s the biological urge that compels us to get better: We don’t like getting beat. However, some people handle it differently. After getting their ass kicked, these weaker gamers access their conqueror’s profile and discover that this person plays four to five hours every single day. He may be some dude in his twenties without a job and spare time to burn, he may be some twelve-year-old who seeks relief from school. They commit this time and effort because they consider it fun. It’s also very possible that this skilled player has a talent and a knack for shooters. Well, human beings derive enjoyment from things that they’re good at. For a lot of people, playing to win is a part of playing for fun. So then, that natural talent snowballs on the back of considerable practice time and a drive to become the best.

So what is the perspective of the “I play for fun” crowd? Instead of accepting the investment necessary for being better, the investment of dedicated time and effort, they tell themselves make-believe stories. They take their short play sessions and project upon the experience and play sessions of those talented players, the ones who are playing several hours a day. The “I play for fun” crowd concludes that “Those skilled players must be bored out of their mind. Thirty hours a week? Are they for real? They must have a twitch in their brain. They must be playing to extract some perverse justice from those who picked on them in high school. They must have no life. They can’t possibly be playing for for fun. Therefore, I am playing for fun. And I feel it is my duty to make sure everybody knows that.”

Yup. It’s true. A group of players who play the game at a superficial level have concluded that they are having more fun than expert players, players that can apply their skill and knowledge to situations that the “I play for fun” crowd has never engaged or considered. In a way, mainstream journalism has allowed this mentality to fester. They have beaten the idea of “time equals skill” into the ground since the late seventies, when 1979’s Asteroids introduced the “high score” into the vernacular. For the best players, those “high scores” were not a test of proficiency, but endurance, a Golden Age of Arcade Games where video games were never designed in-mind for the skills of their prodigies. In the case of Asteroids, one world-record run persisted for thirty-six hours, the player having acquired enough extra lives to take a break for lunch.* Yes, that endurance is a skill, but it’s quite atypical to the skills measured today, the best games usually demanding high levels of play in fifteen-to-forty-five-minute bursts. If you were running a newspaper, “fourteen-year-old kid plays nineteen hours of Asteroids with a single quarter” had some sideshow appeal to it. But even as online role-playing games became the king of “How can we imply gamers are wasting their lives?”, “The best gamers just play video games more than everyone else!” marched on.

For years and years, the argument from gamers to an oblivious mainstream was “Don’t knock our hobby until you’ve tried it.” Since 2005, video games have gone mainstream in the form of social gaming. One side of this revolution comes from Wii Sports, where playing for a high score is mostly irrelevant. Determining the best player doesn’t really matter. It’s about getting together and having a good time with your friends and family, a la bowling night. (And no surprise that the most popular “sport” in Wii Sports is the bowling component.) Another side includes World of Warcraft and FarmVille, where more useful items and equipment are ultimately earned through vast amounts of playtime. (Or, in the case of Zynga’s games, money.) The third side includes mobile video games such as Angry Birds (where success and failure is a mostly random endeavor) and platformers such as Temple Run and Canabalt, which have revived the philosophy set forward by those Golden Age arcade games and 1985’s Tetris, where the amount of time that you survive becomes a rough measure of your score.

And creeping up in the traditional video game sphere (consoles, arcades, computers), you have a new generation of game development that has hijacked the attribute and stat-based systems in Japanese Role-Playing Games and converted them into award systems for competitive multiplayer games. Call of Duty, once a great compromise between hardcore and casual gamers, now rewards the player for shitting his pants X number of times. Every kill, every maneuver, every time you shit your pants, you now get experience points that will go towards unlocking the game’s multiplayer content. These gains do not occur at an exponential rate that rewards skilled players for being better than everyone else. For most people, “time played” is the most significant factor in gaining experience. Our most popular versus multiplayer games (Call of Duty, League of Legends) have created systems akin to an organized basketball league where you have to win twenty-five games before you’re allowed to shoot three-pointers. Long-time gamers used to say “Don’t knock our hobby until you’ve played some of the games.” Outside observers have now responded: “We have played ‘your games’, and the player who plays the most is the one that reaps the benefits.”

So, there you go. That’s how you end up with “You only beat me because you played more”, which then becomes “I play for fun.” And for those who play video games at a skilled level, that’s a slap in the fucking face. Yeah, I have a good time pointing out that if I put a shoe and a keyboard in a dryer, hooked the keyboard to a computer and turned the dryer on to spin, the shoe could beat ninety percent of all League of Legends players. In all seriousness, the pissing matches over what video games take skill are purely relative. Poker, the game closer to paper-rock-scissors than chess, breeds enough millionaires to keep the suckers throwing money into the sport, and allows for enough dominance that one man can become its figurehead. (Hello, Phil Ivey.) You don’t get to be the best at any video game unless you bring something to the table. That goes for “casual games” like Call of Duty, shitty games like Angry Birds, niche games like shoot ‘em ups, and even the limited competition to be found on web sites like Twin Galaxies, where as few as a half-a-dozen people may be fighting for the world record high score on some obscure arcade game from the early eighties. They all do something and they all do it well.

So you know what I hear when somebody says that “I play for fun”? I hear somebody making excuses. I hear somebody who can’t deal with the most neutral of all neutral parties (a computer program doing nothing more than executing the instructions it was given) stating that they’re not playing the game very well. They can’t deal with a computer program saying that they’re not good. That’s where video games teach an incredibly valuable life lesson. Computer code doesn’t care about your life story. Pac-Man doesn’t give you an extra life because you had a bad night’s sleep, just as your boss doesn’t care if that was a really great party last night, just as people on the internet don’t care your crappy blog entry was “my first post go easy on me!” They care that you presented yourself and didn’t perform. Your score is your score is your score. Period. You are not judged by circumstance, you are judged by performance. And whether it’s life, or work, or play, the only way to get better is to take the cards you were dealt and make the best of them, even if the odds seem overwhelming and even unfair. Life, work, and play do not care if you are “playing for fun”. They only reward winning.

But that’s what happens when you live in a society where people are told that they are special snowflakes. And snowflake syndrome isn’t exclusive to video games. After all, my professional basketball career didn’t pan out because I was too short. If only I had been 6’7 and 240 pounds, instead of 6’0 and 220 pounds, and wasn’t a crappy basketball player. I’d probably be playing professional basketball by now! The difference is that if I walk onto a basketball court and spout nonsense that “I play for fun”, people will laugh at me. On some courts, I’d probably get my ass kicked. But apparently, it is an acceptable excuse when video games are the form of recreation. Simple math says that ninety-nine percent of society doesn’t get to be in the top one percent. And if the ninety-niners get left out? The vast majority aren’t going to blame themselves and they aren’t going to try and get better. And they will remain in the ninety-nine percent.

The irony of “I play for fun” should be apparent to anyone who has spent a couple of hours with Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos or its expansion pack The Frozen Throne. The ebb and flow of multiplayer (and its numerous breaks in action during mid- and late-game situations) created a rather-legendary community of trash-talkers. (By comparison to the more popular StarCraft franchise, that game’s manic pace led to very little chat during the match itself.) And in my own experience, the nastiest players were those who insisted that they were playing for fun. Unsurprisingly, these players usually had very poor win-loss records. “Oh, they’re just saying that to save face when they lose.”

But think about it: Remember playing single-player games when you were a kid? And you got to a really hard level, and you couldn’t beat it, so you insisted to your mom or your brother that the game was cheating? The “I play for fun” crowd thinks the same way. In declaring that they’re simply in the business of “playing for fun”, they don’t learn the game rules, they don’t learn the optimal strategies, and they don’t bother trying to see the game on a level beyond the first move. Why do people get upset with personal computers when they start blasting error messages? Because it’s very difficult to figure out why the computer is failing on you, even if you consider yourself fairly savvy with the things. It’s the unknown in a failing situation that frustrates us the most. The “I play for fun” crowd views failure in video games much in the same way. When the game says “You suck!”, they won’t know why, and they won’t know what to do in order to fix it. But in their case, they don’t want to learn how to fix it. They want to mash some buttons and hope it goes away.

If you’re a fighting game fan, you’re probably aware that the idea of “playing for fun” has significant overlap with the concept of the “scrub”, a player who plays by imaginary rulesets constructed in his own mind for the purpose of refusing to deal with the actual game rules. Most commonly, this is associated with throws in those fighting games, because “OMFG I WAS BLOCKIGN THAT’S CHEAP!” Both groups refuse to deal with what they consider to be the problem. Where one type of player seeks to eliminate the problem by “banning” the mechanic, another simply makes excuses. And for that, I would invite you to check out the Battle.net forums and check out the wonderful world of low-level StarCraft II some time. (Actually, just take my word for it. You don’t want to visit the place. It’s a “not my virgin eyes!” thing.) If somebody loses to Marines, then Marines are overpowered. If somebody loses to Ultralisks, then Ultralisks are overpowered. If the opposing player anticipates a mid-game strategy based on an early-game build, then that player is clearly maphacking. If someone makes more units than them, then Starcraft is a bullshit click-fest which rewards mouse speed instead of strategy. In the world of low-level gaming, it’s simply not your fault if you lose. Because, after all, “I play for fun.”

I’m shocked the search toolbar wasn’t overpowered by the number of results returned.

Sure, skilled gamers such as Greg Fields (IdrA) indulge the StarCraft II lexicon by asking people to apologize for playing the Terran race.* Sure, you’ll get your rants, where “after playing 3,000 matches, I’ve determined this game isn’t worth the money.” For the most part, skilled gamers do not do this. The nature of good players is that they understand why they lost. And if they don’t, they’ll try to figure out why. They’ll watch replays. They’ll watch videos. They’ll analyze build orders. They’ll consult for help on discussion boards. They may voice dissatisfaction about a game, but that dissatisfaction is rooted in far more authority and expertise than someone who admits to playing the game on a superficial level. They won’t make excuses. They’ll be spending their time trying to get better at the game.

Somehow, society has come to the conclusion that’s a very bad thing. That’s precisely the problem: “I play for fun” ultimately implies that being good at a video game is a bad thing. Only losers do that. Those nerds should get lives. Well, first off, I don’t care how people spend their free time, so long as they’re not fucking kids or harming those around them. If someone wants to spend eighty years of their life building the Starship Enterprise out of toothpicks, that’s their prerogative and their free time. I don’t like people who get drunk off their ass, but so long as they aren’t driving home and putting other people in danger, I don’t care. And second, I like being good at video games. I like the chance of being recognized as either good at video games or knowledgeable about them. I like being good at everything I do. That’s just my personality. I’m competitive beyond the norm at just about everything. I enjoy seeing how my skills stack against the work of others and seeing if I can manipulate my skills to better others. I enjoy putting my best hand against the rest of the world. And quite frankly, I don’t care whether it’s video games. I don’t care what test of skill it may be. So long as my competitive edge doesn’t inhibit the ability of others to function during the course of their day, there’s no harm in that.

I’ve heard a lot of people claim I am attempting to glorify those who play competitive video games and play these games at a high level. Yes, skilled players can achieve things that are incredibly entertaining to watch, and those players can be damn good at what they do, but that’s not what I’m arguing. I even stated that sixty hours of practice every single week to play a video game as a job doesn’t sound like my idea of a career. (From the perspective I wield, the one where I enjoy writing about the games, I’d rather play a couple of different games every single week and develop the knowledge necessary to praise them or tear them apart. As far as I’m concerned, that would be more fun.)

I’m not the one setting the goalposts here. I simply don’t give a crap if someone spends their time playing video games all day and plays them with a mean streak, so long as he doesn’t inflict that mean streak on those around him, so long as he’s not inflicting actual tangible harm on others by doing so. The value of the pursuit is irrelevant. In the grand scale of things, most people are irrelevant. You and me are not absent from that. In comparison, the people who use terms such as “I play for fun” are apparently offended and enraged by the idea of people who play these games all day. And what the fuck do you care? There’s only one way that one of these players or prodigies has an impact on your existence: They log into the game server and kick the ever-loving shit out of you. In which case, you have one of two options: You either get over it, or you get better. (And sometimes, you will have to play with or against people who inflict their competitive drive on others. You’ll play with or against somebody who is a complete fucking asshole. At which point, you figure out how to deal with it. Another useful skill to have in the real world.)

That’s how life works, that’s how games work. And while people continue to announce that they “play for fun”, I’ll be playing to win. Why? Because playing to win is fun, and I enjoy beating those who play for fun. Stop making excuses. Get better. Stop announcing you play for fun and go have fun. And no matter how critical I may be of a game, no matter how much time and effort I invest in learning a game, I can assure you that we will both be having fun. The only question is who will be having more fun, and I probably beat you at that as well. Deal with it.

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