Cheap thrills: the value of video games

by Thomas Turnbull-Ross

Cheap thrills: the value of video games
June 10, 2020 Thomas Turnbull-Ross

Video games are slowly clawing their way to general respectability, although most people’s parents will still look at you quizzically if you’re over 30 and tell them you play games. But we think they are the greatest-value form of entertainment the world has ever seen, as well as being a tremendous social good and hotbed of artistic creativity. Thomas Turnbull-Ross explains why. 

League of Legends is famed for being the most-streamed game on Twitch. It also weighs in at third place in terms of monthly active player count, with around 115 million players. Released in late 2009, Riot Games’ genre-defining ‘multiplayer online battle arena’, or MOBA, is still drawing both attention and players whilst also being free to play. Considering the amount of time many of these millions of players will have invested in the game since they picked it up, it is easy to conclude that League of Legends is one of the single best-value forms of entertainment ever created.

Even disregarding the annual Steam sales and the prevalence of free-to-play games, many video games offer up to or above a hundred hours of playable content, with dedicated fans often sinking thousands of hours into a single game. In many cases even the most expensive games can, in terms of pounds spent per hour, cost less than the electricity used to play them.

Over the last few decades, more forms of entertainment than ever have been available for public consumption — from television to theatre to board games. But none have provided as much audience agency as video games. In a book or film, the actions of the characters are fixed; no matter how many times an audience reads or watches them, the plot and scenes will always be the same. A New Hope (1977) always ends with the Death Star exploding and the cheesy medal scene. In a video game, however, the player can change and influence the story by their own actions, leading to a very different experience each time a game is played. These player-guided storytelling methods are in some ways similar to classic tabletop roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons, and are indeed influenced by them.

This type of storytelling is a primary component in Arkane Studios’ Dishonored (2012), Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange (2015), and many titles from Telltale Games. In such games, choices are often presented which directly influence later events, usually in a binary manner (do one thing or another) but sometimes with more complexity (such as choosing to poison one, both, or neither glasses of wine in the second mission of Dishonored). While this idea of allowing the audience to shape the story hearkens back to ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ books like Jackson and Livingstone’s classic Fighting Fantasy series, video games can implement such choices more subtly. For instance, the decision in Dishonored about poisoning the glasses can lead to the presence or absence of Campbell and his diary five missions later. While such long-lasting consequences have been used in the Fighting Fantasy series, with the ‘codeword’ system in Stormslayer and Night of the Necromancer, a certain element of surprise is lost when doing so, since the reader knows a choice with a lasting impact has been made. In a video game, choices are not always obvious to the player, and their consequences even less so.

In addition to agency, video games also provide a unique level of immersion by placing the player directly in the shoes of the protagonist, literally viewing the world through their eyes. In video games, players are brought that much closer to the characters and their story, no longer an outside observer simply controlling pieces on a board but an active participant. The player can become the character, encouraging them to become emotionally invested in the character’s struggles and friendships. 

However, it’s not just these twin elements of immersion and agency that set video games apart. In terms of raw storytelling, video games are arguably the vehicles for the most original and compelling stories being told today. It is often said that we’re living through a golden age of television, with more hours of world-class series than any person could hope to watch. But we would argue that it is video games that are truly the most fervent hotbeds of creativity, and that the stories they tell can be at least as nuanced and captivating as those in films or books. Some are trite, it’s true: but the same is true of any media. The tragic and philosophical Bioshock series (2K Games, 2007-2014) and Quantic Dream’s thoughtful Detroit: Become Human (2018) are great examples out of many I could have plucked. Both are hailed for their outstanding storytelling, made possible only by their interactivity. 

 

Gaming with friends 

Multiplayer games have arguably even greater replay value than single-player ones, due to social rather as much as artistic aspects. ‘Massively multiplayer online’, or MMO, games use social elements as a key part of their structure — from four-player teams hunting titanic Eidolons in Warframe (Digital Extremes, 2013) to the 40-strong raid parties of Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft (2004). By making late-game challenges impossible to complete alone, such games actively encourage players to seek out squad-mates. They enable this through systems such as clans, player-led organisations within the game that share resources and knowledge. Many clans become akin to online communities, bringing together players from across the world to enjoy a game they all love, together. Some clans even develop friendly rivalries with each other, such as how experienced clans in World of Warcraft compete to be the first to finish new raids when they are released. The friendships made in these settings might be dismissed as superficial, but can last easily as long as those forged in the real world and be a source of no lesser value and pleasure.

Many multiplayer games offer features for players to create temporary parties to ensure they play together, and free services such as Discord and Steam facilitate this by offering voice and text chat services over the internet. Discord, in particular, has proven a phenomenal platform to enable socialising with people from all over the world, instantly and for free. One of my closest friends was introduced to me via Discord, and I didn’t meet him in person until about three years later. Meanwhile, I am still able to keep in contact with another friend after he moved abroad, and the three of us commonly play with and against each other in a variety of online games. This isn’t some kind of superficial imitation of socialising — these are real friends, having real fun, more cheaply and healthily than going to the pub.

Going further than close groups of friends, many professional gamers set up their own public Discord servers, where fans from across the world can socialise. The professionals also commonly broadcast themselves playing games through streaming services such as Twitch, and will often react to and engage with their audience as they play in a way that the host of even a live TV show isn’t capable of. The most popular streamers receive tens of thousands of viewers when they stream, all of whom are able to watch entirely free of charge. In this way, a single person buying a game can provide hours upon hours of entertainment for millions of people across the world. For free.

Pay to play

Even when buying and playing a game just for oneself, there usually isn’t all that large a price tag attached. While it is true that some games can be expensive, with new titles often releasing at anything up to £50, the amount of playtime and entertainment one can gain is markedly higher than with other media. A cinema ticket usually costs around £10 (varying based on region and other factors), and gives admission to one film, usually around two hours long, once. Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight (2017) costs around the same (£10.99 on Steam at date of writing), and on my first playthrough it took around 30 hours to finish the game. I have since completed the game at least twice more. In total, I’ve spent 145 hours playing Hollow Knight, and there are still parts of the game I have yet to experience. All for the price of a cinema ticket.

Even when optional downloadable content (DLC) is accounted for, the cost of video games is still fiercely competitive with other media. This is particularly true in games like Amplitude Studios’ strategy title Endless Legend (2014), where only one player needs to have purchased a DLC to let an entire lobby’s worth of players (up to eight) experience it. This is obviously very good value for a group of close friends, but public lobbies can also be created, and it is common to find players willing to share DLC they have bought with anyone who wants to try it out. As most online games also have their own internet forums, these impromptu gatherings of random players to enjoy DLC together are surprisingly easy to organise.

Of course, the amount of time-to-money value video games can provide is most obvious in those games that are free-to-play. While such games often have in-game ‘microtransactions’, most, if not all, of the gameplay can usually be experienced without paying a single penny. In Valve’s 2007 shooter Team Fortress 2 every playable character and game mode is available from the moment it is first installed. The alternative weapons which the characters can use are acquired at random or by completing certain challenges. In fact, the only thing a player need ever pay for are cosmetic items to alter their characters’ appearance; and even then, there are free cosmetic items given out during seasonal events.

There are egregious examples of predatory practices; Electronic Arts’ Star Wars Battlefront II (2017) found itself at the centre of the largest controversy in gaming in recent years, over monetisation practices perceived to be unsettlingly close to gambling. The monetisation models of some free-to-play games can certainly be off-putting, and the area is something of a regulatory no-man’s-land at present. But we would argue that there is also a generous slug of old-fashioned moralising in the conversation too, of the kind that accompanied paperback novels and Hollywood films early in their respective developments. Bad actors do not make a bad industry. 

 

Winning

But many video games that cost in the region of £30 can give us hundreds of hours of pleasure and original storytelling, alone or with friends, from the comfort of home. No form of entertainment comes close to that, past or present. Compare this to board games (some of which cost easily £100) or war games (famously, a money sink).

Some people have over 1,000 video games in their Steam library, most — thanks to regular Steam Sales and offerings like the Humble Bundle — having cost them around £10. It is common to hear people lament the little time they’ve spent in a world-class game simply through lack of time and too much choice. 

In all these ways, video games are the best-value entertainment in the world. Games have never been better than they are today, nor more varied and interesting (despite some pernicious trends in the industry). Whether through rich and unique storytelling methods designed to completely immerse the player in the plot and grant them unprecedented levels of agency, or through sharing the experience of playing a game with friends or a wider internet audience, the generosity of video games as a medium is unequalled.