You Had To Be There

A brief thought about the specialness of games. My brain is somewhat dulled by the day, but it seems like video games are the only medium where you can say “you had to be there!” and have it make sense. Books, TV, film all provide you with a fixed context which you would naturally share with other readers and viewers. Although you can enjoy these media in diverse contexts (reading on a train, watching  a movie on a plane, etc.), it doesn’t necessarily make a huge difference to the “meaning” of the book/movie/show.

But when we talk about the meaningfulness of game experience, the context of your existence inside the world of the game, the things you’ve been doing, the way you’ve been playing, the people you’re with, all combine to create what actually happens. It wouldn’t have been the same if you changed any of a myriad of factors.

Thus, when you’re walking through a Minecraft world, say, and your friend falls into a tiny, one-block body of water and starts drowning, the hilarity surrounding this is very contingent on a particular moment, your particular relationship with the friend, the context of your walk (perhaps  you’d been marvelling at the sublime beauty of the environment moments prior). Importantly, while I can say to you “this happened” and try to describe it, including some of these contextual factors, it’s simply true that, to appreciate it, you had to be there. If you weren’t, you’re probably not going to have that particular special experience.

Naturally there are probably categories of special experiences in game – wonder at an open world, laughter at an emergent piece of gameplay – the individual experience itself, as felt by the participants, remains special and unique. When you play the game again, all is different, the same things don’t happen, your eyes don’t see the same world again. Again, while there’s some of this in other media, it relies on our reinterpretation of a static text (in the general sense), not on our actions and active experiences.

Or at least that’s my thought for this evening.

28 March 2011
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