Portal 2's Purpose is Joy. What is the Purpose of Your Favorite Game?

Illustration for article titled emPortal 2/ems Purpose is Joy. What is the Purpose of Your Favorite Game?

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, plainly states that the aim, end, or goal of a thing is its good. Each thing is directed toward some greater good, and we, as people must seek to understand what that good is. The efforts of the Nicomachean Ethics are to understand the good and attain it, not for an individual alone, but for a whole people or state.


Now, gamers know better than most people, though perhaps game reviewers know it less than others, what Aristotle was talking about. Games are made (despite all of the advertising, the money grabs, the critical review, the theological dissection) to be fun. A woman recently asked me what the point of Portal 2 was. My answer received laughter from some people, perhaps because of who I am, perhaps because of who the woman was, but I stand by it. I said simply, "Joy. The point is Joy." Games have a proper end, they are there to engage, entertain, frighten, excite, sadden, and exalt us. They are there to give us that deeply human experience that all art has the potential to communicate to us...Joy.

Illustration for article titled emPortal 2/ems Purpose is Joy. What is the Purpose of Your Favorite Game?

Now, it is true that games are seen by gaming companies (I do not say the actual developers, because it is my impression that they know very well that they are making "Joy machines") that the end of video games, like the end of books, or movies, or songs, is profit. Certainly, they say, these things must produce enough pleasure that people will want them and the next iteration when it comes out. But for the company, our joy is a means to the end of capital. For gamers, capital is a means to an end of joy. At first glance it seems a somewhat symbiotic relationship, to be sure.

The problem comes when the two ideas of what games are for come into conflict. The game companies insist that flooding the market with a genera or scads of sequels will be good. The game players insist that it is bad, as games lower in quality, demand more of the player's resources for less joy. This is also why gamers long for innovation in gaming, and game companies are scared. They disagree on what the purpose of gaming is, they debate over the good that it aims toward.

The game companies insist that flooding the market with a genera or scads of sequels will be good. The game players insist that it is bad, as games lower in quality, demand more of the player's resources for less joy.

This is, of course, not unique to gaming. Television, movies, music, and books all suffer from the same process of incompatible ends. The purpose of writing is to inform or entertain, to explain or argue. For publishers, this is replaced by the purpose of profit. Of course a writer should be paid for her work, and there are numerous steps to publishing a book, hence the work of publishers. However, the publisher's work is to facilitate the production of books, but the model has been flipped on its head. So it goes for movie studios, record labels, and video game publishers. The original impetus, creating art and entertainment, which benefited from those who could help (producers, studios, publishers), has been turned into the means of profit, and so we come to the sad state of most of western art.


The solution then is to put our priorities right again. A model where play is the thing, joy is the point, is in direct conflict with those who would "take the fun out of making video games." For to create art of any kind is to experience the frustration, ecstasy, tears, and laughter of any great and worthwhile work of human hands. In other words, it is to experience Joy.

For some Christian perspectives, my own included, the point of all creation is Joy. Even views that are radically different in Christian tradition express this view. The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is "What is the chief end of man?" The answer? "To glorify God and enjoy Him forever." Joy is the point.


Games are meant for joy, in their making, in their playing, and in the reflection on them. Those who would remove joy from this very worthwhile pursuit are the enemies of those who make and play games. The industry is foundering in the face of decades of the conflicting pursuits of those who make and play the games on one side, and those who see games as a means to a capital end. Perhaps this is why small indie developers are finding such success these days. From an e-mail conversation I had with Craig Adams, I feel confident saying that a game like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP comes from deep personal and intellectual reflection, not from the money-grab mentality. The same could be said of the upcoming Dream:Scape on iOS.

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You may ask what I propose to do about it. My answer may be a bit of a cop out. It is not for me to say what the proper economic model should be, or how much games should cost to make, or how much we should pay for them, or how they should be published. For philosophers and theologians, our work is to point to a place on the map and, and knowing what we do, say "Here be dragons." It is up to captains, shipwrights, and quartermasters to determine the best way around or through those waters. In other words, people who know about economics and game development models must answer those questions.

What I can say is this: if gaming companies wish to prosper, they must put the long term joy of the gamer before their short term profits. This will not only make gamers happier, more loyal customers, but will put the priorities back where they belong. Perhaps economists and business people will tell me I'm wrong on this one.


But to be sure, I know a dragon when I see it, and this one is as old as the world.

Joshua Wise is the Owner/EIC of the website The Cross And The Controller, and one of the hosts of the Podcast No Avatars Allowed. He splits his time between the site, working on his Masters in Systematic Theology, and working full time as a .Net Developer.


Republished with permission.

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Dr Toboggan

I would think that the primary purpose of any video game would be "joy". That's an easy one. Shouldn't we all play video games because we enjoy them? If they didn't give us the sense of joy, we wouldn't play them. I think that's fine, Super Mario Galaxy for example, doesn't try to tell any kind of deeper story or provoke any deep thoughts, it just exists to put a smile on your face, and that's fine.

Now, my favorite game is Chrono Trigger. It's a very optimistic game about saving the future and of course, joy is elicited from this promise. However, I think the biggest theme in the game is the idea of trying to find redemption from your mistakes. From the very beginning, Lucca is out to correct her mistake of building a teleporter that accidentally seconds as a time machine. Frog seeks to find redemption for the death of his friend Cyrus by defeating Magus. Magus himself is very haunted by the mistakes of his past, from his mother raising Lavos in 12,000 BC to his own failure to raise and defeat Lavos himself in 600 AD which leads him to join your crew. The whole team feels the need to redeem themselves by bringing back Crono after he sacrifices himself before Lavos to save everyone else.

I would say the "purpose" of Chrono Trigger is to tell a story about mistakes can be redeemed. In the game, it's possible to screw up the planet at one point, but you can still move on and correct those problems. I think that's why it's such a satisfying story and one so many gamers resonate with it. Just because something bad happens, it doesn't mean that you can't do something to correct it.