I don’t really like console games. OK, that isn’t true. What I should say is, I never developed a taste for them.
Originally published 3/4/16
Last night I went to a lecture at the NYU Game Center by designer Naomi Clark. Naomi explored how and why we develop our taste in games, drawing on everything from food to film to philosophy to space travel. She attempted to break down what taste is and what purpose our tastes serve both personally and culturally.
(I should mention that Naomi has been a friend of mine for many years. Once for my birthday she brought me a giant Rice Krispie treat, which my roommates and I valiantly struggled but ultimately failed to eat.)
As I listened, I asked myself why I like the games I like and how I’ve come to consider certain genres and platforms “good,” or at least better than others. My parents didn’t let me have a console as a kid; I played Duck Hunt and Mario Kart at classmates’ houses, my opinions of them infused with the awkwardness of hanging out with people I had nothing in common with while we played with their toys. I had a Sega Game Gear I begged for and dragged with me everywhere, playing Ecco the Dolphin and the first Sonic the Hedgehog and some Olympics game I’ve never been able to find again every time I could get a spare second. When my Game Gear bit the dust, my parents refused to get me another handheld, and, except for the occasional PC game (Legend of Kyrandia, anyone?), games drifted out of my life.
I came back to PC games in my adulthood, first out of a nostalgic curiosity, and later as part of a graduate degree in library science. I wrote my master’s thesis about “affective information behavior” in Half Life 2, 100 pages of charts and graphs and user theory that was probably as dry as it sounds. However, Half Life 2 remains one of my favorite games because of all the time I spent digging around in its minutia (and also because let’s be honest it rules). I consider it a “smart” game, because I used it to prove I was smart enough to earn my degree.
I like to think of myself as a smart person, and thus I want the things I like to reflect the tastes of a smart person. But our tastes are shaped for us through our family, culture, and environment, as well as being something we shape for ourselves in our efforts to prove who we are or to discover the person we want to be. I like some of the games my friends like because our tastes match; one aspect of our being friends is our shared interest in certain things. But we also shape our tastes to align through what we get excited about and what we share with each other, and this both intentionally and unintentionally creates a space for certain likes and dislikes to emerge.
As someone who only had access to a PC when I came back to games, PC games had to be “good” because I wanted to like good things. Thus, the genres I gravitated toward had to be “the good ones,” not just the ones near to hand. I tell myself I like stealth games because they’re “good,” not because my reflexes suck and because I feel smart when I solve their puzzles. I say I don’t like JRPGs because they’re “boring,” not because I don’t want to admit I get frustrated when I find them confusing. I’ve come to realize how much of my taste in games has been shaped by circumstance, as well as the reasons I’ve honed to keep my taste reflective of who I want to see myself as and how I want to be seen by others. My tastes are nowhere near as simple and clear-cut as I’d thought.
Of course, as the tired trope goes, there’s no accounting for taste. At the end of the day, I’m just not that into, say, sports games or fighting games. That doesn’t mean I think they’re bad, or it shouldn’t mean I think that— for whatever reason, they’re just not for me. Part of being a person who writes about games, though, is keeping up with the games people like and, perhaps more importantly, why and specifically what they like about those games. I’ve had to push myself to consider games I’d never touch on my own, to find their value because I’m surrounded by colleagues, readers, and other people I respect who find them valuable. And you know what? It may still mean I’ll never play them, but I’ve learned that a lot of these games are actually really good.
“Good or bad” is probably a terrible axis to place games on, a one-way road to FightTown. But it might be easier to discuss and defend perceived quality than it is to get at intimate, complicated questions of delight, pleasure, and joy, as well as the social and cultural forces that bring us to our preferences. Sure, there are plenty of games out there that could probably be considered objectively “bad,” but perhaps a more interesting discussion, both for games and for each other, might be to explore how we come to the things we love, what we love about them, and how we can share that love with others in a way that allows for different tastes— whatever the hell that means— to emerge.
Why do you play the games you play? Did you have them as a kid, did you want something to play with your friends, did you want to be part of a certain culture or community? When we want to tell someone they’re good or bad for playing or never having played a certain game we love, what does it say about us? What do we get out of trying to get others to fall in line with our tastes? What keeps us from admitting that, for whatever reason, some of the things we like just bring us joy? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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