When I say “I am a video game player,” what does that mean?
Does it mean I play one game at a time, completing as much of it as possible before moving onto the next game?
Does it mean I prefer to play multiple games at once and couldn’t care less about seeing how any of them end?
Does it mean I devote my time to a single game, grinding for gear and XP, replaying old content while waiting for new content?
Does it mean I play every day or only occasionally?
Does it mean I need to have thousands of games at my fingertips, or that I only need a couple games within reach?
The great thing about gaming is that it means all those things, and any one player’s preferences can alternate between these notions and a multitude of variations of them over time. Sometimes that’s due to the payer, and sometimes it’s due to the games. The environment in which Pac-Man was released, for example, is nearly foreign to our present age of gaming. And while the concepts behind Pac-Man live on in today’s games – collect, defeat, progress – the packages in which they are presented are quite different. Today’s gaming landscape is a vast smorgasbord of choice, and with that comes differing and individual notions of what it mean to “play video games.”
A conversation recently popped up in my own household that brought to mind this intriguing question of gaming identity and what it meant when we identified ourselves as “video game players.” This was partially spurred on by a few social media posts I had caught on the subject of playing games versus beating them. For myself, I came to the conclusion that when I was younger, I played game just to play games; now, I mostly play games to beat them. In the early days, attention-span issues aside, the likelihood of me “beating” Space Invaders or Centipede – and I didn’t even know if such games could be beaten – was slim to none. I played games because I enjoyed the challenge and challenging others. That all changed with the Super Mario franchise. Those games introduced to me the video game stories and endings — save the princess, see fireworks and credits. (Video games certainly had stories prior to that, but you often had to read the accompanying literature to know what it was, which I hardly ever did. Heck, I didn’t know what Robotron 2084 was actually about until much later in life.)
During this phase in which I gamed mostly on the NES/SNES, my gaming goals depending entirely on the game. Mario games, Donkey Kong Country games, Mega Man games – those became the games to actually beat, raging-inducing though they could be, at times. Fighting, racing, and sports games, however, were different beasts. While in fighting and sports games, and some racing games of the time, one could complete a game with a single fighter or team or car, they were more about playing with others. I didn’t care about “beating” Super Street Fighter II, I just wanted to beat my couch co-op companion. Over the years I’ve played dozens of fighting games, and if “beating” one of them constitutes completing a story mode with a single fighter, then I’ve really only ever beaten one, maybe two of them.
If I had to point to a moment in time when my sentiment towards games turned away from “just playing” to actually wanting to see credits roll, it would revolve around the Nintendo 64. Super Mario 64 took platforming off the rails and gave players space to roam and explore. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time one-upped this many times over with its open world and narrative-based play. These games gave me reason to play to completion, from collecting all 120 stars (still one of my fondest gaming memories) to wanting to know how Link’s story turned out. From then on out, I’d more strongly categorize wanting to beat games than just playing to for the sake of play, but it still depending on the game, and more often than not, the console(s) to which I had the most access.
If I may get statistical for a moment, looking back at my own history of games, I have only about a 47% completion rate across all consoles/handhelds I’ve ever played on from the early 80s to today, including the PC, with the highest rates occurring on the Xbox 360 (94%), Nintendo DS (69%) and PlayStation 3 (65%). (Nerdily, I do keep track!) Among these, as I said before, I don’t count fighting games, and I also don’t count games I’ve beaten multiple times and live-service games. I don’t have any particular feelings towards my generated completion rate percentage, and as I don’t know of any studies done in this area, I’ve no idea how it might compare to others. Not that it really matters anyway; I just counted some games subjectively and did some math. It’s not as if this is a competition, right?
There’s no wrong way to play games. What’s important is the act of play: enjoying games physically and emotionally, supporting the games you like, and interacting with games and people in meaningful ways. It’s okay if your goals within this seemingly-infinite hobby change over time, because people change over time, and the game at our disposal have changed, too. And they’ll continue to evolve, because that’s how life and industry work. If you seek to complete 100% of the games you play, then you are being the video game player you need to be to make you happy. Same goes if you never complete a single game and only want to swim freely in gaming’s wide, open sea of choice. And if you only any to play one game and become the best at it that you can be, you can do just that. Gaming allows for all options; the choice is yours.
That said, I’m still curious about how you play! What’s your primary motivation for playing video games – to play them or to beat them?