As we age, we lose it: 0ur sense of constant wonderment, endless possibility, unfettered, carefree joy. Perhaps in rare moments we get it back. But it's not what we are anymore.

Why did we feel this way as children? The world was new and unknown-- we had no idea how it worked. We had no responsibilities to anyone else. We were new people in a new place.

Developers, academics and fans talk about the potential of video games: the potential for serious games to teach, the potential for independent games to be the 21st century's first new artform, the potential for mature games to rival film as a cultural force.

These may be potential meta-roles for interactive entertainment at large. But each individual video game holds its own potential: to turn back the clock of the player's psyche in a very real way. To reacquaint us experientially with the wonderment, joy, and endless possibility of youth. Each game is a new place for us to visit, and a new person for us to be.

Consider the experience of beginning a game you've never played before. The gameworld spreads out before you. Your role is undefined. You don't even know what the buttons do. The experience you've begun is nothing but potential-- you can only imagine what might happen next. It's as JP LeBreton describes:

Remember your first hour with Shadow of the Colossus, when you’d only fought maybe one of the beasts? The sparse loneliness of world seems to continue forever. What’s out there? What are you trying to accomplish? What are the limits? ... Other games have a story that stands out much more clearly from their gameplay dynamics. Even in these, there can be vectors that lead us to imagine – stories that are driven by mystery invite us to speculate, to dream up alternate possibilities – who is the G-Man? What happened to Rapture? We invite more of the game into our creative consciousness – we imagine.
As we dig into a new gameworld and begin to fill its boundaries with our understanding, we relive the experiences of youthful play. We explore unknown spaces as we did the woods behind our houses, or the vacant lots at the far ends of our neighborhoods. We hunt in hidden corners for treasures, and collect them in our pockets. We take up arms and best imaginary foes, as we once pantomimed in the tall grass. We make up rules to our own little games within the game, follow them, break them. We build new cities, new families, new civilizations out from our own heads. We become people better than ourselves-- we grow bigger, more powerful, more important in our imagined roles. We can defeat armies; we can save the world. We can be anyone and we can do anything. The skin matters little-- superhero, suburbanite, criminal, cartoon character. It's the participation in the experience, the sensation of exploring, collecting, dominating, creating, that matters.

These are sensations that no other mass entertainment can provide. Films, novels, comics give us glimpses into realities outside our own, but we are voyeurs. We lose ourselves in the exploits of others, we invest ourselves in their fates, we formulate our own interpretations, but we are not them. We approach the worlds of these static media with the same sort of wonder at first, but can only observe others' actions within their bounds. This lack of control creates drama. But it does not invite us to be new ourselves.

Maybe video games will be a new artform, a new tool for teaching, a new cultural tentpole. Maybe they won't. But they are regardless unique-- for being interactive, yes, but more specifically for the conduit which that interactivity provides, through which we may reawaken the faded sensations of youthful play in our adult lives. This is an incredible kind of restorative therapy, a unique and valuable service that video games provide for the time-battered psyches of their audience.

If adulthood familiarity with our own world leeches off wonderment and replaces it with cynicism, games offer us fresh worlds from which to derive the reinvigorating, electrifying wonder of the new. The saddest person is the world-weary, the seen-it-all, the joyless, the cynic. The imaginative, exploratory, carefree play of youth is what the cynic has forgotten. It's what video games provide.

We can give you back what you have lost.

This essay was inspired in part by Michael Chabon's elegy to the lost wilderness of childhood.


Gerard Delaney said...

I just came to your blog via the recent Brainy Gamer podcast and for my first experience this post was great. It captured what is unique about games in a very sincere and emotional way without feeling preachy. Before you mentioned Shadow of the Colossus my experience with the game came to mind but I can't help but reference each new city in the Grand Theft Auto series as evoking a child like sense of wonder. A curiosity about what lies behind each street corner. This is something that is amazing but fleeting because you are compelled to continue exploring until the foreign becomes familiar and you gain more tools to achieve the goals of the game's design.

Jamey Stevenson said...

Great post, Steve! It reminded me of one of my favorite quotes about games, one attributed to Miyamoto in Game Over (probably paraphrased here, as I don't have the book handy):

"Games are a trigger for adults to again become primitive, primal, as a way of thinking and remembering. An adult is a child who has more ethics and morals, that's all. When I am a child, creating, I am not creating a game. I am in the game. The game is not for children, it is for me. It is for an adult who still has a character of a child."

I always thought that was an interesting take on games and game development, and also on the difference between adulthood and childhood.

Also, you probably already know it, but this is one of my favorite bits of writing on the topic of lost exuberance:


Jordan Magnuson said...

Well said. This ability to "reawaken" us to the joy and strangeness of life is one of the things I most value in video games (though I think their potential, even in this regard, has not been particularly well-tapped to date).

Have you read Jeanette Wintersons' series of essays, "Art Objects"? She describes the encroaching cynicism of adulthood well:

"Children who are born into a tired world as batteries of new energy are plugged into the system as soon as possible and gradually drained away. At the time when they become adult and conscious they are already depleted and prepared to accept a world of shadows."


"The realist unmakes the coherent multiple world into a collection of random objects. He thinks of reality as that which has an objective existence, but understands no more about objective existence than that which he can touch and feel, sell and buy. A lover of objects and of objectivity, he is in fact caught in a world of symbols and symbolism, where he is unable to see the thing in itself, as it really is, he sees it only in relation to his own story of the world."

JP said...

I was thinking of that Michael Chabon essay as well when I was writing my post. I scribbled some notes down at the bottom, that didn't connect well enough to make the cut, about the fields around the house where I grew up in Texas.

And of course there's the legend about how Miyamoto took inspiration for the original Legend of Zelda from the caves near his boyhood home.

I guess I do tend to treat some facets of my childhood as precious, as a creative font for what I do today. But that's different from the sense that players get when they're exploring, rather than creating something to be explored. Maybe. They're rather entangled to me at this point.

Regardless, I do think games are better at connecting us with these feelings / experiences than probably any other medium.

I also think that this isn't just about childhood, or a child's view of the world. I think exploration, imagination etc *should* be something alive and well in adults, that we carry into the complexities of life... it's just that our culture tends to beat it out of us, and convinces us to focus on making money, building up our little careers, whatever.

Perhaps it's just that games can connect us with parts of our psyches that are valuable but, sadly, often neglected.

Ryan Wiancko said...



Dave said...

I think that there is definitely something to be said for the power of video games to stimulate the imagination any age group. The thing I would worry about is whether this sense of wonder would carry over to the rest of their life and whether the exciting new worlds of video games might serve to make the 'real' world even more drab and boring by comparison.

Jordan Magnuson said...


Have you read much Tolkien or Chesterton? Both argued vehemently in the defense of "fairy stories," which were criticized in their day as being escapist and/or for children... in other words, what people say video games are today.

I think both Tolkien and Chesterton do a great job arguing why fairy stories can have exactly the opposite effect of making the "'real' world even more drab and boring," and I think their arguments extend well to video games. See Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories," and parts of Chesterton's book, "Orthodoxy." (Both these authors are admittedly Christian, but I think their arguments here are pretty nonpartisan.)

Steve gaynor said...


Alternatively, maybe immersion in games could condition people to expect more wonderment and joyful exploration in their daily lives. Kurt Vonnegut conjectured that the commonly employed dramatic arc of film and novels conditioned their audience to expect the same sort of dramatic buildup and resolution to happen in reality. http://sivers.org/drama

Dave said...

Steve and Jordan,

Thank you for your thoughtful responses. I think was overly harsh in my previous comment, but for some reason when I was reading this article I couldn't get this 'story' from the Onion out of my head: http://www.theonion.com/content/node/28009.

Perhaps escapism might be compared to alcohol. Both things can have a beneficial place in the lives of many (perhaps most) people, but some people can develop unhealthy relationships with escapism/booze that can damage or destroy their lives.

deckard47 said...

Previous comment eaten!

I really like your idea of play/games as a rejuvenating force that reminds of us of what was so great about play. That's how I see it, professional aspirations or no.

I also like that Vonnegut bit: that's how I used play as a kid. When the world fails you by being boring or unexciting, you can always fix things...

Brian Longtin said...

Love the thoughts here, and am reminded of possibly the only video game ad I've ever truly liked:


It's about possibility, which games offer up in abundance. Or at least they should, if game makers take care not to continually rehash the same ones we've already been to.

Jordan Magnuson said...

Thanks for the link Brian: I quite enjoyed the ad.

Also, took a look at your blog, and I really like the format. Keep it up.