For those who choose to go into academia, Jane McGonigal’s observation that people actually prefer work to entertainment may not be surprising. After all, we’ve chosen to enter into a discipline in which we make our own work. For McGonigal, “entertainment” means specifically passive entertainment, like watching a movie or television show, rather than more active forms (like games). She says, “The research proves what gamers already know: within the limits of our own endurance, we would rather work hard than be entertained. Perhaps that’s why gamers spend less time watching television than anyone else on the planet” (McGonigal 33). In other words, we want to be engaged by something. Television and movies – for the most part – don’t challenge us. They allow us to stare at something while the twists and turns of the plot are displayed to us without necessitating any effort on our parts. Sometimes they provide enough of a challenge that we can try to “figure them out,” but we wouldn’t have to if we didn’t want to; eventually (maybe at the end of the film or episode, or maybe, as in Lost, at the end of the series), they will answer our questions.
But games don’t do that. Yes, they will provide you with an ending, a resolution, but they won’t get there on their own. You have to put effort into the game in order to progress the narrative – you have to participate in the ludonarrative (the gameplay) in order to make the narrative move along. Sometimes, the ludonarrative is interwoven into the narrative (as in games like Mass Effect), and the narrative itself changes based on your decisions as a player. Sometimes (as in Gears of War) the narrative line is set, but you have to act in order to access the next portion. Either way, you have to do something in order to receive the next piece of information.
And when you choose to play a game – any game, whether videogame, boardgame, or sport – you are deliberately making your life more difficult. On purpose. And you have done so because you want your life to be more difficult: “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (Suits 38). McGonigal suggests that we want games when our lives aren’t satisfying enough, when we don’t have enough obstacles. I would argue that we are more satisfied the more obstacles we can overcome (or at least have hope of overcoming). After all, some of us have careers that are nothing but deeply satisfying, self-created challenges, and we still choose to play games – perhaps because with games, there are no stakes. If I fail at Braid, nothing happens. No punishment is forthcoming. I can try and try and fail and fail and maybe I will succeed, but I can do so on my own time, my own way, and without fear of judgment.
So perhaps playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles without fear. And being able to overcome obstacles without fear lets us tackle the necessary obstacles we encounter, even when we’re afraid.