Video games are art. But they aren’t art like books; if you just read Harry Potter over and over, somebody might say “read another book.” And they’d be right. But here’s the thing about games these days: The content isn’t the content. The experience is the content.
You can play Dark Souls 10 times over, a different build each time—shield-only combat, fully naked—and have 10 distinct game experiences. You can play 600 hours of Overwatch—believe me, I have—and, thrown into the churn of random teammates, execute (or fail to execute) unique strategy each game. It’s like sucking on a big, color-changing jawbreaker for a couple of years. The jawbreaker is sweet, then sour, then floral or bitter, and every time you want to taste candy, you take it out of the jar and pop it in your mouth.
You can just play one game forever. Maybe no one’s told you that. You can play one game forever, and that doesn’t make you boring, uncultured, or less of a gamer—League of Legends, Candy Crush, The Witcher 3, whatever. It shouldn’t be controversial, the idea that you can enjoy one thing for as long as you’d like. It is. You will be told you’re wrong. Mostly, by other gamers. Gaming didn’t become a $100 billion industry off the easily satisfied.
Decades of targeted marketing and mutually reinforcing business interests interlock to keep gamers always wanting just a little more. To participate in the global moment of a new Halo launch, you might fancy that new Xbox. Your whole feed is the latest God of War teaser video; preordering the game, and telling your friends, signals your belonging. If you call yourself a Final Fantasy fan, how could you not buy the Final Fantasy VII remake? To be sure, plenty of this acquisitiveness comes from a love of gaming, not from unthinking avarice. But for a lot of modern game-players, FOMO is a constant companion. Wanting-a-little-more has translated into a social need, even an identity.
The games industry has mastered this moment in capitalism by insinuating that gamers’ status as community members is at least partly contingent on a regular stream of consumption. There is an undeniable link between the amount of games you have played and your gamer cachet, your relatability to your social ecosystem. I don’t say this to shame anybody. It’s praiseworthy to have played a lot of games, just like it’s praiseworthy to have read every Jane Austen novel or watched every Jodorowsky film. These are just the conditions under which the single-game devotee is dismissed.
Overwatch came out in 2016 and I have played it basically every day since. My two obsessions: video games and Overwatch. The game has changed, of course. There are new characters, maps, modes, costumes. The player base fluctuates. But it’s the same couple of gameplay loops: Defend the objective and do it with guns and lasers. Friends and acquaintances dropped off the game one by one after a couple months or a year. As they moved on—bored, jaded, or otherwise—they began to look at me askew. “Why would you play a dead game?” Well, I’d respond, a couple million people might disagree with that characterization. “Do people even play that anymore?” Yes. We’ve been through this. “Why don’t you play, like, the new Call of Duty? Or Valorant?” I do, sometimes, but for the most part, I like Overwatch.
It’s a little strange that social acceptance of the single-game devotee is lagging behind corporations’ acceptance of them. (Often, culture goes the other direction). Over the last couple of years, Activision-Blizzard, EA, Ubisoft, Riot Games, and any number of top game companies are designing their games to continually capture players’ interest past the accepted 20 to 60 hours of expected gameplay. This trend in game design is called “games a service.” Online competitive games like DoTA 2 and Fortnite are constantly refreshed with new characters, cosmetics, and modes, ensuring their enduring relevance in the news cycle and in players’ rat brains. Well, I’ll just log in to scan the new emotes.
Games as a service has brought formerly single-player role-playing game franchises like Grand Theft Auto and Fallout online and furnished players with tools to organize flea markets and mafias. League of Legends came out in 2009 and is still among the most popular games on Twitch, buoyed by publisher Riot Games, which releases music videos, runs an esports league, and adds sexy character skins and gameplay patches to keep things spicy. There is a continual flow of revenue as player bases transform into communities. So these days, lots of game companies celebrate the permaplayer and the social pressure they generate for their friends to keep logging in.
We shouldn’t focus on how corporations want us to play their games, though. Play them all or play one forever, spending money all the while—it all pads their pockets. Let’s instead turn inward.
Overwatch’s pitch is transporting players to a futuristic utopia where diverse, overdesigned characters battle to control objectives using a huge array of weapons and skills. Actually playing, my rat brain translates this symphony of things into pew pew pew boom boom. The highs and lows of playing, and trying to climb the competitive ranks, feels like swinging from branch to branch high up in a forest canopy. The sun shines down through the tree crowns, the colors are fantastic. It is warm and nice, and I want to stay there. Then, I lose. I fall ranks, catch a lower branch, and keep swinging, aiming for the canopy and chasing that high. There is always forward momentum. Twice while writing this paragraph, I tabbed out of Google Docs to catch a game. If that sounds like a compulsion, you might be right, but I’ll have to check your medical credentials.
It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to describe Overwatch as my “comfort food.” It’s a competitive game. It doesn’t always make me happy and rarely ever feels special—less fried green tomatoes and more like an old, reliable lunch sandwich. When I log in, I know there will be some number of constants: my six-player team, another six-player team, a finite choice of characters, specific goals. Then there are the inconstants. Winning or losing. Asshole teammates. Fantastic gameplay synergies. After a lot of self-reflection (years’ worth, it turns out), I realize that I come back to Overwatch over and over because it is a rare microcosm where I am given a low-stakes opportunity to spin the wheel of fortune.
I don’t always play forever-games to feel good, at least directly. It’s like going by the local bar to have an experience, any one at all. A lot of people who play one game for a long, long time might understand. You don’t necessarily play it because it’s fun or relaxing. You play for the multiplicity of experience. Speedrunners spend half a decade beating their best Mario 64 score, uncovering new hacks and practicing new reflexes. World of Warcraft-heads might be playing the same gnome warrior they’ve been leveling since the early 2000s, but their longtime guild is constantly expanding with new players. Every Hades run-through is an opportunity to master a new build. Even Candy Crush moms might say that, while the game is mindless, it makes the morning commute just a little more variable.
But from the outside, it looks different. Sad, even. A generous interpretation of people’s judgment is that it’s grounded in their desire for their friends to enjoy more games, even the same games they themselves have moved on to. A less generous interpretation is that playing one game forever is genuinely baffling, and disorienting, for gamers who feel compelled to play it all. The truth is that people who deeply, deeply love one video game and play it forever understand something other gamers might not: Games are not like other media.
Playing games is not just consuming content; it’s interacting with it. What we enjoy is our experience of the thing rather than simply the thing itself. The player is the integral ingredient, and as the player, enjoy video games in any way you want and for as long as you’d like. Content is finite, but experience is infinite.