Sam Anderson's April 4th article in the New York Times Magazine clearly illustrates that even in today's world, you don't have to understand something to write a cover story on it. It takes a lot of gall for an outsider to make a sweeping declaration that a vast number of works in a medium are “stupid”. Anderson takes that boldness a step further by being staggeringly ignorant of the current state of games, as well as intolerably selfish in his outlook on the topic.
Anderson’s criteria for a “stupid game” are unclear at best; Chess, Angry Birds, and Farmville are all lumped together. Both abstract and themed games fall into the “stupid” category, from digital titles like Little Wings to classic board games like checkers. A game played by the ancient Egyptians is presented alongside Plants vs. Zombies. It seems that the unifying factor is simply that playing these games can be used to occupy leisure time. The only exceptions Anderson cares to mention are Triple-A titles from a dated list of consoles. This isn’t surprising, since he readily admits that he had previously renounced gaming in the early 90s.
A devil’s advocate could argue that the engagement loops of “stupid games” are often smaller, requiring the user to continually re-engage with the game in order to play for long periods of time. The discrete elements of play, small as they are, encourage the player keep trying a level after a loss, or keep pressing onward longer than they had intended. The amount of time required to boot up a game console is enough friction to keep the weak-willed from indulging unnecessarily, and the restriction of locality forces the player to limit their play time.
This is a gross misconception; anyone who has ever been deeply engaged in a long-form title such as Mass Effect or Skyrim will be able to tell you a story about how they played the game from the instant they bought it until they had to leave for work or school the next morning. For that entire day, and possibly the weeks following, even when they weren’t playing the game, they were thinking about it in their spare time. Anyone who has ever been invested in a book will be able to tell you about similar marathon sessions lasting into the early hours. Many a bookish commuter has been so engrossed that they missed their train or their bus stop during a particularly interesting chapter. Cinephiles that spend their time dissecting plot points and pointing out technical gaffes are just as invested in their task as the Angry Birds player attempting to get the perfect angle with their boomerang bird.
Anderson initially gave up video games out of a fear that he wouldn’t be able to control his gaming behaviors, and his extensive personal anecdote seems to suggest that he has been once again subsumed by the hobby. He presents his story as a cautionary tale, illustrating that from the moment he purchased his iPhone, the relapse was inevitable. A clearer example of the slippery slope fallacy would be harder to find. The concept of game addiction is brought up all throughout the article, even though none of the actual experts interviewed share Anderson’s dystopic view of the future of games.
How addictive games can be is still the subject of debate. It is true that game designers often try to make their games more “addictive”, though they tend to use the word as a synonym for “engaging”. There are certainly companies and designers that try their hardest to manipulate players psychologically but the effectiveness of these techniques has not been proven. The ethics of specific gameplay mechanics definitely warrants discussion...by people who know what they're talking about.
The insidious thing about Anderson's article is that it really looks, at first glance, like he's done his homework. He mentions Jane McGonigal, Mark Pincus and other big industry names. The independent game movement gets a nod in his interactions with Zach Gage. Triple-A publishers are thoroughly derided as being stodgy and risk-averse. Their corporate monopoly, according to Anderson’s narrative, was finally broken by the messianic arrival of the iPhone. The iPhone has played an undeniable role in gaming's pervasiveness today, but Anderson quite literally credits Apple for the the current state of gaming. Anyone with even passing knowledge of the industry would be loathe to omit the contributions of the Wii, Steam, and others in a miles-long list of factors that made both creating and distributing games easier. It doesn’t seem coincidental that the iPhone is the only game console Anderson seems to have interacted with since hitting puberty.
The problem with Anderson’s points stems from two root causes. First and foremost, he’s giving commentary on a medium that he purposefully withdrew from twenty years ago. He may have re-engaged himself a year ago, but that gives him as much credence as a person who hasn’t seen a movie since “Titanic” attempting to objectively judge “Hugo”. Extensive research might have been able to get him up to speed, but it is obvious that he learned just as much as was required to seem knowledgeable. Referring to “Draw Something” as Zynga’s top game, when the sale of OMGPOP was announced approximately two weeks ago, reads either as ignorant or deceptive.
Despite being a self-professed outsider, Anderson makes himself a focal point of his story. It is his narrative that the reader has to consider, the not-so-heartbreaking tale of a man playing iPhone games late at night. Compared to the stories of MMO players dying due to self-induced malnutrition, or game-playing parents neglecting their real-life children, Anderson’s narrative is compelling only to himself. With so many stories that already exist about game addiction, it seems like Anderson focused on himself because he wanted to.
It should be obvious that Anderson is not the sort of person who is qualified to rule that certain games are “stupid”. Nor should he be elaborating about a hypothetical future dystopia where games exist purely to suck players’ wallets dry using dirty psychological tricks. Regardless, he insists on sharing his maudlin predictions, misleading readers who don’t recognize the ignorance of his claims, and enraging those that do. Games are not just simple, silly time-wasters; they are valid equally as forms of entertainment and artifacts of our culture. Knowledge, perspective, and respect are required for anyone hoping to provide insight into their future.