I Play For Fun: The Four Dumbest Words in Video Games

Note: This entry was significantly edited for word choice, structure, and length in May of 2015. The arguments remain unchanged.

Let’s return to the group of scrubs. They don’t know the first thing about all the depth I’ve been talking about. Their argument is basically that ignorantly mashing buttons with little regard to actual strategy is more “fun.” Superficially, their argument does at least look valid, since often their games will be more “wet and wild” than games between the experts, which are usually more controlled and refined. But any close examination will reveal that the experts are having a great deal of this “fun” on a higher level than the scrub can even imagine. Throwing together some circus act of a win isn’t nearly as satisfying as reading your opponent’s mind to such a degree that you can counter his every move, even his every counter.

David Sirlin, “Introducing…the Scrub”*

Humans have a biological urge to compete and win. It doesn’t matter whether it’s face-to-face or in a videogame. Thus, “I play for fun” was born, the idea that experts are not enjoying themselves when they are doing everything they can to win, and we were all dumber for hearing it. If you’re using the phrase, stop fucking doing it.

I mean, what does “I play for fun” even mean? Who doesn’t play videogames for fun? Videogame testers? Professional gamers? Game reviewers? Know what they all have in common? Their genuine passion and interest in games has turned into a job. Most people don’t fall under that category, and most everyone plays videogames because they’re fun, because if they weren’t, those players would simply spend their time doing something else. Realistically, the only debate is how much fun one is having. And I would propose the player that seeks to learn every strategy and every nuance is probably having more fun than a pair of sloppy players who “play for fun”.

So what’s going on here? You see, the “I play for fun” crowd doesn’t care much for videogames. But hey, Call of Duty is worth shitting around in. They grind out a couple of hours each week, but that’s all they can handle. Any more Call of Duty, and Call of Duty becomes boring. During this time, the “play for fun” crowd discovers that certain players operate on another plane of existence. They’re one-man armies, the masters and commanders of their virtual world, and these players absolutely stomp the shit out of the weaker players.  But instead of accepting the investment of time and energy necessary to overcome the experts, the “play for fun” crowd makes excuses. They take their short play sessions and project upon the experience of the experts, and conclude that “The experts must be bored out of their mind. They’re playing forty hours a week? They must have a twitch in their brain. They must have no life. They can’t possibly be playing for for fun. Therefore, I am playing for fun. And I need to make sure everyone knows that.”

Yup, it’s true! A group of players who play the game at a superficial level have concluded that they are having more fun than the experts, who can apply their skill and knowledge to situations that the “I play for fun” crowd has never engaged or considered. Now, in a way, journalism has allowed this to fester. They have beaten the idea of “time equals skill” into the ground since the late seventies, when 1979’s Asteroids introduced the high score into the vernacular. For the best players of that time period, those “high scores” were not a test of proficiency, but endurance.* And while endurance is a skill worth testing, it created a perception that the best videogame players are the best simply because they play more than anyone else.

And to compound the matter, the last decade of game development that has hijacked the stat-based systems in Japanese Role-Playing Games and converted them into award and unlock systems for multiplayer games. Call of Duty now rewards the player for shitting his pants X number of times. Every kill, every maneuver, every time you shit your pants, you now get experience points that will go towards unlocking the game’s content. And just like the JRPGs, “time played” is the most significant factor in unlocking that content. The result is that we have created multiplayer games akin to an organized basketball league where you must win twenty-five games before you’re allowed to shoot three-pointers.

That’s how you end up with “I play for fun”, which is code for “If I played this as much as you do, I’d kick your ass.” And that’s a slap in the face. Yeah, it’s fun to mock the fans of simplistic games like League of Legends, but the pissing matches over what videogames take skill are purely relative. You don’t get to be the best at any videogame unless you bring something to the table. That goes for Call of Duty, shitty games like Angry Birds, niche genres like shoot ’em ups, and even the limited competition on web sites like TwinGalaxies, where as few as half-a-dozen people may be fighting for the world record high score in a game that history long passed by. Those players do something, they do it well, and it is the confluence of time and natural talent that makes for the best of them.

So when somebody says “I play for fun”, I hear somebody making excuses. I hear somebody who can’t deal with the most neutral of all neutral parties—a computer program doing nothing more than executing the instructions it was given—saying the player isn’t doing very well. And that’s where videogames teach a valuable life lesson. Pac-Man doesn’t give you an extra life because you had a bad night’s sleep, just as your boss doesn’t care if that was a really great party last night, just as people on the internet don’t care your crappy blog entry was “my first post go easy on me!” The game cares that you presented yourself and didn’t perform. Your score is your score is your score. Period. And whether it’s life, or work, or play, the only way to get better is to take the cards you were dealt and make the best of them, even if the odds seem overwhelming and unfair.

But that’s what happens when you live in a society where people are told that they are special snowflakes. And snowflake syndrome isn’t exclusive to videogames. After all, my professional basketball career didn’t pan out because I was too short. If only I had been 6’7 and I wasn’t a crappy basketball player. I’d probably be playing professional basketball by now! The difference is that if I walk onto a basketball court and spout nonsense that “I play for fun”, people will laugh at me. On some courts, I’d probably get my ass kicked. But apparently, it’s an acceptable excuse when videogames are the form of recreation.

So in declaring that they’re simply in the business of “playing for fun”, these players don’t learn the game rules and they don’t bother trying to see the game on a level beyond the first move. If you’re a fighting game fan, you’re probably aware that this has significant overlap with the “scrub”, a player who plays by imaginary rulesets constructed in his own mind for the purpose of refusing to deal with the actual game rules.* And if you want extended reading, I would invite you to check out the Battle.net forums and check out the wonderful world of low-level StarCraft II. If somebody loses to Marines, then Marines are overpowered. If somebody loses to Ultralisks, then Ultralisks are overpowered. If the opposing player anticipates a mid-game strategy based on an early-game build, then that player is clearly maphacking. If someone makes more units than them, then StarCraft is a bullshit click-fest which rewards mouse speed instead of strategy. In the world of low-level gaming, it’s simply not your fault if you lose. Because, after all, “I play for fun.”

Sure, skilled gamers such as Greg Fields (IdrA) indulge the StarCraft II lexicon by asking people to apologize for playing the Terran race.* Sure, you’ll get your rants, where “after playing 3,000 matches, I’ve determined this game isn’t worth the money.” But for the most part, the nature of good players is that they understand why they lost. And if they don’t, they’ll try to figure out why. They’ll watch replays. They’ll watch videos. They’ll analyze build orders. They’ll consult for help on discussion boards. They may voice dissatisfaction about a game, but that dissatisfaction is rooted in far more authority and expertise than someone who admits to playing games on a superficial level.

And in the end, “I play for fun” ultimately implies that being good at a videogame is a bad thing. You know…only losers do that! Newsflash: The value of a pursuit is irrelevant, and in the grand scale of things, most people are irrelevant. You and me are not absent from that. So long as those players are being progressive about their interests, and the pursuit of becoming better means seeking better pleasures and goals, then there is no problem with that. Whereas the people who use terms such as “I play for fun” are apparently offended and enraged by the idea of trying to become good at a videogame. Well, the only way those people impact your existence is if they log into the game and kick the ever-loving shit out of you. In which case, you have one of two options: You can either get over it, or you can get better.

Now, this is not to justify the degenerate habits which exist in the world of online videogames. Because it was about winning at all costs, we’d be exploiting every game-breaking glitch and firing off every cheat that we can. As it concerns videogaming and pleasure, the purpose of playing to win is to decide what games and how games are worth playing. And sometimes, you will have to play with or against people who inflict their competitive drive on others. You’ll play with or against complete fucking assholes. This is not to justify their behavior, but in order to get the most out of games, you must acknowledge that these players exist and you must prepare for them. Are you going to let these players stop you from doing something you love?

So instead of announcing that you play for fun, go have fun. And believe me, I can assure you that we will both be having fun. The only question is who will be having more fun, and I probably beat you at that as well. Get over it, or get better.