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I play a lot of video games. I try to get in a fairly wide variety, but it’s certainly also the case that I can plunge a huge amount of time into a particular game if I really enjoy it. I do the latter, of course, because when I want to play games, I gravitate generally towards something I know I will enjoy. I do the former to experiment with things I might like, but also as a way of understanding games better.
One way that we generally gain knowledge of how things work is through experience. We learn about books through reading them. We learn about movies and television by watching them. And we learn about games by playing them.
But key to the learning process is to experience both the heights and depths of the medium. To experience both what we enjoy, and what we hate.
And it is for that purpose that I would like to offer a brief defense, perhaps even an exhortation, for playing bad games. I use the term “bad” here both in the subjective and objective sense. There is value in playing games that we personally dislike, and there is also value in playing games that can be said to fail in whatever aspect of “gameness” they are trying to capture.
I will note here that when I encourage people to play bad games, I do not mean that everyone must spend the majority of their time playing bad games. Sometimes people will get a kick out of it, to witness the gaming equivalent of a train wreck in real time. But obviously we don’t all want to spend time doing things we actively dislike.
But it’s still worthwhile to play games we recognize to be bad just for a bit. To take some time out of our busy lives to sit and examine a work that fundamentally fails on some level. If you purchase a game that you hate, don’t just return it or set it down forever. Take some more time to play it, not with the hope that it will get better, but as an opportunity to examine the game and learn more.
Criticism and Bad Games
We generally have a pretty good sense of what we like and don’t like. It can be pretty easy to play a video game for just a bit and know whether you will continue to enjoy it. Sometimes we can push forward in the hope that the game will improve, or because we are compelled by the need to finish the game, or for the sake of some other person watching us play. But we can still know deep down when we aren’t having fun.
What is harder, though, is figuring out why we like and don’t like certain things.
The problem is that we all have, in the abstract, a set of values for what we think are important. We might value challenge, or story, or gameplay, or choice, or any host of other elements. Sometimes we may value more than one of these things at the same time, or value all of them with different rankings. When we might talk about good and bad games with others, we will fall back on these values. A good game is one that is challenging, or offers choices, or has a good story, and we will tell other people why we think those elements are important for making a good game.
But the values we say we hold to don’t always align with the games we like. Generally speaking, they will. If we enjoy games with good stories, we will usually gravitate toward games with better writing. If we enjoy games which offer choices, we will tend to avoid games that are incredibly linear. But that doesn’t mean we will exclusively play games that align with our values.
And more importantly, we will sometimes not recognize that a game that doesn’t align with our values is in fact out of step with what we claim.
Ultimately, whether we like something is purely subjective. I’ve mentioned before the idea that the objective quality of a game – whether it is good or bad – is something we can separate from whether or not we enjoy it. We can like bad games, and dislike good games – and nothing is wrong with either part of that equation.
But since “liking” is so subjective, we can have trouble stepping outside of ourselves to examine why we like a particular game. When we enjoy something, we may know that we enjoy it, but not why. And so, because we have a set of stated values of what we believe we care about, we impose those values upon the game. I am playing a story-rich game that isn’t very good, but I like it, which means it must have a good story, because I like games with good stories. If part of my identity is wrapped up in the things I like and the values I hold, which includes liking good stories, then I will be inclined to warp reality to fit that narrative.
It might sound like the solution to all of this is to just stop and think more carefully about our values or about the games we like, but unfortunately that doesn’t really work. If we don’t really have the intellectual tools or skills to engage in some kind of self-analysis, or in critical analysis of the things we like, then any attempt to step back will be doomed.
Play Bad Games!
It’s for this reason that playing bad games is valuable. When we play good games, or games we like, it’s harder to get a grasp on what we enjoy. We have trouble taking a critical eye to the things that make us feel good. But in playing bad games, or games we dislike, that critical eye becomes a bit sharper. We usually aren’t used to asking ourselves why we like something, and instead more commonly ask ourselves why we don’t like something. As a consequence, we are better at attacking than praising.
But criticism is like a muscle, and it gets better with exercise. The more we play games that are bad or that we dislike, and the more used we are to asking why the game is bad or why we don’t like it, the better we can get overall in identifying the good and bad elements of other games. As we practice more and more, we get a better sense of what does and doesn’t work. Is a particular game too repetitive? Does it have a combat system that is too easily broken? Is the writing in a game sloppy? Are the characters flat? Does the story have too many plot holes? Are the choices in a game meaningless? All of these questions can be difficult to answer at first if our critical skills are weak. But the stronger those skills get, the better we are able to see the problems.
The value of building these skills is twofold. Firstly, when we understand games better, we develop a common language for talking about games and mechanics. Why did this mechanic fail in this game? Why is the writing bad in that game? It’s easy enough to say “I don’t like it” – or something that reduces to that subjective meaning – but more difficult to explain it in terms that others can both understand and agree with.
Secondly, it helps us to better align our stated values with the games we like. Or, even when we continue to enjoy games that don’t align, we can at least acknowledge that discrepancy. We could come to the realization that we don’t actually care about the things we said were originally important to us, instead finding new values for what we think makes a good game. Alternatively, we might come to the decision that the games we enjoyed in the past weren’t all that enjoyable to begin with, as we begin to see the game in a new light. Conversely, we may learn to enjoy games we originally disliked, as we also see them through a different lens.
As we develop these skills, the need to continue playing bad games decreases. Once you know what you’re looking for, you don’t need to train yourself to spot problems. You get better at spotting issues in games you like and games that are well-designed, and get better at spotting mechanics that are well-implemented. It takes a lot of work to train these muscles, but once they’re built up we can exercise them by playing just about anything.
Much as we may recoil at the idea that we ought to play games that we know we will dislike, there is a good reason to do so. By seeking out bad games, or pushing forward when we discover that we’re playing a bad game, we can build up the skills of criticism that are important for understanding what we’re doing and how we talk to other people about games.
We do not need to torture ourselves in undergoing this process. I don’t propose that we seek out the absolute worst games imaginable, though there may be some fun in playing games that are so abysmally awful that they become enjoyable to critique. But just seeking out the mediocre, the mundane, the failures, the lazy, and so on can all help us to identify when things go wrong. And consequently, when we learn to spot these problems, we can learn more about ourselves as well.
 Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered why other people might spend more time talking about their gripes about a game than what they enjoyed, this is one of the reasons. A person can overall enjoy a game, but what sticks out to them in a negative capacity is going to be easier to identify than what they noticed in a positive capacity.