“You Have to Play to Understand”

Words: 2706 Approximate Reading Time: 20-25 minutes

So I wanted to step into something I normally don’t do. This particular topic is something I’ve discussed with friends before, and so has been on my mind to some extent, but I haven’t quite had the opportunity to coalesce my thoughts until now.

So the thing I’m going to do is begin by giving a shoutout to Frostilyte Writes, one of the other blogs I follow. On Episode #35 of their Frosty Canucks podcast (at the time of this writing, the most recent episode, which gives some indication of how far in advance these essays can be drafted), the hosts brought up a question: “Can you call a game bad if you haven’t played it?”

I don’t want to directly answer that question. It’s a question worth asking and answering, but I’ll leave anyone curious to their response.

But the question does relate to a problem that often hangs in the back of our minds, whether we acknowledge it or not: do you have to play a game to get “the full/proper experience of it”?

We often encounter people who might struggle to explain why a game is good, or who might refuse to explain and demand that you see for yourself, or even might chastise others for watching games rather than playing them. In these responses we can see a commonality – they will all point to a need for a game to be played, and in merely viewing a game there is something being lost.

I want to examine this in more detail because it is both true and false. Or put another way, it is true sometimes. But in making that claim, we need to examine the experience brought out by video games and how that experience is…well…experienced.

Seeing and Doing

So before settling in, we need to make some important distinctions.

Firstly, when talking about watching versus playing a game, and the experiences we get from each, we might fall into a conflation problem. When we use the language that you ought to, or must, or should play a game rather than watching someone else play it, we can frame this either in the sense that it is the only valid way to experience the game, or we can frame it as a more rewarding way to experience the game.

Why does this distinction matter? Well, in using the “validity” framing, we would say that a person is wrong to watch a game rather than playing it. But this framing would be itself incorrect. Whatever way a person chooses to engage with a game is ultimately valid. To insist on this framing would need to ignore the numerous reasons why someone would specifically not play a game, but instead watch: inability to get through the game, lack of time/patience/resources to play, the social interaction that might be involved with watching someone else, etc.

Instead we want to stick to the idea that playing a game is a more rewarding experience than viewing it: there is something pulled out from the direct interaction that cannot be gained once that interaction is gone. The framing of reward is important because it still frames this effectively as a choice for the individual, without having to make them feel guilty for their choice.

Secondly, we need to grasp the difference between preference and function. What I mean here is that we can’t confuse a personal preference for playing over watching with the actual functional claim being made when we say “you have to play to understand.” I can prefer playing a game for myself, and yet the games I play may not actually require someone to play them to understand the game, grasp what might make it enjoyable, determine whether it would be for them, and so on.

We want to understand this distinction because it’s easy to mix them up. Or more appropriately, it’s easy to think that because we see something special in the act of playing, that special element must truly exist.

The second part helps to illustrate one of the ways we’re going to be discussing the central question. Do you have to play a game to get the full or proper experience?

The answer is that it depends on a few things.

How to See Games for What They Are

So we can often see playing and viewing video games as such fundamentally different activities that they cannot be compared. And since video games involve play, the only proper experience is to play. How can you get a sense of the game if you’re not engaging with it in its most constitutive sense?

But this basic logic moves too quickly. There are actually quite a few ways in which merely viewing the game can be sufficient for understanding a game.

Instead of thinking about this problem purely through the lens of “playing vs. viewing,” it’s better to think about games in terms of how well they provide an experience that is truly unique when it is played.

So let’s start with how we might understand a game without needing to play it.

For one, video games are generally a combination of various things: a narrative, gameplay mechanics, visuals, music, and so on. If the various elements can all be grasped without needing direct interaction, then there’s nothing special about play when it comes to that game.

Some examples are in order. Let’s start with narrative. Begin with a game that has a linear narrative. The player goes from spot to spot and is met with cutscenes and dialogue to help unfold the plot. In these games, there’s not necessarily any added value to directly participating in the story. The story is experienced by the player effectively like a movie that is interrupted by gameplay, and that interrupted movie is going to be the same for someone who is just watching.

Okay, but what about the interruptions themselves? Surely you can’t understand those parts without directly engaging. This claim is technically true if a viewer has little to no understanding of games in general. But what about someone who has a lot of experience? If you’ve played a lot of first-person shooters, then you have sufficient familiarity with the feel of those games that when you watch someone else play an FPS that you’ve never played, you have an understanding of what’s going on. Knowledge of mechanics in general can provide a viewer with enough information to be able to understand what’s going on. It’s why we can sometimes watch someone play a game and know what mistakes they’re making – if they’re trying to dodge or block attacks and failing, we can intuit what they’re doing wrong.

So it turns out that – in the abstract – games definitely can be understood simply by viewing them. They can be broken down into their constitutive elements and then put back together to form an experience that will sufficiently reflect playing. I can watch someone play a game, be moved by the story, and understand the mechanics so well that playing for myself would supply no additional benefit.

Now, the important caveat is that this ability requires some degree of prior experience. In order for watching a game to provide this insight, we need to have enough understanding about games more generally. That also will certainly require knowledge about particular genres: spending thousands of hours in a game like Fortnite won’t provide transferable knowledge when watching someone play The Witness. But where that transferable knowledge does exist, we’ve overcome the major hurdle.

I would argue that a lot of games fit this basic mold. Probably the majority. As long as we have enough background knowledge – which of course means we will have to start with playing some games to build that knowledge base – we can use that knowledge to understand new games.

Unique Experiences and Game Design

Alright, so why “the majority” and not “all” games?

There are games where play does provide a unique experience that cannot be truly understood by simply watching. It’s useful to try and figure out what qualities of a game contribute to this unique playing experience.

From the previous claim about linear storytelling, it might seem like an answer is to have things like branching storylines. You are confronted with various choices throughout the game, and these choices lead to different outcomes. Your choices matter, so you should play the game for yourself to make your choices!

But this would again be moving too quickly. It’s not necessarily non-linear storytelling. In fact, even linear storytelling could provide a unique experience. Instead, we want to think about how the story does not merely involve the player, but makes the player and their play a core component of the storytelling.

What would that mean? Well, for a non-linear story, we want to think about discovery. A bunch of choices that are offered to the player become meaningless because they are forced: the player must choose one option to keep going. But what if, instead, the player could explore the world and just stumble upon something that radically changes the story?

As an example, let me turn to Dark Souls. A player who approaches the game normally will have a basic plotline that they are lightly guided through. You go and ring some bells, then get a special bowl, then beat four big bosses to get their souls so you can put them into the bowl, and then defeat the final boss and take over that boss’s role. But the game’s open design means that you can explore various areas in all sorts of different orders. And part of that means you if go and defeat a late-game boss early – before a ”normal” player would encounter them – you are introduced to a new character that changes the story, up to the point of unlocking a brand new ending that you can now choose. This approach means that the player’s play is actually important to the whole project: it’s not just picking an option in a menu, but your own curiosity and exploration being incorporated into the narrative itself.

But we shouldn’t ignore that even in linear storytelling we might be able to generate unique experiences. Let me now point to the Last of Us games. Because while these games definitely have linear plots, their plots are supposed to give the player a particular feeling about participating in the gameplay. The games are about violence – the brutality of it and the feeling of inflicting that brutality upon others. It is hard to capture that theme without making the player feel that brutality in some way, and so the game presents its violence in ways to get players to think about what they’re doing. The ending of the first game, for example, is supposed to give you the feeling that you don’t want to go through the sequence, but you must if you want to keep going. It is by continually making the choice to keep playing that you are made to feel something in that choice.

These two tactics – making exploration important and constructing the narrative around interactions that get players to think about their play – are ways in which games can provide these unique experiences. That doesn’t mean you can’t get anything out of watching the game. You certainly can. But you can’t get the full experience, because no matter what, without that direct interaction you can’t experience that discovery or engage in that questioning.

Games can also provide unique experiences through their mechanics. The most obvious way to do this is through challenge, although again we need to think about challenge in a particular way. Pretty much every games involves challenges, but that’s not enough.

Instead, we need to think about it in terms of challenges where the player feels as though they are making an important contribution. Puzzle games, for instance, often have the advantage of immediately tapping into this feeling. Watching someone else solve a puzzle robs us of the ability to solve the puzzle ourselves. And puzzles specifically require input to get through: only the most poorly designed of puzzles can be brute forced, and as such our participation gives us a sense of accomplishment when the puzzle is solved.

Puzzles aren’t the only kinds of challenge that provides this kind of experience. There are other ways for a game to provide this challenge. Again, the various FromSoftware games like Dark Souls are a good example. The games provide a significant challenge, but that challenge is based around player skill. It is hard – to the point of basically being impossible – to just mash buttons and get through the game. So the more that overcoming challenges is about player skill, the more the player feels like it was their achievement.

Aside from challenge, exploration and discovery are other forms of enjoyment that allow for a unique experience. The drive to explore and the joy of discovery are active. If we want to explore, we have to go and do it. Exploration can’t be done passively. We can be carried along for the journey, but we can’t share in the process unless we directly participate. Important to this concept is that merely having the capacity to explore is not enough. An open world game could simply have a bunch of activities dotted around the map. These activities, in turn, might end up being so similar that there’s nothing special about the process of jumping from one point to another.

As an example, imagine a space that had a hundred activities, all of which are the same activity. But you give players the option of approaching any number of those activities in whatever order they way. With this setup, there would be a huge number of possible pathways. Players could have a wide variety of different experiences, as Player A runs from Point 1 to Point 2 to Point 3, while Player B runs from Point 7 to Point 38 to Point 25 and so on and so on. But while these players’ experiences would be different, they wouldn’t be unique. There would be no meaningful difference between the experiences the players have had. This kind of setup would reflect a fairly significant portion of open world games. While players have the opportunity to explore, there is nothing worth exploring.

Concluding Remarks

In talking about how unique experiences can be designed into games, so that playing a game does have an added value to watching a game, we need to be careful about one last thing. That is that merely promoting this unique experience does not make a game “good,” and the lack thereof does not make a game “bad.”

Instead, the point of this investigation is to understand what “play” ultimately means for our experience. As I mentioned above, we can often believe that a commitment to playing games for ourselves in some way implies that playing is “superior” to watching. That the only proper way to interact with a game is through play.

We ultimately don’t want to frame this around the idea of superiority. Playing can provide an experience with the game that watching can’t. Yet in saying that, we need to place emphasis on “can provide.” There are plenty of examples where playing doesn’t innately provide any special experience. Where we do get anything additive out of playing, that is based around a purely subjective preference.

Figuring out how games can provide unique experiences helps us to better understand questions about how much you really need to play a game to understand it. A bunch of debates – about discussing and reviewing games in particular – can be “settled” through this framework. Of course, the debates don’t really get settled. Instead, they require us to talk about these issues on a different level. Rather than trying to talk about the problems on a vague and usually emotional level – “if you didn’t play the game you’re not allowed to comment on it” – we now can debate these problems by trying to specify what elements of a game do or don’t provide a unique experience. How is it that this game provides a unique experience? How do I explain that I can see what’s going so that I don’t need to play?

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