Participation, consumption and enjoyment

John Siracusa, on the last Hypercritical podcasts, numbers 64 and 65, approached the topic of video games and his frustration with not being able to share his enjoyment with people who are not already gamers. In a key example, he laments his wifes’ inability to enjoy the game Portal because she lacked the basic physical skills to manipulate a character in 3D space and therefore could not engage with the central experience of the game. The crux of his argument was that, unlike different art forms such as film, because gaming requires a base level of physical skill in order to engage fully with the core experience, i.e. the storyline, many people will never be able to share his feelings of joy and satisfaction. He lamented that fact, and argued that gaming was somewhat unique amongst similar pursuits in that way.

I believe enjoyment can be derived from a pursuit - be it creative, physical, mental or otherwise - in two different ways, through participation or through consumption. These two approaches can never be completely separated from one another, but I believe there are enough differences to draw more than a theoretical distinction in a discussion such as this.

As much as it seems like a bad example because John spends a lot of time arguing that video games are art, I believe that sport is an instructive concept in this instance. Many people I know compete in sports that they enjoy, but are not that interested in the pastime of watching professional sports or following a team or a league. Here we have established that there are two different types of enthusiasts - participants and consumers. I watch sport to follow tactical decisions, understand the impact of matches in the context of a league situation and just for the general excitement of watching a close game. Participants would rather play with their team on a Sunday and enjoy the process of scoring goals, achieving results and developing skills. People can be both participants and consumers to different degrees, but they are mostly distinct activities. 

I believe you can be a very avid and learned consumer and a very passive participant, but it still does not break down the difference in the two routes of enjoyment. Many people play tennis one night per week and put their racquet back in the bag and do not think about it again until the following match. Passive participation. Many NFL fans watch the game after game and pour over statistics to better their chances in fantasy leagues. This is simply a more experienced and avid consumer, rather than a participant. When Siracusa refers to people watching movies or tasting wine being able to increase their skills by simply being exposed to the pastime, I believe he is referring to the development of a more discerning consumer rather than a participant. Some pastimes are necessarily participatory, some are more orientated towards consumption.

The type of gaming that enthusiasts engage in, as opposed to casual games, is interesting in that is a participatory pastime. There is perhaps no division between participants, those who play, and consumers, those who consume, because necessarily consumption is participation in this instance. It is the ability to participate, the necessary physical skills to fully enjoy Journey, that are the barriers to entry here. That is a fairly unique proposition for a pastime, particularly one as creative as video games. It may have the effect of ensuring gaming is never legitimised by the cultural establishment as more than simply a frivolous pastime. This is disappointing for fans of creative video games. 

A person attempting to get entertainment value from a video game must be treated as a participant, because participating is necessarily a higher order function than consumption. Just as a person who is necessarily so uncoordinated as to not be able to return even the simplest of serves in tennis would be unlikely to enjoy the game as a participatory exercise, a person who cannot control a character in a first person shooter cannot enjoy Halo.

There are no simple consumers of creative video games. What is unusual about video games is the drive from the audience and the industry for legitimisation as an art form. Tennis never attempted to legitimise itself as high art, it is perceived as it is, a participatory sport that attracted consumers in the form of the audience. Video games seems to me to be relatively unique in that they are a participatory activity seeking to be legitimised as an art form.