In February 2020, a Fortnite streamer who somehow managed to obtain the Twitter handle @Ninja (probably by being a ninja) sent a hot take out into the Twitterverse: “The phrase ‘it’s just a game’ is such a weak mindset. You are ok with what happened, losing, imperfection of a craft. When you stop getting angry after losing, you’ve lost twice.” There’s a lot of toxicity in this single tweet, and depending on your own mental health, this kind of attitude is flat-out dangerous. But it does get one thinking: why, exactly, do we play games? Do they have to be fun?
My own initial gut-response to this tweet was that games, first and foremost, should be fun. But it’s not half as simple as that. To say that a video game should be “fun”, and nothing more, is to patronize the art form and do it a disservice. That said, if we aren’t having fun with our experience, then what’s the point? So, let’s discuss exactly why Ninja’s tweet from last year is a toxic one, why fun is vital to the video games industry, but also why fun is not the only purpose of a video game. In other words, this is a complex topic with no clearly defined answer or summary, but one that is nonetheless certainly worth pondering and discussing.
It feels like this discussion is more on-fire now than ever before, with the rise of “git gud” culture, the popularity of streamers and e-sports stars as celebrities, and how expansive speedrunning has become. Some of this is healthy, some of it not. “Git gud” culture is, in particular, a toxic trend that takes what Ninja said and boils it down to a single meme. But why is it so toxic? The most obvious reason is that it’s a dangerous mindset for gamers with anxiety and anger issues. I am one of those gamers.
For readers who don’t know, it’s very common for anxiety and rage to be bound up together. I am not a strong, intimidating man. I’m a camp, bookish feminist. But I suffer bouts of intense and explosive rage when under stress or in panic mode. It’s bad for my mind and my body. And as a fan of the Soulsborne games, there’s a tough balancing act to play here. You have to know when to put down the controller, pick up a book, and cool off. If you don’t, things get thrown and the yelling starts. It’s at this point that a game becomes a trigger for violence.
In his tweet, Ninja is promoting this anger and aggression as a positive. He says that gamers who don’t get mad when they lose are losing twice. This is a terrifying attitude. We should never, ever encourage anger in this kind of context. And “git gud” culture is exactly the same: it is a trend that hinges on patronizing gamers who lack the knowledge, experience, skill set, or patience to improve. There is nothing for anyone, on either side, to gain from this.
It is after considering all of this that many of us, myself included, might be tempted to proclaim that gaming is about having fun, not getting angry. Video games are entertainment. That’s why the verb we use when interacting with video games is “play”. It’s why they are branded “games”. Not “sports” or “challenges” or “obstacles”. They’re games that we play. And the object of playing games is to have fun. Isn’t it? Well, yes, sometimes. But not always. Let’s put a pin in that, though, and focus on fun.
Nintendo knows this best. Their games, from the earliest days of Donkey Kong to modern day hits like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, have had an emphasis on fun, pleasure, and enjoyment. Nintendo games are usually single-player experiences. And when they’re not, split-screen and party games like Mario Party and Mario Kart are what they encourage. Nintendo games are bright, colorful games with music played on the major scale. They’re mechanically driven games that encourage experimentation and exploration. They reward players with new abilities, levels, costumes, and bonuses.
Games like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing aren’t about winning at all. And many Nintendo games are intended for gamers of all ages; they provide very little intense challenge for the average player. Fun, in other words, is everything to Nintendo.
Now, consider your own favorite games. How many of them would you consider to be “fun”? If you really sit on this for a moment, you may find yourself hitting an existential crisis where you don’t even know how to quantify or define “fun”. My favorite games, for example, include Super Mario Odyssey, a game which I could confidently describe as “fun”. It is bright and charming, with a delightful feedback loop of curiosity reaping rewards and pushing the adventure forward. It has mechanics that feel good, and a protagonist who whoops and cheers as he jumps around. Super Mario Odyssey plasters a smile across my face. That’s fun.
Another favorite game of mine is Bloodborne. Is Bloodborne fun? Yes. Sometimes. It’s satisfying, cathartic, aesthetically beautiful, narratively intriguing. It has a mood and a world that draws you in and holds firm your attention. It is also frightening, intense, and stressful. It demands exhausting amounts of concentration and patience. It can induce bouts of sudden rage and anxiety. None of this is fun. And yet we persist. We feel angry, and yet we persist. In this sense, we are the embodiment of Ninja’s tweet. And so, is he right?
Well, let’s look at another favorite game of mine, and my personal favorite game of all time: Final Fantasy IX. I love this game for how its characters are written, how its world is built, and how its story is told. I love it for the soundtrack, character design, and how the aesthetics perfectly marry with its story and dialogue. I love it for how it’s perhaps the least challenging Final Fantasy game. I love the steampunk/medieval fantasy genre. I love this game for turning me into a reader. Is everything I have described here “fun”? That depends on who you ask and how you define fun.
With these three examples, it’s clear to see how video games are much more than fun. That they can provide an experience that is far from, or even opposed to, what we might call fun. But that can be rewarding. It might be rewarding in the sense that Ninja was, awkwardly, aggressively, naively, and tactlessly trying to convey. That being the sense of catharsis one gets from going up against a challenge and coming out victorious, or from competing head-to-head with another player and winning. That feeling of elation is not fun, it’s rewarding.
Games are also rewarding in a narrative or educational sense. Playing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice isn’t fun. It’s a complex game that maturely explores various facets of our own mental health. It covers paranoia, anxiety, depression, and even schizophrenia. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that can drain you and make you feel empty. But it is also a game that teaches empathy, in much the same way that a piece of literary fiction does. And that is rewarding.
There is also a lot to be said for having a sense of pride in one’s own ability. This is, perhaps, at the heart of “git gud” culture. Gamers who have found that sense of pride want to either encourage others to also find it or, more cynically, patronize and belittle those who cannot find it. Overcoming the odds, whether that be by beating Bloodborne or by coming out on top in a round of Fortnite, is a testament to the skills exhibited, the focus maintained, and the knowledge gained by any and every player. It’s okay to be proud of that. And it is also a great example of games being competitive rather than fun. Playing games to compete, rather than relax, is valid and rewarding.
The bottom line, inasmuch as there is one to be found, is twofold. First, video games exist for, and can be played for, myriad reasons. And second, the only time that we even need to consider this topic so careful is when toxicity is involved. That can be on a community level, as is the case with Ninja’s tweet and with “git gud” culture. Or it can be on a personal level: if you are filling your home with rage and anxiety, tossing your controller at the wall and raising your blood pressure to unhealthy heights, that’s toxicity you should be doing without.
We need to keep ourselves in check when it comes to our gaming habits and our public discourse. Video games can be far from fun. They can be a competitive sport, a challenge, and even a job. They can be emotional experiences that make us weep and feel afraid. They can be cathartic or educational. They tell us stories and teach us empathy. They can help us bond with one another or unwind when we’re alone. Video games, like books and films, can be many things to many people. What they should never be, however, is toxic. That is as close to a bottom line as I can find right now.
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Will Heath is a freelance writer and digital nomad from the UK who mostly splits his time between London and Tokyo. He runs the website Books & Bao – a site dedicated to international literature and world travel – and writes about video games for Nintendo Link and Tokyo Weekender.