The luxury of basic needs

Some topics seem to continuously pop up among gamers. Like a classic movie on cable, the wrong spoon in your drawer or a floater in a public pool. One such topic that gets the eyes of veteran gamers everywhere rolling… is price. How much should a game cost? How much is it allowed to cost and why? When does it become price-gouging? I’m of the opinion that the industry should be healthy enough to provide a living to those working in it. But I also believe that games need to be accessible and shouldn’t, as a rule, break out of a certain pricing segment. But that is not what this article is about. One thing I consider far more noteworthy is a throw-away comment I’ve heard a lot of gamers sneak in to avoid justifying having an opinion about this topic in the first place.

Games are luxury items.

It’s a well-worn and multi-functional rhetorical hammer to make any attempt at a debate implode before it even gets going. Games are luxury items so even trying to argue about them in depth is conceited and absurd. Like every argument designed to shame others into shutting up, there is a fraction of a sliver of a kernel of a wisp of a point to it. If you want to talk about games you need to put them into proper context first. So maybe we should talk about that proper context.

high society
Theme is when a game is about decadence, without being decadent (photo by Fiona Dickinson)

The term luxury item carries with it a number of assumptions and unspoken value judgments. The most obvious being that a luxury item is essentially superfluous. You could give it up from one day to the next, if something of actual substance would come along. Not just that but luxury implies something decadent and wasteful. If your luxury items are too important to you, it seems almost uncouth. These things are an indulgence. Something you have as a guilty pleasure after a day of hard work and the daily weight of modern life has ground you down. The closeness to escapism also gives games an air of frivolity and impropriety, unless you make it clear how they are all trivial at heart. We’re serious grown-up people after all.

I find myself closer to Bill Shankly in spirit who said about football (a game):

Someone said to me ‘To you football is a matter of life or death!’ and I said ‘Listen, it’s more important than that’.

My understanding of games is heavily influenced by Johan Huizinga, so if and how closely related play and culture are, isn’t really up to debate to me. They are deeply intertwined. The desire to play is essential to our nature. That is why it so influential in shaping our culture and why it’s present in almost all facets of society. From the ubiquitous mobile and video games, to the strongly formalised and ritualised ways it is present in our fiction like theatre and film. Up to the many roles we switch to and from depending on which social group we are interacting with at any one moment. (Current release Sorry to Bother You takes this concept of code-switching and uses it as its central metaphor.)

The reason for that is that play is not just about establishing objectives and working towards attaining them. Even if some half-understood notions of gamification have tried to squeeze it into our routines. Play is a way to form social bonds. The magic circle (Huizinga) doesn’t simply separate the game from normal life. It also turns the players into a tightly-knit group that belongs together, acts together and experiences play together. The game grants as a form of group membership, and provides as another facet of our identity. We are gamers. We are part of this gaming groups. We are part of a larger hobby. We belong. This is how culture is created and how it functions.

Pictured above: the gaudiness of conspicuous consumption

When people write off games as some kind of decadent luxury items, it sounds to me like a rejection of both joyfulness and culture. When even passionate gamers borrow those phrases and downplay their hobby like that, it comes across as almost harmful self-deprecation. As if you’d have to apologize for wanting to connect with people. As if it’s shameful to need to belong with other people, as opposed to devoting every waking moment to work and productivity.

I am convinced that play is a basic human need, that will always drive us to find ways to meet it. Whether it’s on our phones, with our friends or the small moments in the office when the crumpled note is thrown into the bin from the three-point-line behind your desk. But even basic needs can go untended for a long time, until they go to waste. That’s not proof that they were a mere luxury to begin with, but that we are very adaptable. You could give up a balanced diet, regular physical exercise and even human contact. It wouldn’t be healthy, but you’d live. Games aren’t much different. You could excise them from your life from one day to the next. It’s not healthy. But you would live. Probably.

That’s why I’m not persuaded by any attempts to paint games as mere luxury items. It seems to me that the only reason to bring up that argument is to silence a closer or more passionate view on the topic. Even presenting games as luxury items for reasons of profit (*coughcoughasmodeecoughcough*) doesn’t resonate with me. There’s something improper about talking games up as something extravagant for the sole purpose of justifying a price hike. The only decadent thing about some games is their price. It seems to only lead people towards wanting to brag about their purchases to friends or social media. Unfortunately Kickstarter has done its share to exacerbate the situation. By now the pre-order boutique for board games has all but replaced the free investor’s market for unusual and untested game ideas.

So now that convention season is upon us, many are lamenting that there are simply too many games coming out each year. That it’s impossible to try them all. But I consider it an opportunity to finally embrace games as everyday utilities as opposed to peculiar curiosities with a faint air of childhood nostalgia about them. I’d like games to be less precious pieces of art for the connoisseur or even a kooky indie gem for the hip individualist. Instead let’s embrace games as a tool for bonding. Like a family trip, a dinner with friends or going to the movies with your colleagues.

None of it should be a luxury.

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