I don’t like to call games luxury items. During COVID lockdown here in Germany, game industry sales have steadily gone up. We didn’t discard games like some triviality as soon as circumstances became a bit more taxing. On the contrary, during this period we became more and more involved with what the cultural industry has to offer. We watched more movies, read more books, and played more games. That’s not a sign of luxury, but a sign that culture in general and games in particular are an important part of modern life.
Of course, we could do without games if we had to. But that also applies to very large parts of our food pyramid, and no one would think of calling cheese, peperoni and milk “luxury goods”. To call games a luxury reveals a reflexive hostility towards pleasure. The idea that nothing that‘s supposed to be pleasing and make us more social actually matters. The way “real work” matters. It’s merely a reward for making it through another work week.
Yet the last few months in particular have shown how important it is for our emotional and spiritual well-being to seek out these small moments of joy, we can share with others. Our need to play together is so strong that we are even willing to make use of unwieldy and error-prone digital platforms, if they allow us to participate in this aspect of our cultural life.
While convenient and tempting, I think it’s quite lazy to deny games any cultural potential and value. Particularly when we only look at how it benefits us individually. But the fun we have with a game is only indirectly linked to its cultural merits. Culture is what happens when we engage other people. It‘s the way we discover what we have in common, and it’s woven from the habits we develop together.
Those who are part of a culture do not consider the elements that make it up a luxury, but a necessary condition for keeping that culture alive.
This is also the second reason why I am uncomfortable calling games luxury items. To take part in cultural life, you need access to it. To take part in gaming culture, you need (in most cases) players, certainly time to devote to gaming, and of course games that provide the basis for playing at all. By definition, luxury goods are those that represent a significant monetary value. To afford luxury is above all a financial question. Those who buy luxury goods do so not least to show them off and present them as a sign of their own status. If games are primarily understood as luxury goods, then this not only allows them to be moved into a higher price segment; it is almost mandatory to do so. Cheap luxury is basically an oxymoron.
So if we were to accept games (and gaming) as luxury, we would also have to accept the corollary and raise the financial barrier to entry. Luxury that everyone can afford is no longer luxury, but simply the new standard. Access to gaming culture is then made more difficult for all those who do not have the means to start a game collection and a regular gaming group. Gaming culture, at the end of the day, exists around those who own games and invite others to play. It’s about passion, not about excess and showing off.
Play, as Johan Huizinga already observed, is an end in and of itself. We play games in order to play them and enjoy the activity for its own sake. It is, simply put, fun. But by sharing and experiencing these very things with others we create a sense of belonging and social cohesion. We feel connected to others who play, not just because we’ve sat at a table with them, but because we can relate to many of their experiences and adventures. We recognise a bit of ourselves in the other person.
Our need to belong is deeply human, and not tied to a desire for luxury and opulence. Games are one way in which we can meet this need. Even beyond the hurdles and difficulties of the last year. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that more and more people devote themselves to games. Just as this feeling of community feels so precious right now.