My brother recently graduated from college with a degree in physics and a minor in mathematics. After spending the summer with me working theater in New Hampshire, he’ll be heading to sub-Saharan Africa to teach science for the Peace Corps for two years. When he returns, he plans to enter graduate school in Edinburgh in one of four programs related to environmental engineering and sustainability.
By contrast, I plan to spend the rest of this year finishing my degree, then either moving straight away into teaching game design at SCAD or heading off to a development house somewhere in the US to work on commercial games for two to four years before returning to academia.
Let us compare: my brother is going to teach science in a desperate part of the world, and then he’s going to learn how to help people undo the damage we’ve done to the environment and avert the climate crisis. I am going to finish art school and then go make games that, in all likelihood, will be nothing more than distractions for rich Westerners.
Which is the nobler purpose? Who is using their time more constructively, to effect greater positive change in the world? Who’s path is more worthwhile?
The question of triviality and frivolity in this profession I have chosen has haunted me ever since I enrolled at SCAD. Of all the careers I could have pursued, all the uses I could have found for my time, making games is difficult to defend. I come from a family of service professionals: teachers, doctors, nurses, and ministers. I have been raised to value they who devotes their lives to helping others, to improving the lives of all they can, whether in an immediate, local way — such as my grandmother, who was a team leader for the city Red Cross for decades — or my brother, who will work to help corporations stop destroying the environment. I desire the same altruism and nobility of purpose in my life, and to be quite frank, making games does not seem to have it.
Now, I do believe games can be used for more than just entertainment, and that the communicative power they can wield is important and can have real positive effects for things like education or activism. But I am one of the indoctrinated — a student of games. The rest of the world still holds games and game-playing to be entertainment, and therefore by definition trivial — escapist distraction at best, a waste of time at worst. The industry and game developers recognize this. Even people like Bartle or Gee or Bogost understand that most games are just for fun — that fun is the reason for which they are made, sold, and played. Even the most ardent advocates of higher purpose for games are still members of the proverbial choir, and a tiny minority at that. No matter how you defend games and game-making, this fact is inescapable. Games do not make the world a better place beyond simply making people temporarily happy. They cannot hold a candle to my grandmother in her Red Cross uniform.
So why do this? I wrestle with this question daily. Every time I hear about my brother’s upcoming exploits, I am envious and ashamed. I feel like I am wasting my time peddling expensive toys to amuse the privileged few who have the luxury to afford them. What can you say in defense of this profession? Who can possibly make the case that making games is as worthwhile as the Peace Corps?
So what is the point? Why pursue a trivial profession? How do I stand beside my brother and defend my chosen path?