Author: ivarhill

On Avatar

I was recently interviewed in a New York Times article on the topic of James Cameron’s Avatar. Since then, people have reached out to me and asked about it, so I figured I should write a bit about my experience and thoughts on the movie!

I first saw Avatar during its premiere, in early January of 2010. At the time I was still living in Sweden, just about to turn 18, and entirely unaware of the turns my life would come to take as a result.

The next day after I had first seen the film, I still remember being filled with a puzzling sense of emptiness. There was a clear feeling of having lost something, or perhaps found a longing for something I never knew I wanted. It didn’t take me all too long to connect these feelings to Avatar, and it also didn’t take me long to find a community of people who were experiencing something similar.

This was avatar-forums.com. Its original founders had little attachment to the movie, but the community quickly grew to become a family reaching far beyond discussing Avatar itself. I distinctly recall coming across this community, seeing people talk about the same feelings of longing, and truly, really feeling a sense of home.

Ultimately, alongside a few others I left Avatar-Forums in March 2010 to form Tree of Souls, an independent Avatar forum which I now run by myself to this day. The reasons for this split were stupid in hindsight – small disagreements over how things should be run that ended up being blown out of proportion – nonetheless, ever since then I have had a second home in the Tree of Souls community.

The Tree of Souls internet forum.
Tree of Souls today.

During the first few months in these emerging Avatar communities, what stood out to me was just how little it resembled a stereotypical fan community. Sure, there was lots of superficial discussion on the intricacies of the movie’s plot, worldbuilding, visuals and so on – but in a way it almost felt secondary to the real draw of the community, which was the community itself. Getting to know each other and talking about everything under the sun became a much greater part of things than discussing the movie.

We were of all ages, from all over the world, and from many walks of life. In the early days of the Avatar community when we spoke of what we loved about the movie, it seemed less important what the movie actually contained, and more so how it made you feel. When asked how a movie such as Avatar could elicit such a deep and meaningful emotional connection, a part of this answer has to be that, well, it wasn’t just about Avatar.

Some parts were, though, and none of them drew more attention than the much-publicized “Avatar depression”. CNN wrote a piece on it in January 2010 in which I was quoted, and for a little while it made the rounds across news outlets around the world.

My statements at the time were, although genuine, clearly cherry-picked for effect. There was quite a sensationalist streak across all of this reporting, and at the time I certainly wished things had been portrayed a bit differently! Still, for a longer time there were very real feelings of melancholy, longing and loss. Others were feeling the same as well. Why was this? To understand this I think we need to look a bit at what made the movie so special to many people.

When talking about Avatar and the extent it has affected the past decade of my life, it can often come across as somewhat incredulous – it’s not necessarily the kind of work of fiction that one would think of in terms of being life-changing.

Indeed I am often met with comments regarding the movie being formulaic, derivative and shallow. The thing is though, while these statements are not necessarily wrong, they assume that discussing a film always has the goal of convincing the other part of its objective quality. When I talk about my love for Avatar, it is not mainly a love of its particular script, characterization, or cinematography. It’s a love of being so emotionally immersed into another world for two hours that this very experience gives me a new appreciation for life. It says more about the place in my life and state of mind I was when I first saw the film, than the film itself.

Yes, the story has been told before, and Avatar is absolutely formulaic, but all these things are in service of the overall experience – which is almost solely about immersion and a sense of wonder. Stephen Lang said this very well in a recent interview where he mentioned that he really saw his character of Miles Quaritch as a function rather than a character. And that’s exactly what it needs to be – not all film has to be seen through the same lens or valued for the same aspects.

I think the most important point to be made is that works of art can be appreciated in different ways and for different reasons – and the way I appreciate Avatar is completely different than the way I appreciate more narrative or character-driven films.

More so than its individual parts, what truly made Avatar impactful is how all these parts worked together towards making you feel part of the world it presented. To watch Avatar was to completely lose yourself on Pandora for 2 hours and 40 minutes – to be so immersed that the simple feeling of being there had a greater impact than what you saw, how the story progressed, or how the movie performed from a cinematic point of view.

Not everyone will feel the same, and that’s completely fine! The last 13 years I’ve often encountered Avatar fans who feel like they need to “defend” the film against its critics, but I think this is a bit of a misstep. Everyone is free to form their own opinions and experiences, and it’s fine to not all like the same things! Even at Tree of Souls my policy has always been that you don’t have to actually like Avatar to be part of it – in fact many of the most interesting conversations on the community has been with people who can in a respectful way talk about the movie’s flaws and understand how different people can see it differently.

So where does this leave the idea of “Avatar depression”? I think that simply put, for most people who experienced this sort of thing it wasn’t really about Avatar. It was more so that we each were at a particular place in our lives where something already felt lacking or not quite figured out yet, and the incredible immersion of the film was simply a catalyst to start reflecting over these things. And for most people, what started out as a feeling of longing or sadness was gradually replaced with a newfound sense of appreciation of the world around us.

After the first tumultuous year following Avatar, my life changed fast. The next year I met my future wife on the Tree of Souls IRC chat channel. In 2014 we got married, and a year later we moved to the United States. Today we still live together with a home and life of our own, and in a way I have Avatar to thank for all of this.

I like to think of Avatar – or at least the role it played in my life – as cathartic escapism. An unexpected experience of being somewhere completely different and just allowing yourself to be. This kind of experience transcends generations, but it’s less about the specifics of Avatar and more about people. Since then, I have spoken to others who referred to the same kind of catharsis after first watching or reading Lord of the Rings, or traveling somewhere that gave them a new perspective on life, or any number of things.

Avatar is not unique, but it is special to me. And when I reflect on it, I think perhaps less of the movie and more of the few years following it – in every way, it is a chapter of my life. And that is something I would never have any other way.


A Guide To The Free Internet

This is a shortened, more conversational version of The Free Internet. If you want to read more on this topic, the original article might interest you after reading this one!

What is wrong with the internet?

We are putting more and more of our lives in the hands of huge corporations who do not have our best interests at heart. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, Reddit, Discord, these are not public services, they are private products. They are not necessarily bad products, but as users we have absolutely no control over them. This would be fine if we only used them sparingly and occasionally, like any other product, but we have let them integrate into our lives so much that they have become – to many of us – an essential part of day-to-day living.

The more time we spend within these products, the less control we have over ourselves and over society. This is not about conspiracy theories or about these corporations acting badly (although they often do), it’s about how it’s a terrible idea to let any single actor affect so much of our lives.

Why should I care?

Most likely, you already do care. Most people feel that the way they use the internet has some negative effect on their lives. It’s not that we don’t care – we just don’t think we have any options.

Now it’s easy to argue for the harmful nature of some of these services, like Facebook, since they have very real and observable downsides. But surely products that are purely practical are fine, such as Discord, Teams, FB Messenger or WhatsApp? In reality this is far from the case.

Let’s use Discord as an example here. At this point it has become so ubiquitous in areas like gaming or technology that the vast majority of those communities use it as their sole means of communication.

To read more about the problem with Discord, see this article.

This is a huge problem, and to explain why, imagine that you have one reason or another for disliking Discord as platform. Maybe you take issue with their (horrendous) privacy practices, maybe it doesn’t run well on your computer, maybe you simply dislike the way it works, maybe you disagree with their terms of service, and so on. There are many valid reasons to not want to use Discord – however, since it’s used by virtually every online community out there, if you don’t want to use it you are now effectively cut off from almost everyone.

This is a huge change from how communities on the internet used to work. Yes, you can say the same about any platform, but when there’s a greater diversity of different services you can usually consider communities on a case-by-case basis. It’s not really about Discord (or anything else) being functionally good or bad, it’s about the dangers of a single, private service becoming the gatekeeper of every community on the web.

What can I do?

We tend to approach this problem from the wrong angle. We can’t expect these huge corporations to change their products, nor should they – it’s their product, they can make it anything they want. Once they are used at such an enormous scale, the entire concept of privately run products are at odds with a free internet. Since we only think about it in this way, it feels hopeless and we don’t see a way to change.

We can’t change Facebook, but we can change where we spend our time on the internet. And here is the great news: the internet is full of social media and discussion platforms that embrace the idea of an an internet run by the people, for the people. Some have been around for decades, others have been created as a response to new issues we now face. Some are small in scale, others used by millions of people. What they all have in common is that they are designed specifically to not be owned and controlled by a single entity, but rather be as decentralized as possible. By using these platforms we are in control of our own communities, and the internet becomes a democratic extension of society.

Facebook remains the largest example of taking centralized social media for granted.

It may not be realistic for you to switch to all these alternatives for everything. But most likely there is at least some social media or messaging service you use, where you can consider one of these alternatives instead. And that’s all it takes – step by step, we can contribute to a free internet.

What that being said, here is a guide to some of the things that you can do!

I want to be part of a community, interest group, or circle of friends.

Rather than Reddit, Facebook or Discord, consider a traditional internet forum! Independent internet forums have been around for a long time, and many are still very active. If you’re looking to find a new community to discuss something specific, simply search the web for your topic adding “forum” at the end – you are very likely to find one or several communities dedicated to it. What’s great about internet forums is that they are independently run by the communities who use them, contributing to a diverse and independent web. You or your community can also start your very own forum – make a space that is truly yours!

Tree of Souls, a forum created by and for fans of James Cameron’s Avatar.

If you would rather have something more chat-oriented – like Discord, Teams or Slack – take a look at Element. It works very similarly to those services, but uses Matrix, which is completely decentralized and therefore in the hands of its users. Simply make an account, join or create a chat room, and you’re all set!

I want something that works like Twitter or Facebook.

You are looking for Mastodon! Mastodon is basically lots of small, independent social media sites that are run by different people – and all of them talk to each other. Sign up on one, talk to anyone on any of the others – use it like a single huge social network, when it really is a diverse collection of independent, decentralized ones. Although it is smaller in scale compared to Twitter and Facebook, more people are joining every day. To join, just go to the Mastodon signup page and pick a server – don’t worry too much about which one – and start talking to people!

Mastodon looks and works similarly to Twitter.

I want content-focused social media like Instagram, Youtube or TikTok.

How well this will work out for you depends a bit on what you value in these services. If you use them for their large audience, the ability to connect with lots of people you might know from real life or the media, and keeping up with the latest trends, the alternatives might not be quite there yet for you. If, however, you are happy with a smaller audience and want to simply share photos and videos with people who might appreciate them, there’s a few places you can check out!

What Mastodon is to Twitter, Pixelfed is to Instagram and PeerTube is to Youtube. In fact, all these three networks can talk to each other, too! Audiences will be smaller, but also more personal. Count on an atmosphere that is a lot less commercial and a lot calmer than you what you are used to – depending on your preferences, this might be a great thing, or it might be a reason to instead try alternatives for other services for now.

Pixelfed is a decentralized alternative to Instagram.

I want to follow people of public interest, celebrities, or internet personalities.

This is where no direct alternatives exist yet, for somewhat obvious reasons. None of these platforms are big enough yet to be used by many people fitting into these categories – that being said, just because you move your activity to free platforms it doesn’t mean you can’t still use the big social media sites just to catch up on what you want. If this is a deal breaker, it’s better to find a compromise that makes things work than not trying anything at all!

I just want to talk to my family or close friends.

Good old texting is an often underappreciated way! That being said, if you want something a little more sophisticated, check out Element which was also mentioned above. It fits just as well for talking to family members as it does forming communities.

Element is a fantastic way to talk to both communities and family members.

Change just one thing

Even after reading all of this, you may still feel inclined to stick with what you are currently using. At the end of the day, it is usually more practical, more functional, and everyone you know is already there. Most people will stick to what they know, it’s just a human quality.

But someone has to take the first step. And as pointed out above, you don’t have to change everything. Do you find a social media or messaging service particularly important to you? Keep using that for now, and look for alternatives to the ones you consider less indispensable. Maybe you really can’t do without Instagram, but you’d be open to using Matrix to stay in touch with your family. Maybe Discord is where all your friends are, but you’d happily explore internet forums as an alternative to Reddit.

My message is this – just check things out, especially the things you might not have known existed. Change just one thing. Maybe you will end up seeing it as a matter of ideology, maybe not. But you will have made one tiny step towards a free internet.


The Free Internet

Also see A Guide To The Free Internet – a shorter, more conversational version of this article which focuses more on practical steps to take.

There is something wrong with how we use the internet. We all know this; we didn’t at first, we do now – but we have gone from ignorance to resignation.

We all say we need to use social media less, or we feel we should – at the very least we feel it probably does some harm to society as a whole – but we don’t try to change how it operates. We use other privacy invasive services such as Discord or TikTok, we may lament their practices – but we don’t try to change them.

Obviously not. You can stop using Facebook, but you can’t actually change Facebook. Right?

Well, no, but the entire premise is backwards. Facebook shouldn’t have to change – they are a private business, have every right to design their product in whichever way they wish. We can nudge things in certain directions through monopoly laws or broad regulations, which do serve a purpose, but the fact remains – the social media and other big tech services we use are private products, not public utilities.

We can’t simply make these products into public utilities, the way of the electrical or telephone grid. These were based on physical infrastructure, and adaptable into a democratic framework. Today’s huge online platforms are self-contained, private products that by definition are non-democratic and commercially run. Again, this is not the problem – the problem is that we treat them as if they weren’t.

What we need to do is use platforms that we can change. That we can shape and grow and improve as a community, as many communities, in small groups and in large ones. Platforms that by their very design work like democratic utilities, not opaque commercial products.

And here’s the thing – they already exist. Many existed long before the arrival of today’s monolithic social media platforms, and others have been emerging recently, built by communities of people as a response to these exact trends we have been seeing.

In fact, you are using one every day without really thinking of it: email.

Email is free (as in freedom). Email is a method of interaction, not a singular product. Nobody owns email. There are monopolistic email services, absolutely (Gmail in particular comes to mind), but at the end of the day anyone is free to run their own email server and manage their own email.

Now imagine such an equivalent of Facebook, Twitter, FB Messenger, Discord, Reddit, Slack, Instagram… this is already here. Every step of the way, the tools for a truly free internet are right in front of us – we need only use them.

This is what the free internet looks like.

Internet Forums

The first cornerstone of a free internet are independent internet forums that are managed and run by the same communities that use them. Internet forums, or message boards, have been around since near the beginning of the internet itself – websites where people can talk to each other through public messages, usually categorized into sections depending on topic, and usually easy to browse by everyone.

Defining an internet forum may seem obvious to some, but I want to highlight what makes them special. Because internet forums can be independently hosted and managed by their community, it puts the platform in the hands of those who use it. They can be continuously improved and made better by their users, and each individual forum can be managed in exactly the way the community wants it to be. Anyone can create new forums, entirely on their own terms. A portion of a community who disagree with the direction it’s taking can easily move on and create something new. Internet forums are exactly what we make them.

Over time, internet forums have been slowly overtaken by services such as Facebook and Reddit – and lately, even instant messaging platforms such as Discord. These can be more convenient – join a single Facebook group and you know how they all work, make one Reddit account and you can browse any subreddits you’d like. However, this also creates a monoculture where every single community works the same, looks the same, and is run by a single central authority.

Because of this gradual shift towards large social media networks, internet forums have a reputation of being essentially dead in the water – this, however, is not the case at all! A countless number of forums are around today and cover every imaginable conversation topic or kind of community. I run one myself!

Internet forums do face challenges, contributing to their perceived decline. Many older communities are awkward or outright impossible to use on mobile devices, which account for a huge proportion of internet use today. They can also be difficult to discover, since there is no central network or inventory of forums. However, these are not insurmountable obstacles – modern forums can be perfectly usable on phones (and run as apps), and the challenge of discovery is really only a matter of coming together to make things more approachable.

When considering where and how to host a community, it is tempting to look towards Big Tech. Creating a subreddit, or a Discord server, or a Facebook group, is easier than figuring out exactly how to host your own forum, what software to host it with, how to manage all the little details. But by relying on huge social media, your community is also never truly yours. It is put in the hands of a larger authority, and if that authority changes its practices in a way that you disagree with, there is nothing you can do. Taking the time to set up a place of your own – or joining with another independent community that shares the same direction – supports your long-term freedom.

That’s not to say self-hosted internet forums are always the answer. Sometimes there really is no need to manage an entire website, sometimes all you really need as a community is a few chat rooms. Thankfully, this is where Matrix comes in.

Matrix

Matrix is a way to communicate online, most functionally similar to something like Discord, Teams or Slack. Unlike those, however, Matrix is not a specific service, website or app. It is a method to communicate, just like email. Many people have made different Matrix apps or websites you can use, and different servers you can join, but they can all talk to each other within one large community.

What this means is that Matrix is not controlled by a single large corporation – it is broken up into many tiny parts, which are constantly growing, evolving and improving. The most popular way to use Matrix is called Element, which exists as both an app and website, on both computers and phones.

Using Element is simple – make one account and it will work everywhere, since Matrix servers can talk to each other. Use the app or website on your computer or phone, and you can join chat channels and talk to other Matrix users. If you want to host your own chat room or collection of chat rooms, you can either create them on any of the many existing servers, or set up your own.

The beauty of Matrix is that is easy to use, but at the same time is in the hands of its users. You don’t need to run a server yourself to use it, but through the people who do, it is ensured to be decentralized and free.

Today, services like Discord are so ubiquitous that in some areas they have become the de facto means of communication – in Discord’s case, tech and gaming communities use it almost universally! Meanwhile, messaging through huge social media platforms have also become the default way many people talk to each other online. These might be functionally very useful, but putting the majority of all human communication into the hands of just a small handful of actors is an incredibly bad idea.

Switching to Matrix for communication is a much easier leap than any other services mentioned here, even for an existing larger community. It is easy to get set up and instantly start talking, and you are now doing so through actual communities rather than a big corporation that does not have your interests at heart. Check out Element, join a few chat rooms, and see if your friends (or workplace!) are willing to try the same – especially if you are already using a service such as Discord, Teams or Slack. You might find it far more comfortable to use a platform that respects your privacy and freedom, and reassuring to know it will remain exactly what you need and want it to be.

Mastodon & The Fediverse

This is all great, but what about one of the biggest genuine strengths of modern social media – globally connecting everyone? Today we tend to see this through a more dystopian lens, but remember that this was a genuinely idealistic goal of early social media, and is in itself an admirable ambition.

There was really never an equivalent of this in the early days of the internet, apart from the internet itself, but passionate people have worked tirelessly to provide an alternative that can be both globally connecting and support your freedom.

Imagine that you could easily create your own social media site. Run your own website or app that everyone could access and use just like you would something like Facebook or Twitter. Now imagine lots and lots of people doing the same, resulting in thousands of independent social media sites all run differently and by different people – and then imagine all of them talking to each other. Sign up on one, talk to anyone on any of the others – use it like a single huge social network, when it really is a diverse collection of independent, decentralized ones.

This exists, and is known as the Fediverse. What Matrix is for instant messaging, the Fediverse is for large-scale social networks, and the largest and most well-known part of the Fediverse is Mastodon – often described as an alternative to Twitter.

Anyone can host their own version of Mastodon. If you don’t like the way one works, just make your own – or find that someone else shares your idea of how it should be and join theirs. If you sign up for one of them, you can easily talk to people on any of the others, or even move to another if you would like. And if you don’t care about any of this, you can simply sign up on any of them, start using it, and it simply works.

Apart from Mastodon, the Fediverse contains equivalents of Instagram, Youtube, Facebook and more, all operating along the same model. The premise really is genius, and the biggest challenge here lies in getting enough people to use it that we can see its full potential.

The road that remains

Indeed, it is no secret that the biggest challenge all these platforms face is user adoption. By far the greatest obstacle to people considering switching away from big social media, is that all of their friends, people they know, and people of public importance would be left behind.

Smaller-scale communities have an easier time making this switch – a workplace, people in a Discord server or Facebook group, a family – these are cases where it’s easy to make the leap. In cases where the main appeal is the sheer amount of people, however, a very long road remains. Thankfully, by starting out small, we can at least begin to make a difference!

Another challenge are services that require a lot of resources. A good example would be Youtube – as mentioned above, alternatives do exist, but there are great challenges to making things run smoothly when lacking large-scale centralized resources.

Finally, it’s worth touching upon the issue of moderation and extremism. Smaller, decentralized communities are by definition managed independently, and therefore can more easily become a breeding ground for extremist and hateful actions. Although yes, this can sometimes be subjective, there is still no doubt that such lack of general oversight have caused some very real harm in the world.

However, it is hard to argue that the net damage here is any greater than that of the big social media platforms. It is an issue, and one that we as a society need to work towards addressing, but platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Discord and more not only frequently causes the same problems, but in a way that is systematically perpetuated by their very design. Adapting free platforms do not automatically solve these issues, but it gives us by far the best fighting chance to make a positive difference.

Change just one thing

All of this may come across as overly idealist. At the end of the day, sticking to the well-known social media monoliths is usually more practical, more functional, and everyone you know is already there. Most people will stick to what they know, it’s just a human quality.

But someone has to take the first step. And you don’t have to change everything. Do you find a social media or messaging service particularly important to you? Keep using that for now, and look for alternatives to the ones you consider less indispensable. Maybe you really can’t do without Instagram, but you’d be open to using Matrix to stay in touch with your family. Maybe Discord is where all your friends are, but you’d happily explore internet forums as an alternative to Reddit. My message is this – just check things out, especially the things you might not have known existed. Change just one thing. Maybe you will end up seeing it as a matter of ideology, maybe not. But you will have made one tiny step towards a free internet.


Meaningful Experiences

A mindset that I see quite often today, in particular among people who have been playing games for a significant part of their lives, is that the main goal of any game should be to be fun, and that gameplay is always the end-all priority.

This can absolutely be a great way to go about making great games, but by applying this mentality to the game medium as a whole it is not only limiting the ambition of games yet to be made, it also fails to understand how many people presently enjoy and appreciate many games. If the idea that games should always strive to be fun sounds like an obvious truth, I would like to try to change your mind.

Interactivity and self-reflection

Why is Planescape: Torment considered to be one of the greatest games of all time?

The iconic role-playing game from 1999 frequently gets brought up when discussing the most impactful games ever made, and for good reason – it covered nuanced and profound ideas, portrayed a deeply engaging and interesting setting, and above all understood how to do truly meaningful interactive storytelling.

An early dialogue scene within Planescape: Torment.
An early dialogue scene from Planescape: Torment.

Today it is common to define good narrative interactivity in a game as “the game reacts as much as possible to your choices” – as in, the world, characters and rest of the story is influenced by what you say and do, the more branching paths the better. Obvious examples of games focusing on this include Mass Effect, the Telltale brand of adventure games, or even things like the Elder Scrolls series. I want to stress that these are excellent games and this sort of interactivity can be very compelling, but this priority also have a tendency to hollow out the world by putting a near-comical degree of agency in the hands of the player.

Planescape: Torment takes a different approach. Yes, you absolutely can affect the world and characters around you based on your choices, but this is not really the point. You are one small part of a much larger world, and the true value of your choices lies not in how it changes the game’s story, but in how it makes you think about your own ideas and values. About halfway through the game, you are asked a question:

“What can change the nature of a man?”

You are presented with about a dozen dialogue options which you can choose from to respond. Here’s the thing though – despite being presented with so many options, your actual answer has absolutely no bearing on what happens in the game’s story or even how characters react to you. The purpose of this question and these answers is making you ask yourself what you actually think is the best answer.

Much later in the game, you are presented with the same question, and the same answers. As you have made other choices throughout the game, interacted with more people and understood their viewpoints, and gained a greater understanding of the themes the game tries to portray, this second time you may have a very different answer. And therein lies the true beauty of Planescape: Torment.

When people speak of this game, they rarely mention its more traditional RPG gameplay mechanics – things like combat, item management, character building and so on – and when they do, it’s generally in the context of “It’s not great, but don’t let that deter you from playing the game”. And that’s just the thing – for such an iconic masterpiece, the core gameplay mechanics really are serviceable at their best, and distracting from the greatest appeal of the game at their worst.

Disco Elysium is almost entirely reading – and absolutely incredible.

Incidentally, another game recently came along that looked at Planescape: Torment and said, “Let’s focus on all the things the game does so well, and do it confidently enough that we can outright skip all the other parts.” That game is Disco Elysium, and it too has been regarded as one of the greatest games of its generation. It features no combat or other traditional RPG mechanics – the game consists entirely of talking to people, and it does it in a way that leverages the game medium in every bit as good a way Planescape: Torment does.

Could you describe these games as “fun”? Sure, to some degree – but it somewhat misses the point, and at this point we’re talking more about semantics than anything else. Both these games are often praised for being thought-provoking, emotionally moving, and genuinely profound – qualities that are somewhat rare among games – and they do so precisely because they embrace the narrative potential of games wholeheartedly and passionately.

Positive escapism

What draws so many people to enjoy Stardew Valley?

Stardew Valley features gameplay mechanics that lots of people find really enjoyable, and most people who enjoy it would absolutely describe it as fun – so at a first glance, this might seem like a poor example. However, I would like to highlight not necessarily what makes it a competent game, but what makes it special.

A screenshot of Stardew Valley.
Starting out in Stardew Valley.

What makes Stardew Valley so memorable and meaningful to people is not the core gameplay loop, even though it’s perfectly enjoyable to fans of the genre. The greatest appeal of Stardew Valley is its sense of carefree escapism – through its setting, characters, music and art it evokes a feeling of a long lost idyll, a sense of nostalgia you didn’t even know you had. The game is comforting, and spending hours in its world brings a sense of serene happiness.

Unlike Planescape: Torment, the gameplay is not at odds with this – it supports it – but nonetheless it takes the back stage to the atmosphere and immersion of the experience. It’s not unimportant, but it is also not the most crucial part to get perfect. Stardew Valley, and games like it, have mastered the art of setting a tone and mood to put you in a mindspace of joy.

Games as social spaces

What was the true staying power of World of Warcraft?

World of Warcraft is arguably an excellent MMO from a gameplay standpoint. Yes, some may disagree with that – especially WoW players! – but (and I say this as someone who has worked on live MMOs) making and evolving an MMO is incredibly hard. You have to manage a thousand things all at once, and all things considered, WoW has managed to stay engaging to a lot of people.

A screenshot of Dalaran in World of Warcraft.
One of the social hubs of World of Warcraft.

However, much like Stardew Valley, even in such a systems-driven genre the gameplay mechanics are really just there to facilitate the other big aspect of the game – in this case, a game world as a social space. People who fondly remember years of World of Warcraft don’t generally remember it for its combat mechanics, but rather how it gave them a canvas to make their own adventures with their friends.

Making meaningful experiences

The above examples are just a few among many cases where the appeal of a game has less to do with its mechanical aspects. My point here is that what makes people play and appreciate games can be a huge range of different experiences – some facilitated through engaging gameplay mechanics, some through narrative or audiovisuals. And most often through a combination of many things, that become greater than the sum of their parts.

Therefore when thinking about games as a medium, it makes more sense to view the end goal as creating meaningful experiences. Often this does directly relates to gameplay mechanics, but by allowing a broader mindset it becomes a lot easier to let the game be what it can be without putting artificial limitations on it.

Gameplay as a means, not an end

A common counterpoint to these kind of arguments is the idea that unless the gameplay is engaging, it doesn’t matter how profound the story is, how atmospheric the setting is, or how otherwise enriching the game might be.

The issue with this is that it assumes a zero-sum game. It is perfectly reasonable to have mechanics that are just adequate for the rest of the experience the game tries to achieve – and then put most of the effort to on other aspects of the game. The gameplay might have been uninteresting in a vacuum, but complementing other parts it can lift them up and let them be the focus.

Rain World blurs the lines between conventions to incredible effect.

This is the problem with seeing games as a dichotomy of “gameplay” and “not gameplay”. Looking at a game as a whole gives a much better idea of how well all the pieces fit together, rather than trying to analyze how enjoying the mechanics are in a self-contained sense. I still refer to gameplay mechanics as a distinct aspect of a game in various places here, but this is mostly for the sake of presenting an argument – in reality, I think that the lines blur a lot more than this, and it can often be hard to tell where the “gameplay” ends and other parts begin.

Besides, sometimes the adequate mechanics to support the other aspects of the game is to have almost none!

“Couldn’t this just be a movie?”

I would like to touch upon this idea briefly, since it is also something that is frequently brought up in this context. Some games are so light on gameplay mechanics that it’s easy to imagine them being just as compelling as a movie or a book.

A screenshot of SOMA.
SOMA is almost entirely focused on story and atmosphere.

I think those games are rarer than they are made out to be – even games often labelled “walking simulators” get some meaning from the feeling of being the one to explore their setting at your own direction and pace – but this is besides the point. At the end of the day, yes, some games could as well have been made as movies. This particular studio or person felt like instead making it as a game. Is this in any way a negative thing? It may not always move the potential of the game medium forward, but it can still result in a piece of art that is engaging, interesting and moving. No one would criticize a movie by saying “Well this movie could as well have been staged as a play”. Let’s embrace the mindset of just letting people make things with the tools they want to use!

And speaking of just letting people make what they wish…

Fun is meaningful, too

Titanfall 2 is pure unadulterated fun, and it’s amazing.

I want to wrap this up by emphasizing – games absolutely can be made with the main goal of being fun, and always putting gameplay first. Amazing games have been created with this mindset! My point is only that we shouldn’t let this be the sole arbiter of what can make a game good or meaningful, and not let it needlessly constrain how we play or make games. The game medium is still young, we are still exploring all it can be, and the sky is the limit.


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