Opinion: Easy games offer approachable alternative to stereotypically violent video gaming

Alice Chen, Editor-in-Chief

Art by Katie Lew

Humans have always loved games. Whether it was for the thrill of competition or the synergy with teammates or the validation from an audience, humans have played all sorts of games seemingly since the dawn of time. From the first ball game in 1500 B.C. to the first chess game in 500 A.D. to the first video game in 1958. 

Of course, video games are also an extension of this enduring love. Today, nearly 40% of the world plays video games, and the appeal is easy to see: video games are entertaining, immersive, and accessible in a way that many physical games are not. Competitive games like Counter-Strike and Call of Duty give players a chance to show off their creative strategies or extraordinary hand-eye coordination. The best of the best often gain fame as professional esports players or popular livestreamers.    

Because of this, it’s become common practice among video gamers to do whatever they can to prove their skill. Although the desire to be good at what you’re doing usually goes without saying, many video games especially promote a dog-eat-dog attitude about in-game performance. First-person-shooter games, by far the most competitive genre of video game, feature ranking systems in which players must consistently defeat other players to maintain a high skill rating. Beyond the competition for high ranks, first-person-shooter players also often compare their statistics like kill/death ratio, critical shot accuracy, amount of healing, and virtually anything else that produces a number in the game. In these types of games, your measurable skill generally determines how much respect you get from fellow players and fans. 

This constant competition is unsurprising, as video games still retain a fundamental gratification that stems from playing games; being the best, showing off our power, or even just rooting for our favorite team or player to win in our stead are all reasons why we enjoy traditional sports, and video games are no different. But unlike traditional sports, this love for competition has had an unintended side effect in the video gaming world. We’ve become so focused on numbers and results that we’ve forgotten the sheer breadth of value that video games can hold.

Instead of high skill being commendable, low skill is disgraceful. Good performance is not impressive, it’s an expectation. You don’t play difficult games because you enjoy the challenge, you play them because easy games are embarrassing.

But what are “easy games” really? Puzzle games, exploration games, and simulators are not actually that easy—they just require different skills than good aim or spatial awareness. What makes them “easy” is that they don’t pit you against other players, and the objective isn’t to brutally eliminate the people around you. If difficult games are ones that expect hard work, stress, and dedication in order for the experience to be worthwhile, then these easy games are the ones that don’t require anything. You are free to enjoy the game without constantly worrying about competition. (Is that so bad?)

The truth is that fighting games, shooter games, and other combat-focused games—the “difficult games”—make up only a small portion of the market. Despite the attention that we give to the highly competitive kill-your-enemies games, most video games are not centered around combat at all. Within the hundreds of genres and subgenres, many are instead focused on solving puzzles, progressing stories, or exploring worlds. 

As it is, these non-combat kinds of games are not given nearly as much merit as they should be. This is in part because competitive games usually have a larger player-base and reach more people than noncompetitive games do. Many exploration games and puzzle-platformers are singleplayer, and if a person is playing video games as a way to spend time with friends, they’re much more likely to turn to multiplayer, online, team-based games like first-person-shooters.

But even so, many easy games are widely played all over the world. Simulation games like Animal Crossing and The Sims have become just as mainstream as most first-person-shooters, and yet many players don’t consider them to be “real” games. Even though players of Animal Crossing and The Sims likely spend just as much time developing their in-game worlds as shooter game players do climbing ranks, the title of “gamer” is often withheld from them. 

The popularity of even the biggest first-person-shooters doesn’t hold a candle to the cultural impact that a game like Minecraft has had on entire generations of children. Even so, Minecraft has been plagued by that need for competition, when what started as a simple sandbox game designed to foster creativity now has several alternate game-modes in which players (you guessed it) fight to the death. 

As it turns out, this condescending attitude toward easy games is not a result of simple lack of representation. It instead reveals a harmful culture within the gaming community, a culture that prioritizes skill above enjoyment, competitive players above noncompetitive players, and (unsurprisingly) men above women. 

It’s not a coincidence that simulation, exploration, and puzzle games are the most popular genres for women. And toxic masculinity is likely a factor in the heavy pressure for men to play games that portray male strength and misogyny, which clearly manifest in the fighting and shooting of combat-focused games. For a long time, this culture successfully excluded players who don’t fit that stereotypical demographic, so much so that in 2015 only 15% of male players and 6% of female players were comfortable calling themselves a “video gamer.

Limiting the gaming community to such a specific group has only had negative effects on video gaming as a whole. For all the virtues that first-person-shooters can have, they are also the genre that is most responsible for the social stigma against video games. The picture that pops into mind when we think of gaming is most commonly one of a person, usually male, hunched over their computer or console and screaming into their microphone as a scene of blood and gore play out across their screen. This picture is obviously not always accurate—it might be a woman instead of a man, they might be in a quiet and calming environment, and the screen might be showing a flower garden in a casual farming simulator.  

But however overgeneralized, this picture is still often used to demonize video gaming as an unhealthy activity that produces socially-inept children with violent tendencies. And, as far as first-person-shooters go, it’s not an unfair assumption. 

The competitive ranking systems of most shooter games often require consistent time dedication and can become easily addictive when a player wants to rank up. The most popular shooter games, Counter-Strike and Call of Duty, involve re-enacting scenes of war or terrorism for fun, which on some level is gruesome and jarring. And players of those shooters are often characterized by their intolerant views and insensitive insults, likely a result of the pressure for masculinity and the alienation of women. 

Because first-person-shooter games are what we most commonly associate video gaming with, we also associate the activity with these unflattering characteristics of competitive games. Many stereotypes of video gamers have been debunked over the years, including the widespread myth that video gaming causes violence, and the stigma has slowly started fading as more people start playing games. But many people still look down on video gaming as a waste of time, in a way that they wouldn’t if you told them you liked watching movies or collecting rocks. Many people still see video gaming as having no value on our lives and minds. 

Without expanding that narrow and outdated definition of video gaming beyond the competitive shooter games, we have no hope of overturning these false assumptions. And in order to do so, the stress and violence and competition of combat-focused games must make way for the “easy games.”

Because of how often non-combat games are overlooked, and the value of their lack of competition brushed aside, it’s a common belief that fighting and ranking somehow make a game better. And because many non-combat games are not as well-known, this belief usually goes unrefuted. But we need only look and we will find a whole world of video games that prove their worth without any need for competition. 

Calico is one such indie game, the value of which lies in escapism rather than defeating other people. It is a community simulator where the player becomes the owner of a cat cafe on a remote island and must collect animals, interact with neighbors, and, occasionally, dabble in magic. Calico is a continuation of its publisher Whitethorn Digital’s mission to dismantle the stigma against video gaming by making games that anyone can fall in love with. As such, the world of Calico is one that is different from ours in the best way possible: a world with magic potions, perfectly cuddly animals, and every cat lover’s ideal career. Watching that world in a movie or reading about it in a book hardly measures up to interacting with it yourself. With simulation games like Calico, nothing’s stopping you from doing just that.

Monument Valley is another game that indulges our escapism, but this time with puzzles and challenges. In this mobile exploration game, the player must think outside the box to progress through a land of surreal architecture and hidden paths. Paradoxically, the story of the main character, Princess Ida, is uncomplicated and straightforward, a poetic tale of friendship and appreciating the small things in life. The developer Ustwo Games was inspired by M.C. Escher’s optical illusions, hoping to convey how it may feel to experience his artwork in a three-dimensional sense. In Monument Valley, there is always a way to cross a gap in the road and always a way to move past your obstacles. Even if you do not see it at first, you can try different perspectives until you do.

Omori combines imaginative puzzles, alternate worlds, and meaningful messages in a role-playing game. Although it was only released in December 2020, more than six years after its initial Kickstarter campaign, Omori is already garnering praise for its themes about grief, trauma and forgiveness. The game is played through the eyes of a teenager who creates a vibrant dreamland “Headspace” to avoid confronting problems and secrets in his life. The player must navigate the real world during the daytime, the imaginary world at night, and make decisions that can either save their character’s life or pull them deeper into delusion. Omori engages its players in the story firsthand, a task that not many books and movies can accomplish as easily. Because of this, its philosophies about life resonate intensely and its lessons about human emotion last far beyond the game itself. 

Calico, Monument Valley, and Omori are all video games that do not require any prior skill or knowledge and can be picked up or put down anytime without penalties. They do not need you to defeat other players in a violent and time-consuming battle. They can teach you something you’ll carry with you even after you finish playing. They are easy. 

And it’s time that easy games get the recognition they deserve. 

If we ever hope to truly see video gaming as a hobby that’s just as valid as any other, we have to see it without the disenchantment of competition and stress. We must define it differently, as an experience not of winning or losing, but of simply playing. As something that immerses, invigorates, and inspires in a way no other form of media can. 

This effort starts in the gaming world itself, by embracing the easy games.