I periodically go through extended stretches of not playing video games. When I was young, the no-vidya-games cycle happened naturally when I finished a game I was really into and didn’t want to start another one yet, or there just wasn’t a game I particularly felt like playing at the time, or there was just something I wanted to do more than I wanted to play a game, like read a book or make elaborate floofy ballgowns for my Barbies or run around outside pretending I was Eilonwy from the Chronicles of Prydain. You know.
Now, the none-gaming periods of my life are almost exactly the same, but exacerbated by depressing game industry news on the internet and the word “backlog.” Whenever I hear some sort of self-deprecating phrase about “slacking” on game-playing come out of my mouth, I hurl myself off of the nearest tall cliff and don’t pick up a controller again for at least three months. (Not out of principle or anything, you understand, just simple cussed contrariness.) And whenever I see an outbreak of bigoted douchebags harassing people on the internet in order to, like, defend their imaginary illogical asshole fortress of Real True Gamerz, I have to get in a rocket and shoot myself into the sun so the cleansing fire can help me forget that those people exist and also ostensibly enjoy something that I enjoy before I can bring myself to play a video game again.
So, between bouts of obsessively playing a single game I’m into for hours each day, I often go for months without playing a video game at all. That doesn’t mean that these periods of my life are play-free, however. I play a lot (a lot) of games every single day of my life, and that is because I live with these guys:
This one is Doc:
This one is Red:
Doc is a three-ish-year-old Rotten Shepherd. Red is a two-(and a half?)-ish-year-old German Shepherd/Gremlin Dog. My guy and I adopted Doc through SPCA of Tennessee mere hours before he was scheduled to be euthanized at a kill-shelter in middle TN. We adopted Red from Middle Tennessee German Shepherd Rescue, which pulled her from a kill-shelter in Alabama and raised funds to treat her for heartworm disease before she came to live with us. Both are delightful, wonderful beings who brighten my life hugely, and both of them live to play.
It’s terrifically interesting to me to observe just how important gameplay is to my dogs. They are creatures of relatively simple needs. They need to eat, they need to sleep, they need to exercise, they need intellectual stimulation, and ALL of these things, to them, are inextricably linked with play. Exercise, to my two monsters, sits at the tippy-top of their needs hierarchy. Without it, they blow off food and can only manage some dissatisfied dozing, rather than the sound sleep of a tired dog. But exercise is never a chore to them, never some, “Man, my harness is gettin’ a little tight, gotta go bust out some reps at the gym.” It’s always play, always, “Hey! Let’s go here/sniff this/discover that! WOW a new toy! Let’s chase/tug/wrestle/hide/find it, yaaay!” And they love rules, love them; they light up with satisfaction when they figure out they can achieve a desired result by undertaking a specific action or series of actions. They take an inherent pleasure in puzzle-solving. I am no game designer, but if I were, I would absolutely look to my dogs as playtesters for game mechanics.
It’s incredibly fascinating to observe how their preferred styles of play differ. They’d enjoy a brief solo romp across Hyrule field, for sure, but they both really like multiplayer matches. Doc is aggressive and competitive. Of the two of them, he is almost always the one to initiate play. Sometimes he has to work pretty persistently to convince another dog or human to join him, and he doesn’t mind resetting to a more casual difficulty level in order to get a buddy on-board to play with him. He will go co-op with Red on occasion, particularly if they are playing with another dog or dogs they can team up against, but at heart he’s a player-vs-player guy. He likes to wrestle, and he loves to play keep-away. He likes to chase other dogs and be chased by people.
Red, on the other hand, is a co-op gal through and through. She likes to run, and she loves to chase and “fetch” objects she likes (such as tennis balls), but it’s not really a true fetch because you’ve got to get out in the grass and run around with her. She’s not into it if you’re not into it, too. She gets in moods where she’ll spontaneously open a can of good-natured whoop-ass on Doc of her own accord, but more often she’s reluctant to take him up on his invitations to tug and wrestle without plenty of encouragement from a human bystander. Reassured that she’s on “your” team, she’s happy to cooperatively compete against him. She likes to chase and be chased by other dogs, but drops out of the game immediately for cuddles and reassurance should a human attempt to chase her. She loves to discover new things, and is happy to entertain herself with a mini-game of squeaky ball or antler chew when she’s bored, as opposed to Doc, who will sit around despondent until someone finally chooses to hop on his server, so to speak, and play with him.
They learn from each other, and other dogs and people, and create their own games together in addition to playing those they’re taught. Their games of find, retrieve, chase, toss, catch, wrestle, and mimic are remarkably similar to the games I played with other kids on the playground in elementary school, complete with ever-evolving collaborative rules. Their games are simple, but (in the exception of cold weather, which I abhor) they are always, always fun. It never feels like drudgery to throw/chase a tennis ball for the millionth time with Red; I never feel like I’m grinding when I’m playing tug-o-war with Doc over his favorite, seemingly indestructible knit hat.
Playing with my dogs often makes me reflect on playing games as, well, me. I want to feel challenged by the games I play, but not to the extent that I can never win. I want to feel rewarded for my effort and application of problem-solving skills. I want to discover new things in the course of gameplay; I want to encounter interesting ideas, objects to look at, and settings to explore. I want to undertake familiar actions and paths that make me feel satisfied with the skills I’ve already mastered, but I also want them to build and develop and surprise me by leading to new applications or unexpected discoveries and rewards. In multiplayer scenarios, I don’t want to play with antisocial assholes. I want moderation to ensure that an individual or small group of jerks can’t wreck my play experience so badly that I don’t want to try again. I want options for cooperative play with others or even with the game itself, rather than constant rabid competitiveness. I want to have fun while I play games, I want to feel good about the time and effort I expend while playing, and I want to sleep well at night. And when video games and the industry and community that surround them can’t or won’t give me that? I’ll just play with my dogs instead.