A cardboard box can be just a cardboard box. If you want, you can fill it with your old soccer trophies, stack it with other cardboard boxes, and forget it ever existed. You can leave it in the garage with dozens of others just like it and let it collect hundreds of bunnies’ worth of dust until you trash it all as you move out. All those boxes full of comics and clothes and Gundam models will be left along with the rest of the refuse jettisoned from your life. It is, after all, just a cardboard box. What more can it do besides contain things you no longer have a use for?
If you ask Calvin or Hobbes or any kid with an imagination (i.e. all of them), the answer would be “a lot.” A cardboard box could be just about anything you’d want. It could be a Transmogrifier, a space-faring vehicle, or a building just waiting to be crushed by your vengeful god hand. It doesn’t really matter what you use a cardboard box for because it’s just a cardboard box; there’s no real wrong way to use it. It may have been built to hold things that you or your significant other don’t want in the house so you can put it somewhere no one can see but you can still think about, but it can actually do and be just about anything.
The same goes for video games. Games, by and large, are designed to be played a certain way. You plug in your controller, turn on your console, and spend the next 15 or so hours of your life being guided by the collective hand of hundreds of developers, designers, and artists (or maybe just one or two of each). You are playing the game the way it was meant to be played, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, by definition, you would be playing it the right way.
That’s not to say, however, that there is a wrong way to play games. Even if you were attempting and failing to jump a sizable gap to progress the story in a game, you are not playing the game wrong, you are just playing it poorly. You may be doing the wrong thing to accomplish this certain task, but you are not playing the game incorrectly. Ask Thomas Edison, anyways, and he will say you have not failed but rather discovered a shit ton of ways not to jump that gap. Or something.
For instance, in open-world games with multiplayer like Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, my friends and I have taken to playing the playground classic Sardines in the virtual world. It’s traditionally played as a variation on hide-and-seek except the numbers are flip-flopped so that only one person hides and everyone else seeks. As each person finds the hider, he or she attempts to hide with them, hence the name of Sardines. We break from tradition, though, as it’s the first person to find them that gets to hide next and the last person gets to sneak up on the hidden-but-not-so-well-hidden group and kill them all in whatever way they deem worthy. It’s a fair trade, I guess.
And minus the last part where the game is pure carnage, we don’t shoot or kill anyone. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I mean, you can’t help it if someone wanders into your line of sight and they’re lookin’ at you funny and you accidentally drop a bullet or two that fall on their face at 300 m/s, but for the most part, we don’t shoot or kill each other. We don’t get in cars or ride horses or capture bags of gold or anything really pertinent to the proper game mode. In fact, we actively avoid completing objectives just so we can keep playing past the game timer.
And it’s hard to argue we’re necessarily playing the game wrong. We’re not trying to find the fastest way to clear a gang hideout and we’re not continually trying to pump each other full of lead, but we’re having fun, and that’s what’s important. We’re not failing to capture the flag but rather we’re discovering 1,000 ways to not capture it and still have fun.
Which seems like a natural step in online multiplayer games. After a few months chock-full of racing and shunting, Burnout Paradise multiplayer eventually devolved (evolved?) into watching each other attempt to crash into other players in the weirdest, highest, fastest, or midairiest ways. And then they all started trying to avoid the crashes, barrel-rolling over each other 60 feet in the air in hopes of safely riding away upon landing. To most, it would appear to be a madhouse, but to those in the game, it is the only way to play.
The same happens in single player games, too. Soon after everyone had finished playing through the story of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and had their fill of passing the controller around to see who could rampage the longest, people went back into solitary. But they hadn’t finished playing the game despite finishing their time with it as a single-multiplayer hybrid. No, people soon went back in and began stunting.
Motorcycles were used to grind along rails and fences in the vein of action sports; vehicles of all sorts were being rammed into stacked buses so as to instigate rapid and uncontrollable flipping and spinning; cars were placed and damaged precariously so the ensuing explosions would launch players from the boatyard to the lighthouse. Shooting NPCs had given way to pushing the boundaries of the game.
And all of these things are accomplished with the same game as before. Nothing had changed save for the player and the player’s approach to the game. The game was designed to help you invent the light bulb, but instead you found 1,000 ways to do otherwise, leading you to become stuntmen in Vice City, playground children in the Wild West, and the new Blue Angels of Paradise City. It could just be cardboard but it could be a bank that needs robbing or the body of a robot that needs helping. It doesn’t really matter because there’s no wrong way play.
Either as a child playing in the attic or as a grown man sitting on his couch at three in the morning, there’s no one to concern with how you spend your time filling this box except yourself. It can be with vestiges of years long gone or it can be of the time ahead of you. All it really does it what you want it to do.
It is, after all, just a box.