There are many different types of video games and new types are being designed all the time. I think it is more important to understand the different types of games on their own terms rather than try to characterize what video games are as a “big unitary category” with necessary and sufficient conditions for membership. After all, Wittgenstein famously argues that “game” is a family resemblance concept, not one with strict borders.
Long world-driven games like Bloodborne, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Batman: Arkham Knight (just to mention three new ones of varying degrees of difficulty) have the special property of being “mini-lives.” Players can live in these worlds for many hours, sometimes over weeks or months of play. Each time they play they add another “day” to this mini-life. In the mini-life they project their real word identity (really identities) onto a story-driven character. Through the lens of the game world and the character players experience themselves anew.
When I play these games as an old man, I experience things—good and bad—about myself. Each play session intersects with how I am feeling and what has been happening in my life at that point, and this serves as a real-world context for that play session. My trajectory or history through the game intersects with my ongoing trajectory or history as a person with diverse identities and roles in life. In playing the game, I confront myself as a learner, problem solver, thinker, emoter, inventor, persister, gamer, and researcher (as I seek resources outside the game). I face my weakness and strengths, choices and challenges, have highs and lows, get angry and happy, and escape self and reality while all the while intersecting with them.
I play games drunk and sober, tired and alert, sick and well, depressed and happy, anxious and relaxed, with things going badly and things going well, feeling bad and good about myself. I feel I have a duty to the game world and my character—to my mini-life— but one I have chosen.
What is the value of such a mini-life? In reality, I don’t really know or care. I crave them. No peasant in the Middle Ages really wanted to be “only” a peasant (and none were “just” that). Though I can and have been more than any peasant got a chance to be, I (as, I assume, many others) crave as many worlds and lives as I can have before I die. That is why I read and why I play games. But in the game, unlike a book, I get to face failure and seek success personally and feel it in my bones, just like in life but without all that looming and permanent death thing.