I am a gamer. Been a gamer for more than a decade now. Been an online gamer for more than a decade now. As such, I hate the phrase “it’s just a game” as much as anyone. More, probably. However, I am from time to time using the phrase “it’s a game” myself, and I’d like to point out the difference. Because to me, they mean two very different things: one is descriptive, the other is dismissive.
Saying “it’s a game” classifies an activity – unsurprisingly, as a game. It qualifies the subject matter as an activity that has the purpose of yielding a positive emotional balance. Or in other words to have fun. It is important to remember that a game is not played to change the world, to fight terrible illnesses or to solve global problems. A game is played to have fun. To be entertained. To feel good – to feel better. It is played for the very purpose of spending time doing something that is pleasant, instead of spending time doing something that is less pleasant. The fun you derive isn’t always immediate, sometimes it is a process, and as with just about everything, there’s no reward without effort. But the goal is ultimately always to have a good time. Because “it’s a game” and that’s what a game is about.
Saying “it’s just a game” dismisses that fun as irrelevant. It implies that since the goal is fun, not reaching the goal is not a big deal. And surely it is no big deal compared to, say, an earthquake and a tsunami. No argument here. But that’s entirely outside of the context. We’re not talking about earthquakes and tsunamis. We’re not making a choice between death and devastation … and gaming. We’re not making a decision between saving the world and playing a game. We’re talking about a person who, having hopefully fulfilled their duties, decides to sit down and entertain themselves, to have some fun. There is no reason why that fun should be dismissed. There is no reason why factors that actively, negligently or maliciously damage that process of enjoyment should be deemed irrelevant.
The phrase “it’s just a game” has been used since the dawn of (gaming – yes, that includes classic board and table top gaming) time by people who damage other people’s gaming experience and then justify themselves by dismissing the inflicted damage as imaginary. Well, the damage is real. It is real time of a real person whose expectations, plans and enjoyment were damaged.
On the other hand, “it’s a game” states something constructive: I am doing this for fun. For enjoyment. For entertainment. For pleasure. My goal in doing this is to derive fun, enjoyment, entertainment and pleasure. Not to make the world a better place – I’d rather have a day job for that. But when the game isn’t fun, there’s something wrong. Because it’s a game.