Games have a stigma as time wasters. A stigma I have done nothing to change.
Yet they are potentially meaningful in that play is a vital part of the human condition. I wonder whether we, as a species, understand how play can contribute to an individual's wellbeing, to their inherent usefulness, their meaningful participation in the game we call life.
Last week I ran a playtest of a convention style roleplaying game the tabletop variety. It was structured exactly as I quest for in my video games. It lacked a tangible plot, but had plenty of cues for players to interact with. The premise was that the players would declare something as fact and the scenario would support that declaration. To that end there were all sorts of "mysteries" that could be solved - the very thing required to solve the mystery was the desire to explore it and guess at its possible conclusion. As long as a player guessed aloud then the "plot" would take form. I learned a lot during that session. About my friends (who were playing), about those new recruits (who were there for the first time), about myself (and my assumptions) and about the interplay these elements have with each other. In the real world it's personal, but in a fictional world shared by the creative minds of the participants it is genuine, honest, carefree play.
Video games don't come close to this kind of play. MMOs drift in this direction but undermine the suggestion by focusing the attentions of the players on the mechanics of the game, functional task oriented mechanics that simulate a fictional reality, one that by necessity does not duplicate our own. Linear games typically consume the identity of the player by overwriting their ability to contribute to the game in original ways. So many players seek other outlets for creative interaction with the medium by poking and prodding at the boundaries of the game. Uncovering cheats, glitches and design flaws in the process. Humans are inherently curious and creative. It always amazes me when people are amazed by the strange things people choose to explore within the context of their game.
Modding is the way of the future, should it be accessible to the masses. It needs to be a form of play in and of itself. If it can enable Joe and Joan Average (nobodies like me) to create their own whacked out vision of an interactive world then maybe games can become relevant culturally. My reality is quite different to yours, imagine if you could see the world through my eyes, through the lens of my experience and then imagine what it could be used for.
I have never believed that "play" is a waste of time.