09 April 2012

Link of the day: Video games as psychological tools?

I've always loved video games, but nowadays I don't play them much due to both lack of time and lack of innovation in game design. Still, I try to keep up with the discussion of "video games as art" and "the future of video games."

Recently, there was a cleverly written and insightful New York Times essay about "stupid games."

I can sympathize with the author's desire to stay away from "addictive" games which make your unproductive and add nothing to your life. He makes the point that it's true games have been around forever (for example, dice), but video games (starting with Tetris) are addictive in a way that is different and new. Now that you can play games on smartphones, you can play anytime, filling the smallest sliver of time when you're bored. I remember when a friend of mine told me that Baldur's Gate (a PC RPG) was "crack." iPhone games are probably crack+++. The fact is that on a smartphone, you have a tiny screen and a limited control interface, so the games have to be very simple.
This has encouraged a very different kind of game: Tetris-like little puzzles, broken into discrete bits, designed to be played anywhere, in any context, without a manual, by any level of player. (Charles Pratt, a researcher in New York University’s Game Center, refers to such games as “knitting games.”) You could argue that these are pure games: perfectly designed minisystems engineered to take us directly to the core of gaming pleasure without the distraction of narrative.
Sam Anderson, the author, goes on to research the addictive nature of smartphone games by interviewing various game designers. One person he interviews is Zach Gage, an indie game designer. Gage laments the death of public arcades in America. Me, too, although I made a point of visiting arcades in Japan, where they are still very much alive. He's right that there just aren't many social games anymore, but that he means games where you play in the same room with other people. The only games I can think of are sports games, dance/music games, and a few Nintendo games like Mario Kart, Super Smash Brothers, and Super Mario Strikers. Gage also makes the interesting point that many smartphone games are just Gameboy games that have been ported. This is despite the fact that the Gameboy controller interface is completely different -- buttons as opposed to touch screen. There's no creativity. It's obvious that if touch screens had come first, there wouldn't be a game like Tetris on the iPhone.

Gage has multiple projects going on, including a satire of "stupid games."
In fact, one of Gage’s current projects is a satire of the current state of the gaming industry, especially companies’ tendency to try to cash in by copying the latest trend. The game’s working title is “Unify Birds.” It’s exactly the same as Unify except that it has been redesigned in the most superficial possible way: Gage has turned all of the blocks into colorful, wide-eyed birds. “I made a couple of other little changes,” Gage says, “but mainly I just made everything superadorable. It’s been really interesting, because I’ve showed it to people who liked Unify, and they’ll play it, and they’ll be like: ‘Oh, man, Zach. This is a really good game. This is better.’ They wondered what I’ve changed.”
I thought this really shows how manipulative games are. "Stupid games" are designed to tap into the basest of human compulsions and desires, in the above case: cuteness. Anderson tells us that there's even a name for this, it's "gamification." Companies use this all the time, for example, frequent flier miles.

Zynga, a company which is the king of "stupid games", is a target of blame. Many people, including myself, think that Zynga is just peddling a form of digital crack.
Some people argue that Zynga’s signature games — FarmVille, FishVille — shouldn’t even be called games. As Nicholas Carlson of the Web site Business Insider wrote: “They are click-machines powered by the human need to achieve progress by a predictable path and a willingness to pay small amounts of money to make that progress go faster. They are not ‘games.’ ” But you could argue that games like FarmVille are in fact just the logical end of gamification: gamified games. They have the appearance of games, they inspire the compulsions of games, but for many people they are not fun like games.
I remember playing a Gamecube title called Animal Crossing. I liked the fact that the game didn't even try to disguise the fact that there was no point to it. You were forcibly given a house at the beginning of the game and told to pay it off. To do this, you pick fruit, catch fish, etc and sell your goods to the store. As you earn money, you can buy new outfits or decorations for your house. When you find new species of fish or insects, you can also donate these to a museum. After you pay down the house, you're forced to upgrade the house and pay that down, too. So in the end, the game is all about consumerism and hording. And of course, all the characters (except yourself) are cute animals.

Anderson interviews the game designer for Drop7, which is a game that even he found irrepressibly compulsive. The game designer, Frank Lantz, had an interesting view. He thought that instead of thinking of games as fun or crack, we should think of them as a way to test our brain chemistry.
Games, he told me, are like “homebrew neuroscience” — “a little digital drug you can use to run experiments on your own brain.” Part of the point of letting them seduce you, as Lantz sees it, is to come out the other side a more interesting and self-aware person; more conscious of your habits, weaknesses, desires and strengths. “It’s like heroin that is abstracted or compressed or stylized,” he said. “It gives you a window into your brain that doesn’t crush your brain.”
The fact that "stupid games" are so stripped down and designed to feed our compulsions makes us that a good hard look at the question "what is a game". Through the essay, there are a few hints about this.

Certainly there are games that we consider more like "art" and a worthy pursuit.
Chess, you might say, is the king of stupid games: the tide line where stupid games meet genius.
A bit of wisdom from Sid Meier, who developed the fantastic Civilization series (one of the "better" games):
The legendary game designer Sid Meier once defined a game as, simply, “a series of interesting choices.”
Finally, the ending passage from the essay:
Lantz told me that the deepest relationship he has ever had with a game was with poker, to which he was almost dangerously addicted. “Somehow teetering on the edge was part of the fun for me,” he said. “It was like a tightrope walk between this transcendently beautiful and cerebral thing that gave you all kinds of opportunities to improve yourself — through study and self-discipline, making your mind stronger like a muscle — and at the same time it was pure self-destruction. There’s no word for that in English, for a thing that does both of those at the same time. But it’s wonderful.”

I asked him if he knew a word for that in another language.

He said no, but then he thought for a minute.

“I think it’s ‘game,’ ” he said. “I think the word for that is ‘game.’ ”
I'm not sure I agree with that last quote. Would we consider poker self-destructive if we took away the gambling aspect? Honestly, anything can be corrupting or self-destructive. What about chasing money or status? As Lantz says, maybe games are a safe way to learn about our compulsions. What about sports? People frequently call those "games." Are sports considered "worthier" because they are physical and social?

I think a better definition of "game" is something that simulates some aspect of life or human nature, in a self-contained, simplified environment. I prefer a definition that doesn't make value judgments about whether a game is "stupid" or not.

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