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The Verdict on Video Games pt.3

Games as Technology

Some gamers don't really care about understanding the developers through their design, building their skill, or experiencing "the squeeze" while playing video games. Well, at least not primarily. Some gamers view games as a medium to reflect the current state of technology rather than the ideals and messages of creators. Think of this view as games as technology, games as engineering, or games as computational visualizers. However you label it, this view of video games values and appreciates a unique set of qualities of video games that don't overlap with the view of games as art.



It's easy to appreciate technology. At least it is for me. Right now I'm typing this article on my PC using the squarespace browser editor for easy cloud based blogging. I'm streaming a program on David Brubeck from an NPR link I had tweeted from my new iPhone 4s as I drove home from work in the heated comfort of my Toyota on a chill winter day. And this is not to mention how much I appreciate all the medicines, medical machines, and monitoring devices that have helped me stay healthy all my life. It seems that every day someone is building a smarter, smaller, faster, quieter, less wasteful, and brighter everything. I believe toothbrushes today are smarter than I ever thought was possible featuring screens, speakers, and wifi. The point I want to make is we appreciate technology not in abstract milestones of progress. We appreciate technology via gadgets and and how they affect our every day lives in a very hands-on, perceivable way.  

Technology is constantly advancing in a wave that moves at a frightening pace. When you think you have a grasp of it, there's always Moore. To help us encounter, interact with, understand, and embrace technology some look to video games as the cutting edge where technology meets entertainment. The idea is, even if you can't understand polygonal tessellation, multi-cell processing, dead reckoning in net coding between servers and clients, or any other technical happening, you can appreciate the video games that are only possible because of these cutting edge advancements. Just check out this browser based MMO version of Asteroids made with some fancy JavaScript. If you're a gamer as long as I have, you should be very familiar with the history of obstacles developers have faced developing smooth online experiences between large numbers of players. Now, with some handy browser code, 1800 players matches are possible!

I do not understand the lucrative grip Apple has on its customers, but there's no denying Apple's success with the iPhone. Not much has changed in the last few iterations. Hardware wise the bullet points for the iphone 5 seem to be the expected, marginal upgrades. Faster chip. Better Wifi. Bigger screen. Lighter weight. Thinner case. The website states that the iPhone 5 is the "biggest thing to happen to iPhone since the iPhone." While this statement seems like a bit of exaggerated marketing talk, I believe that from a technology and engineering point of view, these seemingly marginal upgrades, regardless of how predictable they are, are in fact very impressive. After all someone out there has to actually do the work and get the magic to happen.

The truth is there are remarkable and interesting discoveries to uncover within the field of engineering of software and hardware. Because these fields are so technical and foreign to most people, there's a barrier to appreciation. But if you can speak the language, you have a window into this world. I'm excited by the way the developers talk in the Iwata Asks interviews on the Wii U console and Game Pad controller. I don't know the details about developing console hardware but listening to how they overcame hurdles and obsessed over 5 grams of controller weight gives me a glimpse into a world I don't understand.



I think gamers and engineers have similar attitudes. There's something special about how closely video games bring technology, engineering, goal oriented thinking, problem solving, and visual systems all together. I've noticed that many gamers have a disposition to optimize, persevere, and stubbornly work out solutions to problems that are completely optional. You might think that this quality of gamers is just carry over from the geeks and nerds who already love technology. But I think that there is still a large number of gamers who have been taught to think like engineers and problem solvers through video games who now have a greater appreciation for all technology.

Through the view of games as engineering it's easier to understand why sequels are so prominent in our industry. In many ways building each piece of video game software is like building a whole language. The rules of the game define the game world, the possibilities within that world, and how the interactive elements fit together. After developing this language, then the developers work to convey messages through their level design and gameplay modes. So there are naturally two developmental goals with games; one involves the engineering of the underlying systems, and the second involves the expression of ideas within the system. Because the foundation is build upon software and hardware engineering, like other forms of technology this side of video game development is constantly developed on. Like the iPhone example above, engineering of this nature is a never ending pursuit of goals set by no one. Just the possibility of a better design and the faith that technology can reach it drives a large part of what games are.  



Games as Business

For the view of games as business profit is the bottom line. In this view games are just like any other desirable that can be produced and profited from. In this view the gamers are the most important factor to consider and everything bends around their time, attention, and spending dollars. In this view there is no good or bad design, just what is successful, lucrative, and popular. While games as technology ride the wave of the future, games as business has a much less straightforward and less stable trajectory. 

Over time trends come and go. The economy rises and falls. Electronic components become cheaper. And dreams change shape. It's the job of savvy business men and women to navigate this constantly shifting landscape. Growing up, I remember wanting a Talk Boy, Yak Back, T.I.G.E.R handheld electronic games, Tamagachi, Giga Pet, and Lego Mindstorm construction kit. There was a time when all of these toys were popular. But ultimately, what's cool one day becomes uncool, forgotten, or ubiquitous down the line. I bring this up because it's what's cool, interesting, or fun in the world of entertainment that matters because we don't need entertainment in the same ways we need food, shelter, and safety. Entertainment is largely viewed as something we consume with our free time or down time; something created for the sole purpose of our amusement. So selling entertainment deals more specifically with how people feel, what they want, and more specifically what people feel they want. 

I want to focus on the simple reality of market limits. Gamers want fun experiences. And companies want profit. Perhaps these desires are insatiable. Still there's a limited amount of time in a day, a limited amount of potential customers, and a limited amount of money to go around. These days, they say companies battle for mind share and how much time we pay attention to their brands. They want to increase the amount of seconds that our eyes spend looking at an ad on the internet. (By the way, I hope you enjoy a very clean, ad free critical-gaming!) These limitations force consumers and gamers to make a choice about what they invest in. Typically we seek more fun for our dollar. And for these reasons certain trends will tend to emerge within an entertainment market. 

People are different. We like different things and live a wide range of different lives. However, because we're all human we have a few things in common; a few themes and experiences that appeal to the vast majority of us. This is why a large portion of the most popular or lucrative tv shows, movies, and games involve violence, justice, and sex. What's popular has mass appeal for a reason. It's not likely that an obscure, niche genre or product will achieve mass appeal. In fact, for a large, growing industry, it's the mainstream items that define what is niche. In the entertainment world where people make decisions based on how they feel and what they think they want, the less complex and more stimulating content tends to be more popular on a wide scale. Some consider such content the equivalent of junk food. While an exclusive diet on junk food has serious health drawbacks, the choices we make about the entertainment we consume have less obvious yet still serious effects. 

I've described playing video games as work because games are typically very engaging, requiring players to build real skills. At their best, this work is fun in ways that don't feel like a chore. At their worst, playing video games feels like a nightmare class in the school of hard losses. As I explained in part 2 of A Defense of Gameplay, the gameplay experience of video games is a tough sell. So, to make video games more attractive, many developers leverage engaging, yet passive elements. By using story, music, visuals, low to no difficulty, and other design choices, developers have widened the appeal of video games to a broader audience by using the elements of non-games.

There's nothing wrong with this basic approach. A skilled developer can blend many disparate elements into a cohesive whole. And ultimately, as long as the product is thoughtful, interesting, and well made I don't care how much gameplay it has or not. There's nothing wrong with viewing games as art, technology, or as a business. However, these three views when put together create some odd overlapping results and a range of subtle side effects. 


In the forth part of this series, I explain the how the 3 view of video games are tied together in asymmetrical ways.  

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