Thursday, April 5, 2012 at 11:04PM
I concluded part 1 of this series by outlining the premises behind my argument. After defining the terms game and gameplay, making a case for the necessity of complexity, then explaining understanding and enjoying complexity requires learning, I posited that gameplay is inherently not what most people find fun or entertaining. Now the question is, why not?
It's a common notion that we have to work in life to achieve a high level of success. If you want to be an engineer, you have to work hard in math and in other disciplines. Perhaps you'll go to college and study for years prior to landing an internship. From there you work until your job title says "engineer." This arduous journey is about the same for becoming a pianist.
When you first start to play piano you may have all kinds of expectations about what it'll be like to play great music. You may imagine that before long you'll be tickling the ivory like you've always dreamed. It's obvious that such expectations are probably set too high. Before a new piano player can play high level music, years of practice are typically required. And during this protracted practice and learning period, the beginning piano player's expectations and freedom will likely be narrowed; squeezed smaller and smaller until they better align with reality. And the reality is, to really play piano well one must typically learn great amounts of information by "the book." For example, while not the most exciting, scales and finger exercises are important for building technique. And only after embracing these lessons and consistently practicing, does one begin to see, understand, and experience all of the wonderful freedoms of being a pianist. Like exploring a new world, "the novelty" of these freedoms can only be experienced by those who have put in the work. In fact, hard work through learning seems to be a requirement for all complex (knowledge stressing) activities.
"Nah...studyin' sucks!" Brave Fencer Musashi
I theorize that this process of "the squeeze," "the book," and "the novelty" is universal when learning any consistent-complex system while pursuing a specific system-determined outcome (goal). This squeeze-book-novelty process (read more about it here) aligns with the eureka-style, eye opening effect learning has one our minds. For example, have you ever learned a new word, and all of a sudden you begin hearing the word everywhere? This phenomena is called the recency illusion and the frequency illusion, and they are the result of the filter we create based on our learning experiences. It's not that the world changes, rather your perspective has (listen about it here at 10m:35s). You're eyes are more open than before, and you're able to pick up on more details.
I've personally experienced this squeeze-book-novelty process with piano, violin, academics, art, athletics, and my relationships with people. I find it incredibly familiar and interesting to have the same kind of experience playing a video game. With every rule I learn I can sense my brain adjusting, I can feel my finger motions changing, and I can see the results via game feedback. This experience is an inherent part of learning and embracing complexity. Describing learning this way may make it seem like the most interesting experience in the world, but there is a downside.
Learning takes work. Hard work. And I have yet to discover any short cuts. Another way of expressing this idea is with a phrase that I often use on this blog; complexities cannot be compressed. This concept explains why we must learn individual complexities one at a time. So as works of art increase in complexity so too does the necessary time commitment to understand them. And while complexities can be glossed over or ignored with passive works, the interactive, rule-based, challenging nature of video games can make the knowledge skills and therefore learning required.
I believe that many people understand that learning is hard from common life experiences. Life is hard because there are all kinds of forces and influences that act on us, and we have to learn to avoid these things or suffer the consequences. The squeeze is a kind of pressure or stress that the system puts on the participant through rules and limitations. Though knowledge is power and learning is great, the squeeze isn't so easy to live with. For analyzing gameplay we have terms like contrary motion, interplay, counters, and others to describe elements that make it more difficult for players to win (i.e. squeezers). For most games, player actions have consequences that cannot be undone once made. And for most games there are more ways to fail than there are to win thus making guesswork less effective and skill required for success. So it's no surprise that being successful with most games takes learning and practice. When you fail in a game, it's all on you. And that's a kind of responsibly that many people find too stressful.
It's important to make clear that while there is plenty of learning one can do within a purely interactive system, having a goal or a system of rules that score the value of different emergent outcomes is absolutely essential for the kind of structured, skill building, functional kind of learning. It's this kind of learning experience that creates the squeeze-book-novelty process. It's just not the same for interactive, non-gameplay systems. In the absence of any kind of measurable goal or value system provided by the game system, the player is left to create their own objectives and goals. While a dedicated and honest player might stick to their goals set at the beginning of an activity, most players will bend or alter the rules as they go along because they're in charge. After all, if you're losing at your own game, it's easy to just change the rules and escape the squeezing pressure. Even the most honest player cannot consistently referee their own interactive experience for complex games with complex, real-time interactions. Being one's own referee just doesn't work. Put simply, the squeeze doesn't work if you can wiggle your way out of it.
Putting it all together, to embrace and appreciate gameplay you must embrace the fact that learning is a crucial part of most gameplay experiences. This means that playing most games won't be without bumps, mistakes, and other drawbacks of learning. This also means that you may be held back by your brain instead of your will to progress. Gameplay is stressful and learning gameplay systems is player driven. For anyone looking for an activity to kick back, relax, and unwind from the stresses of real life, gaemplay may not be a first choice. Compared to the more easily obtainable pleasure of passive entertainment, gameplay may seem like too much work. When I think about it like this, I realize that gameplay is a tough sell. If I find it hard to convince someone to be patient, contemplate, and practice in order to ultimately enjoy a great gameplay experience, then the gaming industry and entertainment industry must find it impossible.
In part 3 we'll consider the market trends by looking at which games sell and considering how underlying cultural ideas may gradually push the Western gaming market away from appreciating gameplay.