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The Verdict on Video Games pt.5

The final points I want to make about the trigon view of video games is on the limitations of each view. It's important to understand that though these views may initially seem like mere opinion, they are actually the result of deep beliefs and desires that powerfully shape our decisions. These underlying beliefs are opposed to each other, which in turn makes the three views of video games opposed to each other. The theory is these irreconcilable beliefs are why there is so much internal tension and stagnated growth within the gamer culture. Because of the nature of these views it's hard to create games that harmonizes all three. And while a game can satisfy all three views, it's even harder for a player to hold all three views as their core beliefs. 


Games as Business Limitations

If you support the view of games as business then you also support the idea of games as time wasters, games as mindless fun, games as distractions, games as just "entertainment", and ultimately games as a service. This may seem like a bit of a jump to connect games as business with these other ideas. But, as I mentioned in part 3, the games as business view is built on what gamers feel they want. Regardless of what gamers need, gamers make decisions on what they feel they want. To use the food analogy again, even if your body need the vitamins and nutrients of a balanced meal, if you don't know this is what you need or how to obtain it, you'll probably settle for the best tasting food that's easiest to obtain. We'll dine on junk food even though it won't sustain us in the long term. Games as business isn't about what you need, but merely satisfying what you want based on what you're willing to pay for. So the important questions to consider is what gamers want, how gamers can get it, and what we're being sold?

Gamers want meaningful experiences whether these experiences are intellectually interesting, emotionally stimulating, or appealing to our senses. As I explained in part 2 of my series The Zero-Sum Funomaly, video games can appeal to many of the Steven Reiss's 16 basic desires. And out of the entire range of meaningful experiences we can have with video games, more meaning requires more complexity which requires us to work more to appreciate it. Complexities cannot be compressed. Likewise, there's no way to get more work out of a system by putting in less energy. Yet, this "more for less" concept is exactly what many gamers want if they're going to spend their time and money on a game. And it's this desire for more meaning from less work that profit seeking companies will utilize. And to cater to this desire while simultaneously attempting to broaden the market and appeal to more gamers, developers tend to use a handful of specific design elements.  I consider the following design elements when taken to an extreme to be anti-games as art; RPG leveling, achievements, random loot drops, open worlds, and even passive elements like story, music, and visuals. 

RPG leveling is an abstraction of the organic growth we experience in life and when learning. Instead of developing real skills and retaining knowledge as as player, RPG growth is regulated by digital experience points. Typically, the more you play the more experience points you gain. More exp points equal more power. In extreme cases you really don't have to grow at all in terms of your real skills as long as you put enough time into amassing experience points. Not only can RPG leveling systems drastically lower the skill floor of games, but they can easily over simplify or over complicated player growth. When taken to an extreme, RPG leveling and many associated features can take control and agency away from players. Once this happens developers can better regulate how much time it'll take players to progress through a game. Such control over player time and ability is a key part of MMO and free-to-play games. 

Achievements and other forms of rewards when taken to an extreme turn into extrinsic motivators which work against learning experiences. Because almost all gameplay involves skillful-conscious interactivity, learning is an inherent part of gameplay. Random loot drops and other types of design elements commonly found in free-to-play and casual games are controversial in themselves. Using the same principles of operant conditioning, these design elements can be seen as manipulative like Casino games. And as I've explained in part 7 of my series Linearity. Emergence. Convergence, openness inherently works against the kinds of systems and experiences that make gameplay great. And of course, passive elements like story, music, and visuals can be used as feedback to enhance gameplay by helping players make informed decisions. But these passive elements can more easily create separate, non-interactive experiences that ultimately change the ratio of gameplay experiences to non-gameplay experiences in a game. 


Too much gold? Too much of what you want? 

It's the Miyamoto version of the Midas Touch. 

There's nothing wrong with only appreciating video games as a tool to serve yourself, to relax, to tun off your brain, to seek simple entertainment, or to just feel good. Just understand that when many gamers share this view, over time companies after your money above all else will cater to you. The simple truth is, when there are more gamers who are unwilling to work to get more out of games, more companies will shift development away from making deep and complex content. Because watching TV is less work than reading or learning gameplay systems, more games will trade gameplay with interactivity; then interactivity with passive entertainment. Instead of conveying the core ideas of a game through its interactive gameplay systems, more developers will use everything but gameplay to please gamers.

Seeking to only satisfy oneself in the short term can only go so far. There are a few outcomes for the gamer who solely has the view of games as business. Some will be satisfied with what they get out of games and never ask for more. But others will  sense that they can get more out of their gaming experiences. And when this second type wants more, they'll make demands. They'll demand "deeper" stories, better graphics, more options, more customization, and of course "new" ideas. Basically, everything but gameplay. There's only so many new, non-complex, experiences with tons of options and customization and deeper stories that are possible. There's only so much that can be done for the unsatisfied gamer who is unwilling to change the way they consume games or dig deeper to appreciate its content.

All these demands are gamers asking for more meaningful experiences. Oddly enough, you'll almost never hear anyone demand for more work, more learning, or more strict systems in their entertainment. But this is exactly what is needed to sustain more meaningful gaming experiences; work. Most people simply aren't used to thinking about enjoyment and entertainment as work. I don't see this issue as whether gamers do work for their entertainment or not. I believe that even the most casual gamer puts in the work over time. The more important factor is whether or not the work that is done is efficient, working toward something productive, or if the player's efforts are scattered and unorganized. It's work to try out a lot of things and get little out of it. It's work to consume a lot of passive entertainment. It's only a question of how do you want this work to count?


Games as Technology: Drawbacks

There's not much of a drawback for the view of games as technology. The potential of living inside of a virtual world (an idea I touched on here) blends the games as business view with the view of games as technology. Unlike the dream of flying cars by 2010, we have come far closer to simulating and rendering virtual worlds. VR headsets aside, these days we do a lot of our business, socialization, and entertainment online. Some gamers with the view of games as technology value games for their ability to render worlds in detail and then to escape into these worlds. So the closer games comes to creating these virtual worlds, a feat only possible through advanced technology, the better. 
In a similar way that games, art, and learning don't work well unless the participant is willing to listen through their own intrinsic motivation, in order for games to be games they have to be free from the demands, requirements, and real consequences of life. The part of Jesper Juul's definition of "game" that speaks to this requirement is that "the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable." Put simply, games must be fun activities that players are free to participate in or leave without any serious repercussions. The line this statement draws gets blurred with Casino games because of how they're designed to foster compulsion and addiction. Likewise, living in a virtual world or game blurs the priorities of the player. To inject into a system designed with no real consequences the serious realities of life (where you spend your time and energy) is to change a game into something that is not a game. Games work best when they, as art and like art, reflect life; not become one's life. 
Viewing games as technology is to think of games as the appealing, appreciable exterior to the invisible world of computer engineering. With this view, such gamers thrive on technical details. You don't have to look hard online to find gaming communities that discuss tech specs, resolutions, clock speeds, polygon counts, various types of lighting, and other highly technical features. When such gamers talk about games, they don't talk about challenges, rules, and the meaning that is derived from such experiences. They talk about the number of enemies that are displayed on the screen and how competent the AI is. Such gamers are interested in fixing internet lag, increasing draw distances, populating servers, and any other feature that gives us a glimpse into the magic engineering inside the systems. Such gamers also tend to be PC gamers because PC gamers can upgrade rapidly and literally get hands on with each part of their rig as they attempt to ride Moore's technology wave into the future. 
Games as technology gamers typically value refinement, which can result in the rapid turning away of past design elements, products and philosophies. It seems that when riding the "wave of the future" you don't have time to look back. While this kind of attitude works well enough for technological and engineering pursuits, it doesn't work so well for artistic values. If works of art are statements made through mediums by artists, then in some ways there isn't anything to refine. The statement that is made in all of its arbitrariness is to be taken as a single, immutable unit; a complete utterance to be accepted whole. But because video games are both artistic and engineered products, focusing mostly or exclusively on the engineering side comes at the cost of the art side. And visa versa. 


In part 6 I finish the series and our look at the limitations of the trigon views. 

« The Verdict on Video Games pt.6 | Main | Critical-Casts Episode 2: Expression B-Side »

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