Wasting my life

So, over from my home-from-home Offworld, I wrote a piece about the majestic God Hand, particularly praising its adaptive difficulty. The more dudes you pummel successfully, the more dudes attack you. The more you get pummelled by dudes, the more other dudes leave you alone. It’s a system I like because it preserves the absolute challenge – you can only go toe-to-toe with other player’s high scores by pushing for the highest difficulty – while ensuring progress through the game is possible for poorer players. And it does it all transparently, letting you see what difficulty level the game is setting for you and therefore allowing you to make decisions and plan strategies around how hard you want the experience to be.

It’s kicked off quite an interesting debate, which seems to be focused around two issues. The first is whether or not adaptive difficulty dilutes the purity of the challenge, and therefore the satisfaction of victory. As is so often the case, the right answer to that conundrum is the cop-out answer: it depends. There are undoubtedly games where you want unwavering, unalterable hardness: lines in the sand you can measure yourself against. Sometimes it’s more important to guarantee progress. I had a rather marvellous meeting yesterday for a sex education game I’m helping out on, and its designer very astutely pointed out that it’s pretty much essential that everyone who plays the game is able to finish it. No use clueing teens in to the perils of herpes if they get stuck before they find out how to spot syphilis. What prompted me to write yesterday’s column, though, was delight at how often truly hardcore games manage to balance those two needs. It’s not that God Hand lets you coast, flailing aimlessly through a challenge-free experience. It uses its adaptive difficulty to lure you in to harder fights, teaching you as you go. It’s the perfect teacher, constantly advancing the goalposts to stretch your skills, whatever your natural level.

The second issue was best summed up by commenter Inverse Square:

But damn, to give in to the desire for a power fantasy is a terrible thing to do. Escaping from reality is nice, but it’s indefensible. To flatter it, to trade in it, to treat it like it’s useful is wrong. It’s helping no-one; it’s teaching you nothing.

Are all games just power-fantasies? By no means (although – fair cop – I did say they were in that piece, mostly cos I was feeling a bit grumpy). They have long done much more to inspire, challenge, surprise and educate. Are some games just power fantasies? Yes, absolutely. And do I think that’s a bad thing? Sometimes. Sometimes I’m delighted to have a ready-made range of sand-castles I can kick over, oceans of virtual balloons I can rampage through with a pop-gun, virtual plates I can smash and virtual pencils I can snap. Often though, I go back to Geoffrey Miller’s eminently scary article (you’ll need to do a text search for his name to find his entry)  from a few years ago which posits that the eventual downfall of all intelligent civilisations will be our seduction by fitness fakers – virtual constructs which gives us the feeling of achievement without actually achieving anything. The natural extension of the argument? That videogames are the reason we haven’t got to Mars, and the reason that other advanced alien life-forms haven’t got to Earth. We’re all too busy playing God Hand. Sorry ’bout that.

6 thoughts on “Wasting my life”

  1. God Hand is definitely taught me something worthwhile: life is best when seeking situations that make me wanna kiss my fist.

  2. Hey, I’m the guy quoted here, and thank you for a well thought out response. I was thinking a lot about this last night, and I’m throwing this out in regards to power fantasy: One can present a massive army of dudes to kill, and mowing through them with weapons is guaranteed to be fun – for a while. To the vast majority of people, it would get boring. Jonathan Blow talked about this a while ago: unless there is the feeling of danger, unless there is some difficulty involved then [i]the player does not feel as if they are actually taking on an army[/i]. This sounds a little obvious, but it’s really interesting to game design, and I want to take it one step further. From the way that we understand interactive things, such as the army, [i]we do not desire power fantasies[/i].

    Let’s say you were to make the game with the army. And then you had someone play it, with their inevitable victory. But you recorded them doing so, and showed it to another person. I think there would be no distinction whatsoever in their experiences of the “game”, and so I don’t think that in this respect we ask for power fantasies from gameplay.

    Also, let me say that I’m really really interested in the first part too, about learning. From your consultancy page, would I be right in guessing that that sex education game comes from channel 4’s big education based gaming project? I actually saw a speech by Alice Taylor at a conference on game based learning is the thing, which I reviewed here: http://www.culturewars.org.uk/index.php/site/article/Chocolate_covered_broccoli/ and it’s completely fascinating.

    Now, you said this:
    “it’s pretty much essential that everyone who plays the game is able to finish it”
    Which I think is sorta true, but not completely. I think that unless the player is required to understand the game, there is literally no point in playing. Sure they’ll [i]see[/i] things, but you can’t guarantee they’ll take it in as well as they should be doing. It’s a textbook way of thinking about things, and it’s not impossible for them to learn stuff, but it’s harder. You will teach more by playing to people’s instinct to learn, which playing [good] games, they will utilise. (I’d apply the same thinking to artistic statements made with gameplay, actually)

  3. Darn, I thought those [i] tags would work. Shows how much of a glib about game systems I’m being, I guess. Also, sorry that my comment’s length rivals the actual post.

  4. This all reminds me of Clay Shirky’s ‘Gin and Sitcoms’ argument, where he suggested that there was a huge ‘cognitive surplus’ bound up in (during the 20th Century) watching TV (and, prior to that, drinking gin).

    And whilst it’s a seductive argument, especially for those of us with an inbuilt work ethic that constantly nags at our own failures… I think I prefer my friend Chris’ take: that we all need downtime, and that downtime is sacrosanct no matter how banal, be it TV, or anything else.

    We weren’t going to get to Mars anyway; we’d have found something else – booze, mime-shows, condensed books – to distract us. And, given a choice between mime or condensed books… I’d duck the question and go back to technical brawlers, any day.

  5. Games have taken a lot less away from the potential accomplishments of humanity than all those centuries of killing each other and fighting over territory and religion. Maybe they’ll be our downfall someday, but it would surprise me greatly.

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