Archive for the 'Brain Dump' Category


Player Consent and Responsibility


Over four years ago (!?!?) I wrote a post concerning how games do and don’t account for ambivalence in their pacing, which boiled down to the point that sometimes the player doesn’t want to fully engage what the game has lined up next for the player, and it should give them the space to decide when to engage it.  It’s a topic that’s come back to mind as I consider how I choose to engage Dragon Age: Inquisition.  I haven’t invested enough in that game to really judge one way or the other in its specific case, but it’s led me back to a train of thought about how games are structured around player preferences to maximize engagement.

This question of how and when to engage the player is a matter of achieving player consent to engage (e.g. when to begin the final battle with Lavos in Chrono Trigger.)  While this is not something that should be employed at every turn in a game (there’s got to be some room for surprise) the experience must first begin with soliciting and confirming the user’s consent to engage in what the game has planned.  It’s easy to see how this makes sense in cases of user experience design (allow players to skip dialogue, allow them to save at critical points before proceeding, etc) but it becomes more complex when applied to the “text” of the game itself.  “Text” meaning the content of the game itself rather than how the game and player interface with one another.  The player must first choose to listen to what the game has to say before it can successfully proceed in conveying its text.  Anticipating the player’s desires and navigating their preferences would appear to be an insurmountable task.  But this is something that is worth consideration in evaluating critically successful games.

Following from consent, the game must next instill a sense of responsibility in the player to respect the game’s rules.  When the game chooses to speak, the player must understand what is being said in addition to consenting to hear it then accept responsibility for its consequences.  And only when after this process of acquiring consent and accepting responsibility can the interaction follow.  For instance, in the very beginning of Super Mario Brothers, World 1-1, we can safely assume consent is acquired being so early in the game. And responsibility is instilled by creating a coherent set of rules to determine what the game means when it speaks.  Not jumping over the goomba results in failure.  Failure results in restarting the level.  Jumping and maneuvering is required in order to navigate the spoken hazards of the level.  Thus, the game instills in the player a sense of responsibility to protect Mario against those hazards.  Failure comes at the cost of the player’s time.  This creates anticipation and tension, but if the cost is too great, then the game will lose the player’s consent even if they understand and accept responsibility for its rules.  World 1-1 mitigates this by only increasing the cost of failure by what it knows the player is capable of.  They cannot proceed to the ending of World 1-1 without demonstrating they are capable of understanding what the game has said.

How do I tie this back into Dragon Age: Inquisition? I think many times, when a game makes grand promises, I meet them with greater scrutiny.  I have less time to play them now, and I’ve played enough of them that I want early assurance that what I’m doing is novel or new.  I’m also a tad bit overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of this game in particular.  I don’t have confidence I will play it well at first and, as a result, I don’t fully invest myself in it while I learn its systems.  I’ve consented to the game, but haven’t accepted full responsibility for the meaning of its text.  And that’s because it’s got so much to say! I’m not really sure what to make of it yet or why I need to care.  So, I joke around, play with the systems and wait for all of this noise to coalesce into an experience resembling what I think the designers had in mind for me.  At that point, they’ll have my full buy-in and I’ll fully play the game “in character.”  Games like Walking Dead and Saints Row IV accomplished this for me, and Dragon Age may yet as well.  In the mean time, this will be my experience:


When does software become a game?


I swear this isn’t a post about whether or not games should be considered art. I’ll be writing this post under the assumption that they are, and from there begin to identify the point at which game design shifts from being craft and becomes art. The craft of game design lies in the tasks that are most commonly associated with game design: programming, graphical design, sound design, etc. It’s a common argument to suggest that many of the component parts of a video game could be considered art when evaluated apart from the rest of a game. But they are applied to video games, they are art assets in service to another goal rather than to their own. You do not play a game strictly to listen to its soundtrack, or admire scenery. It’s part of the reason you are playing though.

Video games are software, and something that’s fascinated me for as long as I care to remember is the question of when does software change from just being software and become a game. It’s a topic I’ve explored in the past and written about here. It’s one of the key reasons I’ve become a software engineer myself, and I’ve spent the better part of the last 15 years learning about software design. A fair deal of effort I’ve put into it during that time was into learning about game programming. In discerning what makes software a video game, it’s easy to say “I know it when I see it.” But when it comes to creating one yourself, you’re jumping down a rabbit hole that becomes overwhelming. It can be very challenging to become a good programmer and even more challenging to become a good game programmer. So when you are simultaneously trying to surmount those challenges, you end up with a whole lot of ideas that get off the ground only to crash into a mountain of existential doubts. Many times it’s easier to derive new games from other existing games, since trying to tackle all of these challenges at once is so difficult. Though we still haven’t explained where the original idea of the game originates from and how it comes to be.


The best analogy I can make to explain the concept of designing and implementing a game as art is to compare game design with the composition and performance of music by an orchestra. To create a game, there are many jobs that must be done in concert with one another, not unlike musicians who are broken up by the type of instrument they play. It requires skilled coordination by a director or team lead to craft a game, perhaps similar to the  role a conductor plays. But this analogy requires there to be a composition that’s been prepared and ready to be performed.  I’m certain that once more game design, apart from the crafting of a game, is something that we know when we see. It still leaves the question of what exactly it is? The composer knows what instruments are available, and what musicians are capable of. The concepts of music theory are harnessed to compose a piece that can be performed in a way that engages the audience. So what are the concepts of game design theory that the game “composer” could arrange to engage the audience?

There are high level concepts used to describe game design theory: level design, game mechanics, difficulty curves, and many others. Even these concepts are nebulous and rely on assumptions held by video game enthusiasts that are easily quantified or agreed upon. Level design can be pointed out in other games. They can be deconstructed and recomposed into new concepts, but you can’t simply add “level design” to software and get a game. Nor can you tack on “game mechanics” or other high concepts into software to produce a game. A lower level foundation is required to achieve those high concepts. You need notes before you can have scales, melodies, or harmonies. I’ve tried to write about this in the past in trying to separate the concept of games from fun, and I’ve written about a fair few games using lower level game concepts as a basis to deconstruct them. It was a bit awkward in its execution, but also an interesting exercise.

Software requires three basic components to become a game and to build toward higher level design concepts. Verbs, spaces, and impressions are the “notes” used to compose games. Remove any of them, and a game returns to being software. They are entirely conceptual and have no attachment to the crafting of a game. They don’t require one to have a background in programming to be able to compose them.  And the resulting design could be feasibly handed off to a developer and made a reality. For the purposes of this discussion, the game’s design can exist independently of how it is crafted. It can exist in the same way a piece of sheet music exists, and then be performed by any number of “orchestras.” We do see this many times with classic games. Developers will take a game like Tetris and rebuild it to master the craft of game programming and to admire the design of the experience. It could be said that a game like Tetris is recreated by amateur game developers so often because of its simplicity. But it’s a game that’s been thoroughly deconstructed and defined. Rather than being simple, its design is accessible and easy to understood when it’s been properly executed. It is a demonstration that game compositions can be picked up and “performed” by other developers as though it were a piece of sheet music.


Without repeating the content of earlier posts, let me try to describe verbs, spaces, and impressions. Broadly speaking, verbs describe how the players are able to express themselves. What are they capable of doing and “saying” in the confines of the game? Spaces represent the area in which these verbs manifest and how the game will proceed to respond. The interplay of verbs and spaces is a sort of conversation between the players and the game, and the progression of that conversation represents the game’s impressions. They are how exactly the conversations affect and change the game. I’ve often seen the case made that the art of games lies in the player acting as a storyteller communicating their experience with a game. This may be so, but the design of the conversation is important, otherwise it is simply a story about software rather than a game.  Once you have these three components, you can begin to build a solid foundation for the concept of game design and composition apart from the crafting of game software.

I believe that this brings us closer to understanding the point at which software becomes a game, but there is still one important, missing piece. Even if I were to take a piece of software like a spreadsheet editor and compare it to a game, I could still identify verbs, spaces, and impressions in both. What makes these components different in a game? It’s what end they serve that differentiates them. Spreadsheet editing software serves your need to organize information. It caters to the constraints of the data. The verbs, spaces, and impressions of a game serve the game itself, as its own end – a piece of software that serves no functional purpose other than to engage an audience. Maybe this is the point where you might stop suspending your disbelief. Would entertaining the audience with software be the same as providing you with tables of data? If that is your opinion, then I couldn’t hope to persuade you in the space of one blog post. I can only speak to it in my own experience as a software developer who has spent a lot of time trying to jump in between those two types of software.  But I believe that point where software seeks to serve its own ends as a game exists and is important to identify as part of the art of games apart from the crafting of games.


Dracula’s Castlevania

Lords of Shadow 2 seeks to wrap up an origin story of Castlevania’s Dracula.  And it seems that it’s quite pre-occupied with a brooding antihero who’s a bad man that should make you feel bad because you think he’s really cool, right? Right??  It’s a neat idea to build a game around playing as Dracula, but it would seem that Konami and Mercury Steam had bitten off more than they could chew. And what you ended up with was a game about one of the most iconic villains in gaming who crawls around on the ground as a rat trying to avoid thugs that somehow make generations of Belmonts look like incompetent circus performers.  It all got to be a bit more complex than it needs to be.  After all, this is a game series where this is the most memorable exchange of dialog:

Which is perfectly fine, and fun.  But it doesn’t exactly demand a trilogy of games explaining what motivates him either.  So I’d like to share what I’d like to see in a Castlevania game starring Dracula instead…

In my own mind, Dracula’s Castlevania would be a sort of reverse Infinity Blade, where the player gets to enjoy being the prince of darkness from a throne in the castle.  It’s what you might expect from Castlevania’s past, but instead of conquering the castle, your goal is to vanquish generation after generation of Belmont as they try to purge you from the land.  You are Dracula though, and you’re too busy breaking glassware and coming up with good villain dialog to be bothered with defeating the pesky Belmonts.  So you summon monsters and demons to do the dirty work instead.

With each Belmont that arrives at your castle, you will have a reserve of action points which can be spent on summoning monsters that can be thrown in the hero’s way.  Chances are that most of these monsters will be dispatched fairly quickly, but it’s up to you to decide which make life most difficult for a vampire hunter depending on where they are at in the castle and how many you choose to throw at him.  Each successive Belmont becomes stronger and stronger, and as they clear rooms of the castle and reach save points, future Belmonts will no longer have to clear those rooms and will start off that much closer to you.

There would be obvious trade offs in determining which monsters you select to summon.  Flea men are a nuisance and can be dispatched easily.  But more powerful monsters would cost more action points, and leave you with less resources to use after that monster has been killed.  The player would have the option to take control of individual monsters as well in order to execute a strategy to inflict the most pain quickly.  The castle is a treacherous place with many sharp drops.  A well timed attack from a flea man could make all the difference in whether or not Dracula has to deliver those lines he’s been working on for centuries.

You can’t leave out the boss fights now either.  After a Belmont has made so much progress, you can pull out all the stops with one of your worst of the worst.  And these monsters could be fully configured by you based on points scored from your earlier victories.  Eventually though, if you’re not cut out to be the dark lord, and a Belmont finds his way to your inner chambers, you can expect to hash out the final conflict in classic Dracula form.  If you’ve got to make a speech before hand, I’m sure he’ll listen, and then you can show him how you get things done around here.

It’s not like the game would have to have cutting edge graphics.  Konami has gotten along well enough recycling Symphony of the Night assets for years.  If there is concern over how it would appeal to core gaming audiences, then I’m sure it could be fashioned into a mobile game with micro-transactions and any sort of other bad idea that makes a game more appealing to publishers to market to casual gaming audiences.  In any case, a game that lets you enjoy being Dracula would be a welcome change in the series and perhaps a bit easier for Konami to deliver.


More thoughts on game stories


[The following is once more a brain dump into my “public notebook.”  Consider yourself warned.]

Perhaps it’s because I recently played The Stanley Parable, or participated in the August #BoRT topic “What’s the story?” but I’ve been mulling over the value of game narratives.  In December, I’ll have been attempting to write about games for five years, and during that time I will have evaluated many games based in part on that criteria: how does a game perform where the narrative is held to a standard similar to that of other storytelling mediums?

I wanted to a consistent standard (as much as possible) when reviewing these games, but it created a sense of dissonance that was difficult for me to reconcile.  I was putting games into different buckets: games that should be judged first by their narrative quality, versus those which should be first judged by gameplay, versus games that might have a flawed narrative but do something interesting with it to compensate for it.  All the while I was trying to judge all of these games as if they were all in the same category.  Even trying to come up with a well defined set of “buckets” was a vague and arbitrary process.  I always wanted to write about what the player saw and did at a very high level, but this underlying conflict wasn’t something that I could reconcile.

The last game I tried to review using this criteria was Final Fantasy VII, which received the highest score I could award.  And it was at that point I felt like it didn’t work anymore.  Final Fantasy VII is an excellent game, but my criteria for judging games was disconnected from any consistent standard.  I’ve tweaked the scoring formula several times over now.  So now I write about what I play here, under no illusion that I’m providing criticism based on anything aside from my own opinions.

With all that in mind, I’ve also begun to see game stories as over-valued, or identified incorrectly as a key aspect to what has made some of the most notable games great.  The story of Final Fantasy VII is a tangled mess which is lousy when it stands on its own.  But from the story, you can connect all of its elements together into one idea.  It serves as a utility to the game’s success rather than the facilitator of success.  And the titles included in The Compilation of Final Fantasy VII makes that pretty clear.

Games don’t tell stories particularly well, and my feeling at this point is that trying to solve that problem will be detrimental to the medium as a whole.  There’s room for a storytelling genre for games, but I don’t think it will be representative of games are best suited to achieve.  In other storytelling mediums, the amount of stimuli being presented roughly negatively correlates with the amount of time required to complete the story.  A book only presents words and the audience can comfortably spend many hours consuming that story.  A film engages the audience through its narrative, sound, and imagery, but can only reasonably expect to maintain engagement for two or three hours at most.  I think that ideally a story-driven game would be even shorter than that in order to effectively engage the audience, or perhaps it would be broken up into discrete pieces which contain their own arc as The Walking Dead had.

Where games are best suited to succeed is in communicating messages.  This can be done through storytelling, but there are other valid methods that can accomplish the same goal in ways that are more conducive to game design.  If you were to press gamers to describe what makes their favorite games great, they may start by describing the game’s story or world, but it slowly come to focus that what’s communicated to them in particular moments by the game that makes it great.  And the rest of the game serves to frame those moments accordingly.

Take Canabalt for instance.  There is no story, there is no character, but it became popular for what it communicated so succinctly: a sense of desperation and dread of what’s to come which can be seen far off in the distance.  It’s something that we see so often in blockbuster movies, but the urgency and concentration the game demands from the audience makes it feel more real.  To try and bolt a story and character onto the game would dilute the message it communicates and rob the game of its effectiveness.  It is a moment, not a narrative.  And its those moments that make larger games great.

There are a number of games that I’d want to revisit with this revised sentiment on game narratives.  I’m not sure if I’d want to write scored reviews again though as it’s exhausting trying to keep the rules straight.  We’ll see what exactly the next five years will bring.


I’m going to take the fun out of games

Fun and games no longer.

Welcome to another (unwelcome?) edition of Peter’s notebook of ideas for things having to do with video games. Today, I’d like to strip out the idea of “fun” as an identifying attribute of video games (or the broader concept of interactive mediums.) Fun has provided the foundation for success of video games. It’s an idea that the gaming community keeps coming back to: when evaluating the merits of gaming as a medium becomes too vague or needlessly complex, just say screw it, they’re great because they are fun. But this isn’t a universal rule. There are certainly exceptions that core gamers can identify. And as for myself, that exception is Silent Hill 2. That being said, it’s not really any easier to define what exactly makes games compelling outside of the fun you’re having. Never the less, I’m going to throw another of my two-cents into the sea of opinions about video games.

I’m a programmer. I haven’t done a whole lot in the way of programming for video games, but I’ve still made the attempt. What has nagged at me ever since I started writing code is the thought that the bits and bytes that go into a game are not fundamentally any different from those that go into any other program (e.g. Microsoft Excel.) And I’ve always wondered what the magic threshold is for when a program becomes more than a number cruncher and becomes a game. It’s something that bugs me anytime I go back to thinking about making games. At first, it seems like a game  is something along the lines of a program that amuses you without serving a practical purpose.  If you were to peruse the amateur game-design landscape you can see that this is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition to a programs becoming a game.  If you’re sitting down to write a design document, that isn’t going to take you very far.

We use terms like “gameplay” and “game mechanics” to capture the elements that give programs their special status as video games.   Even then though, we are using the term to describe something that is observed in existing games.  There isn’t an underlying principle from which new and interesting games can be built upon.  The only principle that’s universally agreed upon that makes programs become games is fun, and it’s a crutch.  Enthusiasts want video games to mean more, and we try very hard to convince people outside of the core community that they do.  Yet, we still struggle to even communicate the meaningfulness of games to each other.  So the challenge in my mind is how do you capture the idea of a “meaningful” game without relying on the concept of fun?  What do you need to build a game?

To put the question to rest in my own mind, I’ve found that programs need to construct and orchestrate three concepts in order to become a game: verbs, spaces, and impressions.  Each corresponds with different concepts we’ve identified in existing games while providing basic principles to flesh out into different types games and interactive experiences.

God Hand has all the best verbs.

An example of a game verb in action.

Verbs represent the assorted actions the player or participant can utilize.  Hit things with a sword, move a block, jump around; all are actions that are immediately available to perform.  Of course, this isn’t unique to games.  Programs have clearly defined verbs like open, save, close, etc.  So verbs alone do not make a game.

Game Spaces

Game Spaces

Spaces offer opportunities to the participant to explore and apply verbs.  They can be levels, worlds, singular puzzles, and everything that surrounds them such as music, stories and characters.  Combining verbs and spaces creates an opportunity for interactive drama.  The designer can build on how the participant uses verbs, challenge them, create tension, release, and creatively work around expectations.  At this point, the program serves to create that interactive drama, but it still leaves the question of why should the audience care in the first place?  Verbs can be entertaining on their own, yet shallow.  Spaces bring depth to the equation, but there’s nothing intrinsically compelling about either of them.

The T-1000 is disappointed with his score.

The player leaves their mark in both cases.

It is the impressions that the participant makes in the program that attracts them to interact with it in the first place.  Impressions are made by running the program or playing the game in a way that’s unique to or reflective of the participant.  This can be a high score, choices that change a story, a decision to develop a character class, or even a series of achievements.  When combining impressions with verbs and spaces, the program is given depth and the participant can feel that they have created and now own a unique experience.

A lot of existing game concepts fall under one or more of the concepts listed above, but I believe these elements provide a basis from which games can be built or critically analyzed without having to fall back on concepts like fun or how they imitate established games and genres.  They can also offer a simpler way to look at games and convey their meaning to others who have no investment in video games as an interactive medium.  Game reviews, aside from informing consumers about a product, are an opportunity to share with people outside of the core community what make games special.  And you can bet when someone is confronted with a 2000 word review on why a game is good or bad, they probably won’t bother trying to digest it.

Games should be able to be described in a few sentences.  What do you do, where do you do it, and what’s in it for the audience.  Everything that follows is justification.  But that first part ought to be enough to sell the idea of the game to a receptive audience whether or not they are already gamers.  Other mediums can be complex, but they are ultimately compositions of simpler elements which express more complicated ideas.  Video games and interactive entertainment are no different. And even if you don’t agree with the concepts I’ve outlined there are still underlying elements that have to be more clearly identified before a game can be sold to skeptics and those who don’t otherwise care.  They can be arranged into something that’s fun, but they can still be used to express other ideas as well.

TL;DR summary: Games are glorified computer programs.  Complexity doesn’t equate to meaning.  Succinctness in building and describing games is valuable.  Avoid using words like fun, gameplay, etc. They don’t actually mean anything.  I should be doing something else on my day off.


How many ways can you judge a game?

A dark secret

The other mysteries being "what is this sticky crap all over the machine?" and "who is that creepy guy over there that keeps looking at you, Stacy?"

[File this under public notebook entries that may or may not be coherent.]

Contrary to what the internet might tell you, there is more than one way to judge a game.  It’s something worth bearing in mind when reading (or writing) a game review.  Try to figure out what, in the eyes of the writer, constitutes a good game (broadly speaking of course.)  Reviews always manage to piss someone off, as Jim Sterling finds out every time he posts anything.  But one of the things that I feel like the gaming community has difficulty with is understanding when someone is judging a game objectively and when they are simply expressing their preferences.

One of my favorite things about has been their willingness to post multiple reviews for a single game.  It’s a great place to compare diverging opinions and to understand where that line between critical opinion, and subjective opinion is drawn.  To me, the difference is in whether or not the argument behind an opinion is justified when compared to a commonly held idea of what a game should be.  If a game is good or bad “just because” or “I just liked/hated it” then that’s obviously when someone is expressing their personal preference.  If the answer excludes “I” and “me” from its justification, then it might just be objective and critical.  But that’s assuming that the concept of a good game is something that the reader buys into.

At, I’ll intently read a review that I almost entirely disagree with if the writer’s idea of a “good game” is reasonably close to mine.  You challenge your own ideas of what makes a game “good” and come away with either a better grasp of your own opinions, or you’ll have integrated some persuasive ideas into your own train of thought.  Or you can just flip out and throw a tantrum about how “bad journalism” has ruined a game for you forever. (The viability of the last option will be left for another post.)

When we read or write reviews, we have an abstract idea of what a game should be, and then we compare the game being reviewed with our idea of what a “good” game should be.  There are three, general types of “good” games; each one with its own pros and cons.  I think that understanding the difference between them might help to minimize reader consternation.

Commercially Valuable: I believe this is the way the majority of game reviews are written and consumed.  A good game under this model is a good value for the money for a specific audience.  The merits of the game only play a partial role in determining if a game is good or not.  A game could be the greatest in the world, but if it costs $1000 and a kidney then it deserves lower score.  The cost-benefit ratio is one of the most important and contentious concepts in the console/PC gaming community.  But some games fly in under the radar that deserve more attention (see: Deadly Premonition) and this approach means little to those outside of the gaming community.  By necessity, these reviews use a lot of jargon and make assumptions about previous games the audience has played.  For instance: the fifth game in a popular series may be identical to the previous four, making it less valuable to those who have played the previous four, but it may be the most valuable to someone who is currently outside of the community.  The game has to be judged on factors outside of its merits for these reviews.

Critically Successful: A critically successful game is judged to be good based solely on its merits.  Every once and while, outside of, I’ve seen this type of review.  I’m sure there are others, but they are far less common than reviews that make commercial value the most important aspect of a review.  Critical judgment disregards other entries in a game’s series, the other games in its genre, the previous experiences of the audience, and the commercial value of the game.  These reviews aren’t about whether or not a game is a good buy, they are about whether or not a game is “good” as far as the medium of video games and interactive entertainment is concerned.  Playing video games is an expensive hobby that’s technology intensive, so its understandable why there’s such emphasis placed on graphics and whether a game is worth the cost of purchase.  But if the uproar surrounding the debate over Roger Ebert and the question of games-as-art is an indication of anything, it’s that the gaming community is ready for more critical evaluations of their games on a more substantial level.  It also means we’re eager to present games to people outside the community in terms which both sides can appreciate.

Personally Enjoyable: A personal opinion may be “biased” inside of a professional context.  But for those with tastes similar to the writer’s, sometimes word of mouth is enough justification in deciding whether or not to play a game.  It can end up being more valuable than a commercial review which is aimed towards a broader audience.  Who knows why writer X loves Little Nemo: The Dream Master, but the reader loves it too, so maybe they will have other games that they both enjoy too.  Game reviews don’t always have to be about making an argument, it just needs to be interesting to read.

Game reviews probably don’t fit neatly into one category or another, but you’ll probably be able to see patterns across reviews for a site that fit more or less into one of those three.  So, the next time you read a review, try to think of what idealized game you’re comparing the real game to, as well as what the writer’s idea of a “good” game is.


Games and Genres, Part Two

We've all been here at one point or another.

[Part One]

If game genres should represent why we should care about playing a game, how exactly do you describe them?  The best starting point is to draw parallels between the ways games appeal to people and how conventional activities appeal to us in meat-space.  There was a time in all of our lives where we could care less about games, and there was something that clicked between what we enjoyed in meat-space and something that a video game had to offer.  They are about verbs, and so it only makes sense to look at other things that we already like to do, and then build on them.

Play Sports: Many people like to challenge their ability to perform skill based physical tasks.  And while it is easy to immediately associate sports with muscles and physical endurance, it is equally about dexterity and hand-eye coordination.  Of course, skill based challenges to your hand-eye coordination and dexterity can translate to many other activities, including action based video games.  And if sports games are any indication, the hand-eye coordination part of that equation is a significant reason why people enjoy sports in the first place.

Solve Puzzles: The flip-side to challenging your dexterity and hand-eye coordination is to challenge your cognitive abilities.  People will embrace artificial constraints to try and demonstrate cognitive potential.  There is no point to solving a cross word puzzle, or winning a game of chess.  The rewards are all in your mind.  Working around those constraints allow people to prove to themselves and others just how sharp they are.  Or they provide a way for someone to witness their own progress at getting better and better at tasks that challenge their mind.  If there was ever an activity that video games were well suited for, it’s puzzles.

Express Ourselves: Through creative expression (painting, music, performance, writing, joke telling, etc) we can create something and call it our own for nothing but time and effort.  It can be relatively cheap and satisfying no matter who you are.  This work can be easily shared with those around you and can definitely be a very compelling activity to do with your time.  Games can provide ways to promote this sort of experience in a contained, digital context.  In tandem with the internet, games can be a tremendous creative outlet that can be shared with virtually anyone.

Screw Around: Of course then there are people who just enjoy activities that don’t challenge your mind, dexterity, or creativity, and just want to have fun.  Some people just enjoy things for what they are and are content to simply explore the different ways you can interact with something.  Some enjoy mischief, others are curious tinkerers, but all of us at some time or another just enjoys playing with something that’s right in front of us.  Games that provide the audience with novel systems can appeal to us in this sense.  At times, we even enjoy playing games not for their intended purpose, but for the secondary activities you can take part in. For instance: insulting people.

Explore: Discovery something new can be very exciting, and has motivated people to do incredible (and incredibly dangerous) things.  For that, exploration may be one of the most powerful and appealing of these activities, and is also one of the best ways a game can appeal to an audience as well.  Books and movies can take you places, but you are stuck looking at them from the back seat of a car that’s just passing through that world.  Only when the player is in control can they begin to feel the senses of fear and reward that go hand and hand with exploration.  The possibilities are virtually limitless with well realized digital worlds.

These activities probably sound incredibly basic when describing how they can be connected to games.  But for the console games industry, I think more time needs to be spent on understanding the fundamentals instead of simply counting on there being people playing games simply because they already know that they like them.  It’s because the console gaming industry and community has been so narrowly focused on established genres that we’re so surprised when a game like Farmville does so well and our response is “well people who like Farmville are just idiots who don’t know what real gaming is.”  We’ve just forgotten what it was that had drawn us into games, and it is probably the same sort of thing that Farmville gamers experienced too.  At their roots, I think most video games can be traced back to something that’s intrinsically appealing to human nature; I hope gamers and developers alike will take more time to consider what that might be.

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