Posts Tagged ‘interaction


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.


Ambivalent Gaming

[Check out a recent post that follows from this one!]

When thinking about interactivity, it is easy to think of verbs: things that are done. And when thinking about games, interactivity is the next concept to come to mind, as well as things you actively do in the game. Rarely does inactivity factor into the conception of interactivity. Halo, of course, isn’t remembered for the times where you’re not shooting guns.  And Super Mario Bros. isn’t remembered for that time you didn’t decide to smash a block. But are these moments being overlooked in favor of the yay button? Aren’t activity and inactivity two sides of the same coin? The oscillation between the two states is part of the idea of game pacing: when is enough action enough? When is it too boring? And when is it overwhelming? For relatively low-cost decisions (shoot, don’t shoot) determining when enough is enough is a straight forward task.

As more variables are introduced into game play though, the appropriate balance will be based more and more on personal preferences. The tendency of console games is to introduce novel twists on familiar game play, or to layer multiple game play concepts on top of one another. For instance, Mass Effect layers action with role-playing game mechanics.  It sells itself on the fact that the game play is complex in a way that requires you to imprint your preferences on it. But as game play becomes more complex, player preferences are not clear, even to the player. The result can be ambivalence. Should the player invest in one long term strategy, or another? How does he or she know when they are ready to complete a task? Most importantly: how does the designer know when the player knows these things? They can’t.

Ambivalence is something that a game needs to take into account, in addition to all of the things that can happen once a decision is reached. If the player is prodded into making a decision before they are ready, then they are less likely to invest in that decision, and the game becomes that much less meaningful to them. Discussion of interactivity is predominantly about the breadth of choice, and whether or not the player can create something that is uniquely their own. But if the player is forced to decide amongst 16 choices in the span of several minutes, those choices aren’t going to mean much, even if they are unique.

One example of ambivalence being considered well in a game is Chrono Trigger. Specifically the decision when to engage the game’s final boss, Lavos.  It can be confronted anytime after the mid-way point of the game. There’s no question about whether or not to fight Lavos in the first place. It is clearly established as the arch-enemy of the game. The question is, when does the player feel ready to engage an enemy with a seemingly infinite amount of power. There is no single prompt for the player to go and defeat it. The player fights Lavos when he or she feels genuinely ready. And for that, I feel that Chrono Trigger makes that fight more memorable to the player by leaving room for ambivalence.

For an example of where ambivalence is not taken into account, look at Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The sequences with the Dr. border on being comedic. With little warning, the player must answer intimate questions. While I believe it was designed such that the questions are directed to the player, the game presents itself as being from Harry Mason’s perspective. In effect, these deeply personal questions are actually about Harry, and your role is to interpret what you perceive to be Harry’s answers. Without knowing Harry all that well, these questions are meaningless. And without an option to defer on questions and then answer them later, there is no weight to any decisions that are made. The psychology warning at the beginning of the game is entirely unwarranted. I was more afraid of the fact that Chrono Trigger knew I stole an old man’s lunch than Shattered Memories trying to pry at subconscious fears.

It may also be fair to say that part of success of sandbox games lies in player determined pacing, and deferment of significant decisions in favor of other types of game play. Games like Minecraft or Red Dead Redemption are rewarding in how freely you can explore the worlds being presented. You’re not being rushed into making a game changing decision or some sort of moral choice. And even if deciding to hunt buffalo or harvest wheat are less significant questions, they are more meaningful to the player than being forced to make a binary choice between good and evil.

Further reading: Why So Many People Can’t Make Decisions

No pressure

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