Why do we play games?

I’m more than sure that nobody reading this remembers my series of posts (if you can call two posts with the same title a “series”) where I tried to enumerate the reasons for why we play games. You might be asking yourself why I didn’t link to those posts right there in that sentence and let me assure there’s a reason for that. If you guessed “shame” then you win an internet cookie!

I’ve never since touched the subject again here because I finally understood that I don’t know that much about it, even after I’ve done my research. However I’ve recently seen a neat deconstruction of the whole shebang that rings true (as far as I know…) and I wanted to share it:

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Limited input

As the casual genre grows larger with each passing year, I’ve come to develop a certain distaste and at the same time respect for most of the games in the genre. Some attempts at capturing the market are just lazy “me too” games that do nothing more than poisoning the well, but I’m talking about the good games under the casual umbrella.

To get into specifics, I’m gonna be talking about games such as Angry Birds, Peggle, Plants vs Zombies, Bejeweled,  Zuma, Canabalt, Pong* and many others I can’t recall at the moment. I respect these games because I can clearly see why they are/were successful, what was their respective designer’s intent and above all else, what kind of person would play games like this. Namely: Everyone. That is, everyone but people like me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve liked most of these games at one point or another, but with repeated playthroughs I grew increasingly dissatisfied. They’re all great for what they are, but I can’t shake the feeling that they don’t satiate my hunger for play. They seem to avoid all of the core reasons why I play games in the first place.

I always thought I knew why I don’t like these games. They throw out rewards like candy for accomplishments such as “choosing the right angle to throw something”. It’s cheap. It’s meaningless. It’s crass. They have absolutely no soul to speak of. They don’t have anything to say other than “You’re awesome!”.

But you know what? That’s not what bothers me. Hell, Mario fits that criteria almost perfectly and that has never bothered me in the slightest.

It’s only recently that it dawned on me the real reason: All of these games at the very least have limited input and at the very worst don’t require a player in the first place. They play themselves.

And that’s incredibly frustrating to me.

I can’t help but feel that I should be more in control of what’s happening in the screen. I want to be able to do more, I want to be able to do what I can in other very similar games. I want to be able to guide my birds mid-flight, I want to tell the game to throw the ball with a specific amount of force, I want to tell my plants when to start firing, I want to move my jewels around even if they don’t create a match, I want to move around the board, I want to decelerate at will and finally I want to move around horizontally as well.

I feel that the limited input is restraining my freedom of expression.

In retrospect I realize that this is obvious, but it bears to be stated: These games were not made for people like me. But then, what is the audience of these games exactly? My guess is that they don’t want to control too many things at once. These people are content to have minimal input, even if that means that the game practically plays itself.

In other words, these people have not played many games and/or have no interest in them as anything other than a time-killing diversion.

Simple games with simple control-schemes, simple to explore mechanics with simple options and simple strategies. Basically, shallow gameplay.

It feels great to finally realize why I don’t like these games.

But there’s one particularly popular game that is still stuck in my mind: Bejeweled.

It’s restrictions are so astounding that I can’t help but feel like the designers had a very specific audience in mind. An audience that doesn’t like choice, because they get flustered and start feeling as if they’re playing the game wrong. These people are happy to be given the least amount of options possible, even if there’s absolutely no challenge to the decisions they’re left with. Everything they might choose is a correct answer. Everything is a positive feedback loop. The game literally plays itself, it just waits for some player input to continue.

I suppose it’s harmless, but I can’t help to feel a very creepy vibe from that game.

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*Pong is going to be an exception to most generalizations I make in this post, but I feel like that’s a product of its age more than of its design.

Limits: We do what we can

If you’ve played at least a couple of videogames in your whole life, chances are you’ve resulted to exploring the virtual world by the means the game gave to you in the tutorial (if there was one) and then proceeded to search for new ways of interaction, new reactions, new mechanics and new content. It’s reasonable to say that this search probably has become a second nature to you, dear reader. So much so, that it’s become the actual goal of whole lot of games you’ve played: You do what you can or are allowed to, until the game ends, at which point you’ve beaten the thing or just gave up.

It’s certainly a basic observation to make, but I just wanted to be sure to get everyone on the same page before I start elaborating on this.

Cool? Well, it seems to me that the people that don’t “get” videogames ask themselves a very important question the minute they sit and pick up the controller/mouse: “What am I supposed to do?”. It’s certainly a question I’ve asked myself when I was little and found myself playing a videogame for the first time.

It’s kind of hard to describe that sense of bewilderment. You press a button and then you get immediate feedback on the screen. You’re surprised, amused and probably intrigued. You push other buttons and other things happen. You start playing around with the controller for minutes, if not hours on end, experimenting what does what and how did you do that thing you just did.

But the thing is, the process of learning how to play a game makes us focus on the mechanics themselves and, consciously or not, we abstract the whole thing out into “simple” interactions. It’s a wonderful process that let’s us learn and comprehend very complex systems easily (something that no other medium can do with such efficiency) but at the same time it somewhat diminishes the punch of the context of your actions inside the virtual world. Especially so when considering that most of us had very shallow games as our introduction to the medium, therefore we learned to just ignore context because it’s ultimately meaningless. Mario is an italian plumber… how is that even relevant to whatever happens in the actual game? But I better not get into that or I may risk going off-topic for a few paragraphs and I don’t want this whole post to be all over the place.

So, while learning how to play, we abstract the experience in order to be able to comprehend what’s happening under the hood, but once the process of learning is over and playing the game becomes second nature, we begin to fully appreciate what the game does context-wise since we are no longer focusing on the mechanics themselves and can instead focus on what they can entail.

That’s one of the reasons why I think that the whole GTA franchise is backwards: The story of every single GTA game tries desperately to get you to care about this virtual world and their virtual characters from the get-go, but you, the player, don’t know how this world works, at least not the first time you play. And even if you’ve played every previous game, chances are you’ll be experimenting to see what you can and can’t do this time around. Because that’s what we do when we play something for the first time: we explore, we are elements of chaos, of creation and destruction, we want to see what verbs and interactions are available and no amount of tutorials will ever quench that thirst for exploration. So, what I’m saying here, among many things, is that games must let the players experiment around and learn the mechanics before introducing themes, characters or just general context that we are supposed to care about*.

It’s endemic in almost all of us and it’s only natural that the first thing we try to do in any game is tests it’s limits.

Because that’s the thing: Games have limits. They let you do what they can afford to let you do. The designer is never absent, she’s always present at every single moment, though the amount of control she has on you varies from moment to moment, but that’s a whole other discussion. Basically, we always test game’s limits because they will always have limits. That’s what kids do to their parents and the world in their first few years of life: they test what they can and can’t get away with, what’s good and what’s bad, what tastes awesome and what makes them puke. We have to learn these limits in order to behave accordingly inside this new world.

And that’s where we get back to the question one might ponder when coming face to face with a videogame for the first time: “What am I supposed to do?”. It’s simple, silly, just explore, test the limits of this world until you comprehend most of it, and I’ll guarantee you, if the game is good, you’ll know what you are supposed to do in a heart-beat.

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*Caveat incoming: Unless the game is short enough that playing through it multiple times is not only easy, but actually encouraged. Which is something I tried to do with Vignettes but I ran out of time so the polish was lacking on that part of the design (or in other words: I think the pacing needs some work).

Why do we play games? Part II

Time has passed since my first part in this “series” of posts and my perspective on why do we play games has changed somewhat, so forgive me if you were expecting to see direct a follow up that continued on the same tangent. Making a list of the most common reasons for why we game was the original plan, but I no longer desire to invest my time in that thought process. Simply because I don’t think it’s what I should be focusing on when I design a game, not for now at least.

I'm sure there are other more talented people that did amazing things with the tetris pieces in tetoris...
This is my poorly construted monstrosity, made entirely of tetris pieces in the game Tetoris. Please enjoy it and compliment me so I can justify the huge amount of time I spent on it =D

Anyways, let’s move on to the subject at hand:

Why do we play games? Well, to have fun, to forget about our boring lives, to relax, to test our skills, to frustrate ourselves on purpose, to compete with others, to get our hearts pumping, to get frightened, to feel like you are on top of the world, to learn how a system works, to play, to think, to experiment, to enjoy the feedback, to be a child again, to express ourselves, to create.

And I bet there are a lot of other reasons that escape me at this moment. There is no answer to the question, or rather, there’s no finite answer. We all play for different reasons. We all play for millions of reasons. Then, wasn’t the question pointless? Of course not. It’s an excercise in self-discovery and analysis. Some of us are better at it, some are worse, and I’m not too sure I’m any good at it.

There is no shocking truth here and there is no obvious answer. Well, of course if you go asking around, then probably “to have fun” will come out as the most popular answer and  “to escape from this horrible reality” a close second, but those are popular for a reason: They are the first things that come to mind. They are as generic as they can get. They don’t require any kind of deep thought process.

Ask anybody why they watch movies, read fiction or go to the theatre and you are probably going to get the same answers. What does that tell us? That we don’t think about these subjects for too long. Maybe it’s because it makes us uncomfortable, maybe we think we already know the answer or maybe we just don’t care.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and smell the flowers.

Why do we play games? Part I

Why do we play games? It’s a question so simple, so obvious that I wouldn’t be surprised if 80% of the game design population never tried to answer this. Answering this question will not be the holy grail of game design, but I’m sure it would help the designer on some big decisions, like what’s missing or better yet, what needs to be cut. Of course there’s going to be a conflict between what the player wants to play and what the designer wants to design. There’s also the concept of target audience that I’ll not poke here, not even with a 7 foot stick. All this aspects come into play when designing a game, but this is not the point of the question. The question is there waiting to be answered; what do we do with that answer is a whole other subject.

So, without further ado, here’s the list of reasons that I’ll be expanding upon in the next couple of months:

  • Rewards.
  • Escapism.
  • Interest / Intrigue.
  • Experimentation.
  • Challenge.
  • Investment.
  • Social aspect.
  • Time killing.
  • Fun.

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The whole rewards topic is deeper than what I’ve covered with the previous post, but I need to explore the other reasons further before returning to this again.

So, continuing with the list, we arrive to the concept of escapism. Some people play games because they can escape from reality, forgetting about their real life problems and just be sucked in into the happenings on the screen. Some games try to enhance this by toning down levels of abstraction, such as the GUI. Seeing characters with bars over their heads is not as inmersive as seeing them change their posture according to how beaten down they are. A recent great example would be the way Alone in the Dark shows the inventory: The main character opens his jacket to reveal a lot of inside pockets with the items he has. I can’t recall any game that showed were all the items you are supposedly carrying are. I don’t wanna know where mario and luigi keep all the coins they keep collecting.
Frankly I think that a way of aproaching inmersiveness is trying to keep the player on his toes. The player is so focused on the actions that he forgets everything else around him. You know when you are at the movies and you are only focused on the film? In those moments you don’t think about all the people around you, until that is, someone gets a call from the cellphone or yells or throws food at the screen. A game is exactly like that, but the distractions take the form of awkward controls and sometimes awkward GUI. For example when you look down to the joystick to remind yourself where is that damm button, or when you can’t find an option on the menu.
So, in short, the inmersiveness is enhanced for greater effect when the gameplay is intuitive and the player can get used to it in a matter of minutes/seconds. The rest depends on the game design and genre.

Interest and intrigue is next up on the list, and I’ll be writting about that topic in the next part.