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Counting For Taste

Watching Jesse Schell's DICE2010 presentation about recent trends in game development - which took as its subject matter the unexpected popularity of Facebook's "social" games and the external reward boom (unlocks, achievements, increased focus on the "score" for gaming generally) - I started to have a think about our Gaming Made Me series. I don't think there were many mentions in there of "I just got hooked on the points system," and I wondered if that would be different if we did it again in ten years time, or just with a wider net of people. Moreover, it got me thinking about some of the reasons why some gamers were horrified by the picture Schell painted.

Gaming made lots of people who weren't on our list. To take a specific example let's head to 2007 where two of the creators of Deus Ex - Warren Spector and Harvey Smith - came together to discuss Smith's creative life. It was part of a series of "masterclass" lectures delivered by Spector at the University Of Texas. Even though the interview with Smith was supposed to illuminate his professional life as a videogame designer, it ended up plunging into remarkably intimate territory, with Smith discussing his upbringing in an unhappily dysfunctional family in a Texan town. It was a place that he couldn't wait to escape. His escape began long before he could physically leave, he recalled, as he began to consume comics, movies, and videogames. It was an incredibly familiar story: "Reading, writing, communicating with people, playing games, watching movies," said Smith. "These were like magical forces in the world. When your world is shitty, and you put on some music - think about the transformative power of that, or when you immerse yourself in a movie." That transformative power was distributed across all the forms of media that the young Smith could get his hands on, with electronic games just being one possibility among many others. Smith seemed to dismiss the idea that this lead directly to his creative adult life as a game creator, as this was the kind of escape available to any kid his age, in that kind of situation. There was nothing special about it - it was the most ordinary thing in the world. Without provocation, however, Smith felt compelled to defend his pastimes, and his youthful escapism: "Power fantasies, as much as people malign them... [are] hugely important. Fighting a demon is a literal manifestation of an abstract idea. If you're really into horror and an under-powered protagonist overcomes overwhelmingly powerful forces, there's cathartic process there."

My own childhood wasn't particularly unhappy, and I had no reason to escape it, but the simple fact that there were ways to do so was enough. I spent a lot of time on videogames, but considerably more with pen and paper games, particularly AD&D and various Palladium systems. I spent countless hours immersed in the sourcebooks for these games, both reading the material and creating my own scenarios based on it. I had limitless patience for it, and would happily run adventures for anyone who would sit and listen. The best players, however, were the ones for whom the game represented a kind of collaborative imaginative project. Sometimes it was cathartic - as Smith describes it - but most often it was transformative in a way that nothing else was. We escaped.

The less interesting players of my games, however, were the ones who were excited by something else: loot. They rapidly became fixated on the material rewards earned by their characters, and would start to ignore the events that were delivering them. They now remind me of narrow-minded gamblers, where what mattered were the chips on the table, and the odds, rather than the mental challenge. Now, there's nothing wrong with a scoreboard, and the hi-score is something I'm just as likely to aim for as anyone else. (I spent years obsessing over Eve Online killboards - the hi-score table of a sandbox MMO.) It's just that I see the greatest rewards in gaming elsewhere: in competitive games, where I'd be playing and (hopefully) beating other people, or exploratory games, where I'd be opening up something and seeing more of the world. (And I'm reminded at this point of how many people who, on playing World Of Warcraft for the first time, mentioned that they'd just like to explore, and not have to do all that levelling stuff.)

The response of the first kind of player is, I think, to be found in all of us to lesser or greater degrees. Those people who were scared by Schell's vision of the future are the ones who have, like Smith in his Texan hometown, identified something magical and transformative about games - something which is present in other places too, like comics, or movies, or even drugs. Those people for whom Schell's future doesn't seem so bad, and those people who are already grinding meta-points for simulated achievement, are becoming the second type of player. Perhaps they were always that kind of player, and they're just being catered for. Schell's vision, and the entire culture of metascores, unlocks, and achievements, has arisen from focusing too hard and what the second type of player got out of his game.

Consequently I'm inclined argue that we're approaching a crossroads in terms of judgements about what games are and what we should fight for. Should games be allowed to flourish or die on their own merits? Or is it best if they're tied up with some kind of numerical scaffolding, some kind of money-placebo that we can use to measure our efforts? This is related to Tom Armitage's piece that we linked to in the Sunday Papers, where he says games should be rated for their "gameness", and not their cinematic quality, or anything else. Tom is exactly half right in his argument, because while games should be rated on their proficiency as a game, they are not entirely distinct from other media. (And some games - specifically arcade games - are pure "gameness", but they are only one fragment of the whole.) Games should be seen as part of a continuum of entertainments, a kind of layered Venn diagram which includes all of literature, all moving image, or 3D models, all sculptures, pieces of music, and creative performance. The gameness of games is what gives them their position in this continuum, but it is not solely what makes them valuable to the people who play them: that's just as likely to be found in the story, the particular concatenation of visuals and audio, the specific timbre of escapism - something that could just as easily be found in a book or a movie.

Perhaps it's true that points/achievements have created a wider landscape of possible gaming experiences, but there's also the danger that this absurdly addictive thread within games will end up polluting them. Gaming for numbers is a kind of by-product of concentrated gameness, and I think it's becoming toxic. It's something that people are increasingly noticing the compulsive qualities of, and that's only going to become more acute, particularly if people take Schell's talk as their cue. It makes you think about what kind of games we should want to be "making" the next generation.

Isn't it the case that we actually need the cross-pollination of things which are "cinematic" or "literary" if we're going to keep gaming alive, relevant, and valuable? The kid in the small Texan town is saved by a whole bunch of things, and he doesn't necessarily rate one over another - they simply share this quality for transforming his thoughts, and opening an imaginary escape hatch. Boil things down to numbers, and we start seeing games regarded with the kind of cynicism reserved for gambling, or - hell - banking and the whole points-grinding game of capitalism itself. Games - and by that I mean their developers - need to realise that they are in all media. If the things Smith talked about being so important to his growing up are also important to the rest of us, then we need to start rooting for them, too. Games need to be rewarding like a book or a film, because they share properties with those kinds of technologies, not because it's some additional property of being a game.

Okay, anyway, enough for now. I got some demons to fight.

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