1.23.2010

An obligation

Here's the typical internal exchange:

When something terrible happens in the world; when people are sick, hungry and dying, uneducated, unjustly treated and suffering, doesn't it seem like if everybody turned their efforts to those causes, the world would be a better place?

Maybe. But then who would take out the trash? Sell us groceries? Keep the phone lines connected and the trains running on time?

And what would any of us do when we're tired, bored, need to escape from mundanity, need to relax after our hard work, need something less concrete to stimulate and rejuvenate our minds?

And so it's alright to dedicate your life to creating entertainment. You're not curing cancer and you're not passing laws and you're not even keeping the streets swept or the shelves stocked. But diversion is important to everyone. And somebody has to make it.

I think, then, that there's some obligation one has in creating entertainment that is meaningful and enriching in whatever way their chosen medium can be.

Video games by their nature rely on the input of the player to mean anything. The fact that you can fail at your entertainment is in some ways a barrier to entry for video games. But it's also the medium's defining characteristic, and our one inherent hook for engaging the player and making them important.

It's our opportunity to make the player think. Not to encourage or invite players to in the way that challenging music, art or film might, but to absolutely require demonstrable logical reasoning from our audience. To immerse them in a world and motivate their progress through it with the promise of constantly evolving core interactions and intriguing fiction, then require them to engage their powers of visualization, abstract thinking and mental mapping to proceed. It's good for the health of the player's brain. I think of that as being meaningful and enriching entertainment.

This kind of on-the-fly problem solving is accomplished by activity in the player's prefrontal cortex, employing fluid intelligence and working memory. One's fluid intelligence decreases over their lifespan, making them less able to formulate new ways of thinking. However, some scientific and military studies have shown that engaging in interactive mental exercises that require us to make these kinds of connections can slow the decline of fluid intelligence, essentially keeping our brains younger and healthier as we age. They're the kinds of mental challenges that video games can ably provide-- creating and maintaining logical connections between new and abstract concepts and spaces to overcome obstacles-- that might confer this benefit to players, along with their escapist fun.

Not all games work this way, certainly. As blockbuster, spectacle-focused rollercoaster games rise in popularity, we seem to see less of these sorts of challenge structures in gaming's mainstream. When the game I'm playing doesn't need me-- when I can sleepwalk through it, when I can tune out and let it wash over me, when it doesn't make me think-- an opportunity has been wasted. Our work can be more than an empty waste of time for our players. We can entertain them while engaging their minds in ways beneficial to their cognitive wellbeing. I think that there is practically an obligation to do so, if we're going to dedicate ourselves to creating interactive entertainment at all.

14 comments:

Rob Zacny said...

I need to get something out of my entertainment. It doesn't need to be deep or life-changing, but something has to stick. Otherwise, if a game or a movie is just sensation and spectacle, forgotten the moment I turn it off, it's wasted time. I am no richer for having experienced it, and am poorer in terms of time.

Since I started gaming, I've always tried to make sure my games had something for the mind to chew on. Wargames and strategy games helped foster my love and understanding of history. Adventure games typically had sharp writing and interesting characters. Simulators were about training and skill. It was a well-balanced videogame diet.

But I look at my nephew, splitting his time between first-person and third-person shooters, and the occasional arcade racer, and I start to worry. He has fun with his games, but they don't stimulate his curiosity. He likes all the Call of Duty games, because those are what his friends like. He just plays games about putting a cursor on a character model and pushing a button until it falls down.

This is what I find most discouraging about gaming right now. We can all get behind killing guys with submachine guns, so the mainstream is flooded with games where you do just that for several hours. But the kind of thought-provoking and thought-demanding games that my friends and I were playing on the PC in the 90s seem not to be reaching the mainstream any longer. Mainstream gaming seems increasingly to be the waste of time that I always swore gaming wasn't.

Ryan Wiancko said...

Beyond being a practical obligation it can be seen as a worth and noble cause. There are the physical benefits from increased brain activity yes, but there are also the far reaching social and emotional benefits from crafted meaningful experiences for our audience.

Dallas Snell did a great article on a similar topic that can be found here: http://dallassnell.com/?p=12 or alternatively the audio article is here: http://www.industrybroadcast.com/2009/06/01/audio-article-118-people-playing-games-together/

GunBlade said...

I have to say, your starting lines really felt like they cheapen games development to the point where it actually sounded as if it was wrong of us to engage in it, rather than "curing cancer".
However, the rest of the post was great. This is the first time I heard of "fluid intelligence" and it's kind of relieving to know it's decay can be slowed.
How can we actually get people back to games that require thinking? It used to be that we had no choice because of graphics that did not allow for a real cinematic experience. Now it's possible. On the other hand, we probably shouldn't just artificially shove some puzzles into action games, so this requires more than what was done in the last couple of years.

Jonathan Blow said...

"How can we require thinking of the player?" is not really a productive way to think about it. Put that way, it is a losing proposition.

What is necessary is to give players something valuable in accordance with the amount of effort they put in; then the player feels his effort is fruitful, and people like it when their efforts are fruitful.

One trick is finding ways to do this non-artifically; if you are just holding back the value until the player does his tricks, treating him like a trained dog, the player is not going to feel respected, and any ostensible value will quickly be seen as hollow. It is much better if the valuable parts are made possible directly by the effort that the player is expending -- if there is a cause-and-effect relationship.

The bigger, and more difficult, supposition here is that the game designers/writers/artists/etc have something valuable to offer the player that is worth some effort to experience. I would suggest that at this time, most of the industry doesn't meet this criterion, and that for most designers this issue doesn't even make sense. It's not because industry practitioners are somehow inherently lacking, but because we exist in a system that almost never asks this question (and, in fact, profits by not asking this question, so the question is kind of poison).

If we developed a culture of asking this question, we would find before too long that actually we have a lot of answers, many of which may be wholly new to the field of human experience, because of the yet-unexplored nature of our medium.

Shay Pierce said...

Jonathon: Not sure I catch your point - first you seem to deprecate the importance of asking how to "make your players think", but then you say we should develop a culture of asking that question? If your point is that yes we should require people to think pretty hard to make it through our games, then of course I definitely agree - this is part of what troubles me about overly "cinematic" games like Uncharted. It's troubling to the extent that it turns games into a more passive form of entertainment and waters-down the interactivity that should be at the core.


Great article. I think any game developer with a social conscience has to stop and ask themselves these questions, especially at times like these... and that they should come to exactly the same conclusions: that entertainment can play a valid role in life and culture, and that games in particular can be a very important part of life. We may not be curing cancer or working on other things that make life possible, but art is one of the things that make life worth living. (And if you have to question whether the game you're making can be called "art", maybe you should reconsider that game and whether it's worth making.)

Love the notes about "fluid intelligence"; I've been thinking about this in relation to games for a while. My wife is a nurse (at least she's doing the "saving lives" part!), and she's told me a lot about how people who continue to learn new things throughout their life are less likely to contract Alzheimer's and other kinds of dementia later in life. I think there's a lot of truth to Raph Koster's assertion that ultimately, "fun" is nearly synonymous with "learning."

For every really good, engaging, "addictive" game I know, they have one thing in common: they each make me use a part of my mind that I rarely use, and they exercise that part of my mind extremely well. It can be said of everything from strategy games (exercising an abstract-thought part of our brain we may rarely use), to Braid and Portal (in which we learn the physical laws of a world with different ones from our own - developing an entirely new method of thinking!), and even to "pure twitch" action games like Doom (which exercise our underused survival and fight-or-flight instincts, as well as the pure reflexes that are a function of our "lizard brain"). So if exercising your brain is good for you, it seems like games may be one of the best way to do that - I'd be interesting in seeing a formal study about these things.

Great article Steve! Hey, tell Remo and Rodkin that the three of you need to resurrect the Idle Thumbs podcast! I actually disliked that podcast at first, then it grew on me, and now I miss it incredibly - I can't think of any podcast that discuss games with as much thought or intelligence, and the sense of humor was, uh... one-of-a-kind
!

Steve gaynor said...

Jon: I think I follow you (and if I'm off, correct me): the distinction you're making is between the paradigm I imply-- in its simplest form, setting up obstacles which the player must figure out before receiving the next reward-- and a more systematized paradigm in which the greater investment you exhibit through your inputs, the more meaningful or unique the resultant outputs (something close to The Sims, probably, drawing from existing examples.) And the latter being more valuable in your estimation.

Obviously I agree with you to some degree, having pointed at The Sims as what I'd call the most significant design of the decade. And it's an approach to design that hasn't really been explored deeply by any other projects of note. The difference in philosophy I think is between 'can' and 'must'; the player can do this, and if they do, the following occurs, versus the player must do this to proceed.

I wonder though if one approach can really be directly contrasted against the other. I think that people like being given an open-ended set of tools for expressing themselves, but also quite separately they like being presented with a specific problem and given the ability to solve it. I think that both of these kinds of experiences can be created in ways enriching and respectful to the player, which is why I emphasize challenges in which the player must use their powers of reasoning and abstract thinking to be successful, expressly in opposition to the image of rotely going through the motions like a trained dog.

I think that, done well, both approaches are intended to make the player feel that their "efforts have been fruitful;" the question is to what ends. In either case I think that the more important question is whether the player's mental investment is integral to their experience.

Jonathan Blow said...

I was more responding to the way GunBlade was phrasing things than I was to the original article.

But also, what I am saying is a different issue than whether something is open-ended or a linear puzzle. Rather it just has to do with what the player gets from the experience -- so I think we pretty much agree there. I am just saying that there is a difference between setting up a puzzle that the player has to think to solve, but that is ultimately valueless to him, and setting up a puzzle that the player derives value from solving.

Steve gaynor said...

I'd be interested to hear how you'd personally define the distinction between the two. Unless there is no more concrete definition than "something in which the player find value," in which case I guess it all comes down to taste.

Jonathan Blow said...

Of course you can't control what people actually get out of a work. That's the same with any art. What I am talking about has to do with the designer's intention. One can design with the intent that the player gets certain things or doesn't get certain things. This is obvious. We do it all the time.

Steve gaynor said...

Well, sure. Though I think it's interesting to note that via gating we're able to objectively test whether the player has reasoned out the solution to a problem, guaranteeing that they've at least gotten some cognitive exercise out of the deal (or gone to gamefaqs.) It's different from the fuzzier artistic intent. It's what you did with each puzzle piece in Braid of course, and it could be a facile observation on my part, but it's one that many games don't seem to value or take into consideration.

Michael Samyn said...

As I get older, I do feel that I should play some brain-teasing games once in a while, to postpone my unavoidable senility. But, please, I don't want this exercise to be mixed with things I find actually interesting and important. My health is one thing. My thoughts and emotions are another. I also want games that are bad for me, games that are subversive, games that make me drunk, games that make me sick, games that make me think.

And right now, the most subversive thing we should all be doing is make games that are not games. I'm tired of being good, of following the rules and getting patted on the back for finding a gold star. This might be good for my brain but it's not good for my mind.

Steve gaynor said...

Michael: I agree of course that games should be everything to everyone. I guess I tend to blog in what sound like absolutes but it would be silly to think that there's only one thing that every game should be. I would be more accurate to say "here's what's most interesting to me personally about game design right now."

But I think it's oversimplistic to characterize any game where you have to figure something out with insulting "gold star" hoop-jumping. Have you played Saira? I found it really inspiring because of how legitimate the puzzle elements of the game felt, because the need to employ spatial and logical reasoning was so central to its contemplative, exploratory aesthetic experience.

In any case, I'm mostly contrasting thinky games versus mainstream, linear action games where you can just blunder forward and shoot all the targets to win. I'm playing Mass Effect 2 right now (not to single the game out, but it's a fair example,) and every mission is just a corridor of enemies to shoot with some talking and picking up of trinkets sprinkled over the top. Why not make me actually pay attention to what I'm doing? Why not open up the spaces, gate progress on a multi-part world state condition, and make me figure out the logical order of operations required to proceed? Why not give my brain something to do on a higher level than optimizing moment-to-moment battle tactics and simple symbol-matching hacking minigames? I want more Ico in my shooty-shoot, I guess.

So yeah, games should be all sorts of other things, too. But if we're going to make big expensive authored experiences at all, I think we kind of owe it to the audience and ourselves to engage the player's abstract reasoning while they're being entertained.

Paul Tozour said...

Steve: Brilliant article. I'd been meaning to write something very similar for some time. I agree with you on every point and I think some of your critics on here fundamentally just don't get it. My keynote speech at AIIDE '09 made much the same point.

Game developers continually forget that the medium they are working with is their players' minds. This is why so many games have turned into shallow ego-stroking exercises for developers.

We get so obsessed and hyper-focused with our own development efforts that we continually forget that we have an audience, and fail to consider how our entertainment actually affects that audience.

It's not about your software, your game world, your story, your characters, or any other aspects of your creation.

It's not about games being "art" or any other self-centered and arrogant nonsense.

It's about your player's mind and how your game interacts with it.

That's what keeps players immersed and entertained, keeps them coming back for more, and gives them something of lasting value so they can say that those hours of their lives weren't completely wasted.

Too many games are turning into a caricature out of "Idiocracy" -- an idiotic button-mashing exercise that's not much more than mutual ego-stroking between developers and gamers. We're dumbing down our games in a way that contributes less and less to the cognitive capabilities of our customers at a time when our economy and our educational system are in crisis -- in large part because young people are not learning as quickly as they need to and are not preparing themselves to compete in a global economy.

Like it or not, the game industry used to be part of the solution, and it's increasingly becoming part of the problem.

afex said...

i agree with you that making players think has far-reaching and maybe even measurable value. this is a good thing and should be encouraged. it is also good to see (from your comment) that you don't feel that a game without this aspect in inherently bad. i think that we as an industry can create value for our society through many different mechanisms.

games such as Skate 2 fall into that category. on the surface it is just a skateboarding game. it has a simple "open world" with easily understandable mechanics. there are no puzzles and no real rewards for tasks. but the value that the game brings is in the social interactions which it enables.

the world is not just free-roaming, but also complimented by a control scheme which matches what a player would expect (simply jumping onto an edge starts grinding). this may seem overly simplistic, but i think it allows the player to make assumptions and predict results such as in real life.

when players join together online in Skate 2, they do not just randomly roam around the city. they instinctively group together. Play ensues. unstructured and unscripted social interactions occur, such as players stopping to move to a spot where they can watch their friend attempt some difficult maneuver. ad-hoc games are designed by the players, like taking turns attempting a particular jump. these activities are enabled by the "open world" i previously mentioned.

this is free-form, creative and social behavior. and to my point, enabling this behavior is important! many children do not live in a family or community which allows them easy access to these kind of interactions. making new friends and spending time with current friends are essential human skills which are taught through experiences which games can, and should, strive to enable.

it's comforting to see that there are as many ideas on how to make games as there are people making them.