Author Archives: James Heslin | program9 | PROGRAM_IX
As game designers, is it our responsibility when someone spends more time than they want to on a videogame?
It’s a common enough occurrence in this world of social game systems like Raptr and TrueAchievements. Someone buys a game, and straightaway fills their Twitter and Facebook feeds with their journey towards completing every single little challenge in that game.
Achievements, for the uninitiated, are meta-medals that are associated with a player’s profile across multiple games. They are earned by completing small or large challenges in the game – or at least, that is how they were designed. The best achievements record things that players might do just for fun – to see if they can. Today, the effort required to get an achievement is approaching rather silly extremes. From the ‘turn-on-the-console’ achievements, which reward you for starting the first mission or shooting your first enemy, to the achievements which require literally hundreds or thousands of hours of play. An example of the latter is the now-infamous ‘Seriously…’ achievement from the Gears of War series. Here you can see the Seriously 2.0 achievement from Gears of War 2. This achievement requires you to kill a hundred thousand enemies.
Anybody who is of an obsessive frame of mind – and some gamers certainly are – might waste incredible amounts of time trying to reach this goal, way beyond the amount of time they would spend on the game if there were no achievements. I realise that designers want to encourage players to spend more time (and sometimes more money) on their games, but achievements like this are simply gratuitous.
I play games for fun. Achievements are fun in general, and some of them can be entertaining to strive for, but the pressure of earning every single one in every single game would drive me mad. And yet some people feel that pressure. As game designers, I think we have a ethical responsibility not to enable this kind of anti-fun idea. Not that I think achievements are bad, just that there will always be players obsessive enough to spend the time earning the silly ones like Seriously…, and that we should think carefully before adding such achievements to our games.
When we discuss game spaces, it is usually in the context of Huizinga’s ‘magic circle’ – a space, virtual or otherwise, that we enter to give “meaning” to our play. Without the magic circle of a marked-out playing pitch, twenty-three men would look rather silly frolicking all over the grass with an oval-shaped ball.
To my mind, though, game spaces are designed to encourage particular modes of play in their occupants. The fact that they may do this by giving meaning to the play takes a back seat to this actual goal.
Grand Theft Auto (the original) placed the player in a sprawling city, with cars and guns everywhere. The game offered missions at various phone booths if the player ever felt like gaining ground in the game’s narrative, but equally these missions could be ignored. No great restrictions were placed on the player’s movements within the city, so there was plenty of exploration to be done if the player was so inclined. The game space incentivised this by placing better cars, various shops, and secret powerups in specific locations. Because the locations of most of these exploration rewards never changed, the player was encouraged to learn the layout of the city. If the player did learn the layout, they would find the missions much easier, becasuse they usually involved driving in some way.
On the other hand, if the player focused hard on the missions (an explicit ‘meaning’ to the play), and did well, they would inevitably end up finding some of the secrets themselves, as well as getting a good idea of the layout of the city. So in the end, the game manages to inspire roughly the same modes of play in players who play the game in ways which seem very different indeed.
The theme of exploration continues in my other example, the genre known as ‘Metroidvania’. Named for the two most famous examples, Metroid and Castlevania (which both started on the Nintendo Entertainment System), these games place the player in a large, sprawling area, with lots of passages and hidden doors, etc. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, though, these games do not let the player roam wherever they please. Usually, all but one or two paths are blocked by locked doors or other obstacles. These can only be bypassed by proceeding along the open paths, and backtracking later when a new power or key is obtained. Again, learning the layout of the map is encouraged, but in a less organic way – if you get a new power/key but forget the place where it is needed to progress, you can be stuck hunting in every single room for it. So you are strongly incentivised to somehow record or remember each blocked path, and why that path is blocked.
The conclusion I’m drawing is that game spaces can encourage modes of play that the developer wants to see or thinks will benefit the players.
(Incidentally, if you are a fan of Metroid, there is a chance you will enjoy this video.)
With the growth of the educational sector in mobile applications, we saw a niche for educational apps to help children learn about hygiene. After doing some research, we found that a huge percentage of people don’t know how to wash their hands properly, and only one in ten brush their teeth well enough to prevent tooth decay. With these figures in mind, parents might be worried they don’t have the knowledge to teach their children the right way to brush their teeth, in particular.
This formed the basis for Clean Slate Apps’ first product. It is an app for the Android operating system that provides a friendly, engaging interface for children to learn how to brush their teeth. The app provides a timer so they know how long to brush for, and several animations to demonstrate correct technique. To get this information we plan to consult dentists and paediatricians.
I came up with the original idea for this product, so I had the clearest idea of what we were aiming for. I wrote a lot of the concept documentation and broad plans. Gerry made mock-ups of the toothcare app’s UI and a logo for the company, and Will put together a detailed financial projection for the first three years of the business. Because we live in the same house, we were able to meet up whenever it was convenient to talk and brainstorm for the project. This was useful when working on a group project like this one, where everyone needs to provide input. For file-sharing, we had a shared Dropbox folder. Dropbox provides a desktop application which syncs all files to your hard drive locally, which was very useful – we could make a change to a file on our individual machines and have it update on the others within seconds. When we had all the content we needed, I put together the slides and the executive summary using the document preparation software, LaTeX. The presentation went well and we came out of it with several ideas for improving the business plan.
First, can we define anything as art? Art is an increasingly difficult thing to pin down. Once upon a time, art was simply folly: something made without a real purpose. As humanity has advanced, luxuries have become more and more prevalent, until now. Only a very small subset of things we own are strictly necessary for life.
Art has grown in parallel with this trend. Where once owning a Piece Of Art was a sign of status, now we all of us own hundreds or perhaps more things that could be called art. Every music album, every photograph, every film…and, perhaps, every videogame.
I’ll be talking about games as art with reference to Gaut’s “properties of a work of art” (Gaut, 2000: 28).
(1) possessing positive aesthetic properties, such as being beautiful, graceful, or elegant (properties which ground a capacity to give sensuous pleasure)
There are many games with impressive graphics out there. As a student of games development, I often look at such games and marvel at the number of polygons and the detailed textures. But some games are beautiful, graceful, and elegant. They make me forget what I know about their inner workings. Wind Waker is the example that immediately springs to mind. A game so lovingly put together that I found myself deliberately bumping into walls just to see the pretty effects, hear the ‘dsh’ sound and watch the protagonist get up and dust himself off.
(2) being expressive of emotion
Some games certainly do express emotion. Characters and their stories, if done right, can communicate a feeling just as a film or book would. But what about the emotions that games inspire? Not explicitly engineering them (’emotioneering’ – what a great word) but inciting rage in the player who can’t quite catch an enemy, bursts of excitement in the player who dodges a fast-moving lorry, and pangs of glee in the player who emerges from a cave and sees the huge open world for the first time. That is one of the great things that games bring to the table of art.
(3) being intellectually challenging (i.e., questioning received views and modes of thought)
I think this can be a negative as well as a positive feature of games, but it’s definitely there. Negative examples would be when a player thinks a trigger-shaped button fires their in-game gun, but in fact a regular button is mapped to that function. The player has to ignore their instinct – to pull the trigger – and use the button to fire. That’s a simplistic example, but it exists. Positively, many games grant players powers they do not have in real life. In Minecraft, most of the mechanics at least try to approximate the real world, but the first time I realised I could double-tap Space to fly, I was reminded that games truly can do whatever we can imagine.
(4) being formally complex and coherent
I would go so far as to say that games are more formally complex and coherent than several other kinds of art. Even the most basic game must have a degree of underlying complexity – what the player sees is always much simpler than what the developer wrote. As for being coherent, if a game is to be played it must have a certain level of coherence – for example, when the player picks up a particular item it should always do the same thing, unless there is a good reason.
(5) having a capacity to convey complex meanings
Games are often allegorical – they give the player one experience, in order to show the player the essence of another. A while ago my friend Gerry wrote about a game called Dys4ia, a simple Flash game with a very complex message. Dys4ia is a small suite of minigames, similar to WarioWorld, that give the player a sense of the experiences the game developer had in her transition from man to woman. Simple things like trying to manipulate a shape into a gap that won’t accommodate it represent this woman’s adjustment to her new situation.
(6) exhibiting an individual point of view
Although some games present a story (or multiple stories) from different points of view, the majority of games I have played are based around one character or a tightly-knit group, presenting everything from their point of view throughout the game. I think games do this more than other story-telling media, because the player must identify on some level with the characters they are playing.
(7) being an exercise of creative imagination (being original)
It’s often said that no game is completely original, but this is also true of art in general. Originality is not easy to come by, with such a rich history behind us. Is it original to draw a landscape of rolling hills and dales? Not particularly, but people still make valid art doing so. I think it’s more important that games can be original in execution than concept. There have been countless shoot-’em-up games over the forty years of gaming, but titles like Geometry Wars and Ikaruga bring something new and that can be appreciated independently of their genre. Genres themselves detract from originality – ‘just another <genre> game’ – but at the same time, it helps people to have a frame of reference for the game, and allow people to easily find the original, interesting elements.
(8) being an artifact or performance which is the product of a high degree of skill
Making games isn’t easy. Making bad games is possible, of course, but even a game that nobody likes can be the product of considerable time for talented people. Modern ‘triple-A’ titles like Halo and Legend of Zelda occupy large numbers of designers, developers, and artists for a couple of years before emerging to the market.
(9) belonging to an established artistic form (music, painting, film, etc.)
This is the most problematic of the ten properties. It’s disingenuous to use art to define art. A hundred years ago, this list would not have included film, even though film was extant as a medium. Graphic novels were still looked down on snootily as recently as ten years ago – even now, some people do not consider them art. This is just another case of people resisting change and fearing the new. Soon people will be saying ‘of course games are art!’. I have every confidence in this. It’s just a matter of time.
(10) being the product of an intention to make a work of art.
I don’t really agree with this, either. Games need not have been intended to be some lofty work of art to be breathtaking, aesthetically beautiful, and technically impressive. And these very qualities mark it as art, by this cluster theory.
If I were to summarise my opinion, it is this: any definition of art (that fits all currently accepted art media) will fit games as a medium, as well. As such, you may consider and criticise a given game as art if you like. I have given this quite a bit of thought, and cannot produce any definitions of art that would exclude games. However, I reserve the right not to treat a game as art. When we cross the line of treating something as art, we open ourselves up to a lot of negative thinking. Video game criticism is already an incredibly harsh world. How much harsher would it be were it suddenly the domain of traditional art critics?