In “Destiny”, it is possible to spend hours just shooting things that come out of a cave.
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At what point does a video game become a grindingly menial job?

When the balance of challenge and reward in a game gets out of sync, players can end up doing length, tedious tasks in exchange for a “win”. Do we even know what fun is anymore?

Stage hypnotists can get people to dance around like a chicken on stage and people are impressed. They applaud and admire the skill it must take to get somebody to do something like that, something that seems so ridiculous and out of character for a mature adult. Simple tricks of the mind used to get people to behave absurdly for the sake of entertainment. When it is done one person at a time it looks funny, but to get legions of people to act bizarrely, in the name of, well let’s just call it fun, that is some feat. A feat I am somewhat familiar with.

I nearly went to see a stage hypnotist when I was at university, but I skipped it. My housemate had promised to show me where the rare items would spawn on the Ultima Online server when it restarted at 5am, so I’d have to be awake and alert at the very crack of dawn to pick up what, if memory serves, was a tiny pixelated fruit bowl. He did this a lot, he thought it was a good idea, and to a point so did I, but it bewildered me then, and it does still. How did this constitute fun?

Games usually make sense in the way that they challenge and reward us. Chess, for example, makes sense. There is an abstract sense to chess, some unintuitive conditions. Such as why is checkmate the object of the game rather than just taking all the opponents pieces? But the motivation is never in doubt, there is the opponent, these are the rules, beat them.

Video games on the other hand have a tendency to be even more esoteric in the ways that they challenge and reward players. This ought to be a concern to players because challenge and reward are of critical importance and how they are employed can make or break the design of a game. As players we should have at least as close an eye on these as we have for higher profile design elements like story or characters.

One example of reward systems going awry which has garnered some attention lately is an area in much-hyped festival of average that is Destiny. In one particular area you walk up to a cave, you shoot the things that come out of the cave and you get disproportionate rewards for doing so. It is important here that we differentiate that there are rewards in the game in the form of items and money, but there is also a reward in the sense that the game provides a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

It is the latter kind of reward, the sort of spiritual payoff, that as players we ought to be wary of because this can be used to manipulate us. That feeling of satisfaction, the momentary buzz of finding something good, or beating a particular challenge, that can hook us. For example it is no coincidence for example that experience points, levels, unlocks and persistent characters have become so commonplace in competitive games. Players who might never enjoy topping the scoreboard in games like Call of Duty or Battlefield can still earn points, unlock things and reach a higher rank. It should be fun to play a game win or lose, but these kinds of mechanics add a sort of artificial sense of value to proceedings.

The problem here is that when you start dishing out warm fuzzy feels to players just for turning up you make the experience bland. When defeat ceases to exist, painful victory loses some of its value too and you end up with games that are more about time spent than challenges bested and more about levelling up your character than improving as a player.

Returning to Destiny, far be it from me to accuse folks of playing a game wrong. If people enjoy standing in one place firing at harmless targets they can fill their super special pre-order bonus boots. However it bodes badly for everybody that this sort of thing can be looked at by a game developer and considered a successful bit of design, especially in such a high profile game. What does it say about players, as an audience, when you can park them in front of a cave and they’ll stand there for hours firing at anything in front of them? What does it say for expectations in game design in this spectacularly hyped new generation?

We have grown to accept the concept of grinding in games. The expression has come to mean to partake in the unchallenging, repetitive completion of given tasks and many games, particularly MMORPG style ones like World of Warcraft, are built on it. But moving past that to what is known as farming, we enter territory where the game ceases to be a game, it becomes busywork.

That said you can have fun with this kind of game play. You can get comfy with a game and just tend to it- lavishing time and care on it like a houseplant or one of those intricate train sets that legend has it existed in the attics of pre-digital era nerds. Not every game has to challenge and sometimes we want a game to just sit there like a tribble while we divert our attention to other things. But you’d imagine a game like Destiny would not be aspiring to exist in this category.

The ability to get a few people to act like chickens on stage is all fun and games, but getting thousands of players to act like battery hens, sat in their couches, their characters nested in front of a cave entrance, is kind of sad. We ought to be expecting better.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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In Kid Gloves, the stories tumble out like washing from a machine

Adam Mars-Jones' has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism