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.