Category Archives: Videogames

Learning to Walk

It’s easy to forget how video games are difficult for those who are not used to playing them.

Tetris and Pac-Man, the classics among classics –  games that use less than half a dozen buttons to play (or even less, if the game platform has an analog stick) – play, to connoisseurs of the medium, like an act of meditation. You don’t even have to think about how to play: it’s intrinsic, you just grab the controller and play.

But for someone who is not used to them, these games are a mess of light and sound and arbitrary rules to be learned. A new player will struggle keeping up with the game’s pace. The act of playing is anything but intrinsic.

But the solution is not to make current games easier, or to give them “causal” modes. Challenge, personal development, and overcoming an obstacle that once seemed insurmountable – those are important parts of what “playing video games” means. Not to say that they are everything, or even The Moat Important Thing; but they are important components of the overall gaming landscape.

It is important to feel that there is something to achieve, that there is something locked behind the challenge. The burning need to discover what it is, that is the driving force that leads gamers to persist, to improve, to grow.

But there are not enough ways to get there, to forge this mentality of self-improvement, and to develop the dexterity to take on the more common challenges without feeling that you’re hitting a rick wall. 

What we need are more basic games, more games (well-done and beautiful and clever and rewarding) with two buttons, three buttons, and four buttons – games that teach initiates how to walk, before we hand them games that ask them to climb a mountain.

Photo Credit: Skall_Edit Flickr via Compfight cc

The Greatest (Video Game) Show on Earth

Electronic Entertainment Expo.

E3 used to be THE event for gamers. Its golden age, when the internet was in its early teens.

In that era, gamers all around the world crowded around their screens, waiting for the latest trailers to download, visiting their favorite websites to find out what they would be anticipating in the coming year(s).

It was for this E3 that all companies producing or publishing video games, large and small, saved ammunition throughout the year. The most “niche” gamer came out of E3 week with a wishlist the length of their arm.

That was another era. Today, things are different.

Of the big video game platform holders – Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo – only one brand attends. Other big industry players, such as Electronic Arts, space their revelations throughout the year, usually saving but one to three morsels for the show.

For years now, E3 is a dinosaur that marching on the road to extinction. In an age when any company has direct access to fans through Twitch and YouTube and Instagram and many other channels, why invest thousands of dollars in the show floor? A space where only a limited amount of people can go, who might even distort the company’s offerings once they pass the word out into the world?

But culture is a very difficult force to change. E3 no longer makes sense to anyone, but we still have it; many companies continue to save some “fireworks” to shoot these days.

These are still some of the most intense days in the world of video games. Perhaps this in itself is reason enough: the knowledge that on this date – on this arbitrary date – few quaint novelties will be revealed; with luck, something to add to that wishlist that now, instead of coming into being during a single week, is growing steadily throughout the year.

Even when it no longer has any apparent functionality, a thing still has a reason to exist, as long as it is part of a group’s culture.

Being part of culture is a functionality in itself.

Photo Credit: adafruit Flickr via Compfight cc

Videogame or Time-waster?

I need a problem to solve. The game doesn’t need to be hard. But it must require me to apply the scientific method: when faced with a problem, to postulate a hypothesis, to experiment, and to evaluate the results.

It’s not fun when the answer to all of a game’s challenges is to simply “git good” or to grind for better gear and try again.

It’s fun when the answer is to find out which skills to use, what is the right gear for each specific situation.

The best definition of what makes an engaging game is still the one put forward by Sid Meyer: ”a series of meaningful choices.”

When progression in a game is only about muscle memory, or grinding to level up a character, these are not meaningful choices. That’s just padding.

A meaningful choice is made by trying out differently-weighted gear in Dark Souls to get a better roll and faster sprint when facing the Capra Demon. It is to try out standing your ground in various positions in the arena, so as to find out the best spot to avoid being flanked or attacked from behind.

A meaningful choice is made by trying to optimize the equipment, the talent selection, and the sequence in which you use your character’s skills when playing one of World of Warcraft’s or Diablo III’s classes – and yes, you can check out the “ideal” combinations on a site, but what is ideal for the prototypical player may not map well to your style of play. The decision remains yours.

A problem to solve, and the possibility of experimenting with different paths to reach the solution; that’s the difference between a game and a time-waster.