Does anyone else feel like they’re in a Skinner Box? I feel like I’m in a skinner box, lately, as a gamer. Dragon Age 2 hasn’t helped.
And I’m not even talking about achievements or similar manipulative gameplay mechanics. It’s something more disturbing. I mean my actions as a purchaser of computer games. I feel like I’m buying games out of ingrained habit more than any real payoff.
In operational conditioning, the subject is given a reward after performing an action associated with a stimulus. A light flashes, the bird pecks a lever, food pops out. Repeat enough and the behavioral response to the stimulus becomes ingrained and is performed even when the reward is removed.
That’s what I’m feeling like, as a gamer. I’ve got a fair amount of disposable income, if there is a game I really want I can buy it without hesitation. And I do. In fact, I tend to feel drawn to buy games I hear about more now than when I was a kid. But the payoff is so rarely there these days. I feel like I’m seeing a light (game trailer), performing an action out of habit (going out and buying the game) and then staring disappointedly at where the reward is supposed to come out from. Occasionally a ‘nugget’ or two of enjoyment is dropped by the game industry machine, but it’s nothing like the emotional payoff I used to receive. If anything, dissatisfaction is growing over time, I become more eager to re-experience that old high with every fresh disappointment. Like a junkie wishing for the rush of that first fix.
Is it me, have I changed?
I don’t think so. I’ve tried playing some old favourite games and was surprised at how easily those pleasurable feelings came flooding back. System Shock 2, Thief 2, Deus Ex…I’ve even experienced it once or twice from a newer title. Magicka, recently, was good fun. But generally, discussing new games on forums is more fun than actually playing them.
So what’s happened here? I think it comes down to two things : the hype machine and a disturbing trend away from active engagement toward passive engagement in gaming.
First, the hype machine. When I was a kid I’d walk into a store to find many games I hadn’t heard about before on the shelves. I’d evaluate them based on the back of the box and then take one home to discover what joys in contained. Many an exciting, surprising new experience was had. Later, I’d read about upcoming games in magazines borrowed from friends. Later still, I’d try demos first.
But magazines and demos don’t compare to the bombardment of media we see about new games these days. And I actually quite like game trailers. But…the pattern of the emotional experience of games has changed with this bombardment.
More and more, I feel like the peak of my excitement occurs before the game is released, during that phase when you get caught up in the enticing potential shown in those carefully orchestrated cinematics. Then I play the game and my feelings plummet down to a sense of hum-drum sameness. Again and again, I feel that spike of excitement followed by a rapidly plummeting level of interest. Rarely do I feel like I’m discovering a new and interesting experience when I’m playing the game. One of the reasons Magicka does it for me, the spellcasting mechanics are interesting, fresh, delightful.
And look at something like that amazing Dead Island trailer. I loved it, the directors skillfully engaged with the audience emotions. Do you think the game will do the same? I don’t think so. The mainstream seems to be rushing headlong in that direction, focusing on increasing emotional engagement in cinematics, but stagnating when it comes to bringing that same engagement to gameplay. It’s gonna be a game about hitting zombies, not poignant moments capturing the human condition. Fuck the human condition, let’s put more achievements in there, amiright?
Which leads nicely into the second thing that is causing my disatisfaction. There is a steady and inexorable drift in the mainstream away from active engagement in games toward passive engagement. I’m not sure I’m using the right terminology, but what I mean is the difference between an active form of entertainment which forces you to participate, learn and challenge yourself in order to enjoy it, such as soccer, and a passive form of entertainment, where all you have to do is pitch up to enjoy it, like watching a movie or reading a book.
Don’t get me wrong, I like both forms. But I used to engage with games far more actively. Like a player running onto the pitch in a soccer match, the rewards didn’t simply come to you for bothering to pitch up. You have to stretch your capabilities, engage with the game, learn the rules and experiment. The mountain wouldn’t come to Mohammed, Mohammed had to do some climbing.
It’s more work that reading a book, but the payoff is so much greater. Don’t get me wrong, I love to read, I’m a giant bookworm, and there is great satisfaction to be had from reading. But scoring that goal in a soccer match or winning a game of chess is a much more active challenge, it’s as much a test of your qualities and skills as it is entertainment. (yes, I know some intellectual book similarly test your ability to comprehend the themes. Work with me on this analogy, people.)
It’s a fantastic irony, to me, that game developers are stripping their game mechanics of all challenge and complexity on one hand, robbing players of the opportunity to really challenge themselves to engage with the game and feel a sense of achievement, and on the other hand promoting simplistic, repetitive ‘achievement mechanics’ to try and give players extra motivation to keep playing!
It’s not simple difficulty scaling I’m talking about. It’s engagement with the gameplay mechanics and rules, exploring the possibility space and the setting, mastering new and interesting mechanics and the subtle interplay of said mechanics.
It doesn’t have to be rocket science guys. Just give me some reason to feel a bit of that old excitement. I can’t rally any enthusiasm for achievements or quick-time events, for ‘press a button and something awesome happens’. Awesome, for me, is that feeling I get when I overcome something challenging, not a particle effect. Please, I have money, I will give it to you.