Wednesday, October 01, 2008

My Conundrum of Gaming

For the better part of the last decade, I spent time playing various games, from Skotos’ Castle Marrach, to Max Barry’s NationStates to Electronic Arts’ The Sims 2, to Sid Meier’s Civilization IV, to Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, to understand how and why people live in domestic peace and harmony, or what compels them to compete and kill each other.

“Conflict is good,” was the mantra of many people who ran Castle Marrach. Yet the conflict was also so uncompelling, tedious and wretched it drove away tens of thousands of people over the years.

Analogies flood my mind: if you pee in the Cheerios, very few people want to eat out of that bowl. You can only survive in a mosh pit for so long. Too many rats in too small a cage will kill and devour each other.

Why, I wonder, in a game which could otherwise be about a peaceful co-existence, humans seem unmistakably compelled to create dissonance and conflict. As if screwing it up is a biological, ideological imperative. And once they don’t like how the game is going, just destroy it all and start over. Apparently, such computer and Internet games teach us, if the glass is half-empty, drain it. Once it is empty, shatter it. Heaven is so boring. Let’s start a riot.

While dramatic conflict is necessary for the plot of a fictional work, in real life, we prefer challenges over conflicts, generally. You can challenge me in a test to see if I have paid attention in class. That I like. Yet I prefer not to hear arguments over what questions I may have gotten wrong, or how I could have done better, or how stupid I am. That I don’t like.

Not that I am not stupid. I am human. All humans do stupid things at least once in their life. Ipso facto, I am responsible for doing stupid things. To paraphrase Descartes via Mel Blanc, “I think. Therefore I think I am stupid.” At times we are.

Many computer games could be qualified as “stupid time-wasting distractions.” They often are. Other times they can be sublime teaching tools and methods for social bonding and recreation unparalled by any other human activity. Quite often they are both stupid and sublime at the same time. The Romans coined the term ludos, which is what they called a game. And they gifted us a word, ludicrous, which expresses a state like a game. Silly. Frivilous. Oddball. Weird. Playful. Fun.

I don’t believe games are an utter waste of time. Even if you feel they wasted your time, there are still many intangibles. Much personal value does depend on what one gets out of it. Fun, enjoyment, learning, social bonds, appreciation of the art, design and production of the game itself. The process of playing. The reflection on the final outcome and one’s participation.

Yet the game itself has an objective. It wants to be played. It wants you to play it. Playing a game is a sort of Darwinian imperative of the game itself. If no one plays it, the game is dead. Thus it seeks to propagate itself using human hosts possessed by belief in the value of the game.

Some games are not played any more. For various reasons. Most often, because they are just no fun any more. They do not provide sufficient rewards, or the rewards are not valued the way they once were, or the cost or input required to play them is felt to be too much to sustain.

Yet I come back to the basic issue: why do people create conflicts where none naturally exist? What drives people to disagree even on “easy” topics? Why do people pick and peck and poke and knock? How do we promote tolerance?

Much of the game theory I am considering for Razumijen as well as other games, is based in cooperative game play, or “coopertition” where players cooperate while they simultaneously compete in other ways. Pure head-to-head win-lose scenarios are less interesting to me than win-win, or, really, winner1-winner2-winner3-winnerN games, where at least everyone is advancing to some level, or is regarded as a winner in a different way. Everyone has to be able to have some fun, for instance. And the game should try to avoid making people feel bad about their play level. Not all humans are equal in skill or experience, yet we should cater to their emotions fairly, since they were, ideally, created equally.

Yet how can I create compelling games to elevate the experience, so people don’t just find it boring and go back to their first person shooters and their drone-like whack-a-mole slaughter-fests in their MMORGs?

Is happiness “boring?” What percentage of people will snort and cynically leave a game because it is not dystopic and cut-throat enough? There’s insufficient craziness, dissonance and darkness to make them “happy.”

The conundrum is that, because it is a game, one can do all sorts of things to make the game interesting. In the short term. Yet certain games, if one is exposed to them over longer-term play, begin to create chronic social disorders if the game and social theory behind the community is not healthy and sustainable.

So, staring me in the face is the prospect of creating board games and computer games with the long-term social health and well-being of the players in mind primarily, their happiness next, a fair bit of informal education tucked inside neatly so they don’t feel they’re being lectured to, and then... All the rest of the game.

Quite a conundrum, and I haven’t even had brunch yet.

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