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October 28, 2006

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For a highly detialed discourse on this topic, see chapter 8 of Ian Bogost's Unit Operations, which while being incredibly dense with references to 20th century philosophers, is one of the best theory books I've read.

I'm currently producing a casual game, and obviously fun is a focus that we can't afford to ignore. The working premise is a group of anthropomorphic Cuttlefish devise a way to gather candies spilled from shipping vessels, and have to feed the burgeoning sugar addiction of the population. At the base level its a matching mechanic on a whirlpool movement dynamic, currently experimenting with adding a time sensitive queue of Cuttlefish with specific color tastes. We're also considering playing with branching plot as a way to allow the player to explore different permutations on gameplay, and I'm drawn to addiction as a theme. For instance, there might be an adversarial faction that tries to intercept your projectiles because they think you're corrupting the Cuttle culture. You might then have the option of joining them, and the whole gameplay could shift based on that. You might say thats a fairly shallow pass at meaning in a game essentially about distraction, but I think a balance with engagement is just as, if not more, important for a casual audience.

I like to think of "fun" as the opposite to being bored. If you're bored than you're not having fun, and vice versa. Perhaps this is too simplistic a notion, especially when time and again we are reminded through various means that this is a world of greys.

Daniel:
I think the problem with 'fun=1/bored' is that it's incomplete. As I said in the Futureplay talk, I would not call 'Saving Private Ryan' fun by ANY measure, but I absoltuely was not bored. That's why I propose the notions of engaging and distracting, but even that isn't water-tight I don't think.

disclaimer: I think I'm just not quite getting what you mean by "engagement", hence the rest of this comment.

Aren't there games that provide engagement already, or at least intellectual engagement? The Sims has deliberately built in tons of odd and abstract little bits that a player could interpret how he/she chooses. Jet Set Radio and its sequel honestly did change how I look at railings and telephone wires, for some reason. Guitar Hero gave me a deeper understanding of music (granted, I started from pretty much knowing nothing). Nintendogs really did bring some of the experience of having a puppy to a game... And come to think of it, these areas of engagement have all come about without narrative structure. (JSR/JSRF does have a narrative, but it's not about telephone wires.)

(I'd also say in response to your Futureplay speech that architecture does have the potential to engage the "audience" intellectually and emotionally. To support this claim I'd bring up Grand Central Terminal's main concourse (grandeur), the Vietnam Memorial (solemnity), Tadao Ando's "Church of the Light" (holiness), and his "Water Temple" (a different kind of holiness).)

I agree fun is subjective and a weak concept to define the "quality of a game".

Instead, I think your "axis of meaning" (engagement and distraction) is wrapped by what I call "lifestyle immersion". Players play games to create moment to moment experiences. Therefore, the time-dependent emotional space (i.e. happiness, sadness, discovery, exploration, etc.) between player and game can determine engagement and distraction at all times.

Within this revised 4D model (engagement, distraction, emotion and time), the new "quality of a game" offers interesting insights. For example, Tetris is "fun" to me: it delivers high engagement, no distraction, no emotion and long term re-play value (time). Also, Call of Duty is "fun" to me: it delivers high engagement, no distraction, high emotion, and short term re-play value (time).

Which game has a "higher quality"? Very hard to tell. Instead, which game better fits my lifestyle? Tetris - long term re-play value is more important than emotional feedback (I get that in the real world).

ArC: I agree that architecture can create emotional engagement, and concede that it is a weak example. I would point out in response though that it does so through the use of elements that are central to architecture. Yet in games, the current belief seems to be that better writing will make your game more emotionally engaging. But writing is not central to games. I believe that through interaction we can be engaged in the ways I'm talking about.

Juan:

I think I strongly disagree with your reduction. I admit that engaging/distracting is likely incomplete, but adding a couple more axes is not necessarily a good approach... if that fails, do we add more? then more?

You also use completely opposite definitions of engagement and distraction than I do - so you're not adding a new axis on top of my suggested one, you're simply creating a new axis whose ends have the same names as mine, but it's not measuring the same things. You have an 'emotional' end to your new axis - which would very closely correspond to what I would call the engaging end of my meaning axis, and then you say Tetris is engaging... I would say Tetris is totally not engaging in the same way you claim it is not emotionally moving and probably for very similar reasons. Then you add a factor for replay value - which to me is pretty close to irrelevant to the entire equation.

Anyway - as I said, I don't think the engaging/distracting concept is complete and would like to strengthen is, but I just don't think our two concepts marry very cleanly. Not that yours is wrong - not at all - it's just that I don't think it's compatible. Probably my own articulation of the concept is not as good as it could be.

(I finally had an opportunity to read through your FuturePlay slides, and thought I'd post some general observations)

So how do you feel Raph's definition of fun (i.e. fun = learning) fits with your idea of the "meaning" axis? Your talk didn't seem to directly address this, but I think there is some overlap that is worth discussing. It seems to me that the axis you described was actually qualitatively measuring how relevant what a game teaches is to the player?

It seems then that a distracting game would be something that teaches the player something they don't find useful outside of the game space, while an engaging game teaches me something that is useful in other contexts (however small those other domains might be).

Mario Kart is a game that is incredibly fun in your "distracting" sense, because there is really no way to relate the skills learned directly to my life. Even the steering and physics offer very little useful lessons given that their models are so highly abstracted. But you are learning new things, and what you are learning is hard to master due to the many random elements that are a part of the game system.

Contrast this with something like Shadow of the Colossus, which teaches us to take time to appreciate nature, to take on challenges that seem impossible, and to question the validity of our actions (I felt extremely ambivalent at times about whether these colossi really deserved to be slaughtered). Slightly more complicated is a game like Basketball, where the skills one learns (shooting, passing, dribbling) are not very useful outside of the game context, but the life lessons many players cite learning (teamwork, overcoming adversity, etc.) from their interaction are very much relevant (or engaging, to use your word).

I'm not sure the way I've connected the two ideas is airtight, but I'd be curious to hear if you had thought about this at all. Thanks for the insightful presentation.

Scott:
While I thought Raph's book presented an interesting look at the problem, I felt 'fun=learning' was a little too simple. There are definite parallel to what I'm talking about though. In another presentation I did a couple years ago - Ethical Decision Making, also linked on the right - I talked about ways to design games to help players learn to tackle challenging ethical problems - something human beings are notoriously poor at. I agree with you that you could map 'learning useless stuff' and 'learning important stuff' to the distraction/meaning ends of the axis. Maybe it's more like 'learning stuff thats only useful in the game' versus 'learning stuff that might be applicable outside the game'. It's a pretty good way of looking at it, I think. The presentation on Ethics - as well as the FPlay one, both point to controller complexity as a problem, and I think it's an interesting side-effect. If I'm only 'learning stuff that's only useful in the game' then it seems natural that controllers will get more complex as people seek games that increase and build upon thier knowledge of in-game stuff... it's a positive feedback loop that isolates the market of players. If instead of learning more ways to do complex combos on a dual analog, we could be learning (and enjoying) much more important (and challenging) things about real life.

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