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October 2008

No more game shame


This is the final post in a mini-series that has attempted, with much help from commenters, to consider games, play, fun, toys, cultural taboos and other matters too complex to be addressed by a blogger who relies on personal observations and anecdotes at the expense of silly things like data and scientific inquiry.

As I mentioned previously, I suffer from "game shame" - a term coined by one of my readers (thanks, Tonks!) - and I won't repeat all the whys and wherefores here. The short story is that I believe we live in a culture that discourages playful activity among adults; and video games, regardless of their aesthetic or narrative ambitions, are typically considered colossal time-wasters, even by many gamers. Worse, games without formal rules or victory conditions like Animal Crossing are routinely lumped in with Tonka trucks and Barbie dolls as toys for kids.

If I want to cure myself of game shame I need to fully embrace the idea that play is healthy, vital, and natural for all of us, regardless of age, sex, or occupation. That's easier for me to do in my living room than my office, but I'm making progress. If I want to convince others, however, I need proof.

It's tempting to demonstrate the value of playful activity within the framework of the very system that disapproves of such activity. In other words, I could leverage the values of the puritan work ethic system to prove that play and fun ultimately help make us more productive, which translates into the transcendent goal: more money.

Here's what that would look like: Games are good because they make learning fun. Being an engaged learner motivates me to learn more. Learning more makes me smarter. Being smarter makes me more capable; being more capable makes me more productive; being more productive makes me more valuable; being more valuable makes me more money.

Or another take: Games simulate cognitive processes such as identifying patterns, understanding complex systems, and chunking large amounts of information. Playing games enhances these cognitive abilities; enhanced cognition makes me a more capable learner. Learning more makes me smarter. Being smarter makes me more capable. See above.

I'm not suggesting these arguments are invalid; only that their validity relies on a set of desired outcomes driven by values that games should bear no responsibility to uphold. Maybe games can make us smarter and more productive, but games don't require such outcomes for validation. In fact, many of the best games provoke all sorts of wonderful, but decidedly unproductive, self-indulgent, and inefficient behaviors. Such games are like toys in the best, most delightful sense of that word.

Jordan Weisman understands this. A restless creator in an industry that too often relies on imitation, Weisman founded FASA - the studio behind Battletech, Shadowrun, and MechWarrior - (FASA stands for "Freedonia Aeronautics and Space Administration"...all hail the Marx Bros!). He also founded WhizKids and later 42 Entertainment ("I Love Bees"). His most recent creation is Smith and Tinker, a game studio working on a secret project Weisman won't talk about yet.

Jordan Weisman sees nothing demeaning in the idea of video games as toys. While not every game will or ought to function in this way, Weisman believes well-designed open-ended games can help restore our love of imagination-based play. He spoke to Chris Dahlen last May and explained:

...We have dramatically reduced the number of years that kids engage in pure imagination-based play. It used to be, when I was a kid, it would be normal to be engaged in imagination-based play at least up 'til ten years old.

Make-believe is what you were playing with your friends, because you had a very unstructured play environment, [and] you had inanimate objects which you were animating to play with. The whole concept of an "action figure" -- well what was that about? That was, I'm going to play Medal of Honor with my G. I. Joes. And you would do that when you were a kid.

But nowadays...I think there's been this perception because of more structured gaming activities, that if you're not playing with rules, you're a baby. And the last thing a kid wants to be is a baby. Because only babies play baby play, which is, that whole free-form imagination-based stuff. Big boys and girls play with rules, right? They play card games, they play board games, they play computer games. They play things that structure that environment.

We've also seen the ramifications in sports, too. When I was growing up, if you were playing sports, odds are you were playing just on the street with a bunch of friends. And it was just streetball. It was very loose and informal. And now, kids are involved in leagues and tournaments, and much more structured sports play. And so I think that that's another force that has crunched down and reduced this pure imagination-based play. And I find that kind of sad.[1]

"Finding your inner child" sounds like a ridiculous and hopelessly outmoded self-help bromide these days. But as I look at the world around me at this moment, I can't think of a better prescription. We've been steadily increasing our productivity for decades. We work and work and work; when we finally give ourselves permission to play, we party and binge-drink ourselves into oblivion (or sleep in restorative seclusion), maximizing the efficiency of even our recreation. Then we crash and recover just in time to report back to work. Somewhere on a hill Sisyphus is smirking.

We need more creative energy, imaginative thinking, and an infusion of earnest, unselfconscious, child-like faith in impossible dreams. We need more playful fun - not simply downtime or vacation time - that engages our minds and spirits in joyful re-creation. In other words, we could stand to bring back a few lessons from the world we enter when we play with toys.

I regret my servitude to relentless productivity. I'm tired of feeling embarrassed to play Animal Crossing in public. It's time for me to say goodbye to game shame.

Special thanks to PixelVixen707 for putting me onto Jordan Weisman and his creative work.

The problem with play

Schrute In my previous two posts I've been thinking about games as a form of play, games as toys, and perceptions of playful activity from gamers and non-gamers alike. I want to avoid being too theoretical here, partly because I'm not a psychologist or ludologist, but mostly because my purpose is to consider video games as a personal activity many of us engage in within the context of a culture that struggles to understand or fully accept games and gaming.

Many of us who study or write about games find ourselves in a perpetually defensive position, making the case for video games as artistically respectable, worthy of serious study, valuable as cultural artifacts. Stubborn resistance to this view, from both gamers and non-gamers, means we always have something to write about - and, believe me, I've written my share of plaintive posts on behalf of games.

But I've begun to wonder if we're making any real headway with this approach. Is it possible, in our well-intentioned effort to make the case for games, that we may be pointing at the wrong thing?

We keep arguing for the games. We describe how they astonish us. We marvel at how ambitious they are; how they immerse us in extraordinary interactive environments. We describe how they stimulate us intellectually; how they make us problem solvers; how they teach us to understand complex systems. We testify to all the ways they move us. And we say all these things with conviction because we know they're true. The case has been made.

But these arguments aren't getting us anywhere because the problem isn't the games. The problem is the play. When we engage with games, we play with them. We don't read them; we don't attend them; we don't view them in a gallery. We play them. And that's a big problem.

Confession time. I have a PS2 in my office with a small television sitting on top of it. The door to my office is always open when I'm in. On the rare occasions that I play a game during regular office hours, I invariably halt traffic outside my door. Students and faculty alike stop dead in their tracks when they see a grown man playing a video game at his desk in the middle of the day. But this isn't surprising. In the environment and culture where I work, it's a very unusual thing to see. So I understand.

Here's the confession part. When I'm asked what I'm playing, I always make sure to convey the idea that I'm working on the game somehow. Studying it. Preparing to write about it. Considering it for a student assignment. Evaluating it for review. I have never once felt comfortable enough to simply say, "I'm playing Shadow of the Colossus because I love this game." Had I been reading King Lear at my desk, or, perhaps more tellingly, watching Metropolis, I would feel no hesitation saying, "I'm watching Metropolis because I love this film." Truth be told, I am delighted to be found watching a great film in my office. It  communicates something about my priorities and my cultural sensibilities to my students. But a great game? Not so much. Even playing Shadow of the Colossus, I'm still basically goofing off.

Perhaps all of this says more about me and my insecurities than anything else, but I have a feeling lots of us struggle in this way. Why? Because, as I noted in my previous post, play is a bad word for grown-ups in our society. We are permitted to play, but only if it's in service of something practical, like staying healthy or entertaining our children.

It's possible that some game developers have targeted this cultural taboo on play and figured out ways to defeat it. Trevor Dodge posted a comment on my last post linking to an essay by Scott Rettberg called "Corporate Ideology in World of Warcraft." In it he writes:

"...Play itself is a kind of sin. A form of play that consumes hundreds and hundreds of hours would almost surely condemn a good soul to hellfire and damnation. Blizzard and other game developers have, however, found a way to integrate the protestant work ethic into the design of their games: they have created an alternative universe in which play is a form of work. Players are willing to spend hundreds of hours in World of Warcraft, not in spite of the fact that it often seems like tedious work, but precisely because of that fact. When play feels like labor, and one toils to achieve objectives, play does not feel like a waste of time. Play that feels like frivolous entertainment would be intolerable for the good capitalist. Play that feels like work, on the other hand, must be good."

I'm not sure I agree with Rettberg's contention that Blizzard has made WOW culturally acceptable by reinforcing capitalist values - it wouldn't pass my office self-consciousness test, for example - but I think there's something to his idea that WOW plugs into a concept of play fused with work that many gamers find appealing.

We are who we are, and that's part of the problem. I can't fully relax in my office with a controller in my hands because I worry I will be seen as unproductive. There's a time for work and a time for play. That's small-town midwestern values for ya, folks. I hate them. I really do. But they are pervasive and terribly powerful. In the end, I believe these misguided values - not the games themselves, not the violence in games, not the gamers in black trench coats - are the real barrier to genuine cultural acceptance of games and gamers.

In my next post - the last in this unintentional series - I'll try to make the case for play. Wish me luck.

Sorting perceptions

Sortinghat Yesterday I wrote about my conversation with a woman who sat next to me on a recent airline flight. She wondered if I ever felt self-conscious playing "kids games" (in this case, Animal Crossing Wild World on my DS). She perceived such games as "all about pretending and using your imagination. Like children do. They're toys...not really games with rules like adults play."

Obviously, I'm swimming in a sea of perceptions here, but such is always the case when I discuss video games with friends, acquaintances, and fellow gamers. Some of these perceptions are cultural, but others, I would argue, are not. Some have to do with definitions; others with the values we apply to things.

In general, American society harshly judges adults who engage in activities that aren't considered productive. As several commenters to my previous post observed, play is usually seen as time-wasting, only valuable as a means to an end, such as blowing off steam, or relaxing after a hard day in order to recharge for more work. 

Play, by itself, is reserved for children - but even here the Puritan ethic holds because doctors and psychologists tell us kids must play so their brains and bodies may properly develop...presumably in order to prepare themselves for a lifetime of work. How children play and why they play hold clues that help explain the value of such activity, even for adults (more on that tomorrow). But I also want to leave room for the possibility that play needn't have a practical, quantifiable value in order to be considered a worthwhile activity. Play for it's own sake is a good and defensible thing.

And it's here that we bump into definitions, What I mean by play, and how it functions as an invigorating, restorative, and creative mental jolt is a subject I'll expand on in my next post (wow, I'm making a lot of promises aren't I?). Clearly, video games factor into all this - both in terms of how they're designed and how we choose to play with them - and it's very possible to think about a definition of "gameplay" that extends beyond its typical usage as a player's formal interactions with game systems. Stay tuned.

Back to perceptions. Video games carry with them their own set of stigmas. If an adult like me insists on wasting time, I should stick to culturally acceptable activities like watching television or listening to music. At least with these forms of entertainment I stand a chance of learning something or growing more culturally aware - or simply participating in a common shared pop culture event like watching American Idol. Video games are perceived as time-wasting with no redeeming virtues attached. They may, in fact, be making me dumber.

But we are mistaken if we assume these perceptions are generational. In fact, I have a feeling we grossly overstate the differences between gamers and non-gamers when it comes to attitudes about video games. I estimate the percentage of college students who perceive video games as, essentially, a waste of time is not significantly lower than the percentage of people over 50 who see them the same way.

If I had a dollar for every student who has smirked at me and said, "So you're the professor who teaches a course on video games?" - I could buy myself a very nice bottle of wine. With many notable exceptions, most students I know would be hard pressed to articulate the value of games as anything other than mindless recreation. I have no problem with the recreation part of that assessment. I mean, take a close look at that word "re-creation" - not a bad idea, eh? No, it's the "mindless" part I object to. In my experience, a video game well-played is a video game played mindfully.

We are told to be patient while the game-playing generations grow into positions of authority and influence. Then, video games will be culturally acceptable. They will be embraced like movies and books. Frankly, I have my doubts about that. I'm not at all sure the majority of gamers are prepared to make the case for games that we bloggers and enthusiasts spend so much effort trying to make. Maybe that's not important. I don't know. But it does seem to me that my airplane seatmate's "perception problem" may be more complicated than the "toy - game - play" issue I initially assumed it to be.

Once again, I have left much unsaid. I apologize for attempting to juggle too many balls in the air here. I'm trying, possibly in vain, to sort through these interconnected issues one at a time. I'll return tomorrow to continue sorting.

Childish things reconsidered

Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments. And in an increasingly infantilized society, whose moral philosophy is reducible to a celebration of "choice," adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainments – video games, computer games, movies on their computers and so on. This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity. --George Will

The student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed as pseudo by those who acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be. --Marshall McLuhan [1]

Gumby A funny thing happened on the way home from my recent trip to EA's headquarters in California. Sitting in the middle seat on a crowed airplane, I opened the black case containing my Nintendo DS and a stash of ten games tucked neatly into pockets lining the inside: Dragon Quest IV; Meteos; Planet Puzzle League; Zelda Phantom Hourglass; New York Times Crossword Puzzle; Contact; Mario Golf Advance Tour; Lunar Knights; Animal Crossing: Wild World; and Nintendogs.

I never know what sort of mood I'll be in when I travel, so I always try to pack a variety of games to maximize my options. On the way there I devoted most of my time to reading and DQ IV. But headed home after a hectic couple of days, I wanted to relax and unwind, so I pulled out Animal Crossing WW and proceeded to chat up a few neighbors, get in a little fishing, and address a nasty infestation of bugs in my house. I followed that up with about thirty minutes of Nintendogs, mostly spent walking my puppy and tossing a frisbee with him in the park. Finally, I reloaded Animal Crossing WW to keep an appointment I had made with one of the villagers.

I hadn't played either game in many months, and it felt good to reaquaint myself with how perfectly wonderful they are in the right circumstances. On that day on that airplane, they were exactly what the doctor ordered for me. But it turns out, I wasn't playing alone. Throughout my play session, I was keenly aware of my seatmate on the aisle watching me, at first furtively, but as I continued she grew increasingly focused on what I was doing. When I finally acknowledged her curiosity, she said to me "Do you mind if I ask what that is?"

I launched into a description of Animal Crossing WW as an open-ended social simulator with no set goals or plot. When she looked at me quizzically, I thought for a moment and realized how unhelpful my description was to her. So I finally said, "It's not really a game. It's actually more like a toy." That seemed to unlock it for her a bit, so I gave her the DS and encouraged her to give it a go, but she declined and asked if she could just continue to watch me play. I said yes, and offered to show her Nintendogs, a game I described as even less a game and more a toy. Within ten minutes she was playing it by herself and grinning from ear to ear.

Nothing about this scenario is terribly surprising to those of us who carry with us a certain evangelical belief in the power of video games to delight and entertain. But the conversation with my seatmate didn't end there. If it had, I probably would have forgotten by now.

After receiving the "turn off all electronic devices" command (which continues to befuddle me), I put away the DS, and she asked me, very politely, if I ever felt self-conscious about playing kids games in public. I nearly said yes - because I do, despite my better judgment - but instead I asked what made her consider these games "kids games." She thought about it for a moment, and then replied "Because they're all about pretending and using your imagination. Like children do. They're toys, as you said, not really games with rules like adults play."

I've been thinking about that conversation for more than two weeks now. It has provoked me revisit the fascinating intersection between games and toys, as well as our assumptions about the meaning of that increasingly problematic term: gameplay - a word that connotes significantly greater complexity than we tend to acknowledge.

There's much more to say about all this, of course, and I will continue tomorrow with further reflections that I hope will contribute something worthwhile. I'm certainly not the first to consider these things critically, but it seems to me the emergence of games like Little Big Planet, Spore, SimAnimals, and a host of games on the Wii and DS suggests we've reached a vital milestone in the evolution of video games that may be worth considering. I look forward to pursuing this in the following post or two. As always, I hope you'll feel free to jump in and help me.

1. Thanks to Steven Johnson for including both these quotations in his book Everything Bad is Good for You.

If you liked Odin Sphere...

Muramasa_2 The Tokyo Game Show will deliver its annual cascade of bittersweet announcements next week. North American gamers like me will squeal with delight at the games headed our way and lament our misfortune at the games we'll never see. Okay, maybe squealing and lamenting are a tad dramatic, but TGS always seems to deliver a few surprises that make me happy to be a gamer, but sad to be one living outside Japan.

Happily, one game I don't have to worry about is Oboro Muramasa (aka: Muramasa: The Demon Blade) developed by Vanillaware, creators of Odin Sphere, one of my favorite games from last year. Though it's been delayed until 2009, publisher Marvelous Interactive has promised to have a playable version available at TGS. This month's Nintendo Power also features a two-page spread with luscious screenshots and a few more details on the game, which will include male and female playable protagonists and visuals that are said to "put Odin Sphere to shame."

That would be quite a feat. In my book, Odin Sphere was the most visually impressive game of 2007. What's that, you say? What about Bioshock, Assassin's Creed, or Crysis? Am I seriously comparing a last-gen 2-D beat-'em-up to these next-gen graphical wonders? Absolutely. While we might niggle about a few holes in Odin Sphere's gameplay, nothing I saw last year matched the sumptuous hand-painted artwork and gorgeous, fanciful character models found in this wonderful game. It's simply stunning, even on my outdated old 4:3 TV screen.

I admire what the artists who created Odin Sphere did, but that game was designed for the PS2, a platform more conducive to Vanillaware's labor-intensive design aesthetic than current next-gen consoles. Oboro Muramasa is intended as a spiritual successor to Odin Sphere, but as producer Yoshifumi Hashimoto told Gamasutra in an interview last year, it's hard to make games like this today:

Gamasutra: Has it gotten easier to make high-res 2D games with newer systems?

Hashimoto: It's harder now to make 2D-graphics games. Before, everything was 2D, so you had enough people who were actually specialized in making 2D characters. But now, everything is 3D. So now, to find a good team that can make 2D games, even if you have better technology and more RAM or whatever, it's really hard now.

Gamasutra: I've heard from some people that it's actually more expensive, in terms of time and money, to make 2D games, versus 3D games, in high-res.

Hashimoto: Yes. To explain, when you are making a 3D character and just want to make it punch, you can just build a model, put the skeleton in it, and just make it punch. But for a 2D character, you have to write each step of the punch animation. So it's more expensive now, to make 2D games than 3D games...In the end, eventually it's not 2D versus 3D for me; it's more about putting what you have in your guts in the game, and to make it really fun and enjoyable to play. Previously I was working on 2D arcade games before, so it's not just 2D versus 3D, it's more what you want to show, and what kind of game you want to make. [1]

I've learned not to let myself get too excited about unreleased games. Actually, I haven't learned anything. I can't wait for Oboro Muramasa next year. It's set in the Genroku era - a golden age of Japanese art - so I can only imagine what the artists at Vanillaware will do with such a rich backdrop.

If you'd like to see a non-direct-feed trailer for the game, click on the video below. It was shot with a camera aimed at a screen showing footage from the game...and it still looks pretty incredible.

The other side of the mic

The good folks over at PALGN kindly invited me to chat with them for their podcast, and the episode has now been posted at their site. I want to thank Daniel Golding for hosting such a thoughtful interview and his partner Evan Stubbs for helping arrange it.

I don't know how PALGN's excellent show flew under my radar for so long, but I strongly recommend it if you're looking for a consistently interesting and well-produced podcast devoted to video games. PALGN is based in Australia and has grown to become one of the most popular video game sites in the country.

You can find the interview on The PALGN Podcast, Episode 46.