Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Rules and Fun

While most video games appear to be complicated reflex tests to outsiders, from the inside they often feel like exercises in problem-solving. As critics like Stephen Johnson have noted, the feature that differentiates modern video games from other games is the fact that the rules of a video game are learned as one plays, rather than stated at the outset. The player progresses in a game by learning the rules that govern the character's abilities in the gameworld: first “if you press A you will jump,” and then “if you jump you can reach the next platform” and then so on. As Johnson notes, learning to master an escalatingly complicated set of rules and apply them to new situations is often really difficult, but it is also intrinsically pleasurable. Not all games are about producing this kind of experience, but the uniqueness of this type of pleasure to video games raises the question: Why do we enjoy learning rules so much?

Johnson's thesis is that our capacity to comprehend constant (or rule-like) features of our outside world and social world conferred an evolutionary advantage on humanity in our ascent from the primates to humans. His view overlaps with that of another philosophical naturalist, Aristotle: “for the exercise of every sense is attended with pleasure, and so is the exercise of reason and the speculative faculty; and it is pleasantest when it is most complete, and it is most complete when the faculty is well-trained and the object is the best of those that fall under this faculty.” (Nicomachean Ethics X, 4, emphasis added)

The German Idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant offers another explanation of our enthusiasm for rules. Kant's Critique of Judgment holds that our aesthetic judgments come from our appreciation of the form of beautiful objects. Sweet sounds and colors may make an artwork superficially appealing, but our sense of beauty is keyed to the way that these elements are combined: “the charm of colors, or the agreeable tones of instruments, may be added: the the design in the former and the composition of the latter constitute of the proper object of the pure judgment of taste.” (§14) (We can think of this form as the embodiment of a rule, because what rules do is impose a determinate form on unorganized matter.) Kant further argues that it is not just any form whatsoever that inspires aesthetic pleasure; rather, it is our perception that the form of the object has has been shaped in accord with some end. Kant thought this idea explained the delight we take in natural beauty; when we regard a beautiful scene in nature our sense of its beauty is tied to our sense that this nature has been formed according to a intentional plan: “there is in our admiration of nature which in her beautiful products displays herself as art, not mere matter of chance, but, as it were, designedly according to a law-directed arrangement, and as finality.” (§42) Though we know that nature is not really designed to inspire this pleasure in us, and would not be so beautiful if it was, we take a distinct pleasure-- a “disinterested” pleasure-- in the mere apprehension of intelligibility in the world and in art.

I think Kant's explanation of the pleasure we take in the perception of rules can help explain what makes video games compelling. We do not only learn rules during a game but also find out what these rules are for: our uptake of these rules is also the act of learning the design to which these rules are being put. The pleasure of video games, it seems to me, comes from our sense that we are collaborating in the realization of the designer's intentions by learning those rules. When she makes a game-world governed by certain laws, the designer is inviting a player to share an intention with her and participate in the realization of some end. Our appreciation of these rules is like the appreciation of nature in this way. We enjoy perceiving a world shaped by an intelligence towards a final end.

Sometimes this end is just he sheer pleasure of doing the actions the game's rules allow: killing zombies, flipping out on ninjas, and so forth. Sometimes this end is a story told through the player's actions: saving the Princess or vanquishing the dragon Orochi. Games are at their best when they combine these ends together. As long as games continue to offer such experiences they will have a permanent place in our cultural life, because the pleasure they inspire is as old as our minds.


Anonymous said...

I think your idea about the pleasure of participating or helping to realize a designer's intention explains part of the attraction to video games. But I also think there's a simpler attraction, and an especially potent one for certain segments of the gaming populace: the mere existance of clear, consistant, genuinely "learnable" rules at all. The clarity and fixedness of rules in the video game universe contrasts with the confusing, opaque, and seemingly ever-changing "rules"/norms of social interaction in the real world. This may help to explain why video games have historically attracted a particularly large and loyal fanbase among adolescents, especially slightly-socially-inept teenage boys (sorry for the stereotype--clearly, this is not the *only* type of gamer). I'm no psychologist, but it seems like the predictable, learnable, and transparent rule structures commonly found in (and in some respects, shared across) video games hold a particularly strong and compelling appeal for players who feel a bit lost or confused when dealing with the convoluted and shifting "rules" that shape and color actual human interactions. As a girl, and for the most part a non-gamer, I'm probably somewhat out of my depth here. But to draw a weak analogy with a far darker and more destructive phenomenon: I had a lot of female friends who developed eating disorders in high school, partly as a sort of coping mechanism. Basically, in addition to wanting to lose weight, they were trying to create an area of their lives where they had clear and strict rules about how to act, and they could achieve a feeling of total control by behaving "sucesfully" according to the laws of that regime. Obviously, video gaming is not some insidious, potentially deadly disease, but I think for some players it might provide a similar escape from a confusing, sometimes morally disorienting social environment.

Steve the Creep said...

Kant? Wow. My college ethics class all over again.

It's funny to me that you linked Half Life 2 on this because the whole time I was thinking about Portal. I still consider that one of the most perfect games ever recreated specifically from the rules aspect. Have you every played through with the commentary on? The designers talk in detail about how each room is set up to teach you another rule. The very first portals are set up so you can watch yourself walk through and understand that if you go in one, you come out the other. And then it gradually gets more and more complicated from there.

I might be getting my Kant messed up with my Plato, but when you're talking about Forms, you're talking about the way things should be. The ham radio should work so you can call the space police and have the meteor arrested. So there's a pleasure recieved from making things work the way they should.

Though I do have to agree with the previous commentor that teenage boys live in a world where they are told "rules" that don't always work out correctly when followed. Especially when it comes to the opposite sex. Hell, I'm supposidly an adult male and I still can't figure out those rules.

Video games give that instant gratification. If you destroy the monster generator, no more ghosts will attack you. It's plain and simple, and it works. No waiting for results. No interpretation. Just question and answer. Then you get to go to the next level or advance your character or maybe even get some xBox Achievement points you can show off to your friends who don't really care.

Anonymous said...

That's definitely an interesting take on Kant. I'm curious, though: you mention "[t]he pleasure of video games, it seems to me, comes from our sense that we are collaborating in the realization of the designer's intentions by learning those rules. When she makes a game-world governed by certain laws, the designer is inviting a player to share an intention with her and participate in the realization of some end." But where does that account for emergent gameplay in sandbox-style games like GTA-IV? Designer intentionality is gone from these scenarios (unless you were to argue that the designer intended the emergent gameplay to... emerge).

In these games, players leverage a game's mechanics (explore the rules) to some creative end. Kant argues for an appreciation of form (ostensibly an Objectivist, idealized one) but this does not allow for the creativity required to produce the emergent gameplay on the part of the player.

On a totally unrelated point, your profile says you're in the Boston area (and your visiting Harmonix in Cambridge kind of shores up that statement). I'm a game developer in the Boston area and I've been asking friends in the industry if they know who you are. No one knows but they all enjoy your blog! We have frequent conversations covering much of what your blog touches upon and enjoy your insight. We'd like to involve you in the discussions, too. If you're interested, drop me a line at this [throw-away] address:

accountwotdontmatter [at] gmail [dot] com

Keep up the awesome posts!

Iroquois Pliskin said...

Thanks for all the comments everyone!

@anon1: I think this is a really interesting point about adolescence and learning rules. It seems to me that when we learn the rules and codes of mature social interaction as adolescents we also in the process of making an identity for ourselves, and these two activities are connected. Interestingly, there are a lot of popular Japanese games that are basically simulations of the hurdles of maturation: dating, teenage social life, and sex. (Based on what I hear from Michael Abbot, the game Persona 3 is half social-maturity simulator and half demon-slaying RPG.)

@Steve: I LOVED the developer commentary in Portal and Half-Life 2 for the reasons you cite. It's just really interesting to hear how the developers went about conveying the game's rules to you, and learning the craft of it.

Your point about instant gratification is interesting too. On one hand (unlike real life) every game problem has a solution, one that is ready at hand in most cases. On the other hand games can be really challenging to figure out and leave much of the work up to the player. (Portal is a great example of this)

@anon2: I think that you're totally right that this model breaks down some when you try to explain emergent gameplay. (It works best for games like Metroid, Zelda, and Shadow of the Colossus, I think)

The first response that comes to mind is that sandbox games offer the player a wide range problems and also a lot of leeway in devising (often unforseen) solutions to those problems. Pulling this off seems to require some good and deliberate design too. In that sense the player needs a good set of rules to be free. (there's a Kantian thought)

Cristin said...

but, iroquois pliskin (which i thought was a geologic strata until i googled it. should have known) couldn't anon1 offer a provisional answer to anon2? (and is anon1 my sister? spill). that is, when i started reading this post, i was waiting for you to get to freud and something about the pleasures of repetition or maybe the fort/da game. Basically, it seems that there's another explanation for the pleasurableness of discovering that your world is lawful or regular, aside from the deduction (induction?) that therefore your world is designed (by a God, divine ore digital). Rather, maybe the pleasure we derive rules isn't so much consciously intellectual--in taking comfort that the world's designedness indicates a designer--but a pleasure better described as metabolic--the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world produces anxiety in us, which we may reduce or dispel by performing actions that time and again produce the result we expect, thus demonstrating to us that in fact we can master the world, contain the chaos. thinking about rules and pleasure this way, in terms of anxiety and the creative mastery of formlessness seems to pretty well describe the adolescent anorectic and the oscar wao sandbox game enthusiast. no?

Anonymous said...

On the discussion of how a learnable set of unbroken rules is attractive to the 'slightly socially inept' demographic:

How do players who cheat the rules of the game through glitches(using flat objects in Half Life 2 to fly, beating an AA Wraith pilot to death in Halo 3 to drive his vehicle, as opposed to actual hacks) play into this discussion? Initially, it seems to me that they either defy the demographic of people who play to experience the transparency and unchanging nature of games, or that they are simply a more specific subset of this hypothetical demographic. It could be argued that glitches like the ones mentioned above are simply a highly specified species of rules that are not normally taught or intended by the designers. Just as many children gain pleasure from reading ahead in their history textbook, or finding the exception or shortcut that their teacher didn't tell them about (as with the story of Carl Friedrich Gauss in third grade), players who search for and use glitches could be thought of as simply attempting to advance the class a bit beyond what the developers had planned. It is certainly evident that the interesting and often beneficial effects of a glitch (soaring like a bird above the canalworks, finding a new an pretty powerful vehicle) provide a great enough reward for attempting to learn the 'hidden rules'.