Wednesday, February 11, 2009

They Call it the Grind for a Reason

Work is where you spend your time conforming to other peoples' whims. And then leisure is where you do what thou wilt. Except when you don't. The strangest thing about modern games is how they make play into work.

Take Rock Band 2, a game I adore. From the moment I pulled the shrink wrap off the case, all I wanted to do is croon Lindsay Buckingham's torrid farewell to Stevie Nicks at top volume. I had done my research and I knew it was on that very disc in my hand. But Rock Band says: not so fast, Pliskin; you have to earn the privilege of pouring out your heart to Stevie Nicks. Emotional closure with Stevie Nicks is something you have to work for. Why don't you spend a few hours playing through a bunch of other songs, possibly multiple times, and then once you've put your time in you'll get a shot at Go Your Own Way.

When games demand this kind of behavior from their players all I can think is that something has gone seriously wrong with our leisure. It's gotten so bad that Stephen Totilo compared gaming to gymgoing, an activity that most people view with a tinge of dread: “Playing lots of games can be pretty unpleasant, not unlike going to the gym a lot. You like what you get out of it, but you've got to put in a lot of work, much of it tedious.” And just earlier this week Mitch Krpata made the same point: “Ultimately, playing games is work. They ask a lot of you. It's a matter of how much effort you're willing to put in to get out what's there.”

And they're both right. It's not just that games require a high level of engagement relative to other forms of entertainment. Games have always demanded that the player surrender their will to a set of arbitrary rules (a set of controls and a system of game mechanics), and this is precisely what makes them fun. (Or so I argue) It's the kind of conformity that modern games ask of the player: repetition of menial tasks; accumulation; joyless travel. When the fundamental gameplay becomes routine, a superstucture of systematized rewards-- orbs, achievements, cutscenes, and XP-- is there to keep the player's eye on that next promotion and her nose to the grindstone.

Totilo has a fascinating explanation for this in his piece: he says this phenomenon is a symptom of video games' growing pains as they've developed from the three-minute quarter devourers of the arcade era to the twenty-hour-plus epics of the modern era. Even great gameplay mechanics like shooting and jumping are difficult to keep fresh and engaging over such a long span; and the narrative payoff of lengthy engagement still isn't enough to fend off the distinct sensation that we're laboring in our free time-- spending our time doing things we'd prefer not to for the sake of the game, rather than for the sake of our own pleasure: “That's what you get when you, the gamer, indulge in a creative form that was created to convey satisfying-but-repeatable, controllable bits of action for a quarter per minute. This is the creative form that has somehow evolved into a medium of 25-hour, $60 collections of satisfying-but-repeatable, controllable bits of action without inventing many successful strategies for telling stories, figuring out how to develop characters, or turning into a more interesting way to spend an hour than listening to Beethoven or watching The Wire.”

This is an intriguing proposal, but I could not let it pass without mentioning RPGs. Unlike the games that flourished in the arcade era, role-playing games don't rely on having the player do fun things with their hands. They offer a different species of pleasure, the sense of satisfaction that comes along with the feeling of progression. Progress is a way of forging the player's connection to their characters, because the time and effort dedicated towards earning levels and items invests the player in their avatars. Though I've praised the use of light RPG elements in other genres in the past, these mechanics can be a crutch when they're transposed into boring and stale forms of gameplay. Given our documented willingness to wander around a world map and mindlessly press A at regular intervals for hours on end, us gamers have a shown a marked disposition to pursue progress for its own sake. Progress is an easy hook, and getting caught in its clutches is what transforms our play into labor.

There's a brilliant piece of social analysis to be written about this phenomenon. Luckily Stephen Poole has written that piece, replete with the (to my mind, necessary) nods to Adorno, Horkheimer and Twain. But I think Poole draws the wrong lesson from his trenchant analysis. The solution to game labor isn't open-world game mechanics and user-created content. If we wanted our leisure to offer unfettered choice even the openest of open-world games are a poor option; games always drastically constrain the range of options available to us.

No, the solution to game labor is the same as the solution to real labor: even work is joy when you're doing something that truly exercises your faculties. We wouldn't hate work if we got to do something new and challenging every day, or if we were offered a truly great complex and difficult task to perform. It's the mindless repetition of menial tasks that makes work intolerable. And so the cure for game labor is good game design. When a game continually challenges you to think and react and adapt as you move through it, it never feels like work. But it's incredibly difficult to create gameplay that meets this standard, and that is why Valve only releases one game a year.


Chris Hyde said...

I have to say that Totilo's quote really hit home for me. In q4 of 2008, I poured an amazing amount of time into games and while a lot of it was fun I also ended up getting really, really tired of the amount of time I was spending on something that at base ultimately seems like little more than a diversionary pastime a lot of the time. (And there's nothing wrong with diversionary pastimes--but personally I just don't think they should take the level of commitment that's being demanded of me from games much of the time). I mean, y'know I really enjoyed Persona 3 FES for the most part, but it took me 100 hours, and a lot of it was the sort of endless drudgery of which you speak.


I could frikking read Berlin Alexanderplatz and watch Fassbinder's 16 hour tv version and still have lots of spare time left over to start learning German with that many grains of sand through the damned hourglass. I liked the game, but the more I think about it I just don't feel like that sort of investment in personal free time is the sort of thing that I can really engage in on a regular basis.

When Persona 4 came out, I was really excited. I loaded it up, played about a dozen hours and then one day.....smack dab in the middle of a boss suddenly dawned on me that I was going to need to sink another 40-50 hours of leveling and wandering etc to even see an ending for the thing. So I just got up and shut off the damn console right in the middle of the fight and I haven't put the game in since. All apologies to Atlus but....I frankly just don't have time for that sort of thing any more.

steven said...

Thanks for the link. :)

The solution to game labor isn't open-world game mechanics and user-created content.

Actually, I agree to an extent. As I suggested in my talk, "user-created content" might just shift an even greater burden of labour onto the user.

No, the solution to game labor is the same as the solution to real labor: even work is joy when you're doing something that truly exercises your faculties.

Good point!

Nels Anderson said...

@Chris That's why I can't bring myself to play P3 or P4, regardless of how good parts of the experience might be. It's the same reason I'll probably not be able to play an MMO again any time soon, if ever.

I dropped ~80 hours into Fallout 3 on two separate complete play throughs and I almost never felt like I was doing the same thing twice. Had I felt like I was forced to do the same thing (especially the same boring thing, like JRPG/MMO combat) ad nauseum, I would have bailed.

The onus isn't necessarily on the developer to force you into varied gameplay. It's possible to go all the way through Far Cry 2 with the same loadout, approaching each mission with the same strategy. I imagine that would get a bit dull though and one of the best part of that game for me was trying out different sets of gear, tactics, etc. IMHO, as long as that kind of depth is available, the game has fulfilled its obligation to provide "meaningful work."

Chris Hyde said...

@Nels Anderson heh, well I only made it 15 hours into Fallout 3 when I bailed on that one too. Though I did finish Far Cry 2, at least!

subatomicbrainfreeze said...

As a fan of arcade games who is perfectly content to dig away at them as they are, I've been noticing this for years. In the eyes of the market and of the reviewers, a solid experience is never enough: work has to be added to the game to make people feel like it was worth paying money for.

I used to be heavy into Konami's Bemani line of music games, and the Pop'n Music games in particular always had agonizing unlock cycles that didn't allow you all the songs (ie: have fun at your leisure) until you'd logged at least twenty or so hours.

Maybe it's gotten worse since I left Bemani, but the worst one I played was Pop'n 10, where nearly everything in the game was locked at the start. At the end of every ten-minute play session the player was presented with a slot machine minigame. The reels all had Japanese words on them, and if you were lucky (as you couldn't control this even if you knew what they said) the words would come together and spell out a sensible sentence. If they didn't-- for the fifth or sixth time in a row-- you got nothing. If they did, you got one of a plethora of tiny unlockable items for the game, none of which felt like appropriate rewards for the slogging you were forced to do. You could play this game for hours and get absolutely nothing.

Obviously, that was the last Pop'n game I bothered to buy. The huge controller and its giant candy-colored Pop-o-Matic Trouble buttons sit around the house unloved. Too bad. It might have been fun.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@chris: I know exactly the feeling you're talking about, and it is terribly deflating. Even with some very fine games (Nels' example of Far Cry 2 is an excellent one) there can come this point where you're just going through the motions. And *just passing time* is something I want to do when I'm at the airport, not when I'm at home and there are other, more fulfilling, options available.

@steven: holy smokes, it's the real Steven Poole! Thanks for coming by.

You're right that I made you sound more enthused about the user-created content idea than you actually were in the talk.

Sorry about that, but I hope the main point I was trying to make still holds: what I want to argue against is the idea that games will be more fun and less work if we allow the player more freedom and a less structured play experience. The most linear of games (say, portal or braid or take your pick) can be liberating if it makes interesting demands of the player.

@nels: good point on FC2; I have to say I was thinking about that game a lot when I was working on this post. While the combat is pretty dynamic for an FPS because of the terrain and weapon variety, I have to say that the last third of that game felt like a slog. Like you say, you had to make your own fun in that game by varying your tactics, just for the sake of variety. (Me, I started mortaring stuff, 'cause when have you ever shelled somebody in a video game?) Even then, however, the lack of mission variety and the whole checkpoint-problem really turned that game into a grind. Worth it for the endgame tho.

@subatomic: christ, that sounds onerous. And here I was complaining about having to soldier through Rock Band's campaign for an hour or two. I think the unlock-progression mechanic is particularly out of place with music games, which is why I harp on Rock Band; it imports this level of gamey-ness into an experience that should be about enjoying music.

Kylie Prymus said...

I'm sure it goes without saying but whether or not a grind is appropriate really depends upon what the justification is. In a non-narrative game (like a music game) then it's really hard to see mandatory grinding/unlocking as anything other than a way to pad the game for wholesale gamers.

But there can be legitimate reasons for imposing a grind on the player from both a game play and narrative standpoint, for example to really appreciate a powerful weapon or to generate time and tension that enhance a poignant moment. By and large, however, I don't think a lot of games are this self-aware in their implementation of grinding.

I'm working on a post now about Jeanne D'Arc and what may be an intentional narrative grind. For the most part the game has been great at requiring no grinding at all, but there's a character that leaves your party in the mid-game only to return just before the final battle at far too low a level to be useful. This has forced me to spend a number of hours grinding to increase their level and while the characters have forgiven their compatriot for their absence, I as a player am having a difficult time doing so because of the monotonous grinding they've put me through!

Karl said...

Your essay also suggests why many successful games are hard rather than easy. (I'm speaking as someone that finds many games too difficult to complete, even when I enjoy them.) In the absence of pleasure, the anticipation of accomplishment and the expected feelings jubilation can provide a motivational boost that keeps the player moving. As such, it's in the designer's best interest to err on the side of making the game a bit difficult rather than easy. And if, by chance, the game isn't that good, the pleasure of the challenge can cover up some of the faults.

(Or, maybe I'm just not good at video games.)

steven said...

what I want to argue against is the idea that games will be more fun and less work if we allow the player more freedom and a less structured play experience. The most linear of games (say, portal or braid or take your pick) can be liberating if it makes interesting demands of the player.

Yep, that is a good point. We might add stress a game can also give you more or less freedom in how you go about performing its set tasks of labour (ie that different combinations of tactics/gadgets etc can work to achieve the same result, as commenters here are saying is true of FC2, versus "there's only one way to do it") — there, I would argue that more freedom is always better.

Maybe we could call that freedom-how (to do the mandatory thing), as opposed to freedom-to (do whatever you like).

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@kylie: I think you're right that the grind can have a proper narrative function within certain games. I just wish that it weren't such a universal feature of game design; even in RPGs I think it's abused. Even in the example of Jeanne D'Arc (which I've heard is great, by the way), the extra time you have to sink to leveling might be a way of reinforcing the significance of certain characters. (It looks like it had the opposite effect.)

@Karl: No, I think you're right. a game should compel you through its gameplay; the reward for playing should come out of meeting the challenges the game throws at you rather than just getting these rewards for sinking time into it.

@steven: this is a good distinction. Far Cry 2 is a game with few choices. If you do the missions there is really only one task repeated ad infinitum. But this task permits of a variety of solutions and the choice you get here mitigates against the repetitiousness of the missions.

I think games which offer this kind of freedom face a difficult design problem which Nels gestured at: if this freedom-how is essential to making the game enjoyable, how does the designer motivate the player to use all the options? Game-players are lazy people, and if they happen upon a good solution for the problem the game poses for them they'll continue to use it long after it becomes boring. How do you get them to make their own fun?

Linear, highly structured games can solve this problem by forcing the issue (depriving you of certain tools, or using level design to force the player to vary tactics) but open-world games, it seems to me, still haven't figured it out.

YankeeDonB said...

Burroughs suggested "we never do anything we don't want to." Which, intuitively, seems odd -- why do we have all these natural language constructions designed to highlight doing things we _don't_ want to do?. But, is, as long as one is precise w/ the definition of "do," probably correct.

E.g., I train pinnipeds. I love animals, and I love interacting w/ animals. Before I went back to school to study pinnipeds, I could imagine nothing more familiar than spending time w/ and learning about animals. And I still feel similarly -- BUT, now I _have_ to train animals. It's part of what I do as a member of my lab. And now, sometimes, when I wake up, I want to do something else (say, play videogames). But I _can't_.

Of course, Burroughs is right -- I could choose to stay home, but if I keep doing that I'll cut off my access to the animals, and I don't judge all the happiness that will bring me in the future as worth shirking my responsibilities for a short-term preference.

Part of what's interesting about his statement, though, is that, in the colloquial sense, one might better say: we enjoy doing what we choose to do. In other words, part of what robs a task of fun is the intrusion of an external locus of control. "You _must_ train animals. You _must_ play videogames." Where is this locus situated w/ videogames? W/ professional reviewers/critics like Totillo, the same place the locus of control in re my animal training is: The Boss. Yes, we could change careers, but we generally like our careers, so subject ourselves to myriad discomforts in service to a longer term sense of satisfaction/access to pleasure. But what about the casual gamer? I honestly don't have any personal insight here, because when I get bored w/ a game, when it stops pulling me along, I stop playing it. I'm pretty patient, and I've made my way through myriad slow-paced RPGs, but I've quit just as many. What keeps other casual players going back "against their will"? Some sort of compulsive disorder?

YankeeDonB said...

Ugh -- "familiar"? Where did that come from? I meant "rewarding."

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