Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Getting to the Bottom of Candyland

I've been thinking about children's board games ever since I read Chris Dahlen favorably compare Chutes n' Ladders to Fracture last fall. And then this week, I read a piece over on Boingboing in which Stephen Johnson (writer of the essential Everything Bad is Good for You) tore Candyland a new one. (A sampling: “what sort of message does Candy Land send to our kids? ... It says you are powerless, that your destiny is entirely determined by the luck of the draw, that the only chance you have of winning the game lies in following the rules, and accepting the cards as they come. Who wants to grow up in that kind of universe?”) The fascinating thing is that there's this whole battery of games-- Battleship, War, 7 up, Puppy Pals Bingo-- which defy all my basic assumptions about what makes games compelling. And since Charles Pratt encourages us game-critic-types to understand all different kinds of games, it seems worthwhile to figure out the mystery of Candyland.
The thing is, none of these games require any meaningful decisions on the part of the player. In Candyland, all you do is pick colored cards off the top of a deck and move to the corresponding color. Even if you're a total cretin, you can kick ass at Candyland. Same goes for Battleship: you actually have to decide where to put your ships and where to attack and whatever, but there's no skill involved. Battleship is just an agonizingly extended version of the game, “how many fingers am I holding behind my back?”
This all seems wrong to me. Sid Meier purportedly described a video game as a series of interesting decisions, and while this isn't perfect it certainly squares with my sense of things: games are interesting because they provide this tightly governed space where your decisions and skills and apprehension of the rules determine whether things go right or not. It's this making-things-go-right-through-skills that make your triumph over your little brother at NHL '94 worthwhile. This conquest would ring hollow if it all hung on chance. And we hate the video games when they punish you with arbitrary obstacles – ninjas hitting us with exploding arrows from offscreen, and the like. It offends our sense of propriety. Our sense is that for once in our lives, we should be spared outrageous fortune for a few hours.
Gambling may help to further clarify things. Casinos have all sorts of games that are as senselessly random as kids' games-- Keno, Slots, Roulette, and the like. It's the riding-of-money-on-things that makes these games interesting. Nobody would play Roulette unless there was some action to be had Since your success or failure is a matter of pure luck you need to get some cash involved in order to gin up some interest in the proceedings. We can all agree that Candyland would be sweet if there was some cash at stake, but that's regrettably not the case.
So what's the appeal? My ladyfriend told me I'm overthinking this: “you don't need any complicated concept at the center of Candyland, because you're in a magical land made out of candy.” This point is well-taken: there are pictures of candy involved. Maybe Battleship scratches your itch when it comes to your fantasies of nautical warfare; I had Electronic Talking Battleship growing up, and it added a lot in the atmospherics department.
Also, there's a way that these games create drama out of uncertainly. While you can't control your destiny in Chutes n' Ladders, its rules create all these late-minute reversals and dramatic tension. There's an appeal to the mere sense of tension, this am I gonna make it to the end feeling. It's exciting, especially if you are four and the status of victor is new to you. A lot of great games like Monopoly or Catan have this element of fortune in them because they hang on dice rolls. Maybe these games are a more faithful representation of real life, because success is a liberal mixture of planning and luck.
But in the end what I'm led to think is that Candyland is fun because it's a game about mere rule-following. As Johnson says, “winning the game lies in following the rules;” and though he means this as a knock I think it's the reason we like these games. Moreso than winning, the big accomplishment in Canyland is just correctly playing the game. Following the rules is the only skill the game requires. It has to be that following rules is fun. In itself.
Why is it that we would follow rules for recreation? It sounds all wrong, horrifically un-fun, to say that we like rules. Well, my hunch is that it's because human beings are rule-mongering creatures. Other animals know how to do all their essential life-tasks on instinct; a spider doesn't need to learn to spin it's web. But in order to accomplish our higher-order tasks-- assemble our Ikea furniture, sow crops, apply for a car loan-- us sapiens need to learn how to follow procedures, grasp abstract rules, understand patterns. These native talents are our meager dispensation from nature. As Kant says, the natural world acts according to rules but humans act according to the conception of rules. Candyland is a kind of dry run.
In Everything Bad is Good for You, Johnson proposed that this basic human lust for rules was built into our psychology by evolutionary pressures. This is why we like video games-- we're hardwired to take enjoyment in discovering the rules latent in the systems we confront. And though evolutionary neuroscience is a tenuous enterprise at this point, I've always thought he's onto something. The whole edifice of human civilization rests on our malleability, our capacity to mold our conduct in accord with rules. Sometimes this conformity is voluntary; sometimes not. The redeeming thing about games, these little artificial sets of rules we construct for ourselves, is that they present this one space where this conformity is a matter of choice, rather than necessity.

Image courtesy of the marvellous bead artist Peggy Deciember

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How it is that Games Teach you Things

As I mentioned before, I spent about a month off the video-game-playing grid after Xmas, first through travel and later through the perspiration-centric malady I described in my last post. But since I had my nintendo DS and my laptop along for the ride I did sneak in some gaming here and there.

What games I did play served to impress the centrality of learning to video games on me. Games aren't terribly good at delivering narratively structured content, compared to other forms of media, but they have some unique competencies when it comes to schooling players in the dynamics of a system. Many of us bring a set of accumulated generic abilities to particular games (we know how it is we're supposed to jump in two-dimensional space, or how it is we're to shoot in three dimensions), but almost every game we play has some new set of rules it seeks to communicate-- controls, mechanics, enemy behaviors and the like. Often it's something as simple as “doors that look like this can be opened by using this item,” or “this enemy can't be beat with your usual attacks, you'll have to do something different,” but most games faces the task of making their underlying logics apparent to the player.

Every game needs strategies to communicate the lineaments of its underlying ruleset, and this goes double for games whose basic controls and mechanics are innovative, or deviate from the player's generic expectations.

This was the case with World of Goo, one of the two games I played over the break. World of Goo is a physics-based-puzzle game produced by the pop-and-pop game developer 2-D Boy. The ungainliness of the “physics-based-puzzle” moniker should point up the novelty of the game; we lack a ready vocabulary to describe what kind of game it is in the first place. (Roughly, it's a game where you make bridges) And so you think that it would be difficult to communicate the rules of the game to the player-- but the really remarkable thing about World of Goo is the game's tremendous ease of play given the novelty of its mechanics.

I chalk this ease of access up to meticulous craft. It's all in the way the game introduces its basic concepts. From the very beginning it eases you into the idea of goo-based construction. It doesn't ever throw a bunch of new rules at the player at once; the new mechanics and gameplay ideas you need to solve the puzzles are layered in gradually from level to level. If there's some new trick you need to master in order to surmount the next few levels (say, setting a portion of the bridge ablaze, or suspending it from baloons, or whatever), you'll be required to do something simple with it before you'll be asked to do something hard. The puzzles always run a few steps in front of your core competencies, and this is how it should be: you feel neither frustrated nor coddled.

This careful layering of game-mechanics reminded me of Portal, the game Goo most resembles in both its design and sensibility. If you've ever listened to the developer commentary to Portal (which you should, as its the cheapest course in game design you'll ever come by) you'll be struck by the deliberate way that the designers introduced the potentially bewildering portal-mechanic. The player has to learn to use static portals before they are asked to move them, and they have to learn to manipulate one side of the portals before they are asked to manipulate both ends. The game forces you to master a battery of basic concepts about the portal-physics before it guides them towards the complex later stages.

And this is just how it works in World of Goo, as well: the gradually-more-complex puzzles call for the player to synthesize and re-deploy the rules and concepts you've amassed in simpler contexts. It leads to these satisfying moments where you feel that solving the game is a genuine piece of human ingenuity.

My other diversion over the break was Shiren the Wanderer, which is actually a DS port of a 1995 SNES game. (I owe my knowledge of this game to Zach Reese's zealous evangelism.) “Diversion” is probably to mild a word; my girlfriend quipped that Shiren qualified as my common-law husband by the end of the vacation. Let's just say that the playtime I sunk into that infernal amusement approached Fallout 3 levels.

What's remarkable about Shiren is how much unlearning it foists the player inured to the conventions of traditional-RPGs. All the trappings of the game bespeak RPG standbys: there's an inventory full of swords and spell scrolls, recovery herbs, and the like. There's experience points and levels and so on. But Shiren the Wanderer swiftly undercuts this expectation; all the elements of the RPG language are there, but the basic syntax of the game is radically different.

It all turns on the game's attitude towards progression. In the classic Role-Playing Game, core appeal of the genre is the progressive empowerment of your player-characters over the course of the game. Whatever the setting, you expect to continually gain levels acquire better weapons.

When you die in Shiren, there is no progress-saving resurrection item on offer. Every time you fall, you irretrievably lose all of your levels and items. You start again from level one in the starting town. There are persistent elements of the game, which progress and improve between playthroughs, but your character isn't one of them.

If World of Goo belongs to the Berlitz language school of game-pedagogy, Shiren is an example of learning-through-immersion: it dumps a dictionary in your lap, dumps your ass in the town center and speeds away. There's a kind of “tutorial dungeon” in the first town, and the early run of the game is filled with villagers has a handy tip to pass along. It's not that this information isn't valuable; mastering all the wrinkles of the game passed along in the early-going often mean the difference between death and survival in the later stages. But it's only over the long course of prolific misfortune that you pick up on their importance. For example, a man in the first town tells you he stores food in jars. And on the twentieth-or-so level you start running into these traps that rot all your food unless it's in a jar. It took a round of soul-crushing starvation on that twentieth level to impress the importance of that minor tidbit.

By and large Shiren's pedagogical tool is death. You die in countless frustrating ways until you get the hang of the subtleties of the mechanics and learn of the few contributions you can make to your future success. And over time you find that you get a little bit better at the game each run-through. And it's immensely satisfying, because the first 20 times you die think that there's no way you're ever getting better at this game. Your (relative) mastery of the game's myriad wrinkles and challenges is a hard-won accomplishment secured against overwhelming odds, and because of this you feel a sense of pride at your ability to stave off death.

And so my holiday was spent with games on the opposite ends of the spectrum: World of Goo's patient instruction versus Shiren's school of hard knocks. And despite their different approaches I felt that each, in their own way, did credit to the core competence of games as a medium: inspiring the pleasure of finding things out.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sweaty Delerium is the Worst Videogame Ever

So, as I returned from the post-Xmas trip to Guatemala and Belize last week (there was a wedding, along with some R&R) I had the full intention of hitting the ground running, taking care of business in a flash, being well-rested and rejuvenated. Despite the fact that I had spent almost a month playing very little save a DS port of an eleven-year old SNES game (more on this later), I had all these aspirations to get the games-criticizing back on track.

And then, about two days after reentry, I came down with the death flu. You all know what I'm talking about. One morning I had a runny nose, and then gradually my eyeballs began to ache. This is always a bad sign, this soreness of the eyeballs. Over the following days I'm treated to a whirlgig tour of the varieties of somatic distress. Not only the industry-standard chills, nausea, sweats, etc., but also these absurdly detailed headaches: a San Andres fault of pain, a fully localiziable fissure spidering its way through your cranium.

You know the situation, where the full-body weakness forces you to subject the smallest expenditure of effort to this brutal calculus. I would like to take some juice, but can I afford to walk all the way to the kitchen? When that juice is on the bedside table: can you afford to move all the way across the bed and move from underneath the covers? While I made it out of the house on Saturday, I didn't make it past the refrigerator on Sunday. It was that kind of sick.

Listen, I realize that all this is pretty uninteresting. Publicizing the minute particulars of your unwellness is on par with telling people anecdotes about your pets' eccentricities, or showing them your vacation slides. And telling people about your dreams is almost as bad. However, I think the fever- delirium over the last few days had some interesting angles. When you run this kind of fever, the frontier between wakeful consciousness and the dream-logic gets a bit porous. You can't really fall asleep, but when you close your eyes your thoughts run away from you.

So here's the thing: My hallucinatory feverishness had this distinct ludic quality. Right as I was coming down with the sickness, I had been playing Shiren the Wanderer. I even played it some while I was sick, during those times when I was capable of keeping my head and hands outside of the bedsheets This was a very bad idea. I've been this kind of sick before, and the fever dreams have always had this nasty edge to them, these really abstract elements of persecution-mania: I'm being pursued, or kept against your will, I'm being followed, I can't find my way to escape. Not by anything in particular, mind you, and this makes it worse. There's no beginning and no end to it.

Usually I would say there's something metaphysically comforting about playing video games. It's a space that functions according to a predictable and surmountable set of rules. I think this is true regardless of challenge: even where you're unable to get through the obstacles the game puts in your ways you never lose the sense that there is such a way. I sometimes think that the essential predictability and intelligibility of games (and sports, for that matter) explains why they appeal to us so much during our adolescence: while we're spending the rest of our lives coming to grips with an emotional and social reality that is new and complex and unpredictable, games offer us a place where we can safely cope with a recognizable and familiar order.

This is why the ludic delirium was so godawful. Whenever I closed my eyes, my brain kept on playing Shiren the Wanderer unabated. But it was as if the familiar logic had come unmoored, was stripped of all its comforting sense of stability and order. My mind kept traveling along in this insanely familiar space, but the experience was twisted into this Kafkaesque odyssey. I retained this feeling that I was wandering along these paths between towns (these dreams even had this overlying map-grid from the game), but any sense of progression or rule-guidedness was gone. I had this incoate feeling that the goal of my quest was to overcome this terrible illness (like, when my fever broke and the aches receded and my stomach settled down, it played out in-game like I had discovered some new town or accomplished something) but I had this horrible sense that my most intelligent efforts would avail me of nothing in this effort.

I think most people who play games as much as I do see this phenomenon to some extent, where the game-logic invades their everyday activities. There were some hilarious examples of this in the most recent Idle Thumbs podcast. This was some bad mojo, though. The moral: stay far far away from videogames if you have the death flu.

Now that I'm on the mend I have some some plans to talk about actual games that you can play, rather than the hallucinatory versions of them that are available exclusively on the in my fevered brain entertainment system. Stay tuned!