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Skill Tests are Delivered Experiences

Somewhere around 2007, I remember there being hand-wringing about how video games had started out as tests of skill and were transitioning to delivered experiences.

There had always been some variety in games, but the culturally-dominant games had once been things like Tetris or Asteroids or Space Invaders - games with strict failure states and no actual victory condition. The long-term hook was understanding and developing the skills required to do better and better on repeat attempts, so these games had high score tables. They were analogous to challenges like the high jump or 100-meter dash.

And as technology improved and games became more mainstream, the culturally-dominant games were becoming things like Half-Life and Uncharted - games where failure was a temporary setback and there was a clear victory condition. Here, the hook was the game’s atmosphere and story and characters and the goal of finishing the game, so these games had save files. These were more analogous to literature and cinema.

A lot of people weighed in on whether it was good or bad that games (as an overall culture force) were becoming more and more focused on delivering experiences. Some people were excited about the possibilities while others feared losing their favorite hobby. But in hindsight, the fact that the discussion was framed this way at all makes it clear just how twisted and limited our view had been by the prevalence of skill-test games leading up to that time. Because in hindsight, it’s obvious that games have always been about delivering experiences. “Mastering a skill” is just one small subset of the many, many kinds of experiences a game can deliver.

Back then, people were talking like there were two types of games - skill tests and delivered experiences - and the market was moving from favoring the first to favoring the second. But the truth is that the market was growing, branching out from the small area in experience space that had been staked out by skill tests, developing areas like “interactive storytelling” and “self-expression” and “relaxing escapism” and many, many more. Skill test games are still around, but now they can be seen as the niche they always were, since games themselves have grown beyond them.

The old perception of games as skill tests does still linger, but that’s not actually inherent to what games are - it’s more a consequence of the limits of the technology of the time and the social and economic structure of game arcades. It’s an accident of history that a lot of people my age grew up in a culture that saw games this way, rather than as (say) a vehicle for exploring emotional states or experimenting with identity or creating collaboratively.

The situation is improving as more people grow up with access to a wide and varied gaming landscape, but you still run into people who think that Gone Home is a failure of a game because it’s a bad skill test, when it was never trying to be a skill test in the first place. And things are a lot murkier with games that overlap niches and provide multiple experiences - some people will tell you that the only proper way to enjoy these games is to embrace their skill-test elements, even as other people plainly state they are only interested in the other elements and the skill-test aspects are an outright obstacle to enjoyment. And of course, the truth is that every game is an overlap that provides multiple experiences.