Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Inclusiveness (6)

|

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.

|

Why I Don’t Want a Playdate

So, you might have heard about Playdate, since the internet is buzzing about it right now. It’s an upcoming gaming handheld, but unusual in several ways.

It’s got a 2.7 inch monochrome screen with a 400x240 resolution. It’s got a speaker and is wifi capable. And its inputs are a d-pad, two buttons, and a crank. Like, the kind you turn.

It’s priced at $149, which includes twelve games that will be released one per week and delivered over wifi. The games are intended to be surprises, and only one has been teased so far: Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure which apparently has you using the crank to control time and move a robot through his day. This game is by Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi; a few other developers are confirmed including Bennett Foddy, Zach Gage, and Shaun Inman. These twelve games are being referred to as “Season One”, so if the Playdate sells well perhaps there will be another batch of games later on.

A lot of people are excited about the Playdate, and I’m sure they’ll have a good time with it and that’s great. I’m very much a proponent of letting people enjoy things. But here’s why I, personally, am not excited about the Playdate:

Its value isn’t as a games console. It’s as membership in an exclusive club.

A lot about the Playdate makes it clear that it’s not for a mainstream audience. Its tiny black-and-white screen and few-button idiosyncratic controls make it very limited in today’s gaming landscape - you can’t exactly put Fortnite on this thing. You could barely put Tetris on it. And while the $149 price tag is lower than most game systems, most game systems will have more than twelve games available and will tell you what games will be on it. The Playdate is for people who want and can afford to pay $149 for a series of surprises based only on the street cred of a few attached names. If you don’t know who Bennett Foddy and Zach Gage are, the Playdate is not for you.

The Playdate is for people who want to be part of the exclusive group of Playdate owners and have the shared exclusive experience over the few months of “Season One” of game releases. And that’s okay, but to me it feels like a waste of potential.

There’s definitely room for both mass market games and more experimental fare, but there’s no reason the experiments have to have such a high barrier to entry. Compare Playdate to Meditations, a compilation of short games for every day of the year made by over 350 developers. There’s exactly one game available each day, again creating an experience for people to be a part of over time - but this one is actually designed to be shared. It’s a free download for Mac or Windows, not a $150 piece of proprietary and likely otherwise useless hardware.

Playdate creates a shared experience in an inherently exclusionary way, and that bothers me. I feel like it discards the great strength and potential for inclusiveness that modern games and the internet enable and for which so many people are fighting. It doesn’t hurt me that this thing exists, and ultimately I’m glad that the people who will enjoy it will enjoy it. But I can’t help but wish that the folks involved wanted to create shared experiences in a more inclusive way.

|

Disney Magical World is Full of Surprises

Disney Magical World box art
I’ve been playing Disney Magical World recently. It’s well-dressed busywork without a lot of depth but there’s a good variety of activities (including some surprisingly nontrivial combat) and plenty of customization options (I want some of those shirts in real life). It’s also consistently warm and loaded with treats for the longtime Disney fan - for example, one of the quests is to find a pumpkin so that the Fairy Godmother can make you a coach to ride to Cinderella’s ball. If you’re nostalgic about Disney, it’s a good way to relax after a long day. But there are two particular things about it that have caught my attention.

|

Boobs are Not the Enemy: Video Games and the Male Gaze

Fancy Car
Suppose I’m making a film about street racers. The film’s characters have a great appreciation of cars, so when they first see the fancy new car that just might enable the hero to win the race, there’s an establishing shot with a long, slow pan across the car while dramatic music plays. Later, there’s a scene of the villain in his fancy car which the audience is seeing for the first time. There’s again a slow pan and dramatic music, even though there aren’t any other characters around. This time, the scene is establishing what a badass the villain is - not to any other characters, but to the audience itself. The way the camera lingers over the car’s lines isn’t showing a character’s appreciation. It’s to allow the audience to experience their own appreciation.

Probably the people watching my street racing movie like fancy cars, so they will appreciate the scene with the villain’s car. But now suppose I make another movie about a small-town high school teacher rallying the community for a local cause. When I first show the teacher driving to work, I use the same cinematic tricks I did in the other film - slowly panning along the car while playing dramatic music. Then the teacher gets to the school, and the story moves on.

Someone who really likes cars may still enjoy this scene, but to most people it’s going to be distracting at best. The car isn’t important to the story at all - why is it receiving so much attention? Why would I assume that the audience of this completely different film would be into cars? If I keep doing this, with more and more films on various subjects all treating cars in this same way, people who don’t care about cars may start to get annoyed with my work. They might feel that I’m being exclusionary in my film-making, privileging part of the audience over the rest for no clear reason. Plenty of people aren’t obsessed with cars - why can’t they enjoy my low-budget monster movie or my railroad magnate biopic too? Why do I insist on shoving in these totally distracting segments that damage the experience for them?