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The Goodly Mist
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Pan Troglodytes Troglodytes

June 11, 2012

I have been tucking into Raph Koster’s A Theory Of Fun In Game Design, and realise that my own writing, whilst dense and perhaps texturally sound, is particularly bad at expressing complex pieces of information. Koster has no such limitation. The first few chapters of A Theory… plunge the tent pegs in rather hard, laying down a base of cognitive neuroscience to explain, at a biomedical level, why we enjoy playing games. The reasons are broadly similar to the reasons why we enjoy anything, but differ in some major elements. The main point, that I can seem to find, is that games encourage replication of pleasure, in the form of repeating patterns discovered by the player. This may sound like the player is little more than a furred associate of Glaxo-Smith-Kline2, harnessed onto a pseudo-spine rigid with dull liquids, not potions but real chemicals, and fed occasionally from a tube. This is not far from the truth, and as the truth it loses a little bit of the fear we feel for it. I am happy to be a dumb ape.

My reading brought up several questions, not all necessarily criticisms of Mr. Koster’s approach to storytelling, games, and their place in our lives:

1 – The Magic Circle

The Magic Circle is a concept put forward by Johan Huizinga in his 1938 book Homo Ludens. I have not read it yet, but from what I can gather it is a rather anthropological study of play and games in human society. The Magic Circle is the protected (a word I think is more useful than Koster’s other word, “sacred”) space in which games take place. They are rhetorical, hypothetical spaces, a sandbox in a philosophical sense where the consequences of that which play emulates are not apparent; to give a recent corollary, Skyrim’s world of experimentation, casual murder and alchemical strategy. For Huizinga, the Magic Circle is something that cannot be transgressed; to do so would be to “break” the game, and introduce the real world into the gamespace.

Now, having not read Homo Ludens I cannot say whether these transgressions Huizinga mentions are moral or not, but this is the strata that makes the most sense for many modern games. To transgress and introduce the real world would be to introduce real consequences of morality, real questions of how the actions taken in the game affect the real world. Whilst they are stored in the gamespace, these consequences are severely neutered. The Magic Circle, to me, is what is transgressed when organisations attempt to boycott games following actual crimes by their players. I imagine that they would not deem it the Magic Circle. A certain degree of disgust would be apparent; the Sticky Circle, perhaps.

It is also interesting to note that these gamespaces are not “consequence-free”, as we may imagine; a digital consequence, such as a city guard detaining your character, still affects your brain even though it is comprised of visual and aural data removed from physical harm. When you are invested in a gamespace, your brain still distinguishes consequences as threats or rewards. The intensity is dulled, yes, but a digital punishment is still a punishment, and to be avoided. If they were not, games would be an infinite plain of no significance, each decision as pointless as the next.

I don’t believe that the Magic Circle cannot inhabit physical spaces. The real world is not the great destroyer of the game. Games take place in the real world all the time, especially in the arena of sports, and therefore transgressions of the Circle can be harder to notice. When one breaks the “rules” of the game, it is usually obvious that one has done so, but if, say, a person’s real-life emotions and worries began to affect their performance in a football game, and affected the other players, this transgression is less easy to spot. It is in this notch that ARGs and other real-world games (as opposed to sports) sit, and they still prove interesting. However, this ambiguity as to transgression means that they are harder to make well, and maintain successfully. We’ll keep trying, I’m sure.

2 – The Problem Of Climax

This is as big a problem as the title suggests, but in the realm of games it is one of pacing and tempo. If a game is the replication of successful patterns, how can story sit alongside this? A story, the trapping of the world laid over hidden patterns, does not necessarily encourage repetition; exposition can only really happen once, at least in my experience. After a revelation, it cannot be repeated with the same emotional weight. Games, it seems, squirt different glands, and a story is planed down by repeated iterations. One could argue against this, citing folktale and the endless reinvention of myth, and I would take that point. This is more of an open question. There seems to be a large gap between story and game that I cannot define yet. I believe that it can be defined and healed, but the difference in mechanics is one that causes many games to either reject story or practice it badly.

I do not think that all games need a climax, or need a story at all. For many the story is only a handhold for conscious brains to latch onto whilst the subconscious or the “grok” brain does its work. But something that Koster writes troubles me. He states that a game “[needs to] teach… everything it has to offer before a player stops playing.” This seems difficult to me. If one is taught everything before one stops playing, there will be no climax, or satisfaction. There will only be a decline into non-playing, and for many games this seems a shame. I am of course looking at games in a traditional narrative sense, and one could argue that satisfaction is spread more thinly in a game, and more regularly, as opposed to the linear, crescendoing satisfaction of another mediums. Many games in fact teach new mechanics until near the end of the game, at which point the narrative takes over and concludes with the aid of the tools the player has acquired. I do think, however, that a climactic conclusion to a game, at least in terms of its playability rather than its narrative, could be useful. However, would this mean that the player would wish to continue playing, and instead could not? I am not sure. This is something that a lot of people are wrestling with, myself included.

Related to this is the problem of learning. With the linear progression of content revelation in a narrative, without permutation, can anything be learned from repeated visitations? Obviously some games have branching storylines, but if they all function in the same way with the exception of content, can we really say we are learning anything new? Does content stand on its own as a tool of learning? Is the game element pointless, in this case, as the mechanics only serve to advance the story, something that could already be attempted lineally? And can story become a mechanic in and of itself, rather than a dressing? I was going to delete this paragraph, as it is a mess, but I will leave it in place because I think that the questions are valid ones. It also leads nicely on to the next title:

3 – Attention Span

Koster mentions attention span from a biological rather than a social perspective, but the social ramifications of perceived degradation of attention span are regularly debated publicly. I do believe that this is generally a bad thing, but I also have begun to question whether it is a product of advancement rather than decay. As our brains crave more and more patterns to learn (to use Koster’s metaphor), traditional patterns (such as reading) are not satisfactory. When we work as a society on new ways of disseminating information and teaching our brains, we may find that reading is hopelessly inefficient, and other forms, such as games, are better ways of learning pretty much anything. I’m not convinced in any way, and owe most of my education to books, but is an interesting topic to watch, nonetheless.

4 – Chunking

“Chunking”, the approximation of the sensory world by the brain, is central to Koster’s writing, and is generally portrayed as biologically inevitable, and therefore entirely neutral qualitatively. Games rely on the deletion of erroneous information. This is why games with overly complicated plots, narratives, or even mechanics such as mini-games or side-missions, can wear thin quite quickly; the brain recognises these elements as inessential to the completion of the game, and attempts to discard them. A player may consciously wish to play them, and may create a smaller “Magic Circle” within their own minds in order to enjoy them fully as games on their own merit, but chunking usually prevents this.

I am questioning whether chunking can be considered “bad”, and whether anything could ever be done about it. It seems that there is no way to train the brain to see what is actually there, hear what can actually be heard, and relate to a complicated game fully. I have a feeling that “chunking” is the basis for those erroneous claims that humans only use five percent of their brainpower. But, with the advancement of technology, it would interesting to see if the chunking problem could be bypassed digitally, and allow games, and all other sensory stimuli, to be analysed at an actual rather than allegorical level.

All of this makes my jaw ache, but I’m now going to read a little bit about Gunpoint, and see if I can render this questions into something useful.

Have a think for me.