Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Monday, Jul 14, 2008
A collection of observations and essays about the ongoing effort to sell video games to older players.

One of the biggest transitions occurring with gamers is the wide diversity of people playing video games today. A recent speech and blog post by David Hayward outlines the huge variety of gamers and personalities now playing. Architects, undergrads, casual gamers, women, and men are all active participants with a huge diversity of games to play. He cites a statistic claiming that 40% of the U.K. now plays video games, beating out soccer and cinema respectively. The people he references as gamers are all employed, sociable, and far from the negative stereotypes video games still sometimes hold. They’re also all in their 20s and 30s. From a cultural point of view, that’s awesome. From an economic point of view, that’s troubling. The issue is not what can we do to get more people playing games, it’s what can we do to get people with money playing games.


I don’t have the statistics of wealth distribution but it’s a safe assumption that the average young person starting their career (and maybe raising a family) does not have a lot of disposable income. It just takes time to get a steady job, pay for a family, pay off the mortgage, have free time, and start to have excess money. So although having a young consumer base creates a great image and culture, their capacity to spend lots of money on the hobby is somewhat limited. Enter the Baby Boomers. Unlike their children, this demographic generally has a decent amount of disposable income, lots of free time, and are up for spending those things on a hobby. This isn’t a very original observation either; if you’ve noticed the glut of film remakes and the general packaging of nostalgia in other consumer mediums, then you can see what I’m talking about. The movie industry long ago noticed that the ones with cash are the ones you make movies for, and have responded in kind. There are 78 million Baby Boomers out there and only 19% play video games. That’s a lot of untapped potential. The question now is…what kind of video games do Baby Boomers want to play?


Chris Miller at CNNMoney asked this same question in 2006 and outlined what games have made progress so far. Brain Age seems to strike a chord, Civilization IV works, and one grandma claimed that GTA was the only game out that really appealed to her. In other words, like Hayward’s examples of young gamers in the other article, it’s all over the map. There isn’t one game that will appeal to an entire demographic, but there may be one thing that’s drawing them to these various games. One of the more curious details in Miller’s piece is that one of the older gamers got into the hobby by participating in her son’s gaming website. It was a way for them to bond. Many other Baby Boomers made the same observation and have used video games to relate with their kids or grandkids. Lou Kesten with the AP wrote an article outlining the terse relationship parents have with this connection, noting that 43% of parents refuse to play games with their kids. The chief complaints are the lack of outdoor sports time or benefit to playing games as a hobby. There is a certain cultural barrier present here but it’s unlikely that this is actually based on the simple argument that games are a waste of time. We live in a society where a basketball player is paid more than an EMT, so people are certainly capable of assigning value to sport and play. The issue with these parents, many of whom are in their fifties and about to have the same financial status as Baby Boomers, is getting them to find value in time spent gaming. Having it be a way to bond with their kids could be the way to create that.


After putting together the basics for this gargoyle of a piece, I decided to take a novel approach to the question: I asked my Dad what kind of video game he wanted to play. He responded with the very helpful, “I don’t know.” So the next time I was in town I broke out the Wii and sampled as many games as I could with him. An avid guitar player, my first guess was Guitar Hero. He was excited about trying the game but after bombing a few levels he complained that it was too different from the real thing. Wii Sports went over well and we had a good game of golf together. Zelda never perked his interest, and I decided to avoid No More Heroes. The goal was to find a game that he would play on his own, not just with me, but nothing seemed to really click. The only time I can ever remember him taking an interest when I was a kid was when he saw me playing Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father. He helped me figure out some of the trickier puzzles and after I beat the game he had me show him the ending. After trying out the Wii he did ask if there was anything like that available and I had to tell him no.


Many developers have already started experimenting with family-based video game concepts. The Lego games do a good job of creating a fun children’s game that gives adults something to engage as well. Many of the puzzles incorporate co-op with the specific goal of having the family work together while playing. But is there a way to get them to play video games like the younger generation does? To see them as a fitting distraction to do alone like you do with T.V. or movies? Michael Abbott over at The Brainy Gamer notes the extreme lack of fathers or parental relationships in games, suggesting a game narrative that deals with these issues head-on. Epic fantasy may be fun for some but perhaps other topics may need to be explored to appeal to this audience. Playing time duration is also different for older gamers, who tend to just play in brief bursts, as exemplified by Sudoku or the Brain Age games. What’s key to all these different examples is that they are based on a different value system than the games we, the younger generation, tend to play. Making a game for a Baby Boomer needs to provide different sensations and values than a game focused on graphics, challenge, or complex systems.


Gamasutra did an excellent piece sampling a series of older gamers and discovered a variety of interesting quirks to entice play: bigger text, shorter play sessions, and proper manuals to explain the games were all major complaints. You also have to explain a lot of alien gaming concepts that most people take for granted. Crossing the generation gap won’t be easy when there are so many new ideas for the audience to ingest, but perhaps just a little encouragement to try is all that’s necessary. As the article notes, just getting them used to video games is really the best approach. After the gaming marathon with my folks I’d given up on ever getting them into playing games the way I play them. But my Dad called me the other day to tell me that he had finally found a video game that he liked. It had to do with guitars and he told me to check it out. It’s essentially a 3-D guitar player that you can zoom in and around that has very detailed finger movements. It looks like something out of Unreal. He uses it to teach himself guitar licks and loves being able to observe the complex finger work. There’s no interaction outside of the camera and I don’t think many people would even call it a video game. But I’ve got to admit, it’s a start.


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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008
L.B. Jeffries goes over the various problems with gauging how hard a game should be for developers and some potential solutions.


Despite how seemingly obvious the concept may be, there is actually a great deal of discussion about how difficult a game should be. Why should a game be hard if the goal is to get as many people playing as possible? The original purpose of having challenge comes from the arcade days of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Games weren’t even meant to be beatable by the average person, just to be interesting enough to earn a set amount of money. On the Pickford Bros. blog, Pickford remembers the break from this model with the first console game he made. The publisher simply requested that the game be winnable. Now games have to have a last level, Mario actually gets the right Princess eventually, and the game has a point where it finally ends. How do you balance the desire to have the player beat the game with the need to make that accomplishment satisfying?


 


Tailoring difficulty for a player’s enjoyment is a much tougher task than it sounds. The traditional method of counting quarters was a simple gauge of success for a game; you knew the game was fun because people were playing it. Now a developer has to factor in a huge number of variables. For starters, the players themselves don’t always know where they stand with a game. The easy mode for Devil May Cry 4 may be highly appropriate for someone new to the series, while easy in Bioshock is borderline boring for anyone even remotely skilled at games. Chris Bateman explains in a fascinating blog post how tricky this balance becomes even if you have the alternative of making the game adapt to the player. With adaptive gameplay, the best strategy is to lose a few times so the game makes itself easier. If the player gets killed too many times before they have learned how to play, by the time they figure it out and are ready for a challenge it’ll be too easy. Finally, there is the simple problem of some players enjoying difficulty more than others. Challenge and overcoming it is still a source of satisfaction for some people. Bateman ends the post with the lament that there is simply too little information for developers to really know if they’ve got the right level of difficulty for their audience.


Beyond balancing difficulty is the simple question of whether it serves any purpose in the game at all. Back at the Pickford blog, another article goes into the various game design options that let a player break down the difficulty at their own pace. Although these games still utilize difficulty to a certain extent, there is always a way out. In some games, you can just level grind until your characters can overpower a boss. Interactive fiction or puzzles rarely maintain their difficulty because you can always check for hints online. The origin of such accommodations in these games was to make sure that someone who enjoyed the plot would always be able to get to the end. After all, as Pickford notes, when you’re telling a story, getting to the conclusion is the reward, not overcoming a tricky boss fight. Using GTA 4 as an example, Pickford notes that keeping up both challenging gameplay and also having a compelling narrative then becomes problematic. We all want to know what happens to Nico at the end, but doing those last couple of missions over and over can ruin the pace of the story. They just become annoying. Where is our way out if we don’t care about the satisfaction of saying we beat the game? If we’re there for the experience, is any difficulty that stops it really appropriate?


 


Yet just because the difficulty is hard to get right doesn’t mean it can’t serve another purpose. What if we used difficulty in conjunction with the plot? A more organized approach beyond just making everything have more health or deal more damage. For example, going back to Bioshock, if you play the game on Easy, hunting the Big Daddy becomes a light affair. Yet that’s contrary to their role in the story as fearsome protectors, which you appreciate more in the higher difficulty settings. You don’t really get the full narrative experience if you play it on a low difficulty. If you play the game on Hard, a Big Daddy is a very difficult, strategic affair that can take several tries. Would it have been better, for the sake of the story delivering an experience, if the Big Daddy was still hard to kill even on Easy? The method seems to work in more free-form RPG’s like Fallout. If you pick a fight with a super mutant in that game, rather than talking your way out, it is always guaranteed to be an unpleasant exchange for you. That’s consistent with the story and the setting: the super mutants are extremely dangerous and poised to take over the West Coast. Yet in the couple of instances where the game forces you to engage in direct combat with them, it offers a lot of help to lighten up the exchange. What one game does and the other doesn’t is that they adapt the difficulty with the plot. A person who is represented as a badass stays a badass.


Such considerations of difficulty become even more prevalent as multiplayer becomes a huge feature in video games. Why develop a brilliant A.I. or carefully balanced difficulty system when players can just go online and fight real people? Rankings and choice of opponents give a player the same set of options that developers spend years developing themselves. It also lets them feel that sense of accomplishment that beating a tough game provides as well. In an article with ‘The Escapist’, Kieron Gillen muses that challenging games are quickly becoming the equivalent of ‘80s metal. They’re such an acquired taste and appeal to such a small group that they aren’t able to find a home anywhere except the underground scene. This seems like a loss in terms of what difficulty could potentially add to a game if there was a bit more thought behind it. The satisfaction of beating a difficult game or having the highest score will always be there for players. It cannot hurt to wonder what other uses challenge in games may have for creating a game experience.


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Monday, Jun 23, 2008
L.B. takes a look at some of the issues raised in the ZA comments about assessing a game in the culture of rabid fans and supporting new video games.


Much derision and digital ink has already been spilled on the topic of fanboyism and video games. One cannot post a negative review of Smash Brother Brawl, no matter how popular you are, and not expect a mountain of steaming hate to be heaped at your door. The same goes for countless other revered games, be it Halo 3 or Twilight Princess. Any attempts to pose a poignant and insightful criticism of a game that has been hyped by the media is generally a good way to get kicked in the back of the head. Yet give it a few months and the tides always roll back, the fans move on to another game. Or even better, they calm down enough to actually notice the flaws in the game and maybe agree with you. What kind of relationship do we then establish with this “no negative thinking allowed” approach to criticizing newly released games?


 


The first question is what exactly is motivating these people to rabidly defend this stuff. The always-illuminating Brainy Gamer had a great essay and several comments that hit at the heart of the issue. The average underage gamer probably only gets one or two games a month along with one console. There is a natural instinct to defend that purchase as the best choice because it is, no matter what, that gamer’s choice. Abbott also makes the distinction between a critical piece and a review, since one involves the cultural importance of a game and one involves whether it’s worth shelling out the cash. One is looking at the game’s importance in terms of the growing canon of video games, the other is looking at how much fun it is. These do not always coincide nor do many consumers necessarily care. Zork is a historical landmark in video games. The average player should look at it to gain a better understanding of the medium’s origin and appreciate the clever dialogue. But I can’t imagine many people advising someone to shell out twenty bucks for it just to play for fun. When we tell people they really need to play a game, how much should that advice be conditioned to our wallets? Because once someone drops the hefty price on a game that’s fresh out the gate, that’s it.


 


Another observation on fanboys is Leigh Alexander’s oft-cited piece the Aberrant Gamer essay, which outlines the problems in expecting any kind of objectivity from gamers or reviewers anyway. We are psychologically conditioned because of our familiarity with a mascot to like a game. We trust Mario, we like Master Chief. Anything they do is going to garner a more favorable response than something entirely new. It’s also inherently a part of gamer culture to identify with its symbols and icons.


Yet beyond the rabid screaming posts of death that makes many journalists quiver, there is also the fear that giving a game a bad review is like giving video games themselves negative input. GTA IV received so much press and attention from non-gaming media that for the brave few who pointed out flaws in the games, it almost comes across like they’re insulting video games themselves. They’re insulting our public image by criticizing our daring attempts at being art. Which makes dealing with the fans all the more difficult when you know you’re shooting them and your beloved art form in the foot.


 


All of these issues are something a critic should be aware of before ripping into a newly released game: some people like a certain title no matter what, there will be plenty of time to say a game isn’t a classic, and the standards of greatness are not the same as the standards of marketability. And like it or not, game critics play a role in developing an artistic medium in our slightly disturbing way. The final issue with these problems is the outcry that objectivity is the ultimate solution. The problem being…people who want this don’t quite understand what they’re asking for. Objectivity is not about being unbiased, it’s being able to accomplish a task without any emotion or concern for the consequences. A truly neutral reviewer is perfectly capable of explaining why a game deserves a 1/10 just as much as they are capable of explaining why a game deserves a 10/10. They do not see a game or art, they see a thing. What the objective viewpoint then asks is what they want the thing to do. Do they want it to be good? Bad? Irrelevant? And in my personal experience with lawyers and objective thinking, most people are horrified, disgusted, or confused by this. Not only is the objective opinion fully capable of agreeing and supporting everything you say, it’s capable of making your opinion look stupid and idiotic at the same time. An objective opinion may look at a game neutrally, but it is still being steered by something.


 


Unlike Sergeant Slaughter, who wisely advised me as a child that knowing is half the battle, I believe that being aware of these issues is pretty much all of it. What you choose to do with your writing while being mindful of these issues is up to you. Between the gamer who has already spent cash on a game they now must like, the personal prejudices, and the dangers of objectivity…how do we talk about video games? Lester Bangs, a prominent music critic, once wrote, “Every great work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity.” It does not seem so great a leap to conclude that the problem with fanboyism is that they are looking at one face and game critics are looking at another. Destructoid’s 4.5 for ‘Twilight Princess’ comes from the lack of innovation and how quickly the game will be forgotten. 1UP’s perfect score of 100 for the same game comes from how fun and rewarding it is for Zelda fans thinking about buying it. Such a system of dual-perspectives on video games is not just necessary in terms of proper critical assessment, it’s about being fair to the games themselves. Not every game can change the way we think and play video games. There can only be so many breakthroughs like Ocarina of Time per decade, per century. For a critic looking at both sides of a game, perhaps the higher standard of the future can wait for the right time.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jun 16, 2008
Having survived ten weeks of wearing the serious game critic pants, L.B. takes a break and shares a little story about video games and himself.

Every ex-core gamer has a particular couple of games that they were really good at. Those games, back when free time was abundant, that they utterly conquered. For me, it was always Starcraft. It wasn’t that I was unbeatable and this was all before the Korean domination, but I had a weird knack for efficiency in that game. I once won a bet with a superior player because I said I could get a higher score than him. When he blew apart my last Protoss drone, I happily collected twenty bucks as my ratings for resource collection, efficiency, and kill to unit all soared past his. To this day, I have no idea how the score system worked or what I did that made me score so highly. But I still like to think that I was one of the most efficient Starcraft players back in my prime.


 


But that was another time and place. A year out of college and way out of my video game prime, I was sitting in a restaurant kitchen in Lake Tahoe wondering how I’d gotten myself into such a mess. A little too much Steinbeck and way too much fear of growing up had made me pack everything I owned in a car and drive across the continent. I moved to the first internet job I could find, patiently waited for the ski season to fire up, and on the first day of skiing I turned my left knee’s inner meniscus into jelly. The ski accident left me a limping mess with an extremely unsympathetic landlord. I couldn’t wait tables anymore and most of the other ski jobs didn’t pay enough. So I did the only thing I could: I grossly exaggerated my resume and got a job in a restaurant. I’d been a prep cook for a couple of months before the ski season hit in a cafeteria, so I figured they couldn’t be all that different. Come in early, slice & dice, drink a beer, and fight over the music on the stereo for about 6 hours.


Unfortunately, a short-order restaurant and a cafeteria are about as different as night time and a kick to the groin.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Jun 12, 2008
As requested, a quick run-down of all 10 parts of the ZA with definitions.

You call yourself free? I want to hear your ruling thought, and not that you have escaped from a yoke.


Are you one of those entitled to escape from a yoke? There are many who cast away their final worth when they cast away their servitude.


Free from what? What does that matter! But your eye should clearly show me: free for what?
      - Thus Spoke Zarathustra


I. Introduction and Basic Concepts
What makes a video game different from a movie or a book? Player input. What controls the player input? The game design. What gives meaning to the player input? The plot or backstory. All three need to adjust to a game’s purpose and be judged by their relationship together, not just one or the other.


II. Evaluating Game Design
The most objective gauge of depth in game design would be the number of options it gives a player. A deep game takes a lot more work and can end up only being enjoyed by an elite few. A shallow game needs either a deep story or friends over to pick up the slack. Deep game design should not be considered an inherently good or bad attribute of a game in a proper critical assessment.


III. Evaluating Game Plot
The plot of a game is the part of it you cannot change: backstory, who you’re friends with, etc. Judging a game’s plot boils down to assessing what the designer’s force you to experience and its overall merits. If you cut a player totally free, the game experience will lead towards self-fulfillment. If you shove too many awful experiences on the gamer, the game might be too dark and unpleasant to justify the experience. In either case, it depends on the game.


IV. Evaluating Player-Input
The player input is your connection with the game, your means of interaction, and this piece focuses on the silent protagonist method. A connection with a game requires two elements: you interacting and the game giving you feedback. You’re both actor and audience in a video game. Judging the player input is judging how well a video game establishes and maintains this two-way connection.


V. Four Forms of Video Games
It’s becoming nonsensical to identify a game solely by its design. We should instead identify them by which element is dominate in the game experience. The other two elements still exist in varying degrees, but one factor controls the others.


First Person - The Player Input is dominant. You control both plot and how you play the game. These generally tend to be RPG’s like Mass Effect.


Second Person - The Game Design is dominant. You win the game according to its rules and not by what you or the plot dictate. Peggle is a better example than the one I used in the essay.


Third Person - The Plot is dominant. All of your actions and choices are based on the story and have meaning within it. Zelda and countless others are good examples.


Fourth Person - The three elements balance out. No one element has complete control. A lot of RTS games and some open world games develop this out, like Starcraft.


VI. Exceptions to the Four Forms
These are in no way inferior to any other type of game, we’re just distinguishing their elements and what they consist of.


Simulation - A game without a plot. A game doesn’t have a plot if it doesn’t have an ending. Think Sim City.


Interactive Ficton - A game without any game design. A game doesn’t have a game design if there are zero options for the player besides the one that progresses it.


VII. Application of the New Approach
Three examples of how to approach a game in terms of the experience rather than one individual aspect. The key is to see what kind of experience the game is attempting to create and how all of the elements work towards that goal.


VIII. Factions of Gaming
The terms casual, hardcore, or ex-core are not really consumer groups, they’re philosophies about the purpose of video games. Casual players think a game should be fun. Hardcore think a game should be replayable and ex-core think the experience is what’s important. All 3 views have serious flaws. I probably would’ve been better off calling them something else, a lot of interesting stuff happens in the comments on this one. The point was to criticize the philosophies, not the groups.


IX. Flaws in Criticism Today
The culture of reviews is not the same thing as critically analyzing a game. Making jokes is fine but try to remember they still need to make a point. Most importantly of all, don’t create a bunch of pre-defined rules that inhibit people from experimenting or discovering new games. We need to give good feedback and proper explanations to reviewers so that games can get better.


X. Evaluating Game Experiences
Looking at a game experience means evaluating how the game allows you to express yourself in an experience. We have to ask ourselves what that experience is for and how can it best be used.



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