The Satisfaction of a Switch

by G. Christopher Williams

19 May 2010

Let's face it, we kind of love the switch, and by “we,” I don't just mean gamers. I mean everybody.

Like most gamers, I have been thinking an awful lot about the switch. I think that usually such thoughts are characterized by questions like, “How do I get to the switch?” or more irritatingly, “Where’s the damn switch?” However, what I have been pondering is a more fundamental (and maybe less obvious) question, “Why do I always want to flip the switch?”

A lot of gamers complain about the overuse of the switch in games. It is a kind of cheap way of turning an action game into an adventure game. Finding the switch, figuring out what it does, and using it effectively is a way of adding a puzzle-like element to games that otherwise seem to merely be celebrations of violence and combat. Tomb Raider, in particular, seems to have made the switch a central element of gameplay, at least as important to that game as the combat, if not more.
Usually the switch does pretty simple things, like open doors, and in that sense, it doesn’t seem like much of a mechanism for a puzzle. Hence, some of the irritation at the appearance of the switch in a game. It just seems like a relatively silly impediment to progress and not a particularly challenging one, like dealing with a sea of zombies might seem to be (and which that damned switch is probably keeping me from doing).

I have been pondering the switch, though, on a different level. It is a motivator and a very compelling one at that. Let’s face it, we kind of love the switch, and by “we,” I don’t just mean gamers. I mean everybody.

The switch is a pretty essential part of contemporary living. Look around the room, there’s probably a switch in here somewhere with you. Actually there’s probably more than one. There’s probably more than three.

This observation might seem obvious, but it probably was much less so a couple hundred years ago. The switch is by no means a modern invention, but its proliferation was encouraged by the advent of electricity. It is pretty ubiquitous to life in First World countries (and nearly so in Second World countries as well).

Far from being impediments, switches are pretty useful. They change the state of things. It’s in the name.

Sometimes these changes of state are pretty simple (on and off) sometimes slightly more complex (slow, fast, and really, really fast), but their simplicity generally belies complex processes, firing up wiring to transmit electricity to power even more complicated things like motors or wheels or gears. A good switch is simple, efficient, elegant. Switches are powerful.

They are also pretty much irresistible.

Hand me an object with a switch on it, I’m going to flip it. I want to know what it does. When I enter a darkened room, what’s the first thing that I do?  Try to find the switch. I want to change the state of a whole damn room, and I know that there is a powerful tool that allows me to do so around here somewhere.

Indeed, most of us when we flip a switch and it doesn’t do anything, we spend our time looking around to figure out what did happen. Maybe we didn’t see it. Maybe we missed the change of state. But we still want to see what it does. After all, switches have purposes, which is a strong part of their allure. Changing something in a fundamental way is pretty satisfying. If nothing does happen, we are usually disappointed, “It must be broken,” “It must not be working right,”  “It must need batteries.”

All this is to reiterate my earlier point: switches motivate us, which is, perhaps, a fair enough reason for their use in games, especially games that want to encourage exploration and solution to puzzles. They are curiosity provoking devices because they imply purposeful action, usually (we have been trained to assume) significant, purposeful action.

Truthfully, be it the real world or a virtual world, I can’t help myself, I always flip the switch to see what it does. Sometimes it is obvious and irritatingly simple in a game. “Oh, it just opens the door.”  Sometimes it is something unexpectedly amusing in real life.

My daughter handed me a toy mouse the other evening. I looked for a switch. Flipping the switch and setting the mouse down set wheels in motion. The mouse was off across my table. It made honking sounds when it approached other objects on the table before whirling about and changing direction. That was a good switch.

I especially like it in games when the switch does something unusual, spawns an unexpected enemy, turns on another machine that I have to figure out (hopefully, one that has a slightly more complicated puzzle going for it), or sets off some Rube Goldberg-like effect in the room, setting in motion a series of complex behaviors a la the opening sequence of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Something that I can watch. Something that I can feel pleased with myself about.

Actually, developers that have realized how pleasant and accomplished that it can feel to flip a switch or two and set some complex process in motion often focus our attention (reward us) by calling our attention to the function of the switch.

That same cursed Tomb Raider series that so centralized the switch to gaming loves to pull the camera back after you finally reach the last switch in the room and show all the complicated mechanisms that are set into motion (accompanied with statues spitting fire or giant boulders being loosed from the ceiling) just to do something simple, like open that damn door.

Ironically, before I sat down to write this, I tried to switch my computer on. It started to boot and then didn’t work, which was very unpleasant and caused me a great deal of anguish as I tried to switch it on over and over again. I really wanted to write this post, and the switch was preventing me from doing so. Looking around the machine, I realized that a flash drive was plugged in and that was what preventing me from booting up. Switching the machine on was a relief. Strangely, though, like finding that damn switch in a game, it was pretty satisfying.

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