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Un-games

Since I am always complaining about how technology accelerates life, transforms it into something we feel compelled to consume more and more quickly rather than experience, I was intrigued by this video-game review at Slate by Chris Sullentrop that promised a look at the apparently emerging "slow video game movement." It's a review of a game called The Path, and it sounds totally bizarre. Even after reading Sullentrop's description several times, I still didn't get it. Here's how Wikipedia explains it:

The game begins in an apartment. The player is shown six girls to choose from, and is given no information about them other than a name. Once the player selects a girl, the journey begins.

The player is given control of the girl, and is instructed: "Go to Grandmother's house, and stay on the path."

As you explore, you'll find various items scattered around. However, there is no 'interact' button. For a girl to pick up or examine an object, the player needs to move her close enough for a superimposed image of the object to appear on the screen, then let go of the controls. The character will interact, and an image will pop up on the screen, indicating what's been unlocked; every item a girl encounters in the forest shows up in some shape or form in Grandmothers House, and some objects open up whole new rooms. Small text will also appear, a thought from the current character. Some items can only be picked up once, and do not appear in subsequent runs. However, each character will have something different to say about an object, so player has the option to access a 'basket' to see what they've collected. In this way, the player comes to understand their character, giving following events more significance when they encounter the Wolf.

It is not required to find the Wolf. In this game, there are no requirements.

This sounds awfully abstract. I don't want there to be "no requirements." Playing a video game is a basically submissive activity, where a player submits to the rules in order to have rewards doled out to him. It may indulge fantasies of domination, in that it lets players control figures totally within a game's given universe, but submitting to the rules of that game is still the basis upon which it can supply pleasure. If there are no rules, I have a hard time imagining there would be much pleasure. Sullentrop seems to have found the experience of the game frustrating:

The gameplay in The Path and the instructions in its manual (which I resorted to after my first couple of hours of aggravation) emphasize the importance of letting go—of doing nothing. The gameplay mechanic is noninteraction: To get one of the girls to take an action, players must resist the urge to tap at the controls. So I resisted, a lot, but to no good end.

Sullentrop later notes that the intention behind the game is to encourage a noncompetitive approach to play: "The Path does at least try to present an interactive way for game players to experience empathy rather than to exert agency—to walk in the footsteps of young girls without trying to author their stories for them." But if the goal is to let go and do nothing, why buy the game at all? Why not "let go" and shut off the computer? We could sit in a park and watch real live people who we can't control rather than fake, computerized ones. What is good about games, I think, is that they can be immersive, they can hone the ability to focus because they reward paying attention and practicing. Or they can serve as a total distraction, allowing the brain to refresh for a resumption of other activities without going totally dormant. But The Path seems designed to frustrate those functions; it seems to want to work like a hallucinogenic drug, flashing some trippy visuals and prompting some meandering introspection while making you unfit for any serious concentration.

As a kid, I had a board game foisted upon me that was designed to encourage empathy and suppress the competitive spirit -- the Ungame, which was about as fun as a therapy session with a junior high guidance counselor. There was no way to win; instead players just shared feelings and clarified their life goals and that sort of thing. It was meant to prompt intimates to get to know one another better, supplanting competition with empathy just like The Path. But there is no one with whom to empathize in the computer simulation. Instead, it seems like the game models futile passivity, denying the ersatz feelings of mastery that computer games ordinarily provide. The game becomes even more masochistic, a dominatrix who ignores you completely.

It seems as though the Path aspires to be something that's not a game at all but a kind of creativity aid, like Eno's Oblique Strategies deck. I'm not sure what is gained by pretending such things are games. For sake of clarity, isn't it better to reserve the word game for scenarios that are competitive, and call the noncompetitive, open-ended experiences something else?


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