Saturday, January 25, 2014

Some deep thoughts on games

Disclaimer: This post is far more subjective and personal than my usual. Everything I say here applies only to me, as far as I know. Enjoy!

In the rush of games that happened over Christmas break (from Marissa getting Power Grid for Christmas to a marathon that stretched over New Year's Eve and Day when my friend was visiting from New Jersey), I glimpsed the almost unequaled ability games have to work me up emotionally. One round of Dominion could put me in a sour mood for an entire evening. With some prompting, I remembered the simple truth that my submission to Jesus extends to every part of my life, even to things that I normally consider idle distractions. So I started asking some long-overdue questions: why do I enjoy playing games—of the board or video variety? Why do I sometimes get so frustrated at them? Why have I disliked competition since I was little?

One of the first things I found was that my enjoyment of games breaks down into a few discrete categories. Just as flavors have five basic tastes, so I realized the the appeal of games to me consisted of four different "flavors". For lack of any other literature to draw from, I've tentatively named these flavors "strategy", "flow", "immersion", and "progress", and I describe them below.


(I'm actually no good at chess, but it's a highly recognizable example)
Strategy is possibly the most fulfilling flavor for me, because it engages the intuition/thinking loop that forms the core of my thought process. It gives enjoyment by allowing me to use strategic, high-level thinking to creatively overcome complex challenges (even more complex than checkmating the opponent's king). Ideally, it involves open-ended play with lots of options, echoing the nonlinearity of the real world. Where I often find details difficult to handle in the real world, these games help me to practice uniting them into a "bigger picture" with strategic thinking, pursuing my goal from many different angles at once.

On the other hand, strategy gets frustrated when I am unable to engage in this kind of creative/strategic planning, either because my options get cut off or because my choices are no longer meaningful/impactful to the course of the game. This feeling of powerlessness or a sense of meaninglessness to my actions is the opposite of how I seek to feel in Strategy games.

Examples: Strategy games (obviously), some puzzle games, most adventure-type board/card games; Supreme Commander, SimCity 4, Civilization V, Portal


Once again, I don't play DDR, but good example.
In contrast to strategy, Flow doesn't focus on higher thinking at all and simply employs a stream-of-consciousness, act/react loop that emphasizes skill and precision at high speed. It's hard to describe why, but successfully strumming/drumming a hard song on Rock Band just feels good, much in the same way climbing a difficult wall does. The appeal of Flow games is the development and successful use of a skill; conversely, I get frustrated with them if I feel that skill is not being judged or evaluated fairly, or if I'm prevented from using it (like if a display lag in Rock Band makes me miss notes and fail a song).

Examples: Rhythm games, fighting games; Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Divekick, Super Smash Bros.


I miss Skyrim almost like I miss the Canadian Rockies.
In contrast to both of these, Immersion appeals to my imagination, emotions, aesthetics, and sense of wonder. Games of this flavor attempt to create a sweeping, cohesive world that you can lose yourself in, and so appeal strongly to my inner escapist. If they are done well, you begin to feel attached to the people and places in the virtual world almost like real ones. Obviously this can lead to unhealthy, addictive behavior, but mostly I find the chance to step into another world incredibly enjoyable and refreshing. Some of my favorite games became so because of this flavor.

I don't get frustrated with Immersion games as much, but when I do, it's usually because something breaks the immersion—such as a game-breaking glitch, poor camera control, or a bad mechanic that keeps your character from doing something they "should" be able to do.

Examples: Most RPGs, adventure games; Paper Mario, Golden Sun


Progress becomes possibly the most addictive "flavor" by appealing to my sense of (obviously) progress, or accomplishment. It encourages the regular setting (and meeting) of goals, and a steady increase in abilities, resources, or prestige that gives the game a bigger and grander "scale" over time. There's something highly rewarding about going from a penniless Rogue with a wooden dagger and no armor to (say) the leader of the Thieves' Guild. I get frustrated with Progress probably the least of any of the flavors, but when I do, it's usually because the steady effort-reward cycle the game builds up has been disrupted, or the sense of accomplishment I seek has been invalidated. ("I can't believe my awesome team of dragons I spent weeks building up got swept by an Aerodactyl!")

Examples: Some RPGs, Pokemon games in particular, FarmVille

Of course, hybrids of these flavors are also possible, such as:

Strategy/Flow: Call of Duty (single player)
Strategy/Immersion: Braid, Portal 2
Flow/Progress: Sequence
Immersion/Progress: Lots of MMORPGs, The Elder Scrolls, Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy

Strategy/Flow/Immersion: Halo
Strategy/Flow/Progress: Call of Duty (multiplayer)
Flow/Immersion/Progress: Mass Effect?

I'd be very interested in hearing from any readers who can identify other "flavors" of games that they enjoy besides these.

Since this post was prompted by my experience with board/card games, which generally all fall into the category of Strategy games (though collectible games like Magic or Warhammer have elements of Progress, and tabletop RPGs also have Immersion), I'll be focusing on their appeal and challenges for the rest of my time.

Going deeper

I often think of games as decision trees, a perspective which focuses on the choices the player makes and the control I have over my position in the game. Each choice alters the game state and leads to more choices. It is this diversity of choices that makes, for instance, Chess more interesting to me than Checkers. Here is a sample decision tree for the first few turns of a game of Dominion.
Of course, as the game goes on you would also gain the option of playing the various cards you buy, which further multiplies the complexity of the game in ways dependent on your earlier choices. But I'm getting ahead of myself. With some more introspection, I identified three reasonably discrete properties of Strategy games that I enjoy:

Open-ended play/high complexity: I prefer games that present me with a wealth of options and choices to navigate. This means a decision tree with a high branching factor, enough to allow for "creative" gameplay, yet with enough structure that you don't feel hopelessly lost. It means having many paths to a successful outcome to allow for a variety of viable and interesting strategies, each of which might involve making goals, subgoals, and so on. I like games that resemble optimization problems (simply trying to do the best you can at overcoming complex challenges) rather than a simple decision of winner/loser(s).

Proactive gameplay: What I mean here is that I like when the real challenge and thrill of the game is in "figuring out" and implementing my own strategy, not responding to the actions of others. (This contrasts sharply with Marissa's style of play) Lest you think me inflexible, what I mean is that the game should (ideally) allow you freedom to form a strategy at a high enough level that unexpected circumstances (such as other players' actions) can only affect the implementation of a strategy, not render it completely invalid. My preferred style of thinking handles complex challenges by innovating or stepping one level "out of the matrix"—being able to partially define my challenges, rather than simply being the best at a particular one that I am forced into. I like being able to roughly decide a big-picture "path" through the decision tree that is general enough to adapt to other players' actions, so I readily have another tactic to fall back on. If I lose sight of this big picture, I begin to feel helpless.

The "Feedback Principle": This is probably the most important one. I define the Feedback Principle as the general rule that the outcome of a situation requiring my input should be connected with my actions. In other words, success should be contingent on sound play, and failure on mistakes made or ineptitude. It's important that I be able to see a meaningful connection between my actions and their outcomes, or I quickly get frustrated. If I fail, I must be able to at least recognize choices that, made differently, could have led to success—otherwise, failure was inevitable and then what was the point of playing? Of course, there is probably some self-serving bias at work here, but not in every case.

Addendum: On his blog Richard Beck defines "power" as the intersection of capability and opportunity. I think a lot of what I am saying about my preferences above are that I like to be limited in my "power" in a certain game only by my capability, not by my opportunity—or I like it if part of my capability is redefining and shaping my opportunity. If I see opportunity as a limiting factor to my ability to play, outside my control, then I get frustrated.

Hopefully some examples will help illustrate these preferences...

Case studies

Candyland: As an extreme case, Candyland gives the player no choices, and so I don't develop any expectations of strategic thinking (or attachment to the game). Not suitable for adults.

The Settlers of Catan: I'm pretty biased against Settlers because, to date, I've lost every game of it horribly due, as far as I can tell, a combination of improbable dice rolls and inconvenient robber placements. (I think I keep picking the most favorable spots for resources without thinking, and so get heavily affected by both of these) Overall, it gives external things, namely the whims of the dice (which I swear are weighted to not roll 6 or 8) and the actions of other players, too much control over my options, which are generally pretty slim to begin with.

7 Wonders: Both an interesting and somewhat exasperating game. It has seven different resources you have to balance and a multitude of ways to win like military, science, civic buildings, and guilds, which must be pursued somewhat all at once.  On the other hand, you only ever have a maximum of eight choices of what to do each turn, and these decline over the course of each age. Plus, several of the cards in a given hand are usually useless to you due to either not being able to play them or their contributing virtually nothing to your position, and the most desirable cards in an age are often snapped up before they ever get to you. Like Catan, 7 Wonders gives other players a high degree of control over your options (often the best move is to take a card that the player next to you would love to have), which I don't find enjoyable.

Power Grid: I like how Power Grid promotes long-term strategic thinking with such relatively simple mechanics. The rhythm of the game is a simply feedback loop: you collect money by powering cities, use the money to buy plants, resources, and cities (that part doesn't really correspond to reality), and feed resources into the plant to make more money. The balancing system is interesting; players often jockey for last place to get the best pick of plants, resources, and cities while plotting to pull ahead in the last few turns for the win. Lastly, I also like the simple way in which the resource market mimics the law of supply and demand.

Most of my hard times with Power Grid come from how it comes close to simulating a real-life economic race (though energy markets tend to be monopolies), but not quite. The resource market could more accurately be said to capture the law of demand, as the supply rate is based entirely on the stage in the game and not the rate at which resources are being used. This allows the players who go first to exert a crippling degree of control over the players who go later if resources get depleted. Likewise, the limited selection of the plant market makes for heated bidding wars, but doesn't really intuitively justify itself with any basis in the real world. I simply don't see how other players choices should be able to restrict which plants I can build.

Wizard: Wizard is another simple, but enjoyable strategic card game. The bidding system means that there are basically no "bad" hands, only easy or hard-to-bid hands. Still, I notice that while pondering bids I tend to set expectations for how many tricks a given set of cards "should" be able to take, and I get frustrated when these expectations are broken.

Dominion: Is probably my favorite card game. The huge number of possible games makes the game extremely open-ended and favors the creative exploration of new strategies and combinations instead of sticking to just a few. Still, my preferences come through; I strongly dislike attack cards when they cut off my options or force me to respond to other players' actions instead of focusing on my strategy. Why can't we leave each other alone? (Or have reactions that are more positive/interesting, as with Governor)

And as benchmarks, three of my favorite strategic computer games...

SimCity 4: Ah, SimCity. No interactions with hostile opponents out to ruin your city (except the occasional alien, kaiju, or giant robot) Just you, a plot of land, and the open-ended challenge of building your dream city. Most of the challenge comes from complex, intangible environmental forces like the education level, health, safety, traffic levels, and land value of your city, which if optimized will make it a more appealing place to live for tax-producing Sims. There are always at least several things to do in your city (zone for more industry, expand the bus/subway system, put in some libraries and museums...), and the whole game is something of an optimization problem on a city-scale. It encourages the setting of broad goals (expand your city's commercial sector, cut pollution, improve traffic...) and their methodical implementation.

Supreme Commander: Easily my favorite real-time strategy game because it exposes other games of its genre as real-time tactics games by virtue of its epic scale. The maps range from 5 x 5 km (corresponding to a mid-sized StarCraft skirmish) to a ridiculous 81 x 81 km. The slow pace that these larger maps lead to encourages analytical, long-term thinking about your strategy, and the extremely nice order-queuing system lets you assign all sorts of complex behaviors and plans to your units with a minimum of hassle. It gives a lot of room for creativity in strategy that goes behind the simple unit-combination mechanics of other RTSes. You can play aggressively, expand defensively try to claim more territory (and resources) to slowly choke your opponent, sneak a secret firebase within striking distance of them, rush to an experimental unit/nuke... The possibilities and choices are nearly endless, which is just what I like about SupCom.

Civilization V: Much like with the other two games, I enjoy how much is always going on in Civ V. You have cities to manage, units to direct, diplomatic relations to navigate, and a world to conquer. there are over a dozen various resources and variables to manage, and you have a great degree of control over the direction you take your empire, which is exemplified in the four victory conditions: domination, cultural, science, and diplomatic. Like SimCity, it throws a great deal of complexity at you but manages to do so in a clear way that lets you manage it surprisingly easily. All the parallels with real history allows each game to be its own kind of alternate history, some more entertaining than others (like the time I played as Gandhi and slaughtered the rest of the world with Giant Death Robots, or when George Washington besieged Mumbai for 500 years straight). Civ V encourages you to combine creativity with strategy and just a bit of megalomania, leading to the legendary "Just one more turn..." syndrome.

From preferences to obligations

It seems like I have different expectations for games than most people. I don't enjoy competition for its own sake; I enjoy the strategic challenges that it accompanies. When the competitive elements of a game get in the way of the strategy (e.g. by violating one of the three properties above), it's no longer "fun" for me. So I tend to gravitate toward games (like the last three) that embody these properties more, by design. All this research into how I enjoy strategic games might even help me to identify such games before I even try them.

I also noticed something else that you might have as well: all the times I use "should" or other words conveying a sort of moral ought-ness when talking about what are supposed to be my own subjective preferences. This way of projecting preferences into a moral dimension is seen in how I usually dislike using "attacks" that hinder my opponents: I'm applying the golden rule. Similarly, I reinterpret violations of my expectations as injustices committed against me. Once a situation has been cast in this light, it's easy to get angry; after all, (I'm convinced) I have a right to be.

I think I'm somewhat of an escapist in how I approach games, as I often am with books and music. I play them to temporarily leave the real world for a simpler one that is more like my idealized world-that-should-be. So, recast in moral terms, those three properties that I like games to have correspond to three ideals I value, perhaps excessively: freedom (to blaze my own path with my choices), power/agency (or a realized internal locus of control), and justice/fairness (or a simplified version of justice I'd label "karma"). I recently came across an article about the video game jump that sounded surprisingly like me (emphasis added):
Begy claims that jumping in a virtual world is "ultimately about expressing power." This is not just limited to power over the physical opponents in a game. In many games, the greatest challenge a player faces is the environment itself.
"Jumping over ledges, walls, or down stairs is defying the environment's attempts to constrain or influence your navigation of it," Begy says. "The dominating jump can be a means of attack or avoidance, but dominance is always present."
Donkey Kong's "Jumpman" jumps to dominate the barrels. If he does not jump over the barrel, it will dominate him. But by jumping over it, he can render it harmless.
Begy's theory is that the real world does not always grant individuals the control over their lives that they desire. However, through the jump, video games provide a virtual world in which freedom, dominance and autonomy can be expressed at the mere press of a button.
There's nothing inherently wrong with valuing freedom, fairness, or a sense of dominance and seeking to enjoy them in games. But my giving them a moral dimension indicates that they have become more than mere preferences. I feel entitled to have games I play meet my expectations by embodying these things for me, and in a selfish way that views other people as obstacles to their enjoyment. When they don't, I feel like I've been wronged.

But "love does not insist on its own way" (1 Cor 13:5, or more literally, "love does not seek its own"). When this moralizing insistence on my expectations gets in the way of enjoying my friends' company, then I stop loving them and act selfishly. I'm reminded of God's question in Jonah 4:4 (I can't remember the translation): "do you have a right to be angry?"

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