PopCap, who brought the casual gaming world such free-time-devouring releases as Bejeweled, Peggle, and Bejeweled 2: Jewelers Revenge recently came out with a little title called Plants vs. Zombies. Like most of the thumb candy that they have brought us in the past, PopCap continued its tradition of taking a well-worn idea, in this case the tower defense game, and putting a sugary coating on it. As the player, you must defend your home by planting a variety of animated flora between you and advancing waves of undead. The graphics are cute, the sound effects are cheery, and there is enough humor thrown in the mix to keep you grinning at your screen like an imbecile for hours on end.
Generally, I would say that this type of entertainment is best marketed to children ages 6 to 6.5. Here’s the rub: it’s just a grand old time. Watching the hordes of shambling corpse folk hurl themselves at your fortifications is immensely satisfying. But why?
As a young gamer I spent many a lazy summer afternoon in my mother’s office at the psychology department of the University of Southern Maine. She was a professor there and had her digs set up right next to the psychology lab, which was populated with lab rats and their pet graduate students. The basics of their experiments went like this: every time a test rat would touch a bar, or stand in a certain area of the cage, the student in charge of the experiment would give it a bit of food. Touch the bar, get food, touch the bar, get food, eat the dots, get points, wakka wakka wakka. I think you see where I am going with this. The concept is called positive reinforcement; it’s nothing new to video games. If we play by the rules, something good happens whether it is a reward in points, plot progression, or in the case of Plants vs. Zombies a series of pleasant noises, bright colors, and happy looking flowers.
The central aim of this aptly named journal is to explore the social and artistic merits of video games. So, when enjoying a title like Plants vs. Zombies, I ask myself if a game designed solely to stimulate a Pavlovian response in the gamer has such merits. I am afraid the best answer I can come up with is this: socially, no. Artistically, maybe. Unless I am missing something, I don’t think there are any moral or philosophical lessons to take away from such products, but I do believe their creators displayed some respectable guile and ingenuity in crafting them. Our minds are fickle machines and creating a product that can mesmerize them into submission, even for a little while, is an impressive feat. It may not be art, but it is artfully done.
Rather than think of PopCap’s products as iconic works on par with the Mona Lisa or the Iliad I think it is better to consider them toys, very clever toys. I realize this brings to the fore one of the most significant criticisms of the video game medium; because of their broad appeal and interactive qualities, they are nothing more than childish distractions. I would put forward that if this argument applies to video games as a whole then one is forced to write off music, painting, sculpture, cinema, and creative writing as equally invalid forms of expression. All artistic mediums are used to create some products which don’t necessarily warrant the title “artwork”; that doesn’t devalue the given medium nor the product it created. Just because the Berenstain Bears are not Shakespeare doesn’t mean that all theatre is for children. It also doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the Berenstain Bears. To say that all video games are mind pellets for our cerebral rat just because PopCap makes an addictive puzzle game is logically invalid and an unfair standard to the rest of the medium.
Looking back on this article I may have painted developers like PopCap as manipulative tricksters, and perhaps they are, but no more so than the pioneer who first designed the cup and ball. While Plants vs. Zombies and so many products like it do not challenge our way of thinking or push the limits of our imaginations they do help us to find joy in the simple act of play, and there is certainly value in that.