Friday, August 14, 2009


by C.T. Hutt

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.


  1. It's why I play them.

  2. "I ask myself if a game designed solely to stimulate a Pavlovian response in the gamer has such merits."

    Yes, if a particular game is simply a device to stimulate the brain's pleasure system then it's on the same level as a drug. (And arguably not very artistic.)

    But it's rare for me to encounter a game that is even close to being solely designed to do that.

  3. Gamers are very picky about what they will consensually label a "toy". Plants vs. Zombies is obviously a toy because it's wrapped in a cheery aesthetic. It looks like a toy, therefore it is a toy.

    Reduce everything to basic mechanics, and most experiences found in this medium tend to be more toy-like than anything else. Most mechanics goad the player through the experience with positive reinforcement and the promise of fun; rarely are mechanics executed in any meaningful environment or implemented to serve anything beyond our desire for entertainment.

    But is Gears of War a toy? The art is dark, full of big men and guns. There are no arching swatches of greens and blues, only coffee-filtered grays and browns. This is not a toy, we say. This is serious.

  4. Parker,
    Thank you for joining the discussion. With regard to your comment “It looks like a toy, therefore it is a toy.” I suppose that depends heavily on who is looking at the game and what they consider a toy to be. A gun looks like a toy to some people, but it isn’t. Further, I can’t really get behind the premise-conclusion structure of this argument. If I were to say “a zebra looks like a horse, therefore it is a horse.” People would be right in questioning my logic.

    With regard to Gears of War, I think I have made my position on that series quite clear
    While it may deal with adult themes such as war and death I don’t believe there is anything in the Gears series that elevates it beyond a game like Bejeweled or Plants vs Zombies from an artistic or social perspective. The only real difference between them is what part of the psyche is receiving positive reinforcement. PopCap’s games specialize on stimulating the pleasure receptors tied into bright colors and happy sounds, often associated with childishness. Gears stimulates the receptors tied into survival instincts and the unfortunate human condition which enjoys violence. These later receptors are often associated with maturity, specifically male maturity. The only reason either of these parts of the human psyche are labeled as childish or mature is the social construction we have built around them. I don’t deny that these games are fun, I just don’t think they challenge convention or appeal to our higher thinking.

  5. My point is that Gears of War is just as much a toy as any Popcap game out there, but gamers are finicky with their label of "toy"; they don't want to call it a toy because it's wrapped in melodrama, it has guns. It looks serious. But in the end you and I are right: GoW doesn't give us anything other than meaty shooting that's really fun. It is, essentially, a toy.

    But then we look at something like Wii Fit or Electroplankton, genuinely interactive experiences, and dismiss them as toys based on their aesthetic. Our notion of what defines a "toy" in this industry is topsy turvy.

  6. addendum: I wasn't saying I believe in the "it looks like one, therefore it is one" mentality; I was saying that's the common approach to qualifying these experiences.

  7. Parker,

    Please excuse my dimness, I should have read with a more critical eye. I had a chance to mess around with Electroplankton several months ago. You are right; it certainly does defy easy classification. It’s basically a fish tank that hums to you. I am not sure what other commentary I could ladle on it other than to say it is something I have never seen before. That is one of the things I think speaks very well for a game, a glimpse of the unfamiliar. I scoff at the Wii fit, I remember way back when they came out with the Nintendo Power Pad for the NES. Now that was a workout.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.