Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Playing With Your Brain

by C.T. Hutt

As we discussed in a recent double take, there are certain crimes that video games can commit that make us willing to drop our controllers, jump out a window, or drop our controllers out a window. These affronts are easy to spot, but there is another subtle feature in many games which is often overlooked, but which can sink a title faster than Link’s iron boots: poor management of our mental engagement.

Most games are a study in intuitive induction. We try to make Mario jump across a chasm and then we observe the results: he falls to his death. We keep trying different things until we realize that we need the raccoon costume to fly across. Not only have we used our mental faculties to overcome this obstacle with induction, the next time we come across a chasm we can use deduction to apply the chasm/raccoon law of Mario science to the problem. To add another level of stimulation, truly outstanding games like Braid make us constantly question previously established ideas. When our minds are constantly active, the game is doing a good job.

When games ask us to accomplish unintuitive or uninteresting tasks, the experience is more tedious. For example, in Darksiders by Vigil Games there are certain areas in which doors won’t open until we kill x number of enemies in y amount of time using only z move. We don’t have to figure out what the game wants us to do; it’s spelled out to us in big flaming letters. Endemic among adventure games are quests which require us to collect enough rupees, souls, piles of cash, monster cutlets, flowers, gold coins, or whatever else to buy the item we need to get on with our adventure. These activities may take some time and dexterity, but anyone can accomplish these tasks without shifting their frontal cortex out of neutral. They don’t often render a game unplayable, but they are boring. It is the intellectual equivalent of assembling Ikea furniture.

Occasionally, a game will require us to perform actions which don’t require us to think at all. In fact, trying to use our brains will only slow us down because the solution to our problems would never occur to a normal human mind. In the case of a title I am playing now, Demon’s Souls by From Software, players affect the condition of the world and ending of the game by killing (or sparing) a number of NPCs in an arbitrary order that is never explained in the game.

Back in July of 2009 my compatriot Josh Raisher discussed several experiences he has had with this type of situation. These logically bereft sections of gameplay require external data to understand and complete. When a player is forced to consult a guidebook or look online for this information, immersion is completely broken. Not only are we removed from having to think about what we need to do next, we are inherently forced to recognize that we do not have the brain power or data needed to keep gaming. When a game assigns a task which follows no logical path whatsoever, our minds are not part of the equation. Every time a game requires its players to use a guide to complete a task, that is a failure of game design.

Great video games, like all great art, are most effective when they engage us completely, when they encourage us to be active thinkers and problem solvers rather than passive participants. Even excellent titles can fall into the trap of padding their play time with activities and quests which require less than our full attention, or worse, that render our mental participation meaningless. Developers, I implore you: keep us active, keep us thinking, and we will thank you for it.

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