Video games, we have been led to believe, are about wasting time. It is a misunderstanding that players and game makers have railed against for 40 years. While movies and TV are endlessly analyzed and debated in the mainstream media, games are characterized as troubling, irresponsible or banal, the fatuous by-products of the digital revolution.
However, a growing number of theorists and designers disagree. This is, after all, an entertainment medium that worldwide makes US$50 billion a year, a medium in which many millions indulge. An emerging school of thought, drawing on cognitive science, psychology and sociology, suggests that our growing love of video games may actually have important things to tell us about our intrinsic desires and motivations.
Central to it all is a simple theory — that games are fun because they teach us interesting things and they do it in a way that our brains prefer — through systems and puzzles. Five years ago, Raph Koster, the designer of seminal multiplayer fantasy games such as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies wrote a fascinating book called A Theory of Fun for Game Design, in which he put forward the irresistibly catchy tenet that “with games, learning is the drug.”
“An effective learning environment, and for that matter an effective creative environment, is one in which failure is OK — it’s even welcomed,” Koster says via telephone from his hometown of San Diego, California. “In game theory, this is often spoken of as the ‘magic circle’: You enter into a realm where the rules of the real world don’t apply — and typically being judged on success and failure is part of the real world. People need to feel free to try things and to learn without being judged or penalized.”
Consistently, he says, the most successful games are the ones that provide us with interesting tools such as weapons or magic (or even angry birds) and allow us time to experiment with them.
He provides as a defining example the 1985 platforming game Super Mario Bros, created by Nintendo’s renowned game designer Shigeru Miyamoto. On the first screen, players are given the ability to jump and can play with this for as long as they like, but to get to the next stage they need to have mastered the skill so they can leap over an enemy and on to a platform. Afterward, they learn about hidden bonuses and items, but only when each new addition has been perfected.
This “acquire, test, master” model is still intrinsic to game design. The recently released Portal 2, a brilliant, physics-based puzzler set in an abandoned science research facility, works in exactly the same way. Here, players wield a portal gun, a device that creates dimensional wormholes in walls, floors and ceilings — but they’re only introduced to one facet of the gun at a time and when it has been mastered, new items such as super-bouncy gels are introduced. There is constant progress and a continually evolving challenge, but there is always room to experiment and to figure things out through intuition.
“Games allow us to create these little systems where learning is controlled and taken advantage of really brilliantly,” says Margaret Robertson, development director at innovative London-based games studio Hide&Seek. “We do love learning and we’re good at it, but it is often frustrating in the real world because you don’t always get to go at the pace you want to go and often don’t immediately see the application of what you’re doing. Also, learning is rarely done in an atmosphere that’s a little bit illicit. Something we don’t talk about is that, actually, one of the strengths of games is the stigma that still surrounds them — they feel like bunking off!”