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Why do you like games as much as you do?

July 15, 2008

This is a question only a designer with too much time on her hands would ever ask unless she was also surrounded by a group of other designers. If that’s the case, we’re lucky that the conversation was this normal.

During a game of Puerto Rico I was playing today, a fellow player got a call from his son who wanted to know if he could borrow 40 gold in WoW. This got us talking about game playing and game designing parents. Another player reminded me of my tragically geeky quote, “I think it’s important to introduce kids to a hex-based system as soon as possible.” It was one of those funny moments when you realize maybe you need to take up external hobbies and be a normal mom who encourages music lessons or something else.

Anyway, this all comes full circle, and I say, “Why do you like games as much as you do?” Others had a variety of answers, and I am interested in yours.

As for me, I don’t know. No one in my family or extended family plays games or ever did, not seriously, anyway. I think only one of them actually has a console. My earliest recollection was in coding my own games on the Vic 20 and later on the Commodore 64. Eventually, I moved up to the Apple and the PC and to Pascal and Assembler, but that was as far as I went before I discovered I liked designing a lot more than coding (a decision I regret now). I should have kept both up.

In talking with my brother, though, there is perhaps a family pattern. He is a professional musician, and currently en route to a PhD in English (just because he can). I wonder if for him notes are a lot like mechanics for me, and when they all come together like they do in Puerto Rico or in a Segovia piece, it’s really pretty amazing. When you really master those individual notes/mechanics, you’re partly amazed at yourself and amazed at the piece/game for being so beautiful and so challenging at the same time. You complement the composer/designer for seeing how the notes/mechanics would all come together to create those rhythms/dynamics, and you might even say out loud, “How did someone think to design/compose this?”, just as I said that today, in fact.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2008 3:29 am

    That’s a good question. I don’t really have a solid answer… I can tell you what I feel, though.

    I find comfort in playing them to escape life sometimes. Just to have that feeling where my mind is somewhere else, instead of worrying or concerning myself over grades, job search, etc. I find comfort mainly in MMO games, but I’ve had this moment in plenty of single player games.

    But in other times, I like the logic twists. I like to be challenged, and I like to solve those challenges. I find comfort in simulations and casual games for this.

    And from a programming view, I just enjoy seeing what kind of things people can do with a computer. It blows my mind to see some of this stuff, and makes me wonder how it’s done. I find comfort in playing with the games that test the limits with technology.

  2. July 16, 2008 4:30 am

    A somewhat long story that explains my growth into games and ultimately why I play them.

    As a youngster, I had poor motor skills. My parents had heard video games would help with fine motor skills and bought me an Atari 2600. The addiction began instantly, and as I grew up I played more and more games.

    The fact for me personally was that in elementary school, I was picked on by some for being the only non-white kid. I stuck out, and didn’t realize race was part of the reason. However, when I played video games with kids, I was treated as an equal. I was good at games and many kids I grew up with at the time would treat me differently when they wanted someone to get past a level in Super Mario 3 than they would on the soccer field at recess.

    My dad is a software engineer, so in high school I picked up his programming books and started learning how to program. I made a couple terrible little games, but decided I wanted to be a game designer when I grew up. I knew no one just becomes a designer, so I majored in Computer Science when I started at Virginia Tech. My goal was to become a programmer in the industry.

    Now, I’m lucky enough to work in this industry as a game designer on AAA titles (seeing the first game I’ve worked on be shown off at E3 and pop up on the news sites today has been an awesome experience and thrill… I literally watched our own trailer 10 times today, just because it was surreal).

    So, the reason I like games so much is because it was my outlet as a kid. It was the only way I fit in. As a result, it became a hobby that was good at (unlike damn baseball!)

    I’ve always liked creating, and finding something I could do for the rest of my life that I would be passionate about was important. Video games seemed like a natural fit and I had very supportive parents.

    Now I love games, because I love to dissect, love to discuss the reasons decisions were made, love to interact with people across the world in games. I love to feel the agony of defeat and the thrill of victory. I love to try to push the boundaries of what we think of as games. I love talking to coworkers and being humbled by the raw intelligence that people in this industry have.

    I game, because it’s always treated me well, because I enjoy the competition and entertainment, and because it stimulates me actively instead of passively.

    I’m sure some of this reads like rambling, but it’s late! Give me a break 🙂

  3. July 16, 2008 8:29 am

    “I think it’s important to introduce kids to a hex-based system as soon as possible.”

    Hahah! I believe my introduction was Battletech at the age of 9. I didn’t really like Battletech, but from there on it was hex paper or nothin’! (Although oddly enough I’m working over a game concept in my head now, where normally I’d go with hex but I’m thinking of going with square.)

  4. July 16, 2008 9:50 am

    I’m 38. Only a couple of years ago I had this epiphany. I’m only happy in two categories of circumstances: “wrapped in love” and “solving problems.” The former is hugging my kids, having sex, lunch with friends, etc. The latter is playing games, programming, helping friends move, etc.

    And some things hit both categories — playing face-to-face games, board or role-playing mostly, but maybe a bit with video games too, is social which triggers the “wrapped in love” criterion weakly (usually) and the “solving problems” criterion strongly (again, usually).

    As far back as I can recall, I’ve been playing games — the standard 70s American board and card games when I was young. Around ’79 I gained access to both mainframe and Commodore Pet game time and was in love with the new medium. As I was socially awkward, my mom was always on the lookout for prosocial and intellectual pursuits and she found D&D in a newspaper article in ’80 or ’81 and we started playing as a family shortly thereafter and then branching out into the broader social context of local game shops. Maybe in ’83 I got an 8-bit Atari and had friends with Apples and Commodores and TRS-80s and while I also learned basic programming techniques — BASIC and rudimentary assembler, the primary function of these machines was gaming platform. Once you were hooked into the warez network there was a stunning array of games available. I think my history with games is pretty standard from there. BBSing through the 80s, internet at University in 90, a bit of MUDding, programming on LambdaMOO (presaging my interest in Second Life), MMOs (but only starting with EQ — while being a loyal fan of Ultima I-IV I somehow missed UO), the eurogame invasion starting in 95. Now I play indie RPGs but I’m also reading the new D&D to see what’s noteworthy.

    My life has been shaped by games. They have been, I think, the most significant external influence on my life. Many of the important skills that I’ve learned have been because of gaming. And unlike some people, I’m comfortable wearing “gamer” as a label. It’s really how I identify — even as a cringe watching RPGs and the poor behavior exhibited in public venues.

    So, I have this powerful motivator of personal, immediate happiness and also a powerful historical context. I think those are the primary reasons why I like games as much as I do. There are other things that are nice — a safe for geeks social environment, something fun to do with my family (whether we’re playing an MMO or geocaching in the woods), a way to demonstrate mastery to an appreciative audience, but I think they’re all secondary contributors.

  5. July 16, 2008 8:11 pm

    Great question!

    For me, games were always part of my identity growing up. My family were all board/card gamers (mostly traditional stuff — Spades, Hearts, Scrabble, Boggle, Chess, Go). Still, we played on a regular basis; games were the family bonding activity and I remember it fondly.

    When I was 6 and was first introduced to an Atari VCS (that’s “2600” to you youngsters out there), I took to it immediately. I was never particularly skilled at sports, but I totally had video-game reflexes. More than just playing, though, I wanted to make my own video games. That desire got me into programming, which I always saw as a means to an end rather than a pursuit in its own right. (As much as Brenda regrets giving up programming, I sometimes regret taking it all the way through a four-year CS degree before realizing that you no longer needed to know how to program to design video games, the way you had to in, um, 1981.)

    I found a gaming club in college, and was pretty much at ground zero of the original Magic: the Gathering explosion and the Eurogame revolution in the US. I had some great times finding new and creative ways to procrastinate in my CS classes.

    Anyway, for me, board games represent the familiar, the warmth and love and attention I received as a young child, and the desire to achieve (it took awhile for me to reach a point where I could give the adults in my life a serious challenge with any skill-based game, but I kept trying). Video games represent the time I had to myself, and time spent with my peers. Eurogames bring back memories of some of the best days of my life at college. I first met my wife while playing Hearts, even. Throughout my life, games have been front and center at the greatest and most memorable moments. So in my case, I guess it’s not much of a surprise that I love games…

  6. July 16, 2008 8:24 pm

    As a player, I like games for the interactivity and variety. Games give me what no other medium can: a way to interact with my entertainment. I like making decisions and seeing the results. I also enjoy the wide variety of games. If I want something twitch and tough-as-nails, I can find that game (probably an arcade shooter). If I want something more thoughtful and slower paced, I can find that, too. If I want something epic and involved… yeah, that exists, too.

    As a developer, I like games because it’s a new medium with a lot of possibilities. I think with enough tenacity I could become a writer if I want, but that medium is well-established and hard to break into. It’s also really hard to write something that isn’t a reflection of something that has come before it in the centuries of history that the written word has. In order to be really original, you sometimes have to go way on the fringes, and some people have little patience for that type of thing.

    Games, on the other hand, aren’t so limited by history (although all designers can benefit from learning about history before trying to blaze new trails). Take storytelling, for example; games have told stories in the past, but we’ve mostly relied on lessons from other (non-interactive) media for telling stories; cutscenes and meaningless player “choices” in a non-branching plot are the norm. So, thinking about how to tell stories using the interactive nature of games is very exciting for me. Even if there are a ton of naysayers that don’t think it can be done. 🙂

    My thoughts.

  7. July 16, 2008 11:03 pm

    I play games because I like a challenge. Most days in life blend in with all the others, we get stuck in a daily routine. A game pulls me away from that.

    The first two games I ever played were Wordtris and Sim City. Wordtris had me solving puzzles, trying to make words out of falling blocks. Granted, being 4, I didn’t have an amazing vocabulary, so I found the game to be quite challenging. However, Sim City was a different story, because I could start laying out houses and factories and buildings… AND THEN HAVE GODZILLA BLOW THEM ALL UP!

    It’s that “getting away from it all” bit that I like, while at the same time, stimulating my brain. For example, just a few hours ago I was playing through “Max Payne 2,” starting from a part where I was having trouble previously where you have to provide cover fire so Max can find a way out of a construction site. This part had been challenging previously because Max was seriously low on health, and when he dies, game over, start from last save. Well, thank god for quick saves because after SEVERAL attempts I finally got through the part and am looking forward to finally finishing this compelling tale of death and romance.

    Some people like a good book, or a good movie. I like a good game.

  8. July 17, 2008 1:27 pm

    I answered over my blog, I think the comments are already too long. 🙂

  9. Marty Wagner permalink
    July 19, 2008 6:04 pm

    “The Phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components. When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following. First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.”
    -Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

  10. July 27, 2008 3:18 am

    I always loved aquariums, Bonsai gardens, dioramas, animatronic displays, ant farms, terrariums, anything that contained a kind of miniature world when I was a kid. So, games were like this for me. Little complete worlds in boxes. Like having a collection of pocket universes on a shelf.

    Why I like games in this way is very powerful to me but also somewhat of a mystery. One reason is probably that these “worlds” are finite with rules one can understand, depend on and control, unlike in the largely unpredictable real world.

    Another is likely the simple wonder of interacting with a microcosm and seeing the effects of my intervention, something which is usually pretty fascinating and fun.

    I think for me it’s also about the art and presentation that draws you in. If it’s working, for a while the mundane imagery of the everyday is replaced by art and sounds specifically created to transport you somewhere else (a “world”, a play space, a geometric grid with blocks, whatever) with all kinds of artsy tricks. I love that stuff; the tricks. I love experiencing it and I love attempting to make it happen.

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