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I mentioned in an earlier comment that I found simpler, stripped down games to have more replay value, meaning games like Sudoku, Tetris, and Freecell, and the like.  Because the mechanics of the game are so simplistic and transparent, the game sort of fades to the background.  The competition is more between the players and themselves than it is between the players and the game.  As long as a competitor is interested in pouring himself into all the iterations that game’s rules allow, they can stay extremely involved for a long period of time.  This can mean that the simpler the game is, the better.

To a point.

There’s a line between a game setting small enough boundaries for a player to explore each bit of the area closely and a game leaving so little room for choice that it suffocates.  Tic-tac-toe crosses that line.

After learning the rules [once you get three in a row you win, and no you can’t draw in a picture of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson], there are three major points of development for a tic-tac-toe player.  The first is learning how to draw the game board correctly.  It’s tough to draw 4 straight, even lines when you’re just learning how to write.  Once that moment comes, though, the player is free to have any number of competitions with classmates, parents with senses of humor, and themself at a moment’s notice.  The world seems large.

The second point is when they find out that the corner is a better first move than the center.  This is the high point of a tic-tac-toe player’s career.  At this moment, they find out that they can guarantee a victory with all but two second-move replies, and even then there are two places for the opponent to slip-up on the fourth move and allow a win.  The world seems winnable.

The third point is when they realize that every single game, no matter, is probably going to end up a cat’s game.  Everyone knows the tricks, there’s no joy in beating the people that don’t, and no one really wants to play anymore.  The world seems small and meaningless.
This transition can happen at different rates for different people, but it’s still an inevitable liability.  There is a discrete number of distinct games that can be played.  Taking into account rotations and mirror images of final board positions, there are only 138 possible ways that a game of tic-tac-toe can end.  That is small enough for even a child to grasp and get bored of.

So I’m left wondering where the line is drawn between a game being too simple to matter and simple enough to still be transparent to the players.  Is it 4 X 4 tic tac toe?  Checkers?  Chess?  NBA Jam Tournament Edition?

I’d imagine the line is drawn in different places for different people, but I’d think it’s still there somewhere.  For many people, tic-tac-toe is just the first game to move from one side of it to the other.

Disclaimer: I do not like 4X4 tic tac toe.  It’s a needless expansion of an established concept that almost serves to discredit the original. I didn’t like Tetrisphere either.

Professional wrestling is fake.

The two dudes in the ring aren’t really fighting.  Before the “fight,” they decide on a collection of certain moves to execute, and the remainder of the physical activity during the match is just a very unique type of improv play.  They dance for a bit, make it look like they are hurt and tired, and then move steadily onward to the predetermined finish.  The guy who wins is meant to look like the stronger wrestler in some aspect, but not because he can actually beat the other guy up but because the writers determined that he should like it.

Video games are fake.

The people in the game aren’t really people.  Before the release, designers decide how the game is supposed to look and feel, and the remainder of the activity is done remotely via you.  No matter how close the game comes to recreating reality, it can’t.  Sometimes reality is disregarded entirely.  When Mario dies, you start the level over.  When a lemming falls off a cliff, there are millions there to take its place.  If a game has an ending, it’s not because suddenly all narrative force within reality ceases to be, it’s because the designer decided that it should look like it.

Professional wrestling video games are different. 

WCW vs. NWO World Tour was a 1997 release for the Nintendo 64.  What the game lacks in realistic graphics, it makes up for in the picture of Hulk Hogan and Paul Wight on the cover.  The gameplay is similar to that of Virtua Fighter, in that there is a 3D environment with free movement that has a specific boundary around where the action is meant to take place.  Unfortunately, the gameplay is blockier than Virtua Fighter and built more with intention of making sure as many wrestling moves could be executed as possible.  (The actual play isn’t remarkable in any way, but if one just wanted the rush of pretending to be their favorite WCW wrestler, then this game had almost everything they needed.  Unfortunately, 1997 was the year before Chris Jericho and Raven were signed by World Championship Wrestling, so they do not appear in the game.  Boo.)  WCW vs. NWO World Tour is presented like any other fighting game.  You either punch or kick your opponent into submission with the B button, or you grapple them with the A button and throw them around until they give up, get pinned, or get knocked out.

You beat up your opponent to win.  Just like any other fighting game.  But this game shouldn’t be just like any other fighting game.

When other athletic contests are translated into video games, their ultimate goal remains the same.  Virtual success has a real life counterpart.  The goal of a basketball video game is to beat the other team, just like in real life.  The goal of a golf video game is to get the lowest score, just like in real life.  The goal of a professional wrestling video game is to win the match, completely unlike real life.

In the real world, the wrestler’s motivation is to be as interesting as possible so that they can “draw money” by making people come back to see them perform.  That can be because of their looks, or athleticism, or character, but it has nothing to do with them actually beating up their opponent.  That’s an act.  The purpose of that act is to make the audience forget that what they’re seeing in the ring is scripted.  The audience will know it’s all fake, but if the show is good enough then they can maybe, just maybe convince themselves for the moment that it isn’t.

Virtual wrestling conveniently bypasses all that tedious junk.  WCW vs. NWO isn’t about drawing money or entertaining fans.  It’s about beating people up.  It’s factually inaccurate.  But it’s part of the act.  Not only is the game a way for WCW to make more money, it’s something that they can point at and say “See?  They’re really fighting in the game.  They must be really fighting in real life too!”  The game is a fraud.  They’re adding a fake sport to a fake world in order to make the fake sport seem more real.  And it works

Once wrestling fans stop caring about the results of the match, the wrestling industry is dead.  What’s left without an ostensibly competitive element is just large, clumsy people dancing in their underwear.  The audience for that is slim.  The purpose of this game, beyond just entertainment, is to once again make the case for wrestling fans to consider what they see in the ring as legitimate.  The fight in the fake world is real, so the fake fight in the real world gets realer.

Watching McGonigal’s video on “Saving the World Through Game Design” struck me with the idea of using games to enhance every day life.  I wish I knew about Chorewars when I lived in a frat house.  I wish my car were hooked up to an online miles-per-gallon leaderboard so I could compete with people at not speeding on the freeway.  These kinds concepts seemed like great way to take menial yet meaningful things like housework or environmental protection that don’t have any substantial level of instant gratification and adding to them a proxy prize.  Maybe washing a plate won’t mean much when I dirty it with grilled cheese crumbs later, but my character will be more able to kick my roommate’s character’s ass.  That’s reason enough to make me take that plate out of the sync, and put it away.

I was sold.  I found myself wondering what other types of situations this type of motivational translation could apply to.  Is there a gap in the market?  What’s something I know to be important but something I tend to lack the inspiration to work on on a daily basis?

Oh.  School.  Why don’t people make academics work like this?  It’d be awesome.

I’m often either unwilling or unable to picture the end of the term while mapping out all the different papers and assignments I need to complete in order to finish with an adequate grade.  I always come out of tests thinking “I should have studied more,” but I never go into them thinking “I haven’t studied enough.”  There’s a disconnect between what I see in retrospect and what I imagine going forward.  I need something to bridge that gap.  The act of preparation itself needs to mean something.  Channeling effort through a game would work.  Why doesn’t anyone ever do that at U of M?  I would love it.

Then I remembered this IRC conversation I had with my friend two and a half weeks ago:

 <Matt> okay
<Matt> im starting a one credit class tomorrow
<Matt> this is the first line of the syllabus
<Matt> third line, sorry
<Matt> The course itself is organized as a game: you must level up to earn the grade you desire. Point allocations for various quests are outlined below.
<paul> oh, that old chestnut
<paul> i wonder if its the original one, even
<Matt> you’ve had this type of thing in your class before?
<paul> not mine, but i’ve read about it online
<paul> apparently it actually works to bring grade averages up
<paul> people are motivated by the game element
<Matt> im motivated
<Matt> this seems fun
<Matt> 1300 ‘points’ get me an A and 2850 are available
<Matt> not counting ‘bonus participation points’
<Matt> i am a nerd
<Matt> i should not be this excited
<paul> lol
<paul> see it works

It has worked.  I’ve considered this class a game, and it’s held my attention so much more for it.  There are elements of competition (the weekly leaderboard announcement), a best score to improve (how many points can I get this week?), of character autonomy (do I want to write blog posts  or make a game or run a class discussion?), and even shortcuts (200 points for a 2000 word paper versus 200 points for 2500 words of blog posts.).  Picturing class with a different mindset than usual has made me appreciate the process more.  Not only am I learning, but I’m enjoying what I’m learning far more.  I even found myself playing a Clay Shirky TED speech on my radio show last night.  It’s not just a final grade that I focus on, it’s the activities leading up to it.

School has never been easy for me.  This is my third attempt at a bachelor’s degree.  If McGonical’s concepts have been this successful in making me think about academic practices in a better way, then I’m excited to see where else they can be applied.

Solitaire is as common to PC’s as notepad, internet explorer, and questions from trendier friends asking why you haven’t gotten a mac yet.  (They’re so much easier to use, and they last longer.  (Shut up, Josh, I don’t want one.))  Ever since Windows 3.1, it’s been the primary program of the Games folder.  There haven’t been changes to the functional process of the game since its first iteration, excepting a slight graphical overhaul from Windows Vista onward.  The process of the game is simple and opaque.  Click, drag, consider.  Click, drag, consider.  Repeat until you can’t do it any more.  Then do it again.

The game was not made with computers in mind.  It was first a lonely card game called Klondike.  It just so happened that it was easily and cheaply translated into code.  Despite its non-virtual origins, it was the first computer game I played with any regularity.  It’s probably the one I still play most often.  If there is a cognitive gap in my life, I play solitaire.  It’s not something I do for intellectual stimulation.  It’s something I do to fill time between other types of time-filler.

Since I’ve gotten this laptop, I’ve played this game 452 times.  Assuming the average game lasts a little over 2 minutes, that’s about 16 hours in total that I’ve played.  That’s an entire waking day. And it doesn’t even include time spent on freecell, minesweeper, and space pinball.  That’s a large chunk of my life that I can’t get back.  What was the point?  There has to be a something more than filler, right?

If there is, I don’t know what it is.  In my mind, this is the type of thing people don’t realize they think about when they’re referring to the degenerative process of gaming.  Solitaire has no storyline, no covert message, and no lasting impression.  It’s just a small amount of tedious problem solving done by one person on their own when nothing else in their life seems immediately worth contemplating.  However, it’s done on the computer so it’s quicker.  Shuffling and setting up a game with actual playing cards takes just as long as actually playing the game, so the computer version is largely preferable.  But even so, it’s just streamlined time wasting. There is no plot, just occupation. You’re not competing against anyone, just yourself, or the clock, or your eroding sense of productivity.

Is there any academic value?  It’s been removed from most U of M lab computers, so clearly not in a broad sense.  What about entertainment?  Surely, but it’s not the type of entertainment you can make a career out of like football or professional wrestling.  What about the fact that it’s been around since the early 90s, does its longevity speak to its worth?  Not necessarily.  Cigarettes have been around for longer.

That’s not to say there isn’t a reason to play.  There’s a notion of reward.  On the ~15% chance that you win a game, you get a visual fanfare of the cards flying around the screen in a pleasing way.  I still get a happy feeling thinking about winning the earlier versions of the game to see if one of the cards in the far right sell will eject to the left and leave a long, slow trail along the bottom of the screen.

But I’m not sure the fact that that makes me happy is a good thing.  It feels more like a dependence or compulsion than an actual success.  In my mind, solitaire is not a game of example, it’s a game of warning.  But maybe I’m just being especially harsh because I need an exterior locus of control for ineffectual study habits.  But if that’s the case, then what positive aspects am I missing?

Façade is a game created by Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas that was released in 2005.  It’s something that seems to be best qualified as a relationship adventure.  You are the first-person protagonist who has come to see his/her friends, Grace and Trip, in order catch up and give out free, conscripted therapy.  It quickly becomes clear that Grace and Trip are having relationship problems and the game is predicated on the idea that you, as a good friend, will do your best to help bring them back together through kind words and concern.  It’s up to you how you want to approach this.  You type in whatever dialogue you like (character limit permitting), and the game’s AI reacts to it as best it can to recreate the expression of an actual conversation.  Eventually everything you say is verbally reviewed by either Trip or Grace, and depending on how successful you were at governing the situation, they either get back together or one of them leaves alone.

Of course, that’s assuming you desire to get that far.  A lot of enjoyment can be derived from finding out exactly what you can say to make Trip throw you out early.  Typing the word “LIES” in all capitals when he first opens the door is effective.  Again,it’s up to you how you want to approach it, but the player’s idea of success doesn’t always match up with that of the the programmer’s.

However, both of these approaches to the game run parallel to the same question: how real does this interaction feel?  The game makes it easy for us to focus on that question.  There seems to be threadbare effort applied to the graphics, character designs, and sounds within the game.  The setting is a fairly bland 3D environment that evokes a bit of a desolate feeling, but that has much to do with the decor as it does with the blocky, uninviting graphics.  The characters are given just enough attention to show the player that they are both human and are probably different genders, but nothing about their appearance is especially interesting.  The background music is just an ominous drone that seems to indicate that you three are the final survivors of a horrible attack on humanity that the characters have yet to realize happened (the game neglects to address this).  Even the plot seems tacky.  Trip doesn’t want to be poor, Grace wants to be respected, and neither of them has ever seen pineappling.  The result of stripping away everything of potential interest or distraction is make the words the only thing that stands out.  The interaction between yourself and the characters is given priority.

In fact, that seems to be the entire purpose of the game’s creation.  It seems a beta test to find out if a computer can recreate emotion, or react to dialogue with the proper emotion, or if its programming can evoke an emotional reaction in the player.  When Trip walks out the door and Grace’s voice actor painfully expels  the words”I should have… I should have said…” is the player moved?  Does the fact that it was clearly a computer game character saying those things help distance the player from the reality of the dialogue?  If it does, why play the game that’s meant to attach you to two computerized characters?  Does this codified sadness undervalue people’s reaction to emotions outside of this virtual world, or does it even devalue emotion as a whole by assuming this virtual world can recreate real feelings?  What happens when interaction with a false entity drives you to tears quicker than interaction with someone you know personally?

The first time I got to Grace’s emotional impasse, I laughed and wrote “nice going” before the screen faded to black.  We’re not at the point where we need to start considering these questions on a practical level.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t things to consider, though.  The game is remarkably effective in making us do so.  The setting of the story raises baseline questions of “do these characters really love each other” or “is the best thing for any faltering relationship to try and mend it or should some end?” but by stripping away depth from everything but the interaction itself, the interaction becomes the topic of greatest interest.

Does it feel real to you?  Will it ever?  Would you want it to?