Consider this fictitious quotation:
“I have never seen a movie. I see advertisements for movies frequently and know that many other people enjoy them, but to me they seem uninteresting and a waste of time.”
I can imagine the incredulity. Likely you would want to express to this person the value of film — its ability to evoke wonder, nostalgia, compassion. While some films may indeed be a waste of time, others are surely meaningful, whether through educational, emotional or spiritual means. To whatever degree, I suspect that the average person would recommend for that hypothetical person to see at least a good film or two before discounting the medium entirely.
Now replace in the above quote “seen a movie” with “played a video game.” The situation becomes more plausible, since many people do not play games and have no interest in doing so. Images of Warcraft-addicted teens glued to computer screens, those horrible Farmville requests flooding your Facebook inbox, the children speaking of “pwning” and “n00bs.” To the outsider, games might seem juvenile, frivolous or inane. Indeed, gaming and the culture that surrounds it have become major issues to parents, psychologists, politicians and others.
But those who play games would argue on the same grounds as the cineastes. While some games may hold incredible time-wasting potential, others create profound experiences only understood by the player. Players might reminisce on parts of a game that strained their abilities, or perhaps evoked emotion. They can also look back and see how they have changed and developed skills over the course of their play, a possibility not available in other media. And moving to the social realm, games provide enormous potential for players to have meaningful interactions with others.
In this article I cannot defend all these assertions, but I do hope to at least encourage those who have not played digital games for whatever reason to consider giving them a real shot. Albeit, games are not as accessible as films — they have technical requisites, skill assumptions and often-considerable costs. But, today, many games welcome all. If you have a computer, thousands of games are available for less than a movie ticket, many for free. And as the population of players ages and matures, developers come up with richer and more thought-provoking interactive experiences.
Thus, welcome to The Sun’s first feature devoted to digital games. A lot of college students already play games, be it Skyrim or Words with Friends, but for the rest of this article, I want to address the readers who have made it this far but are still skeptical (seasoned gamers are welcome to tag along too).
The simplest argument to be made in favor of playing games is that they are fun. There is a satisfaction and pleasure available to the experience of gameplay that is not so readily available when watching TV, seeing a movie or reading a book. This has to do with the psychological concept of flow.
Flow is a positive psychology concept proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi to describe the mental state of becoming completely immersed in a task. When a task has the right balance between its difficulty and your abilities, you enter a flow state. You feel absorbed and in control; you might lose track of time or awareness of yourself. It feels really good.
You have experienced flow, whether in a well-matched basketball game, a challenging piano piece or a particularly interesting homework problem (no?).
But digital games are uniquely apt for generating flow since they are designed especially to do so. Games set clear and achievable goals, give immediate visual and auditory feedback based on the player’s performance and adjust difficulty as the player becomes more skilled.
Take, for example, BIT.TRIP RUNNER by Gaijin Games (available on the game service Steam for $9.99, as well as Wii and 3DS). The game mechanics will be familiar if you have ever seen other “runner” games like Canabalt or the beloved Robot Unicorn Attack. But BIT.TRIP RUNNER has some elements especially good for generating flow.
Players control Commander Video, hero of the BIT.TRIP series, as he runs through colorful 2D levels. Each obstacle successfully jumped over, slid under or kicked through plays a sound, and power-ups enhance the visual and auditory experience. If Commander Video hits a single obstacle, he is sent back to the start of the level.
The game, while unforgiving, provides an extremely clear measure of progress: you can see yourself getting better as you run further away from the starting point, grab more gold bricks and upgrade the environment with power-ups. Crashing into an obstacle doesn’t stop the game. Instead it quickly restarts — you’re playing again before you can lament your failure.
One particularly difficult portion, where blocks approach in rapid succession, might be frustrating and push players out of flow. But getting through was one of the most joyous gaming experiences I have had. After many (many) failures, I was suddenly able to fly through with complacent ease. Mastering something so initially difficult is an extraordinary feeling, and with games it is possible to reach such elation several times in an afternoon.
Whereas I had a wonderful flow experience playing BIT.TRIP RUNNER, others have equated its gameplay to “psychological torture” (by the way, there is an easy mode). But if you hate RUNNER, that’s alright too. The diversity and inventiveness of games today is astounding. There’s more than one out there fo r you.
Not all games solely try to achieve flow. Many focus on a story or aim to convey a specific mood. The flow model is a traditional way of looking at games, but interactive media harbors limitless possibilities only beginning to be explored.
So? Off to play some games?