It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I often think about why people play games. For a while I’ve been batting around a metaphor that I find useful: Junk food vs. Nutrition.
Some games are simply fun. They provide some sort of pleasure from manipulating the components or developing skill. One of my favorite games of this type is Time Pilot (it’s available on XBox Live Arcade if you’re interested). In Time Pilot, you pilot a futuristic plane that flies around shooting enemies; once you shoot enough enemies the “boss” appears, and when you defeat that you get to the next level. That’s it. Oh, there are a couple of wrinkles like point bonuses if you defeat all the enemies in a “wing”, but really that’s all it is. And it’s quite fun.
Games like this I consider “junk food”. They sate your desires, they provide enjoyment, but they don’t encourage you to “grow” at all.
This begs the question, what do I mean by “grow”, and what games would I consider “important”? Of course this is all subjective, but this is my blog, so here goes. I consider games to be “important” if they provide you with new information and new ways of thinking about things, if they encourage your mind to grow in some way.
For example, consider Portal. Portal’s portals prompt players to think in new ways about space and motion. Also, its story provides a new twist on the classic “enemy computer” trope, and its setting evokes a particular “research gone wrong” sort of horror. These are things that guide the player to new thoughts and new information.
Now, some people will say that once you get all the “nutrition” from a game, playing it ceases to give you any new information. That’s true. Games aren’t infinitely “nutritive” (although some, like Master of Magic, feature so many emergent strategies that you can “profitably” play them for years). After playing Portal for 10 hours you’ve probably gotten all the information you can from it, and now you’re just developing your portal-flipping skills. At this point the game is “junk food”. Also, some would argue that even a game as simple as Time Pilot has valuable information; there’s the interesting, if sparse, time travel premise, and there are various skill atoms you come across as you learn to play the game. As no game is infinitely nutritive, no game is entirely junk either…Unless it’s merely a rehash of things the player has seen before.
Let me say that I don’t think “junk food” is bad. If you want nothing more than fun from a game–there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m certainly not going to tell you which games you can play.
But just think…If you want to grow, you can’t do it with junk food alone.
Now, as a relatively inexperienced game designer (compared to some out there, at least), I don’t feel as though my games are better than junk. I don’t claim to be producing worthwhile games, yet…However, I do always try to include some “nutrition” in them, something new, something that makes people think, something that nudges the craft of game design just a little bit forward. Phantasma, for example, has a somewhat original system of modeling spellcasting wizards, and it also has player-created “sculptures” and player-written books. Chaostorm is a neat Web 2.0-ish game mechanic developed into a (simple, admittely) browser-based game. And Aching Dreams takes resource management down to first principles to create a simple but flexible game framework…and, of course, it has sex.
Of course, this model informs the games I make, but perhaps more importantly it informs the games I play. I’ve played a bunch of match-3 games, of course, for about five minutes each; they’re junk food. However, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is a game I’ve devoted lots of time to–it illustrates how you can replace “standard” RPG gameplay with other mechanics, it explores the match-3 mechanic in a couple new directions, it allows you to develop your character in ways that influence the match-3 gameplay. And it’s pretty fun too. Conversely, I downloaded and played the demo for Castle Crashers, but I didn’t spend more than a few minutes on it. Sure, it seemed well polished, but it was a four-player beat-’em-up like Final Fight or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…And sure, the animation is great, but game design isn’t about animation, it’s about information.
So, if you design games, are you creating junk food or a healthy snack? If you play games (and, nowadays, who doesn’t)–How much time do you spend with junk food, and how much with stuff that actually helps your mind grow? (I’ll admit that my “junk food time” is, well, let’s just say greater than zero!)