I had the chance the other day to see one playtester’s comments on a game being made by a friend of mine. The player’s thoughts went something like this:
- “Look, I’m a gamer, and you ought to know that gamers are the most discerning kind of consumer.”
- “I had to play this level twice. I can’t believe you forced me to to repeat an experience. This makes me angry. This makes any real gamer angry, and that’s just a simple truth.”
- “If I give you my money and give you the time I spend playing your game, I expect you to work for it by providing enough experiences, not by having me repeat something.”
- “Truly successful games don’t involve repetition. That’s why Real Gamers don’t play MMOs and the people who play them aren’t actual gamers.”
These comments struck me–and everyone other colleague who read and responded to them–as ridiculously wrongheaded, entitled, and over-broad. They’re also expressive of an entire ideology about games and gamers that veers close to conventional wisdom in some quarters. The problems with this thinking are pretty clear to me: games, however you look at them, almost always involve repetition. We play, strive, fail, and loop back to checkpoints and saved games to try again, or try differently, experiencing time and recursion in ways that would make a film or a novel “experimental.” In games that let us interact with story, we finish, then play again, read again, to choose another choice that bends towards a different texture of storytelling, perhaps a different ending. The opening moves of team sports, the strong gambits of classic chess games, grow familiar to players and spectators through countless repetitions, even earning themselves names. The patterns and process that lead to the outcome or ending of a game are worn into grooves by repeated acts, like leather grown buttery and supple with long use, even as the outcome remains uncertain for competitors, the possibilities of ending unknown to a first-time single player. Genres of games are born out of commonality and repetition of fundamental interactions: do this, like you did in that other game.
Game creators who’ve spent any amount of time conducting playtests have learned that playtesters’ opinions aren’t what a playtest seeks to elicit. Playtests aren’t focus groups, in other words. Playtesting a game is useful if you want to see what kinds of experiences are produced from playing your game; those experiences can be just as varied as individuals are, but the more vocal about opinions someone is, the less likely they are to communicate about the rawer levels of their own experience, their own reactions. Excellent playtesters can watch themselves without thinking too much about what’s “wrong” or “right” about the game, which is why game designers are often described as the worst possible playtesters: we think too much about how we might create part of the game differently, and not enough about what’s happening to us as players.
Similarly, the player whose thoughts are paraphrased above wasn’t talking about his experiences of play; he was filtering those experiences through a matrix of received wisdom about how games should and shouldn’t be made, what kinds of activities they should and shouldn’t involve, and what makes him part of a superior class of gamer. I’m pretty sure, however, that repetition in and of itself wasn’t what upset this self-described member of the “gaming elite” — I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that he was type of player who’d be fine learning a set of moves to repeat into a situational combo for a fighting game, the type of player who’d die ten times in a level of Super Meat Boy and repeat it ten times through increasingly clenched teeth, and so forth. The repetition isn’t the problem. The time invested isn’t exactly the problem either–not in a cultural context where gamers still evaluate many game products on “hours of gameplay.” If I read between the lines–which is often the trick with trying to glean playtesting insight out of this kind of heavily filtered report of experience–I suspect the real problem is that he wasn’t given the emotional payoff that he expected to receive in exchange for his money and effort. He found the repetition unwarranted, unsatisfying.
This player’s view of games is a familiar one that I’d like to articulate in a slightly less familiar way: it’s a portrait of a game as a machine that a player cranks in order to generate certain types of expected gratification: challenge and mastery, less a matter of learning useful or transferable skills than an inculcated feeling of having improved and overcome; novelty, the sensory experiences of something he hasn’t seen, heard or read yet; acknowledgement in the form of reward. It’s not a stretch to imagine that these are the payoffs he was look for. On top of that, he extends his preferences in games to All True Gamers; he declares that developers who don’t cater to these preferences are disrespectful, gouging, worthy of anger.
These are the impoverished gardens that have been grown by the best practices of games as a consumer entertainment industry: put money, time and effort in, get these emotions out. At worst, it stultifies the creation of games into a mechanical exercise, optimizing the efficiency of dopamine production via the stimulation of human brains in the same way that an industrial process would evaluate the quantity of ore extracted and transported from a mine. At best, we can talk about preferences, but we fall short of tastes. Preferences hover in the realm of “what works for you?” Mileage may vary, but you can find an effective treatment, the level of challenge and decision-making stimulus that activates the neural pathways you’re aching for.
Tastes, on the other hand, are less about efficacy on individuals than about aesthetics. Taste isn’t the nutritional content of food or the recommended daily allowance; it’s not the amount of carbs needed to fuel endurance running or the quantity of protein that can be converted into muscle building through exercise; it’s not about filling your belly with calories or your brain with a satiated anti-boredom. It’s about what it fucking tastes like. The encounter of a tongue and a particular flavor, a moment of beauty illuminated by a material as well as the taster’s sum of experiences. Taste changes not only with a mix of molecules or mechanics, but through cultivation and understanding, appreciating a thing for what it is, and perhaps what it intends.
Some tastes are easy: I want a packet of salt and fat to dissolve on my tongue and give me that “comfort food” feeling. We know that most human beings respond to these packets; there’s a snack-food industry based on it. But we know that these are not the only tastes in food; there are more difficult tastes, often rife with snobbery: the flavor of a hard-to-drink whiskey, the pungency of natto from fermented soybeans. These tastes aren’t for everyone, and they require more from the taster–even if we resist the eye-rollingly classist notion that investing time into acquired tastes makes someone more refined. You can’t just be a consumer of these substances; you have to learn to consume, to eat, drink, taste whatever’s really there.
Games have the opposite problem: an elitism defined by the absence of taste, or simply by bad taste: an overweening concern with effective production of profit-generating emotional payoff that’s grown homogenous through the optimization of business practices and Metacritic scores. If this wasn’t so, it wouldn’t even be partially intelligible to speak of “what gamers like” as if it’s unitary, authoritative, or elite. Stepping into games is like arriving at a cheese-tasting party where most of the crowd is angrily murmuring that cheddar and swiss are always and objectively the best cheeses on grounds of utility and pleasure, that assholes offering a plate of mold-laced bleu are an affront to any real cheese-lover, that brie may simply be too soft to be a real cheese. It’s tricky to distinguish taste from efficacy in games, because the efficacy here isn’t about nutrition or blood sugar, it’s efficacy in the inculcation of pleasure–but we must distinguish the pleasure of a belly full of familiar fodder and the pleasure of the tongue.
Business logic has desiccated this creative landscape and cut off its own potential growth with its usual local-maxima-seeking efficiency. Creators and critics struggle and scrabble here. Lovers of rich storytelling through games often bemoan the low quality of writing in games; in conventional industrial game development, storytelling is harnessed more as a tool to explain, bolster, and rationalize these gameful emotional payoffs than for storytelling’s own rich capacity for expression and feeling. Artists and critics who champion the expressive authorial potential of games are at loggerheads with a market ideology that relentlessly prioritizes emotional payoff for players over the intentional crafting of multivariate meaning. Wonk-headed designers who want to explore new terrain are hemmed in by consumer demands that their undreamt-of architectures manage to plop out nuggets of fulfillment, an appropriate level of challenge, an adequate amount of unique and unrepeated experience.
Is there a way out? Maybe we should talk more about tastes. We should all have our own tastes, and not just preferences for what “works” on our synapses. Taste is what ought to define someone as an aficionado, a “gamer” if you can still manage fondness for the word–not the volume of their howling demands, not number of hours played or dollars spent, not adherence or formulation of absurdly universal credos about what pleasure in games consists of.
There are murmurings of taste circulating in conversations about games; John Sharp and David Thomas have a forthcoming book on taste in games that I’m looking forward to. At the moment, I see the idea of taste deployed, quite appropriately, to dispel notions of universal standards for games, or elitism about “real games.” I think we can go further: we can distinguish the absence of taste, the difficult to acquire tastes, the satisficing gorge on tried-and-true pleasures, the under-appreciated tastes that we could find real beauty in–if only we’d stop wrinkling our noses and reaching for the bowl of chips.
If games are so wonderfully full of potential and expression, as more and more people say–if they have such potential to shape the future, win hearts and minds, define culture–then surely this is in part because they encompass so many possible flavors. Surely not all the flavors will be as quick to delight as a sucker popped in a toddler’s mouth. Surely every flavor–or nearly every flavor, no let’s say every flavor, just to see–is waiting to be investigated, mixed, recombined, explored.
Learn to Play: This is an introduction. Next up: the antipodes of flavor in games, the operative fantasies that pull away from more subtle or complex flavors. After that: games that require more taste, games that you must learn to appreciate if you really want to learn to play.