Learn to Play: A Lack of Taste

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.

16 thoughts on “Learn to Play: A Lack of Taste

  1. […] Clark writes about a lack of taste in games, and what it does to games and gamers. The media – eg, me – could do more to foster […]

  2. A fascinating read. I’ve often wondered about my own tastes in games, and if sometimes I’ve dismissed games I might have otherwise enjoyed because it didn’t fit into some pre-shaped hole I thought was “best” at the time.

  3. DensityDuck says:

    I like your cheese party analogy. But to make the analogy parse better, we’d have to present you as the guy who serves his friends a meal that consists only of cheese, and when they say “is there any other food” you reply that they’ve been conditioned by the junk-food industry to believe that they actually want the simplistic satisfaction of multiple tastes in a single meal, and they should be open to new varieties of eating, and that maybe eating only cheese is the whole *point* because it makes sure that the eater really *understands* the subtleties of flavor and texture in the cheese.

    • naomi says:

      I’m to blame for over-extending analogies (it’s an addiction) but if games are various kinds cheese in this analogy, then we’re talking about someone who invites friends over to JUST play and talk about games? I mean, I don’t tend to do that since I have many friends who aren’t that into games, but it’s not uncommon. Maybe you mean cheese is just one KIND of game. I’m not sure. Also, I think that is the point of actual cheese-tasting parties: the point of going to a cheese party IS that you’re going to eat a lot of cheese in order to experience different cheeses and their distinctions. You don’t go to eat other kinds of food (except maybe some grapes as a palate-cleanser). Which is why you don’t go to a cheese party for every meal.

  4. Trevor Murray says:

    This article is rife with brilliance, I cannot wait to read more.

  5. Lisa says:

    Your writing and analysis of an overlooked aspect of the gaming industry is really compelling and well-done. I loved reading this article and it resonated a lot with feelings I’ve had floating around for awhile.

    I’ve developed some thoughts of my own, but first, I’m curious about your opinion – do you think there are any examples of games right now that have succeeded in creating something outside of traditional consumer demand? A game that does go more for “multivariate meaning” than the simple “x time + x effort + x emotional payoff = success” formula?

    • naomi says:

      Definitely — there are a whole lot of games being created, especially in the last seven or eight years, that aren’t *only* trying to meet established & ingrained consumer expectations, or reject them entirely. They’re mostly smaller games (for reasons that have everything to do with that difference) distributed on slightly more open platforms like iOS, itch.io, or free on the web. I recommend Forest Ambassador as an excellent guide to a plethora of different kinds of games, many of which fit what you’re inquiring about. They’re all also free and require relatively little time investment or familiarity with gaming conventions: http://forestambassador.com/

  6. Steven Emmanuel says:

    I don’t know if what I am about to say is related to this post or not but I will say it anyway:
    .
    While I was reading this post it reminded me of small babies , when you feed them food , you instantly know if he/she likes the food by the expression on his/her face , but then, when they grow up And have tasted a lot of stuff They don’t get mad about food that wasn’t according to their taste as a kid, because they have widened their range of taste.
    But then it can be totally opposite,
    Because maybe small babies don’t have a acquired taste and are much more open to different kinds of taste, whereas when they grow up ,they have tasted so much food that they make a formula or a theory on what food tastes good and anything outside that is totally unacceptable.

  7. Satoshi Kamasutra says:

    You’re just echoing the complaints of all frustrated would-be artists going back centuries, if not millennia. Because obviously if your intended audience doesn’t appreciate what you’re producing, the problem is with the audience, not you. Obviously!

  8. Paladin says:

    While the content of the article itself is interesting, it’s ultimately several pages of you telling why a playtester is universally wrong, rather than trying to understand why this very tester* felt really annoyed by having to replay a specific level of a specific game. If you were the dev of the game in question, I would consider your article – to quote your words – “ridiculously wrongheaded”; which I point out in this comment because I don’t like the idea of aspiring game devs reading your piece and concluding defiance towards playtesters you dislike is a valid attitude.

    *(who, as you’ve noted, experiences for sure repetition in every video game)

    • Mauricio Quilpatay says:

      Paladin I think you are wrong as it is explicit enough about that. I consider this a step towards a more empiric and theoretical approach to taste and the social group who tries to define itself as true gamer (and hence ehy I think this is a great contribution to a sociological analysis of the issue).

  9. Will Lakeman says:

    I really enjoyed your analogy. The growing conservative tendency in the self-defined gamer identity is really puzzling to me, as it’s based around a medium that supposedly encourages exploration and the subversion of mechanical systems. I can’t help but feel if many of my favourite old games had been tested by “real gamers” they would never have come out.

  10. “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.”

    Well, yes, but if I recall C.S. Lewis had much the same view towards many people who read literature in his “Experiment in Criticism”. Most people aren’t reading to appreciate the craft; they’re reading because the work conjures up various emotions within them, and that’s in-and-of itself pleasurable and not to be so quickly scorned.

    And it *is* the tone of scorn that I’m detecting when I, as you put it, “read between the lines”. As much as the piece you wrote decries “classism” in food, it turns around and wholeheartedly embraces it in games. It features paragraph after lengthy paragraph about how the things that these (somewhat stereotypical) True Gamers enjoy are somehow lacking in taste.

    But why?

    No, seriously, why? Poor writing? Evil Corporations? Consumers’ stubborn unwillingness to embrace artgames? Steam giving refunds? I’m honestly at a loss.

    And what separates this from the complaints about the general public’s “lack of taste” that you find in every classist jeremiad about media? Forget about “lit snobs” complaining about genre fiction that only exists to conjure emotion, or similar complaints about summer blockbuster films, reality television, pop music, and all of that. This is reminiscent of nothing less than turn-of-the-century attacks on “penny dreadfuls” and pulp fiction!

    (And, yes, obnoxious people can be obnoxiously scornful of experimental media. That’s sort of “my kid could draw this” reaction is an old cliche, too. It’d be more surprising if gaming didn’t feature that sort of thing.)

    But what’s the basis for this claim that there not enough “tastes” in gaming? Adventure games are going through a renaissance, with Telltale being showered with accolades for (yes!) storytelling and Twine adventures becoming almost boringly ubiquitous. Strat games are still around, 2D platforming is the backbone of indie gaming, puzzle games are everywhere, RPGs are huge in both the AAA and indie space, Paradox’s historical sims are fantastic, 4X is making a comeback, and while AAA is still a bit too focused on big sandboxes and shooters, many of them are nurturing thriving mod scenes.

    The most popular games in the world at this point are League of Legends and Minecraft. One’s basically a team sport, the other’s a game about creation. What is it about these things that is “tasteless?”

    (Heck, your own comment replying to “Lisa” pointed to one of several thriving homes for artgames!)

    I want to be sympathetic. I really do. I’m sorry that you had to deal with an obnoxious tester. I appreciate the comment about what sort of QA is most valuable. And I do get that the only hope right now of making money from experimental artistic expression in gaming is Patreon.

    But there’s nothing wrong with enjoyment, “True Gamers” are not remotely numerous enough to be responsible for market tendencies…

    …and as always, there is “no accounting for taste”.

  11. […] In a like vein: in the initial post I compared the prevalence of zombies in videogames to having pizza at every meal. With a broader, fiercer, more precise version of that argument, here’s Naomi Clark on tastelessness: […]

  12. […] to quote a section of her piece that isn’t already quoted by others, and for good reason.  Just go read it.  She is another writer who is so good with words, I cannot help but seethe with jealous rage when […]

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