Montageman: A dude who writes

February 19, 2007

A Theory of Fun

Filed under: controllers, games, koster — montageman @ 4:02 am

A Theory of Fun is an excellent analysis of the current (& possible future) of videogames. Koster uses the book as opportunity to not only view games through the lens of a designer, but also through the lens of a player and lover of games. In the final chapter, Koster lays down the following the claim, “Games have the capability to sit on the shelf next to all other communications media. They are capable of art. They are capable of portraying the human condition. They are teaching tools. They carry socially redeeming content. They elicit emotion,” (184). Koster yearns for a moment when games are no longer viewed as violent & mindless. Videogames should be used as teaching devices, Koster says games need to illuminate aspects of ourselves that we do not understand fully (186). This is the intention of art. Currently, videogames are stuck in a rut, however. As Koster sees it, there is very little in the way of gray thinking – too much is based on decisions that are either right or wrong. We are all familiar with games that punish us for making the wrong choice. For example, running into a goomba in Super Mario Bros. will cause Mario to die & start the level over, but jumping on the goomba will allow Mario to progress further & continue his quest to save the Princess. Punishment, then, is short lived, but it is the punishment that leads to feelings of inadequacy which in turn lead to the feeling of boredom. If a player cannot figure out in a relatively easy fashion how to progress, then frustration ensues. Conversely, if a game is too easy, boredom will rear its ugly head again.

The problems Koster deals with here are fundamentally cognitive in nature. He talks mostly puzzles and their subsequent effects on the gamer. He also speaks, in an overarching fashion, about the current state of games and how a change is needed. Two things he never mentions explicitly, however, are the controller and affect. He talks about fun & control, but never the underlying affective implications of either. Current videogame theory (for the most part) fails in its discussion of the controller. It appears that this physical aspect of the gaming experience is taken as a given. However, without the controller there is no physical and emotional connector from the player to the game.

I recently played a flight simulator game at an arcade. Before I describe the gaming experience, it should be noted that the arcade has changed. Essentially, arcades have fallen to the wayside in favor of entertainment complexes – huge places that have a multitude of activities to take part in, full service restaurants, and sports on big screen televisions. The experience is not unlike walking into a casino, the feeling of having your senses bombarded from all directions.  While this is a very public space, the majority of games are of a solo nature.  Even competitive games require the players to look at separate screens or take separate turns.

Arcade games are unique in that they have to offer players something that home consoles cannot.  Console games have better graphics & are mocap boxingusually played in a less public space – a basement, bedroom, computer lab, really spaces that are still public, but within the confines of a home.  Many of the games use motion capture technology to bring players a full body experience.  For example, Mocap Boxing (pictured left) situates the player as an up and coming boxer who must work his way through the ranks to win the championship.  The game is essentially a 1st person fighter with boxing gloves (Koster claims that most games are fundamentally the same in terms of mechanics only the dressing is different).  Before the Nintendo Wii was released, these games that required the player’s entire body were a reason to go to an arcade.  The Wii has repurposed motion capture for at home use, so now games like Mocap Boxing seem dated.

However, some games still maintain a level of novelty.  18 Wheeler (pictured right) requires players to man a big rig and make a delivery within a certain amount of time.  The logic of the arcade is that of the drift.  Barthes tells us that the drift refers to not respecting the whole.  In an arcade setting, it becomes nearly impossible to finish a game (i.e. “beat the game,” or play to the game’s end).  Instead, it is assumed players will drift from game to game finding pleasure in the novelty rather that the overall substance of the game.  This is precisely the reason I sat down to play the flight simulator.  I had no intention of completing the 3 missions, but I was drawn in by the desire to fly a jet fighter, if only in the context of a videogame.

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