Thursday, April 28, 2005

Semantics As Usual

Over at
Water Cooler Games, on April 21, there was a really good post concerning a recent educational game, Food Force. I don't take issue with the post, but there was a part that I wanted to discuss, some would say nitpick.

The author makes this statement: "Who decided that games must be fun? Games must be engaging, compelling, interesting, but fun is not a requirement."

I disagree, but when I think of why, it mostly falls to semantics. When I think of fun, I think of things that are engaging and compelling and interesting. Which is probably the problem with much of game theory and criticism. What the fuck IS fun?

Most people can only answer by saying, "I only know what fun ISN'T!"

Fun, to me, doesn't mean exciting. It doesn't mean adrenaline has to pump or sweat has to break out. And because it's so tough to pigeonhole, it's so easy to make it a universal when it comes to game design.

The crux of it, for me, is this: If it's a leisure activity, and it makes you feel good when you do it, it's probably fun TO YOU. Which sucks, because we'll never ever ever nail down what the fuck that means.

Which, of course, is the challenge of game design.

Nobody gives a shit if you've made a game that goes into exquisite detail the ramifications of some subject or another if it isn't, in some way, fun. To put it another way, I studied Calculus in High School because I was told I had to, and I hated every fucking minute of it; But when I studied English, which I enjoyed, it was fun.

Why was English fun? I suppose it presents an interesting challenge to me, putting words together in new and novel ways, exploring the way they sound, the way sentences feel. Math, on the other hand, I stumble over, the concepts are fuzzier than they should be, the formulas indistinct.

But also, fun things don't have to resemble games. They can be challenges, too. I personally think stamp-collecting is exceptionally dull. But ask a stamp-collector whether it's a fun hobby, and chances are they'll say, "Hell yes." They might not act like it's bungee-jumping, but it sure-as-shit feeds their fun gland.

Maybe borrowing a transactional analysis word would help things out. Remember stroking? It doesn't refer necessarily to physical contact, but it can. In TA terms, stroking is feedback we receive from a person, positive or negative.

So maybe we should rate activities and, dare I say it, games by what types of strokes we get from them.

Math = physical abuse. Stamp-collecting = repetitive forehead-tapping. World of Warcraft = heavy petting.

Anyway, I went ahead and downloaded the Food Force game and gave it a whirl. And guess what?

Yeah, I thought it was fun. The gameplay was simplistic, sure, but no worse than anything on Popcap. The scary part is that I really did learn something. For starters, I learned there was such an entity as the World Food Program, and shit, isn't that minor thing in some way commendable?

The Gelf Magazine review was just . . . bizarre. Never mind that they said this: "It's as if the game's producer, Italy's Deepend s.r.l., wasn't allowed to name actual nations or issues but instead had to stick to the fantasy land of Sheylan so as not to offend anyone." Gee, ya think? [see Water Cooler Games' April 25th post]

They took an independently produced educational game to task for not tackling deep issues. While I think I understand their point (Hunger is serious, so a game about it must be serious and in-depth. Yeah, and all those World War II games captured the excellent moral conflicts that all military personnel face when they must kill for a living), why do we expect so much more from educational games?

But the article states that the game's audience is preteens, probably not the ripest audience for confusing grey-area issues. And it seems pretty clear that the game isn't purporting to go into the complexities of the food aid program. It looked like maybe they were just trying to provide a mildly-entertaining, mildly-educating diversion that young children would be allowed to play and maybe learn about an organization that is trying to help people.

Which, you know, the game did.

It could even, dare I say it, encourage some young person to work for the WFP someday.

Hell, America's Army doesn't have to be the only overt recruitment game out there.

1 comment:

Carl Bialik said...

I wrote the Gelf Magazine review. I see how it can seem like I was holding the developers to a higher standard. But I think I was holding them to a different standard -- I would have rather seen more-rudimentary graphics, but tasks that required more contact with other people and more thinking, less mouse-ing. That seems like a better way to bring young children into the world of food aid.