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A Question of Meaning
by Taekwan Kim on 05/09/12 08:18:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I feel this is going to be one of my more controversial posts, so please bear with me a bit and consider the following as a thought experiment.

For context, refer to these recent articles on Gamasutra: A Matter of Life & Death, Manipulative game monetization shows gamers no respect, says Super Meat Boy dev, and Diablo 3’s Ability System.

We all know to rail against abusive monetization because that stuff is just patently evil, right? You take what is actually a short game with shallow mechanics and artificially inflate gameplay by locking content behind mandatory time sinks. Then you give this time the illusion of having “value” and “meaning” by attaching a monetary equivalent to that time. If you can do the requisite mind-numbingly repetitive stuff without paying for it, it feels like you just created some “value” when none actually exists.

But I wonder if deliberate user unfriendliness in the forms of permadeath, no (or extremely onerous) respecing, obscure UI, or hiding “mission critical” information from the player and forcing trial and error (or wiki hunting), isn’t really just doing the same thing.

(I want to dissipate any perception of bias before going further with this, so I’m going to describe the kind of player that I am: I freaking love that stuff. I’ve taken Diablo 2 hardcore characters into the 90’s. I’ll happily track back and reload a save game 6 hours old if I discover I’ve passed up some quest nugget. I’ve slogged through 7+ Nightmare playthroughs of Dragon Age just to work on different builds and optimize them; the same can be said of countless other games. Heck, starting over is my favorite part of half the games I play. I'm just a sucker for punishment [stereotypically Korean?].)

At any rate, consider: it’s commonly accepted that the pace of a game determines the feel of its gameplay. But pacing is inherently about manipulation via the player’s sense of time. Pull the carrot just far enough away, and what is actually redundant button clicking begins to feel momentous (remember Cow Clicker?). When the base activity is so monotonous and repetitive, acquiring a sudden leap in agency feels like a huge triumph (Yay, I can do the same repetitive crap faster now! Or, Yay, I finally got something that shows for all the time I’ve sunk in this!). It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that manipulative monetization schemes use the same time delaying tactic that roguelikes and their various offspring do.

Perversely, it seems that, once activated, much of our masochistic, obligatory subjection to monotony is about proving to ourselves that it wasn’t all a waste of time—with the added benefit that it allows us to self-identify (and thus placate our sense of worth) as “hardcore” or "elite". It’s like a bad session of gambling in which you just keep anteing up in the hope that you’ll land that jackpot (in our case, a "perfect" build) and turn everything around. The more time you sink, the harder it is to walk away. And the more you suffer, the more “hardcore” you are. (This, by the way, is a description of how I almost got kicked out of college playing D2.)

Let’s be blunt. Time costs are real. So isn’t it just as manipulative to exploit the fact that the more time you spend, the more expensive and valuable the object necessarily becomes? Is a game that refrains from selling “I win” consumables any less dubious if it forces players to spend inflationary amounts of time? And what else can you call no respec, permadeath, etc. but devices that inflate time costs? More troublesomely, is that actually even a bad thing?

Indeed, what is meaningful gameplay anyway? Personally, I would say that anything that forces you to deal with failure, loss, and internal turmoil is meaningful. (This is indeed why I play games.) But this is only true if the player also accepts the responsibility of dealing with such. No matter how “white hat” a game’s design is, it’s only as meaningful as the effort the player puts into learning from his experiences—into making it meaningful. Similarly, a “black hat” game can cause the revelatory (although too frequently prohibitively expensive) realization that a player is defining himself through, and limiting his self-worth to, ultimately ephemeral, transient things.

I have a friend who despises games. This friend obviously enjoys playing them, but dismisses games out of hand as wastes of time, unworthy of investment. The end result is that he will only play games that don’t challenge him, which means he learns and gains nothing from the time he spends and ends up really wasting time. They are literally trivial pastimes and toys simply because he refuses to engage any further. The point being that games are very much what we make of, or put into, them.

And all too often, we make the mistake of attaching meaning only to in-game assets or accomplishments, because these are the things that are visible and obvious to us, can be shared and “externalized”—the extroverted manifestations of our time spent. This tendency leads both to the idea that a game that allows the player to buy such assets is meaningless, as well as to the inability to separate oneself from the achievements arduously obtained in-game—they are flips sides of the same psychological coin.

That is to say, it leads to the dismissal of all the introverted lessons in emotional control, intellectual flexibility, and self-understanding through assessment of held values that we might otherwise gain from our relationship with, and inevitable withdrawal from, such attachments—the actual takeaway stuff.

Obviously, truly exploitative design is a reality, it happens. (And clearly, not all games are meant to be, or need to be, so damn serious. Simply the sense of accomplishment games can provide is psychologically valuable, too.) But I would argue that the difference between exploitation and empowerment in games is finer than most of us would like to admit.

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E McNeill
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I found myself asking many of the same questions a week ago:

"Diablo 2 is full of randomized item drops; is this a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule, or the foundation for a slew of deep game mechanics? Super Mario Bros. is constantly putting minor pickups and surprises in my path; is it stringing me along or just ensuring proper pacing?"

I'm obviously still struggling with these issues myself, but I think that people can have good or bad experiences with most anything. A criminal can teach us valuable lessons about the nature of violence, pain, and justice, but that's no reason to celebrate crime. Similarly, a game can have good or bad effects, and really we can only judge the ethics of the people who created it. The most relevant discussion is the one among the developers, not the players.

It's possible for good people to create games that become huge sinks of time, as Blizzard has done over and over again. But whether or not they were unethical depends on whether they intended for the game to waste players' time or take up a destructive amount of it. To do so *intentionally* would be, at the very least, tremendously disrespectful towards the players.

John Flush
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"This friend obviously enjoys playing them, but dismisses games out of hand as wastes of time, unworthy of investment. The end result is that he will only play games that don’t challenge him, which means he learns and gains nothing from the time he spends and ends up really wasting time."

This statement and paragraph hit me pretty hard, but for a different reason. I find a lot of games to be a waste of time because I can't find games that challenge me, or inspire me, in a meaningful way.

Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2, the gems of this generation (rankings wise), are a complete and utter waste of my time. Hours and hours need to be put into these games to get every star, but lives are so abundant and the platforming so boring because I have mastered the mechanics. Only the few levels right at the end with the purple coin levels even made me try. Even then I feel like it took too long to get there.

I'm also a huge Fire Emblem fan. Despite how much I love the games I, to this day despise 'perma-death'. To me the game basically has a 30-60 minute forced reset feature based on one mistake. To me there is no 'perma-death' in the game, just a hard reset and another 30 minute drag through the level I was just playing before I made the slip-up. I absolutely love everything else about the series though. I love to try and use the characters that seem to suck to get all their stories and conversations... but perma-death can just go away. This feature has actually made me look into using emulation and R4 / EZ3 simply to play them with less risk.

I have found that if a game is truly "meaningful" to a player they make up their own meta-games so they can sink time into them. And what is "meaningful" tends to be dependent on the players circumstances.

For instance as kid playing SMB, you weren't cool if you used warp pipes... then you weren't cool if you died more than once per world... we eventually got to the point of trying to play until we never got hit. We were ok with hard resets - we did them ourselves and we didn't mind. It was our meta-game and we hadn't "finished" the game yet.

Today though, I feel like I can barely finish anything because I can't finish the achievements for the games I play. I can't burn enough time into them and I find I don't replay games I never finish. There is the glaring reminder that I haven't finished playing the way the developer wanted me to.

Maybe I'm running on a bit - but your article made me think - I like that in an article. Thanks for writing it.

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Taekwan Kim
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Hey guys, thanks for reading, and taking the time to comment.

Mr. Flush,
"your article made me think"
Yesss, mission success! Also, come join usss, the PC gaming legion... Join ussss...

Ok, seriously though. A lot of the conclusions I came to in this post were based on personal experience, so it might help if I described how they came to be. (Warning: long winded boring story.)

I grew up a stereotypical Korean kid: even at the age of 6 in primary school, the goal was to get into an Ivy League university. This was so utterly ingrained that, if I am completely honest, I still have a small, lingering sense of disappointment when I think about the fact that I "only" made it to UPenn and failed to get into Harvard or Yale.

There are real opportunity costs, though, to spending all your summer vacations in libraries and all your "free time" studying. After school, I would come back home to more school, where I would study the curriculum and textbooks that kids my age in Korea were studying. And really, the motivation behind basically everything I did was pleasing my parents--that's just the Confucian thing to do. My life goals were given to me, and it wasn't until much later that I actually developed a sense of self (not an uncommon experience, I would say).

Annywayyy, to the relevant stuff. You can imagine the amount of guilt I had about the time I would secretly spend playing games. The process of getting over this guilt was also the process of creating and pursuing my own values and goals. The desperation behind marathon sessions of skipping class and playing D2 were really also about burying the gnawing sense that I was wasting time--not doing what I was supposed to be doing.

Other problems abound: spending so much time in isolation (and studying where other kids were having fun) also means a debilitating lack of experience with failure and rejection. This was so bad that it wasn't until I was older that I stopped cheating in games (the old school equivalent of "I win" consumables). That story about my friend is also a story about a younger me.

So then, social rejection (and the inability to handle it because the tools are missing) leads to more isolation. Perpetuated isolation then leads to an overdeveloped need to prove oneself to others, stemming from a dearth of knowledge in what is appropriate behavior and how to get along. This finally leads to an erroneous attachment to values you think others value, which leads to the neglect of developing self-worth or any sense of accomplishment.

It's a pretty vicious cycle, and it was really through the experience of gameplay--of putting your stance, your values, your projection of yourself on the line and having them tested again and again--that I was eventually able to break out of it. Even the failure or inability to step away from a game itself forced real self-examination and questioning. The pursuit of achievements in games eventually causes you to realize that basing your sense of self-worth on the amount of acknowledgement you can get from others (be it through one's career, money, position, whatever) is an utterly ridiculous proposition. That realization, that meaning in games is what you decide to pursue, is a pretty big deal, because it also applies to everything else.

Now, as mentioned, I'm a glutton for punishment. And spending so much time acknowledging and dealing with failure has paid off in huge dividends. The crucible of gameplay is a sort of accelerated lesson in self-understanding and social interaction--after all, that is the purpose of play, from make-believe in playgrounds on up. And being entirely comfortable in, and even getting along with, a group of possibly antagonistic strangers is much easier when you've spent all those hours wrangling with opposing wills to achieve common goals. The best part is that it also teaches you to recognize when a better solution is at hand, instead of stubbornly sticking to something that doesn't work--especially when that improved solution didn't come from you. You no longer have to "prove" yourself.

Is it sad that I've learned so much from playing games? I suppose some would say so. And it's true that my greatest lesson in failure had nothing to do with games and everything to do with heartbreak. But I am undoubtedly a better person than I used to be because of games, and even a better person than I was, say, 4 years ago. Because of games. You just never stop learning from them.

(Ok, boring and embarrassing paean over.) Hopefully, this wasn't just blathering and helps push some more thinking.

Douglas Scheinberg
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> The pursuit of achievements in games eventually causes you to realize that basing your sense of self-worth on the amount of acknowledgement you can get from others (be it through one's career, money, position, whatever) is an utterly ridiculous proposition.

Do you have any advice on how I can *stop* basing my self of self-worth on my estimation of what other people think of me?

See also: Sociometer theory

Taekwan Kim
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Mr. Scheinberg, I'm not sure about sociometer theory, but my own approach was more Jungian (though probably similar in both theory and practice). Also not sure if the following will qualify as "advice", but I'll try to describe the psychological processes (as I understand them, imperfectly) which leads to a reassessment/redefinition of self-worth. (For me personally, just understanding this process helped tremendously.)

An individual that bases his worth on external factors wholly identifies with his Persona, or the version of the Self we display to the outside world. When we struggle with the inability to extract oneself from a game (commonly called game addiction) because one is so invested in the thing in a game that the player has created (be it one's avatar, his achievements, kill/death ratio, whatever), this is in fact the exact same experience as the inability to stop defining oneself through socioeconomic achievement, etc. (because both are versions of the Persona). But the Persona is just a small portion of who we are, and it's something that disappears when there is no outside world to display oneself to.

Leaving a game, or failing miserably in the things in which we are invested in a game, is then a forceful experience of the "outside world of the Persona" suddenly disappearing. The trick is to realize that the Self still very much exists. This withdrawal experience causes the player to realize the transient nature of the Persona, thus eventually removing the power it has over us.

Breaking that down further, because of time costs, spending a lot of time in games necessarily causes many to question what exactly it is they are accumulating. This eventually forces the player to think about what in _himself_ he is expanding, and not just what he is doing in a single, given game. That is to say, the fact that nothing we do inside a game (beyond the psychological results) exists once we leave it really pushes the player to seek that which _does_ remain (the aforementioned psychological results).

We talk about the "magic circle" a lot, about how game designers shouldn't break that circle of immersion for players, but the reality is that every gameplay session is a struggle on the very edge of this circle, between the "free", "immaterial" world of games and the costly, material real world. All we have to do is look at time spent and psychological results to understand that gameplay is just as "real". The point of this being, players are _always_ internally struggling with defining what is real or not real (that questioning of what exactly one is accumulating is precisely this). We come to realize that the external things that define the Persona are the things that are actually not real (because, again, they disappear as soon as the context is removed).

In Jungian terms, once the impermanent nature of the Persona (the avatar, etc.) is acknowledged and accepted, the player can more freely engage with the other aspects of himself (other aspects of the game that we denied ourselves before). Further, when we feel guilt or internal turmoil because of our time spent in a game, that's the emotional stress caused by the suppression of the other aspects of ourselves. Understanding why we feel guilty in the first place (what is the root cause? what are the contradictory values that one holds which causes this conflict?) requires us to assess all the disparate aspects of ourselves. It causes us to realize that many of our values are simply given, socially programmed, handed down and taken for granted, but not actually held by ourselves--not real. And simply being able to see, be conscious of the fact that there are other aspects beyond the Persona, that we have other values that are not necessarily in alignment with what we are pursuing at a given time (especially when we are invested in that pursuit), is a huge step towards self-awareness and (in pop psychology terms) "present" thinking.

The real, perhaps surprising, difficulty is that it's ridiculously hard to just listen and pay attention to your own personal answer to the question "what do I actually care about" without being drowned out by "what we are told to care about" (sometimes more so because we've been told to so long that we haven't bothered to develop our own conclusions, our own rules), which is why games are so handy. The process of play is really just the act of choosing which rules in a game we give a damn about, and making new ones up if we aren't satisfied with what exists.

I guess this basically boils down to: practice at failing hard, which sounds nonsensical and stupid. But it's really the best way to confront the Self and what we give a damn about. Hopefully that helps?

Eric Schwarz
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Of course they're basically the same thing - although I would argue over-aggressive monetization can be worse in some situations. That's why I tend to be fairly intolerant of any game that makes me grind, wait around for no good reason, has lots of filler content, artificially inflates its play time through deliberate obfuscation of content that "should" be easily accessible.

Now, determining the how and why of it on a case by case basis is very tricky. For some, permanent death followed by a reload is a big waste of time. For others, being able to execute a sequence flawlessly should be the mark of success. Likewise, side content might be seen as padding by some, especially when tied into the main game somehow (for example, if doing side missions gives you a better ending), but to others that's what makes the game fun and gives them some incentive to explore. All of these are subjective and you are never going to be able to please everyone.

That said, I think it tends to be clear when such scenarios, game mechanics etc. are unwarranted, at least with any sort of basic play-testing and understanding of the game holistically. If players are getting frustrated because they have to replay a level over and over (taking care to note whether those testers are really your target demographic or not), then chances are you have either a scenario or system that needs revising. I don't think there's an excuse for this sort of thing anymore - you're either aware of these faults in your game and leave them in anyway for one reason or other, or you aren't aware of them and probably aren't doing as good a job as you could be. I mean no disrespect to anyone, of course, but I would like to think design as a discipline has progressed to the point where these are no longer major issues.

We already have a lot of ways of mitigating these problems. Prince of Persia had some challenging puzzles and platforming but made them much easier to deal with via the rewind mechanic, frequent checkpoints and so on, ensuring players never lost much progress after succeeding at something. Difficulty can be adjusted to include different punishments and rewards, and a greater focus on completing optional challenges for high scores and so on can give incentive for players to play better, not just scrape by. Even grinding can be reduced - Dungeons of Dredmor has a mode called "no time to grind" that accelerates play by increasing XP rewards and reducing level sizes proportionately, for instance. It's just a matter of picking which options work for a given game and implementing them effectively - and while that can be a challenge, I don't think it's any greater than any other a designer would normally face.

Taekwan Kim
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Hey Eric, good points, though I feel like we're kind of not on the same page of discussion. (Sort of?)

The purpose here wasn't really to question if abusive monetization and user unfriendliness aren't the same thing (that was rhetorical, and, as you point out, rather obvious), but if utilizing user unfriendliness to add depth to play is also unethical, or why we consider these unethical to begin with. Or, if not one, why the other? etc. (In the one case it's just bad design, and the other it's _evil_? Again, time costs are just as real as money.)

I guess my point with this is that it's not that clear cut. Abusive mechanics can become meaningful because they are abusive (as per Ms. Alexander's article, for instance). Likewise, they can create depth where not much exists. (The Dungeons of Dredmor example is appropriate: play that game without permadeath, and it's difficult to stay interested outside of a handful of hours at best.) For many games, the whole point is that it takes time to do stuff--that's what makes it fun, because it requires effective time management (user unfriendliness then also forces players to juggle their game time with their overall time; these games make time more obviously a player agential asset, just like any other in-game attribute). And finally, causing the player to fundamentally question and struggle with his use of time versus his desire to compete/achieve is also a valuable experience (the question is whether or not this is "voluntary"--as if any game isn't).

Since the ultimate purpose of user unfriendliness is decreasing the impact of player skill on player efficacy--essentially, placing an artificial cap on player agency--judicious use can be an effective balancing and pacing design strategy, more so when the base mechanics are already rich. (Keep in mind that there are _always_ artificial caps on player agency, that we are never going to have a game where the player has unlimited agency anyway; that would be mind-killingly boring.) I don't see, then, why adding monetization judiciously can't also be an ethical strategy to cause players to utilize all free available mechanics more aggressively, or allow them to feel that they are creating value because of their effort--just as user unfriendliness does. It's simply that a lot of these games have shallow mechanics to begin with, but, as you say, "I would like to think design as a discipline has progressed to the point where these are no longer major issues." Those are just poorly designed games, not much more.

It's not that I like monetization. I mean, seriously, who does (ok, East Asian market aside)? And mostly, the sophistication of design in implementing monetization is quite lacking compared to how much we've progressed in effectively using user unfriendliness. But perhaps we should consider a bit more before we jump into black/white, good/evil labels, or dismiss players' experience with them as meaningless and stupid. That was really all I was trying to say with this.

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