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An open letter on Tourist Mode

by Mitchell Nelson on 03/15/17 10:07:00 am   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.


Bloody Tourists!

Plasticity FTW

Search on the string "gaming helps brain plasticity". You'll get hits from Psychology Today and Max Plank Society, among many others, describing how playing games - even violent games, no, especially violent shooters and action games - helps maintain and even improve brain plasticity.

If you haven't already seen it, watch the Ted Talk video, on YouTube, called "Your Brain on Video Games" featuring Doctor Daphne Bavelier. Dr. Bavelier asked non-gamers to play fast paced shooter games. She found that playing those games for a few hours, over some days, measurably improves cognition and those gains are retained for months, even without further gaming.

We're talking digital medicine people. Games are starting to be used to treat PTSD in veterans and psychological trauma in children. I have been blathering for years about how the games we make stimulate our brains to release neurotransmitters including liquid fun, attention, exhilaration and addiction. This is a powerful toolset and it is especially good for our growing, gray, demographic.


Difficult enough, but no more

The cognitive gains recorded in these experiments require a certain degree of difficulty, danger and speed. Just beyond your comfort zone, improvements await.

The trouble is, at 57, I am having an increasingly difficult time with game difficulty. This is hard to admit, especially since for the last several years I've been working on fast, difficult FPS games, like Killing Floor 2, by Tripwire. The company image is as edgy, indie, sort of PC elite, hard core-ish shooter people. A reviewer once gave an odd compliment that said Tripwire's war shooters, like Red Orchestra and Rising Storm are almost anti-war statements and visceral proof that war is indeed hell.

In recent dev cycles, as we did final difficulty tuning before release, I was less able to play the games on even the easiest setting. Ok, call me names, but remember, I wear trifocals, am disabled and have a little extra lag, from brain to fingers.

If you are familiar with the Yerkes-Dodson law, you know we all have a point where games get fast and difficult enough to push our slow/deep higher brain functions out of the way, leaving our lower, faster, ancient brain to run the show. Goodbye planning, strategy and risk avoidance, hello blind, electric reactions.

There are a number of subtle, compounding troubles you discover as you age. As I said, I wear trifocals. I have to hold my head in one position that puts the 3/8's inch wide section of middle-distance lens toward the monitor and the diopter on the keyboard/controller. That results in neck pain and other aches and strains. In a jump scare situation, reactively moving my head makes it all go blurry just when I really need to see. Never mind trying to read that tiny UI text or mini map.

So the challenge becomes, to dose this medicine, we need a dynamic difficulty system, or a wider range of preset difficulties, that welcome aging gamers and allows smooth on-boarding.


What works

When I say Tourist Mode, of course I mean an easier difficulty setting that allows gray gamers to see all a game has to offer, rather than being stuck at the border. I hope any execs reading this will seriously consider adding such a mode to your AAA titles. Fully grown adults often have jobs, income and time. We can buy PC's and consoles and games. Our money spends as well as any. I also hope, that if you don't like the suggested name, try to find something that isn't ageist, ableist or jerky. Too often easy mode is called Noob, Sissy Baby or Rank Beginner something or other. Why so punitive? We're all friends.

To give you an indication of how difficult I am talking about, let me describe what seems to work for me. If you've played KF2, that is just out of my reach. Your average Far Cry is ok for me for the first few hours, but I never see the later game. Tom Clancy's: The Division feels similar, so far. 

I made it through to the final boss on Diablo III, on PC, with some difficulty, though my peers at work called it "impossible to die, challengeless and boring".  I had even better results on the PS4 version, which was easier. I do great on that one.

Also, Fallout 4. I did a full playthrough normally, then did another one in carefree God Mode. There, I admit it, but I applaud Bethsoft for leaving those cheats in the commercial release. It was great for people like me. I could see all, do all, play all, without feeling like a bad person, for being the slub I am. Now, I have 800+ hours in Fallout 4 and have bought every related thing they sell. See how that works. 

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