Compost, Solar Cookers and Video Games
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I have a small compost bin at home and it is an extremely satisfying object to own. It feels really good to compost things and breaking down why has direct video game design applications.
Conversion Is Fun
There's something inherently satisfying about taking something and converting it into something more valuable. This, of course, has been true for far longer than video games have been around but some video games have really run with the idea. Games like Stardew Valley, Hay Day, Offworld Trading Company and The Settlers are all arguably built entirely around this feeling.
What makes composting interesting is that I don't really care about the compost at all. I like the idea of it a lot more than the actual product. I'm an indifferent gardener at best and I can't even tell if the compost is doing anything to help the plants grow. I know that the compost is more valuable than the trash though and so it feels good to make it.
I also have a solar cooker that I use whenever the weather permits and which is infinitely more useful than the compost. It's really nothing more than a metal box with a mirror and a sheet of glass in it but it lets me cook rice, dal and vegetables extremely well. With this, I'm able to make meals with much less money and effort than with the normal pressure cooker and can even occasionally make some sun-dried tomatoes. Again, it's satisfying to take cooked food out of the cooker and it's satisfying to feel like you're using the sun's heat instead of letting it go to waste.
I Like Composting More
Despite it being clear how much more useful the solar cooker is, I like composting more and breaking down why led to a number of interesting game design points.
- It feels good to solve two problems - Composting not only makes compost, it also reduces the amount of trash my house generates. It's nice to take something that used to be a problem and turn it into something useful.
- Conversion feels better than upgrading - The solar cooker doesn't actually make anything new, it just makes the process of cooking more efficient. Composting actually makes something new and naturally feels a little more exciting as a result.
- Prep work - The solar cooker requires me to cut the vegetables and wash the rice and dal in the morning before the day fully warms up. This is sometimes a bit of a nuisance and detracts from the whole experience. Composting asks for almost nothing.
On Optimal Play
A thing that I often think about is the burden of optimal play and how it can push players into paths that are not fun. However, my valuing of compost over solar cooking emphasizes an important qualification to that point. It's not a question of what is actually the optimal play, but instead of what the player thinks is the optimal play. These two only overlap when players fully understand your game and are able to penetrate its complexities, which is likely to only ever be a fraction of your playerbase.
The Foundations of Game Design
Game design principles are not actually tied to video games. They come from more fundamental traits of people. Video games just serve as another instance of more basic principles and so, we can see them come from anywhere, even compost.