Some Trite Title

I try my very best not to get liquored up and rant about video games on here like a cheap drunk at an arcade. However, as many of my readers may know, that’s not always something that can be realistically avoided.

I’m going to try to keep it short, though, because the little birdy of sobriety tells me that I’m not as prepared to post about this as I think I am. You see, I’m doing a little retro week here at Trivial Punk, which mainly means I’m too busy catching up on the indie titles I’m downloading, so that I can get to my newly fatted Steam library next week, to research proper posts. Some people may see that as a negative thing, but I see it as an opportunity to offer you a glimpse inside my convoluted head. Why you’d want that is beyond me, but I like to think of it the way Field of Dreams did: “If you blog about it, someone’s bound to be interested in it.”

Last time, I posted about the changing, ever-moving tide of video game culture and pop-culture. At least, that was the under-tone of that love-letter to my gaming community. I understand. I recognize that we have lost things through the evolution of our culture. I’m well aware that some of the things that we’ve lost are irreplaceable. I’ve heard the arguments for the expansion of the market and the watering-down of our electronic experiences. I know how much it can hurt to see your favourite systems trashed or your D&D edition fall out of favour. I may have come into the community on the edge of the NES era and embraced the SNES with glee, but I’ve seen many other platforms rise and fall in the mean-time. Hell, I saved up every quarter I had, sold off half my action figures and bought a Sega Genesis just as my rental shops stopped carrying Sega titles.

I still remember that day. The sting of remorse. The feel of utter dread as I glanced through the window and saw only three boxes sitting on the shelf. It was warm and the seat-belt was digging into my shoulder. The scent of warm leather and sweat pervaded the car, and I’ve carried that smell with me to this day. That was the day I learned that this industry changes and nothing we have now will be with us forever. There was something about mortality in there, too, but I was more upset by the games. I rented Golden Axe and that year’s baseball game, the only two titles I could get, and went home. There were tears of shame on my cheeks, but dammit, I played them both.

Because, the industry changes. Gaming changes. iOS games and motion controls get a lot of flack from some gamers and players in the industry, deservedly or not. I don’t mind that; I’ve given them crap myself. After all, humor is all about addressing the kernel of truth inside a bizarre situation. I believe that as long as these devices aren’t performing the way they should or exploiting the potential they have, then we can feel free to criticize them for that. I don’t believe that they should be criticized just because they Are. There are enough things wrong with motion controls as they’re utilized and legitimate problems with iOS platforms/Facebook games  to merit criticism. We don’t need to be making up things to complain about. It’s enough to complain that a shoe came undone; we don’t have to complain that we didn’t find a nickel when we bent down to tie it.

Yet, there are people I know who won’t give them a chance at all. They hold the firm belief that both are dumb and stupid and should be disregarded from the experiences of “real gamers.” If you read my last post, then you’ll know how I feel about that, but I think there’s another problem. I think we’ve forgotten what it means to game. Yes, gaming is an exciting art-form and has plenty of potential, but there are other things that count as games.

Do you remember KerPlunk?  Jenga? Sorry? Monopoly? D&D? Battleship? Lawn Darts? Bowling? Polo? Magic: The Gathering? Skeet Shooting? Poker? Pick-up Stix? Ouija Boards? The Stock Market? Laser Tag? Paint-ball? Cross-words? Sudoku?

They may not be a part of our shared gaming culture, so we might not feel connected to their players, and that’s okay. You don’t have to accept every piece of cardboard and plastic into your experience as a gamer. Still, these are things that are games or have game elements. Each is unique and has its own level of complexity. Gaming isn’t just about a plastic controller, a couch and a console. It’s about playing. Before someone says that it’s not just about “play,” let’s unpack what play is.

Playing is about learning and honing a skill. It’s about thinking or doing. When wolves are young, they play wrestle to learn the combat skills and communication cues necessary to sustain their lives in the wilderness. When children are young, they turn imagination and social roles into games to explore the possibilities of the human experience. When adults are older, they use thought-provoking games to maintain and building mental acuity. Quite simply, play isn’t just about having fun. It can be quite fun, but it can also be intensely practical.

When you crack a game, you’re doing more than just settling into an experience. You are engaging your entire mind and body in a process of play. That’s why well-made boss-monsters are tests of the things you’ve learned. Quite simply, because you are learning. Conversely, that’s why beating bosses that are just normal enemies with more health feels flat and disappointing; you didn’t have an opportunity to apply what you learned in a new, interesting way.

There are other aspects of play, other things we enjoy, but my point is that play is a multi-faceted experience. Games are play. So, games can be about almost anything it means to be human. That’s what bothers me about some iOS detractors. There are a myriad of ways to play, so why should we cut one out just because it doesn’t fit a traditional bill? I enjoy tradition, and its many gleaming edges, but I don’t think it’s inherently good. After all, I think empowered, educated women are the bomb and that’s not very traditional. Well, unless you go far enough back. History is a wending thing.

That’s my point. History is an unpredictable beast. We should be concerned with the details of the changes, not change itself. Games CAN be about anything, but that doesn’t mean they should be. Well-crafted experiences will always trump poorly hashed-out ones. Skinner-box games that exploit our human drives strictly for the sake of play-time and profit will always annoy me, but that doesn’t mean those concepts don’t have a place within larger wholes. It’s a problem of craft, not of platform.

Speaking of platform, I’m going to get off my soapbox for the week and step down to talk about an experience you might have been scratching your head at when I mentioned it: Ouija Boards. To some, they may appear to be devilish sorcery, but they operate on very sound gaming principles. In some ways, Ouija Boards were my first horror games.

First, there’s the prisoner’s dilemma (I’ll let you parse that out of the experience yourself). Whether you believe or not, you can’t really tell the friends you’re playing with. Otherwise, it will ruin the experience. Immersion in the rules of the game is paramount. Secondly, the light touch and responsive controls of the input device (Read: plastic slidy-jigger) makes the game seem to literally come to life. As you ask questions, you’ll begin to feel a light force guiding your hands. That’s the pressure of your own movement and that of your friends. The combined pressure guides the piece of plastic around the board to different answers.

Some of those answers will be known, and so you’ll guide it there yourself, unknowingly. Some will be generated on the fly from the interplay of your brain’s ability to complete words and your own anticipation. Some of it will be the result of one of your number simply guiding the slidy-jigger to responses. It’s a combination of all of those things. Summarily, the answers given will form a personality that you will attribute to a being. Really, it’s the combined will of the group, which is interesting in-and-of itself. Still, a spirit it is not.

You can call it combined delusion, but it’s more like combined commitment to an understanding. You let yourself believe, and you let yourself be frightened. It’s like sitting down to play a survival horror game or a frightening movie, now. If you’re not willing to commit to the experience, then you’ll get nothing out of it. It’s all about creating an atmosphere by exploiting human psychology, half of the game is in the advertising and the questions you ask. It’s role-play. Quite honestly, some next-gen horror experiences could definitely learn from this example.

So, don’t count a game out just because of the platform it’s using. Count a game out because it’s shit. Otherwise, you might miss the newest wave of gaming culture without even knowing it’s happened. Again, no matter what we’re using, we’re still gaming. Take that for whatever it means to you in the context that it’s in.

But, don’t get me started on KerPlunk. That game’s nuts.


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