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Redefining Interactivity, pt 3: Give Me Just One Good Reason

May 12, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote a somewhat confusing explanation of what gameplay is. However, I promised to explain not only what but why and how we use gameplay. So today, I’m gonna tackle the next bit:

WHY DO WE USE GAMEPLAY?

tl;dr Version: Because we’re bored.

Boy, I really am smart, aren’t I?

‘Splain, Lucy Version: Alright, here’s a perfect example of why games in general exist. This. Right here. Explaining things. What, do I have to draw it in crayon for you? 😉

Have you ever heard the old saying, ‘People learn best by doing’? Well, believe me, it’s old. It’s older than the English language, in fact. Probably older than whatever your first language is, if a) it’s not English, and b) it’s not Mandarin.

Boring Version (too late!): Now, I’m not a paleontologist, and I don’t have any sources about primitive games on hand, so I can’t show you photos or films of primitive doohickeys to illustrate my point right now. What I can tell you is that some of the earliest tools that weren’t used for building or killing and skinning things (or splitting and chopping stuff apart to make better building tools, and thus better homes and weapons) were tools designed to teach the young basic skills that would be used later for more practical things (If I ever do turn this article series into a proper reference book, I will have to dig up those images and citations, so you’ll see that I’m not just making this stuff up).

In a very real sense, we still make games that do that today, although it seems less obvious now, because of the levels of both abstraction and of sophistication of the kinds of games we create. Even excluding sports and video games, we have things like Clue (Cluedo, for you fine folks in the UK and Europe) and the more recent How To Host a Murder or whatever those games are called. I mean, there is no way you can convince me that these games teach us to become murderers, and yet we do get something from them; we learn to make deductions based on evidence and ‘read’ our fellow players’ ‘tells’. We make games of these things, so we can internalise the processes without becoming bored of them prematurely.

In fact, I’m pretty sure there aren’t too many human endeavours that we haven’t made into one sort of game or another. Did you ever count cracks in the sidewalk, or deliberately pace your steps to avoid stepping on those cracks on your way to school? You didn’t realize it, but you were physically conditioning yourself to walk more efficiently, and you did that all by yourself.

This is how the human mind works. We’re endlessly inventing processes and the rules that govern them, in order to challenge ourselves to perform these tasks with greater speed and dexterity, which in turn hones our ability to do more complex, practical tasks. We do it without really thinking about it. We’re hard-wired for it. It’s why we’re still alive, despite all our faults and screw-ups.

That our Western society treats all such games, no matter how simple or complex, as meaningless diversions as opposed to learning tools is beside the point; humans don’t really stick with games they don’t get anything but pure, meaningless diversion out of. Even the most seemingly mindless gameplay exists and persists because it hones some part of our psyche in a way that pleases us.

This also neatly leads me back to storytelling, and how it and gameplay are not mutually exclusive pass-times. See, stories also teach us. I can see by that look on your face that you already know this, and that you’re insulted that I even thought it needed saying. Here’s the trick: much like gameplay, stories lose their effectiveness when we cease to learn anything new from them. Even soap operas promise to reveal meaningful things to those who are devoted to uncovering the secret mysteries of the seemingly mundane.

However, once the lesson is learned, the story becomes passe. Even reworking the story with new locations, characters and props doesn’t fool the learned mind for long. Now, that’s not to say that rereading doesn’t happen (or even that it isn’t needed now and again, to refresh our understanding). Some minds are more comfortable than others in retracing the thought processes, renewing, refining the things we learned, and perhaps gleaning new insights and greater connections to things we hadn’t known of during our previous reading.

But there are also those who can’t bear to retrace their steps, no matter how much they (subconsciously know that they) need the refresher. These people need to be tricked into relearning the old lessons. And the sneakiest, most successful formula for making someone review a story they think they have nothing new to learn from is to make a game out of it.

I think that covers the points I really wanted to make about the whys of gameplay. Next time, I’ll try to go deeper into the ways we use gameplay, and then try to clarify how this system does and does not help interactive storytelling.

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