Archive for July, 2010

State of the Art – “On the Tyranny of Fun”

Videogame media’s sine qua non condition for a good videogame: being fun. If, and only if it is fun, can it be deemed a good buy, a prime piece of entertainment or what they would foolishly call a work of “art”. Sure, technologically adept graphic engines, seemingly complex AI routines, innovative gameplay design and, occasionally (rarely?), captivating narrative and unique aesthetics can seal the deal. But the first and foremost condition for any review to assess, is each videogame’s “fun factor”. All those other features are, at best, just rationalization fodder for reviewers to find in their hearts if the game is worthy of 8, 9 or 10, B+, A or A+, or the equivalent in whichever scale is chosen by that publication. Of course, this is not just a case of the media, it is also a case for consumers. They’re the ones who determine what media focuses on, and naturally, together, they determine what videogame production focuses on, which is, undeniably, “fun”. But what is fun? What is the meaning that hides beneath this seemingly harmless three letter word, and why do so many of us spend half their waking life looking for it, in film, music, TV and videogames?

Csikszentmihaliy is a psychologist who studied entertainment across different contexts; through his research, he designed a model which encompasses entertainment’s cognitive and emotional basis. He discovered what he called flow, “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”. Sound familiar? In reality, flow is more or less what people understand to be “fun”: a pleasurable state of high arousal. But there is more to this “flow”. Besides a profound sense of enjoyment, whilst in flow, people enter a state of deep focus and concentration in their activity, they feel at one with their surroundings, losing any self-consciousness and awareness of the self, and even lose track of time.

Csikszentmihaliy also digresses on the conditions needed for activities to incite flow as a ratio between challenges and skills. According to his studies, for someone to feel flow, challenges’ difficulty has to adapt dynamically to the skills of the practitioner, always being great enough to warrant improvement, but without ever seeming too hard to achieve. When the complexity of a challenge far outweighs the skills of the practitioner, that person loses concentration, building up anxiety, and eventually leading into frustration when the challenge is left unconquered. Conversely, when the skills far outweigh the challenge, the result is boredom. The very definition of a game fits into this challenge/skill model – games are systems bound by rules, in which an artificial conflict is proposed to players, a challenge that requires effort (read skills) to be achieved, and which has different outcomes, some good (win), some bad (lose). As you can see, the game activity has challenges and skills built into its weaving structure which is why ludic videogames can so easily mimic the cognitive and emotional effect of flow (fun) in players.

Fun can thus be understood as a concentrated state of mind in which self, time and space dilute themselves as we become short-circuited to a specific activity. In other words, fun or flow, is a hedonic, mindless past-time, one which we engage for its capacity to release pleasure hormones in our brain for long periods of time. Fun is the very definition of entertainment. Now we have to wonder if fun is really the defining quality which distinguishes good entertainment, good art and good videogames from the bad. If you believe that the best quality a videogame should possess is the ability to waste your time, with you mindlessly feeling pleasure as if hotwired to an endorphin disposal tube, then feel free to continue to uphold the logic of fun. Corporations will be pleased to know that there are more of you anxiously awaiting for your next pleasure fix, i.e. the next XX hours spent vacantly staring at a TV screen. Ever wonder why you compulsively buy games? It is because the “fun” high is, like most highs, shallow and short-lived, your body needs it constantly because it never feels totally satisfied. It’s the media equivalent of fast-food – it tastes sweet and salty in the first bite, but it never really feels satisfying enough, and once you finish eating, you’ll still get a spike of appetite and hunger. It’s not nutritional, but it’s addicting, because that is the only way you’ll keep coming back for more, time and time and time again.

Obviously, the true value of videogames, as in other media, has nothing to do with this “fun”. It’s neither the pleasure nor the challenge in themselves that make up good entertainment. It’s challenge’s semantic value, its meaning and its proposition of growth for each and any one of us. If a videogame only challenges you into mindlessly pressing buttons to kill monsters on screen, then it is worthless. This is a lesson which in older mediums is fully understood. In cinema, for instance, while some critics might praise the latest explosion fest blockbuster, they will consistently distinguish between popcorn “fun” entertainment, and proper films. Very rarely is something as discardable  as a blockbuster elevated to film of the year. On the other hand, the same is practically a given every year in the videogame medium. The thing is that movie critics simply expect more out of film than just fun, they expect true drama and emotion – amusement, sadness, anger, joy, relief, fear -, they expect an artist’s views on life and socially relevant issues, they expect added cultural value, articulate narrative discourse and artistic expression. These are the challenges which we should be demanding for videogames. Whether or not they end up being “fun” is besides the point. Good media is additive, not reductive. It does not subtract time from your life, by having it pleasurably slip as sand through your fingers; it adds time to your life with new  sensations, new emotions, new experiences, new memories and new ideas. It changes you, changes who you are, what you know and believe in. Fun is not part of this equation, nor ever was.

The problem is that society, because of economic interests, harasses you to continuously seek out pleasure, no matter how shallow and unfulfilling it may be. They afford you sensorial pornography – all pleasure, no emotion. And the deal seems sweet, since you get free pleasure with none of the added cost or effort. But true media bliss has a price: it is demanding, requires work, education and culture on part of its audience. This is the most powerful insight of flow theory: meaningful challenges require meaningful skills. You know that you cannot extract pleasure from great literary masterpieces without first achieving a certain level of maturity, learning how to properly read, decode metaphors, allegories, paradoxes, grasp the sociocultural contexts in which authors wrote, have some idea of genre tropes, formal and narrative structures, and you have read many many many other books before. Then why should videogames be different? Why should videogames be so deep and artistic if even kids can play them? Their semantics so powerful, that even teenagers can understand what they’re about? Why should videogames be so moving and thought-provoking, if all they require is for you to happily press a few buttons for you to feel “fun”? Why would the so-called “great masterpieces of the medium” require no cognitive and interpretative effort to play? The answer, no matter how infatuated we may be, is always the same: because videogames aren’t, for the most part, good media.

Videogames shouldn’t necessarily be fun. They can be fun. But their value lies in everything else besides that which you call fun, all of that which rewards you in deeper ways. You simply can’t be spoon fed “fun” as if a little child and expect to extract something relevant out from that experience. So forget fun. Forget formulas, genres, pre-conceptions, clichés, aesthetic trends, blockbusters and big company logos. Praise videogames that challenge you in meaningful ways. Praise authorship, innovation, personality, uniqueness, ambiguity, non-linearity, complexity, aesthetic view, virtuosity… praise that which challenges you! Praise artistic expression above all else, and if you do so, maybe one day videogames will be more than just lowbrow entertainment.

Demon’s Souls – “Aesthetics of Pain”

Like its “King’s Field” forebears, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s “Demon’s Souls” is another hardcore dungeon-crawler RPG inspired by gothic fantasy. Like the fiction it aspires to homage, it embodies the exacerbation of emotion, by hyperbolizing the emotional counterpart of the ludic experience. It’s a brutally difficult game, and therein lies its key to success: when it takes hours to go between savepoints, and even one or two hits from a weakling zombie can kill you, we assure you, you’ll think differently about a game, and well, you’ll definitely feel differently about it too. Every moment ends up feeling like a battle against an overwhelming assailant that cannot be overrun or eschewed. See, you never really ‘win’ “Demon’s Souls”, you merely survive for another second. Anxiety slowly creeps to the point of vertigo, as you’ll be painfully aware of ever-standing one step away from a bottomless pit, therefore losing all the work you’ve put into the game for the last hours. The stress is so great and exhilarating that when you do die (and you will, many, many times), all hell breaks loose… inside you, that is. Tension inevitably turns to self-centered anger and frustration, and you’ll want to smash everything around you to pieces.

Some may wonder what is the point behind all this masochistic suffering. The answer is simple, “Demon’s Souls” makes you feel something – fear, anxiety, frustration, anger… and it makes you feel them in spades. It isn’t a mindless past-time, it’s a desperately tough struggle, one which must be met with all your dedication so as to bring any minute pleasure. Playing it is not unlike betting all your hard-earned money into a game of skill or luck – hours and hours of work hang in the tip of fate, time slows down to a halt, your heart races, and you stand as in a miasma, one moment away from greatness, one moment away from utter despair. If you do manage the prowess of victory, then you’ll achieve supreme bliss, as beating even the smallest of objectives in “Demon’s Souls” leads to a powerful release of tension, an overjoyous catharsis that is as fruitful as the more sweat and tears you’ve offered as sacrifice to achieve it.

And, in its most clear evolution face “From Software’s” past titles, it is a game that incorporates online systems into its conceptual grounds. Instead of merely placing players together in artificial dungeons and then letting them compete or cooperate as MMORPG’s tend to, “Demon’s Souls” actually forces players to become part of its fictional realm, by binding them through a coherent body of rules. Players can either become vindictive souls that prey on others, or they can come together as a community, battling side by side, or sharing knowledge on how to survive the game’s dangers through its simple communication system. Either way, you’ll never feel as if inside an online game, with its chat non-sense, ridiculous emoting and mechanistic online/offline variations, instead, you’ll become integrant part of a menacing world populated with lost souls.

“Demon’s Souls” may not be a work of art, nor the most profound of experiences, but it is moving in ways that only the greatest of games can be. Whilst the gloomy anglosaxonic landscape (Makoto Satoh, Masato Miyazaki) and creepily unsettling score (Shunsuke Kida) are part of the game’s aesthetic appeal, it is only when you play the game and actually sense the ever-present eminence of death, that “Demon’s Souls” reaches its emotional apex. It is pure Gothic narrative, told as only videogames can tell: through the language of unbridled challenges and supreme skill, of pain and hardship, of unfettered emotion, fantasy, and true heroic conquest.

score: 5/5

[Part of this text was originally published in Portuguese, in Coimbra’s College Paper “ACabra”, dating 29/06/10]