Discord and Rhyme: Playing By the Rules

Matt Turano | 13 Aug 2008 17:00
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

Rules are the bedrock of civilization. Quite frankly, the threat and promise of punishment is the only thing that keeps me out of prison every time I get behind the wheel, so I know what of I speak; rules are good. That said, at what point does a game cease to function as a mechanism for play and adopt the role of whip-cracking, rule-administering taskmaster? For me, it's the moment when individual expression is subjugated to the whim of the designer; in other words, the moment I realize that I'm not playing a game as much as it's playing me.

My personal nominee for an example of bad game design is the original Simon, Milton Bradley's electronic Skinner simulation from the late-70s which had you pressing large, brightly lit buttons to "match wits" against the machine by duplicating its patterns. Simon issued a gentle razzing sound whenever you made a mistake, but you know that the sadistic bastard would have gleefully sent forty thousand volts coursing through your synapses if given the opportunity.

There are thousands of games on the shelves, both board- and video-type, for which the apparent creative motivation can be outlined by one simple principle: the developers valued the experience of making the game more than they valued the experience of playing it. There's nothing wrong with game design as a vehicle for expression, as long as the particular designer seeking expression isn't a compulsive, controlling wank, but whenever the focus in any field shifts towards process as an end unto itself, the final result - whether game, film, novel, or pot of chili - often winds up smelling like a seat cushion in a cross-country Greyhound bus. Without air conditioning. In August.

Obediently leaping through hoops in order to please other people has never held much appeal for me, which is why most of the games I enjoy utilize mechanics that allow the player to control, if not entirely craft, his own experience. Even during childhood, a simple competitive game like Connect Four offered little in the way of self-expression other than dropping chips into slots, and on particularly boring days, using the game's plastic yellow frame to slice Velveeta. Yet Monopoly, in all its glorious, capitalistic avarice, permitted me to become the J. P. Morgan of the dining room table, trading and buying and selling and cutting deals with the poor slobs who couldn't pay their rent; it was, and still is, all about expression. Do you have mercy and allow Grandma to stay in that tiny oceanfront bungalow, or do you evict the old bag and force her to mortgage her hovel on Baltic Avenue just to stay in the game? Expression, man.

Thanks to the lasting imprint of a tiny metal race car on an area of my body which shall remain unspecified, I eventually learned not to express myself so aggressively, but the broader lesson remains; to paraphrase Steve Martin, a great game may not be the truth, but it is what we wish were true. Games, and play in general, are at their best when they allow us to express ourselves not merely as we are, but as we would be.

This type of play, which French sociologist Roger Caillois referred to as mimesis, or mimicry, comprises a large portion of most videogames. Whether slicing and dicing hobbes in Fable or stealthily snapping necks in Splinter Cell, successful mimicry demands a hearty suspension of disbelief. This is easy enough when you're a kid stomping around the house in dad's shoes, roaring and knocking things over while giving your most earnest impression of a tyrannosaurus mess, but it gets progressively more difficult when we must rely on other people to fashion this suspension for us. The problem is that no magnitude of childlike imagination can compensate for technical failings like bad control or a chuggy framerate, or dialogue that falls on the ear as though it staggered out of an episode of Teletubbies with Tinky Winky's shiv embedded in its kidney. Put bluntly, sometimes other people's suspension sucks. Hard.


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