Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Silver Lining - Exploring the positive impact of the 'worst' parts of gaming

One of my main gaming philosophies is if you are having fun, so long as it is not coming to someone else's detriment, then you can't be doing it wrong. Games are an escape and however you use them to do so is really your own business. In this post, I address three areas that are often cited as examples of 'bad' gaming and try to present my take on how, beyond just providing entertainment, they are overall beneficial to the community.


Achievements/Gamerscore

This is probably one of the most recurring topics on love it or hate it lists. Achievements are small text rewards that pop up when certain feats are achieved in a game and contribute to an overall score that is publicly displayed. While the laundry list of rails against achievements could probably have its own dedicated blog, I will elaborate two of the most common arguments spouted against them. 

Perhaps the most common argument against achievements is that they detract from the games themselves in favor of the overall meta/gamerscore. Attached to this is the notion of achievement farming where a player will only play a game to obtain the achievements regardless of whether or not they actually enjoy the game itself. The argument elaborates that, because a player is only playing for the achievements and, indeed, favors those games with easy achievements, then games need to cater to this market and the overall quality of a title may be compromised or what value achievements may bring in providing a boasting point is diminished. To this, I suggest that, while some, likely already mediocre, games may suffer, high quality gameplay will never go out of style. As such, while a few fringe developers may push to cater to the achievement farming crowd in order to bolster sales, the discerning gamer will simply never buy these games in the first place. In essence, the achievement farming market simply isn't big enough for a top-tier developer to diminish the overall quality of a game at the risk of alienating the discerning gamer. Further, if a publisher garners a few extra sales from achievement farmers then, to invoke a relatively trope argument, a rising tide raises all ships. This is to say that extra money being pumped into the gaming industry, even for perceived 'bad' reasons, still makes the industry larger and leads to overall better choice and the potential for overall better games.

Another frequent argument that is made against achievements is that they discourage independent exploration. The argument goes that player actions are inherently driven by the Skinner-box instant pleasure of unlocking achievements so much so that players will only find an activity in game worth-while if it includes an achievement as a reward. As such, players are less driven to independently stretch themselves and test the limits of a game world in the name of exploration. While, I admit, that achievements do heavily influence gameplay, I would argue that hidden Easter eggs and secrets unrelated to achievements are also equally capable of having an influence. In these cases, the desire for a player to see some hidden message scrawled by a developer in some off the beaten path part of a map needn't be tied to an achievement to encourage exploration; the secret area is draw enough for a player. Beyond this, I feel that the best games can actually use achievements to entice a player to try things they normally would have never had an inkling to do. I think a lot of people have seen nooks and crannies of Grand Theft Auto worlds in the hunt for hidden packages tied to achievements that they otherwise never would have visited.

Casual Games/Browser Games

Casual games are considered by most 'true' gamers to be some of the worst examples of games. Two of the most famous examples of casual games are Angry Birds and Farmville. For Angry Birds, people take offence that the game has become immensely popular on the back of ultra simplistic controls that amount to little more then pulling the arm on a slot machine and hoping for the best. Farmville is frequently critiqued for it being entirely designed to entice players through a never ending stream of locked features designed solely for extracting money from the pockets of players already hooked on the system. I think my rising tide argument is also applicable to casual games but I also think that the maligned simplicity and faux-enticement are also some of the best reasons to embrace these games. Casual games can serve as an excellent way to introduce non-gamers to games. Showing someone that games need not require endless hours of investment (either to develop skill or experience reward) is a great way to make games less intimidating. I often like to think of casual games as the gateway, or first steps, into the larger gaming world and I, for one, am always happy to see the community grow. Some people may never move past casual games, but those that do are fueling a much more diverse gaming population.

Dude-Bro-Gaming

The Dude-Bro is a stereotypical gamer that is fairly easy to describe: college frat guy shouting obscenities over multiplayer chat. These are the guys who invented tea-bagging and pick up the latest copy of Madden or Call of Duty every year. The common argument against the Dude-Bro is that he represents the lowest common denominator in gaming and is single-handedly responsible for the myriad of uninspired FPS clones that are released. In short, innovation is stifled because of the Dude-Bro who makes up too large of the consuming public to be ignored. Here I think my rising ship is beyond applicable as the Dude-Bro forms the backbone of gaming sales, without him we would simply have less developers making great games. But even further, I feel the Dude-Bro has played a critical role in legitimizing gaming as a mainstream activity. In the past decade, gaming has received a public image face-lift going from the activity of a few loners in their mom's basement to the cusp of being a big money sporting event. The Dude-Bro is the cool and attractive young guy, that for better or worse, is an aspirational figure for many and who's actions are followed and emulated. I don't quite know what attracted the Dude-Bro to games, but, as gaming popularity has risen, so has the overall availability and quality of games as legitimate critical discussion has been fostered. Without the Dude-Bro, the meteoric rise of gaming would almost certainly have been stifled. 

In the end, I think the points raised here highlight the shades of grey within gaming. While achievements, casual games, and Dude-Bros all certainly can be perceived as negative I think it is important to not overlook that they have also brought tangible positives. Achievements can lead to discovering something entirely new, casual games enlarge the community, Dude-Bros have legitimized gaming, and they have all led to a larger pool of money to entice developers to make great games.