My left arm has been hurting recently from the wrist to the elbow, along what feels like a stress point that exists from resting my hand the way I do when I play video games and have to mash the hotkeys. Is this the beginning of carpal tunnel? I took a bit of a break from games to let it settle down, but it still starts to flare up if I play or type for more than a half hour a day or so, and with a ton of portfolio essays and final exam essays to grade, I’m going to be resting my arm like that a lot simply due to work. I can type okay if I rest my arms like a piano player would, draping my wrist and making a C with my thumb and fingers, but it’s very awkward and, not being a pianist, I can only hold my arm that way for a certain amount of time. It sucks. Anyway, that’s on my mind. Thoughts?
Today’s correspondence, though, is not on that topic. As we’ve been discussing various social aspects of games recently, such as “community” and “social fabric,” I saw a lot of pushback against the importance of those elements. The argument I saw most was that a strong community could not make up for a game being inherently un-fun. Rather than getting into the boggy depths of “What is fun?” (it’s the perfect matching of your level of skill to the game’s challenges until you reach mastery, for the record, but we’re NOT getting bogged down in that), I began to wonder “In what other ways do games try to conceal their lack of fun?” In other words, “what crutches do un-fun games use?”
Take grinding for example. It’s not fun. I’m not criticizing the activity; if you just want to turn your brain off a while and go easily massacre monsters over and over, that’s perfectly fine, but it’s not fun. How do games cover up for that? I came up with a few ideas to create a base list, but I’m curious what else I may not have thought of. Here’s where I started:
I tend to agree with the comment that community cannot sustain an inherently un-fun game, but many game developers have certainly tried. Even WoW, to some extent, has utilized the relationships we form in game, guilds in particular, to sustain long periods of content drought. During those times, WoW becomes an immersive Facebook. Using an MMO as a social network was what I was going to discuss the day I ended up talking about Bartle Archetypes as Developing Identities. The only reason I, and I’m sure some others, too, log on to WoW is to see our old friends. The game itself isn’t that much fun any more, but we miss our contacts if we stop playing.
Not only the positive aspects of community bind us, but as Green Armadillo voiced in the previous discussion of social fabrics, but negative aspects of community – social obligations – factor in as well. I don’t think there’s been a single MMO burnout that wasn’t exacerbated by continuing to play due to duty when the player should have stopped and taken a break.
This is by far the most obvious attempt to sustain long-term interest in simple, un-fun activities. Grind dailies for rep. Grind dungeons for gear. Grind raids for more gear and achievements. Again, I’m not criticizing the activity, just that I wonder how many players are self-aware enough to realize they’re being manipulated in that way. The older generation likely is, but what about younger players?
All of those examples refer to MMOs, but the mindless chaos of Xbox FPS games like Call of Duty aren’t much different; they provide rankings and achievements in much the same way. How much work did people do for “…the Insane?” Having the title may be a mark of “honor,” but the activities cannot possibly be described as fun.
Aligning with the previous one, particularly regarding the idea of younger players, are the habit-forming behaviors that more and more video games are trying to build. Warframe is a prime example. Each day you log in, you get a reward. The more days you log in in a row, the better the reward. The game is trying to form the habit of logging in with those extrinsic rewards. I mentioned in our last correspondence that Neverwinter had a few designs like that, too; it offers free rewards each hour that you log in and invoke at a shrine. It’s a little disgusting, if you think about it, but clearly it’s effective for the free-to-play model. Sub models do it, too, with dailies and weeklies, and none of us are fully immune. We want to get as much as we can if we care about progression, so we almost feel “self-obligated,” like we “should be” doing certain activities, and we feel guilty when we do others. That’s clearly not fun.
Future promise of fun
Another typical MMO tactic is to promise more fun in the future if you get through the un-fun of the early game. To be fair, WoW only really got bad about this later on; in the start, leveling was as much fun for most of us as we expected the end-game to be, but once you’ve done it on your first or second character, it begins to lose merit. Clearly the devs agree, as they keep reducing the amount of xp you have to gain and boosting the bonus xp you can get through guild and gear bonuses.
Other games work in a similar fashion, that they “unlock” new fun options as you play. Warframe is like this; you get new classes through an absurd amount of grinding or paying real money, but you can only play them and thus change up the gameplay a little from the otherwise extremely repetitive FPS model by playing more and more of the extremely repetitive FPS model. Even with the cash shop available, you cannot play the “Rhino” class until you, the player, is level 2, which takes probably 20 hours of play. Then, with the new suit, you’d have to repeat the first 20 hours to get it powerful enough to survive the levels you were previously at with your old warframe. That’s not much fun.
As much as it pains me as an English teacher to admit it, narrative is often a crutch for bad gameplay. The desire to find out what happens next is an extremely powerful force to most humans. Curiosity killed the cat, and it can cause a player to plow through a lot of un-fun game mechanics to advance the story. Old console RPGs – which I loved, to be fair – often allowed you to grind hours and hours to get to secrets that might have a tiny change overall in the story. Multiple endings are similar to this; often to get the “best” ending requires more work, not necessarily more fun.
So those are the crutches I came up with off the top of my head. What did I miss?
Stubborn (with a hurt hoof)