valuing quality in video games

This morning, I had a discussion with my daughter, trying to explain to her why I didn’t want to install a particular idle/incremental game on her iPad. Without naming names, it’s one of those idle games that just doesn’t have an end. I don’t think it’s a particularly bad game, but once you learn its systems, (which I do find interesting!) there’s nothing left to it but grinding for more of the same. I don’t particularly want my daughter playing games that are 99% grind.

This led me to think philosophically about why I want to play those games. I do value new game systems, and I think incremental/idle games have some of the more interesting systems being designed today. Depending on the game, it can take a while to reveal all the systems in play, but I think, if I’m being honest with myself, I am liable to play far longer than it takes to understand the systems. Or maybe by the time I’ve played long enough to understand them, I’m invested in my progress in the game, and feel compelled to continue.

One of my client projects right now is a game to teach kids about the dangers of smoking, and this has led to some discussion in the office about the nature of addiction. (Or anyway, some reading of the wikipedia page for addiction.) And I think the nature of these games (watching the numbers increase) is a sort of reinforcing / rewarding stimuli, meaning it’s possible to feel compelled to play, which I definitely do.

In the last year or so, I’ve kept a browser window open on my iMac (which is always on, on my home office desk), and there are usually between 4 and 6 tabs open to various idle games there. These are the type of games that do not have endings. (It’s worth noting that I also don’t like books or comic book series without endings!) I like to think that I basically just play these types of games in tiny spurts. But the truth is that I’ve been spending hours in front of that iMac at night. Hours when I could be making games. (And sometimes I am!) But these are hours that I could also be filling with any number of other higher-quality distractions.

I think playing games has inherent value! But when I think about where that value comes from, I find that it’s tied closely to having new experiences. Solving (and discovering!) new kinds of puzzles is especially satisfying for me, but experiencing new stories is also a totally valid benefit. So it makes sense that it’s the repetition of experience that I find distasteful for my daughter’s gameplaying. (Would I be as reluctant to let her spend hours playing Tetris? No, but maybe that’s a topic for a different post.)

Games that involve some grinding are totally fine. In traditional games, “grinding” is (optimistically) used to enhance the player’s feeling of accomplishment when they are finally strong enough to continue unveiling the story/experience. Pessimistically, it could be argued it’s often just an unintended consequence of the game’s mechanics.

And of course not all idle/incremental games are infinite grinding. The best ones do have an end. (Spaceplan or Universal Paperclips are some good recent examples.) But many do not. I’m not going to stop playing those types of game entirely. (I really do enjoy discovering their mechanics and systems.) I’m just going to try and become aware of when I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns, and stop playing then.

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