Deep Thoughts: Why Games Are So Weirdly Fun
This semester I’ve been learning a bit about the history of computers, and video games in particular. Today, of course, we see the game industry as this unstoppable entertainment juggernaut, but in the beginning they were simply… not exactly a fad, but a curiosity. A strangely interesting, strangely compelling curiosity. Even at the start there was something different about video games — something way more engrossing — and I’m trying to figure out exactly what it is.
It’s especially strange when you think about the popularity of early games. When we were discussing Pong in class, one of my colleagues (a non-gamer) raised his hand and asked, “Can anyone tell my why people got so excited about this? I mean, people were playing this game in bars, where you had darts and pinball. Or you could go home and play Dungeons and Dragons, which was so much richer as a game. What was so exciting about hitting an imaginary ball?”
My gut response was, Well, it was a video game. Which didn’t really make any sense.
Nowadays we assume that people loved Pong for the novelty, but that’s not the whole story. Millions of people were playing it for five years. You don’t spend money on a fad for five years (think of the Tamagotchi, for example). And, on its surface, Pong kind of sucks. It’s a game about rotating a knob to avoid missing a ball. Even calling it a “ball” is charitable, since it’s clearly a square.
But here’s the thing: I’d rather play Pong than play pinball, even today. I’ve tried it on emulators, and I still have fun playing it. Instead of playing chess, a game that’s been popular for a thousand years, I’d much rather play Civ IV, which is likely to disappear from stores as soon as Civ V comes around.
My question is: What is it about video games? Why are they so much more compelling than they have any right to be?
A thought experiment might help here. So: let’s say you find the code for Civilization and print out every algorithm in the simulation. If you know the state of the game, you can figure out exactly what happens next (this would take a long, long time, but let’s pretend that doesn’t matter). You pick up some figurines, some dice, a calculator, and a big piece of graphing paper, and you sit down and start playing tabletop single-player Civilization. You make a move, crunch the numbers, roll some dice (to account for random elements), and then you move the “AI” pieces. Rinse and repeat.
I don’t think anyone would refer to this as “playing Civilization.” For one thing, it would be disgustingly unfun. More than that, though: it would feel lonely, in the way that playing a board game by yourself felt lonely, when you were a little kid and your brother wouldn’t play checkers with you. You could move the pieces on the other side of the checkerboard and pretend to play, but even at six years old you knew how lame this was. This is what I’d call a true “single-player game”: there’s nobody on the other side of the board.
It’s different, in some fundamental way, to play Civ against the computer — even when you basically know the simulation by heart. It’s not simply that the computer is crunching the numbers. You get the feeling that you’re not alone: it’s responding to you. You’re in a conversation. You and the system are partners, playing together.
That seems obvious in a way, but things get weird when you start thinking about it. After all, the system isn’t just a checkers player taking the place of your brother. It’s moving your pieces as well, based on how you move the mouse (or whatever). When you move your Scout, the system shows you what’s beyond the mountains, right before it sends the barbarians after you.
The system feels like another person, but he’s like nobody you’ve ever met before. He’s incredibly smart, but he’s limited and predictable. He’s exploitable, if you can figure out his secret. And, once you learn how to speak to him, he’s listening with total intensity. (This is why there’s nothing more game-breaking than unresponsiveness, the feeling that the game stopped paying attention to you.)
The system is a guy who’s always interesting. He flip-flops between being your friend and being an asshole. Sometimes he has a cruel sense of humor (see: I Wanna Be the Guy), but he’s never irrational about it. When you’re speaking to him, he’s also training you: he wants you to speak to him better. Listen more closely to what he’s trying to tell you, and you’ll have a better conversation.
You know this is all an illusion, and really it’s just data and algorithms under the hood, but that doesn’t matter. Subconsciously, you’re convinced almost instantly: something in here is listening and responding to me.
This isn’t the whole answer to why video games are so gripping, but I think it’s part of the answer. A gamer is someone who understands these systems and enjoys meeting new ones. A good system is one that knows new tricks, has a better balance of being your friend and your enemy, etc… but, really, you can have a decent conversation with almost any system. Even the ones that only know a couple of simple words.
- Brian Hertler
P.S.: Here’s where I act like a good academic. If you’re interested in more formal thinking on this topic, read about the concept of “agency” as it relates to digital media; the work of Janet Murray (a professor of mine at Georgia Tech) is a good place to start. For more about the dialogue between player and system, I’d recommend the paper “Agency Play: Dimensions of Agency for Interactive Narrative Design,” by D. Fox Harrell (another professor of mine) and Jichen Zhu.