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Deep Thoughts: Why Games Are So Weirdly Fun

By Brian Hertler | 14 March 2010 | Editorial | , , , | 15 Comments   

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.

15 Comments

  1. Posted by Dave "Boris" Orosz on 15 March 10 at 12:13pm

    I’m actually reading a Janet Murray book called “Hamlet on the Holodeck”. Very interesting stuff.

    I think video games are so interesting because it allows you to do otherwise complex and impossible things in comfortable, casual ways. Want to play knock hockey without exerting yourself too much? Play pong. Civilization presents you with a much more varied world domination system than Risk ever could, and I love Risk. It’s consistent and will challenge you in predictable ways, ways you can always count on. Especially in bars pong becomes easy and accessible, so why not make a bet on who buys a round. I feel like the modern day touch screen card games in bars (which I refer to as video crack) aren’t as popular because there isn’t that clear competitive angle. People go to bars to be social. If they wanted to drink alone, they’d stay home.

    Single player games also allow you to play competitively without any regard for feelings. No one is trying to beat you and you don’t have to feel conflicted about crushing an opponent with completely unsportsmanlike glee. You are the only human element, so you are testing yourself, not being tested by others.

  2. Posted by The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun on 21 March 10 at 5:25am

    [...] Hertler wonders why Pong is still fun. THE IMAGINARY OTHER IN GAMES!!?!?! That’s not something he writes, but something which has [...]

  3. Posted by edobaka on 21 March 10 at 8:25pm

    Gabe Newell said he was surprised that out of entire half life 2 game everyone’s favourite moment in game was throwing ball back and forth with a dog… so I it makes sense… that’s why said people will love milo, natal game. its first real ai game character made to listen and respond.

    nice article btw…

  4. Posted by wererogue on 22 March 10 at 1:59pm

    Popped over here from the reference on RPS’ Sunday Papers feature.

    When I was a kid I thought about this for a bit – I think my Mum asked me why it was so important to beat the computer. I remember thinking it through, and coming up with the answer that *really*, I was playing against the game programmers, trying to see if I could be better than the system they made.

    Now I’m a game AI programmer :)

  5. [...] Por Que Games São Tão Misteriosamente Divertidos Brian Hetler discute o papel do amigo oculto nos vídeo games. [...]

  6. Posted by R. Turner on 25 April 10 at 4:41pm

    Read “Theory of Fun”, by Raph Koster. It helped me understand a lot of things about how and why we play games.

  7. [...] Article here [...]

  8. Posted by What’s So Fun About Games, Anyway? | Kotaku Australia on 25 April 10 at 9:51pm

    [...] answer isn’t in their novelty, says Hertler, a graduate student at Georgia Tech. Writing for GameCrashers, Hertler says that Games are old enough and the old ones are simple enough that such an appeal has [...]

  9. Posted by Deep Thoughts: Why Games Are So Weirdly Fun | Wii Vidz on 26 April 10 at 2:01am

    [...] Article here [...]

  10. Posted by Si Lumb on 26 April 10 at 3:35am

    Reminds me of this: http://www.dubberly.com/concept-maps/a-model-of-play.html – wonderful exploration of how play maps experiences together. I lecture with this in courses on how to create engaging multi-platform experiences. I will follow up on your further reading suggestions, thank you.

  11. Posted by Anonymous on 01 August 10 at 6:44pm

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  12. Posted by Yogizilla on 07 February 11 at 2:42pm

    Great analysis!

    As others have pointed out, this piece more gets to the heart of what makes video games accessible and engaging, especially when compared with more traditional game formats. As to what makes video games fun (and a better investment, IMHO), I’d say the factors of replay value, convenience, “scaleability”, and immersion are what do it for me.

    Paper-based games and board games still have their place, as do card games and such. I feel the older formats are more timeless and portable but video games (great ones, at least) trump them in many other aspects. Being able to put down a video game and pick up right where you left off, for example, is a big selling point. Video games can also be more easilyand quickly modified and expanded in most cases, increasing replay value and keeping things fresh.

    I find that, for me, video games are a quick fix and more easy to stick to with a busy schedule. The most fun video games are the ones that provide fully-customizable experiences and/or provide ample rewards/perks for achievements and commitment. In terms of scale, online gaming makes it so much easier to connect with people around the world, keeping you on your toes, no matter how good you are.

    With regards to the classics and more family-oriented video games (a’la PopCap), these games will always be fun because they are simple and do what they do really well, no matter how complex or simple the core mechanics are. These types of games tend to keep your mind sharp and can always be enjoyed no matter how long ago your last session was. Truly, there’s a certain magic some developers capture that makes the best video games of all time memorable, pervasive, and worth emulating.

    AI is one of my favorite areas of game design. If you can make a video game that is equally fun alone or with friends, you capture that magical essence of truly-remarkable video games. It’s rare these days to see that and I reckon it has a lot more to do with other factors beyond mere nostalgic spin…

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  13. Posted by Yogizilla on 08 February 11 at 10:44am

    BTW, I like what some of you said regarding the challenge of beating a game and, by extension, the AI is that you challenging the developers. I know I always got frazzled when someone would play a game I made and find away to exploit the mechanics and rules in their favor. On the flip side, developers have the challenge of making tough games that won’t go overboard trying to stump their players. I believe the truly fun games revolve around a compelling core experience that doesn’t make you want to make you rip your hair out (if you’re not bald already, that is). It’s a balancing act, really.

    AI will certainly continue to be a growing part of the industry but I think the future lies in having more AI mixed in with live players. The Half-Life 2 dog example is awesome but I like the effect of Unreal Tournament bots mixed into live servers or NPCs that can join parties in an online RPG. This approach creates more of a feeling that there is always something going on in a virtual world, especially if the game in question creates a persistent environment successfully.

    Right now, MMOs are still popping up left and right but I feel the ones that focus more on partying, deep customization (I.e. Item crafting), and gripping, dynamic storylines/quests will have the greatest longevity; otherwise, it’s just a grind. Dynamic is the operational word here: make characters that engage you, make you feel fully-vested, and overall experiences that you can truly call your own. If the industry can break some cookie-cutter molds, it’ll be a better place for devs and gamers alike!

  14. Posted by What makes a video game fun? | 2D-X on 14 December 11 at 7:48am

    [...] being pointed to it by Kotaku, I’ve read Brian Hertler’s problematic piece on “Why Games are So Weirdly Fun” at GameCrashers about five times now, and I still have no idea what he’s trying to [...]

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