Friday, August 03, 2007

Game Friday: Do Games Have to Be Fun To Be Good?

Two very interesting articles today by Ian Bogost, courtesy of Gamasutra, about the potential of games as a more generalized medium for interaction with content. In the first article, Why We Need More Boring Games, Ian argues for a wider application of gaming to our daily experience. He notes that film, music, visual art, and literature have evolved as media that are used in all kinds of environments, from the mundane to the profound. It's not disturbing to us that films are made for personal documentation, for training purposes, and as art--few people argue that it is some kind of cosmic distortion to use the same platform for Casablanca as that used for My Trip to Cincinatti.

Ian comments:

Very few video games set out to tackle mundane applications akin to the home movie or the airplane safety video. And really, is it very surprising? Who would set their sights on these mundane aspects of human experience, things that recede into the background, given the glitzy alternative of commercial games?

Serious games offer one example. These are games whose mission includes applications of video games outside the sphere of entertainment. These are games that train soliders and corporate employees, educate middle-schoolers and technology certification hopefuls, help diabetics manage their blood sugar, try to persuade consumers to purchase products and services.

Certainly many of these activities seem to be just as banal as pointing out the exits on a Boeing 767. Serious games thus have an important role to serve in video games’ attempts to mature as a medium—not because they train or educate or inform, but because they help make games more boring.

By becoming more "boring," Ian argues, games will become a more pervasive part of our lives. The second article continues this argument, talking about ways that games--if we let go of strict expectations about their use--can be applied in "mundane" (universal?) situations. He cites editorial-style newsgames, workplace training games, and casual mobile games as breaking into both new markets and new expectations of the concepts and content that video games can express. Talking about educational games, he discusses the way that "educational" is always pitted against "fun," as if all games must have the primary objective of providing enjoyment. That expectation, however, limits games from being a medium--like film--to being a particular kind of user experience.

Scott McCloud makes a similar argument for "sequential art" in his excellent book Understanding Comics. As Ian does with videogames, Scott argues that comics have a fundamental value as a medium that is unique and applicable to far more topics and environments than Gotham City. And there are other links between the two media--both burgeoning in the last 30 years, with tightly controlled industry leaders producing predictable content for a mostly young, male market. Both have strong indie movements pursuing other goals and uses of the form, trying to move from pigeonhole to platform.

In this week's book club post, Elaine Gurian commented on the failures of NMAI, and of many museums, to find new palettes for interpretation and presentation of museum content, especially when the intended result is an emotional, spiritual, or non object-focused experience. I was struck, reading these articles about games, by the idea that introducing games, or comics, into the museum experience does not necessarily imply dumbing down or funning up the experience. At their core, these are fairly new, interesting platforms for expression and interaction. The kinds of connections people make when playing games or looking at comics are different than those made with film, text, or any number of more traditional media used in museums.

The problem is that it's very hard to separate the expectations we have--about what games or comics are--from the blank slate potential of the media. This is true both for we the designers, who think we have to make games fun, and we the visitors, who expect the gaming experience to be fun. But what about games that are "interesting?" Or "enlightening?" Or "useful?" Those words aren't part of our gaming vocabulary, or if they are, as in the case of educational games, those games are often considered traitors to the "real" nature of games.

But who defines the traitors? As in comics, it's the big industry--which relies on the expectation that games are entertaining experiences. It's a short-sighted but familiar perspective; I can imagine early movie execs arguing that no one would go to movies if film was debased by use for mundane or unentertaining purposes. But ultimately it comes down to semantics. The same way everyone knows that a book is different from a magazine is different from a memo, someday everyone might know that a video game is different from a home game is different from a work game, etc.

Recently, some games have successfully started to open up the medium to extend beyond "fun." Mobile casual games, played by commuters, could arguably be considered "time fillers." Is it fun to read a magazine on the train? Is it fun to play Bejeweled? The goal isn't to have fun as much as to pass the time--and games can fill that role as easily as books, ipods, or dropped cell calls. Similarly, the enormously successful casual Brain Game, which is essentially a repetitive IQ test experience, isn't popular solely because it's fun. Supposedly it improves your brain function. And Wii Fit is the new hot thing--a game to help you exercise.
World Without Oil, a "serious" ARG, is less about fun than about figuring out collectively how to save the world. I play my own un-fun games: beat the last tank's fuel efficiency, guess the number of eggs in the coop, bet on how long I have until the laptop power dies. Would I like a real game interface for these experiences? You bet--and I wouldn't complain if it wasn't "fun."

The trick is to find the unique ways that these newer media fit into the total palette of what a museum--or any cross-platform experience--offers. There are lots of experiences in the museum that are "boring," or, to use a less incendiary word, typical--reading text, watching film, listening to audio. It's the content and the connections that create a great experience out of those media. Which stories would best be told by games? Which by comics? Which on the web? Which through dance? Which through media we haven't yet invented?

5 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Ever since I first encountered them at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Triennial exhibition, I've been hooked on HowToons --

Educational AND fun? "Sacrelicious!"

Now I want my unborn child to grow up quick, so we can build some of these little projects together. I think HowToons should be given out to every kid who comes through a science center's door. I'm also a huge fan of "The Dangerous Book for Boys" and Make Magazine.

Making homemade shit is cool. Kids don't get to do that enough anymore.

...sigh. No one gets nostalgic like they used to.


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Anonymous said...

1) This is a fascinating topic and I believe that I have never looked at games from this angle. I read half of the post before my mind caught on—games≠fun. Wacky. I like it.

2) Nina, are you really raising chickens?

3) n, we just bought Dangerous Book for our son. I agree, it's groovy. I will check out those HowToons.

4) Vera, uh, okay.

Nina Simon said...


I love the Howtoons folks--I was friends with some of them years ago in Boston and had a blast at their early howtoons "parties" at which we would do bizarre science experiments and draw them up. I'll always remember the duct tape body doubles...

And your dream was their original dream too. They were trying to sell/partner with science museums. Saul Griffith is at Squid Labs... worth getting in touch.

One thing I especially appreciate about Howtoons is its subtle gender equity--something I see less present in some other ventures like Make.

And yes, Seth, we have four chickens and two ducks. We less "raise" them than try to keep the coyotes from them and try to keep from strangling them in the morning when they start squawking. Moving to the country has been quite an adventure...