Tuesday, August 9, 2011

super.hype: Part of a Balanced Breakfast

Ever think that maybe you’re missing out on something great while doing something else that’s also great? I mean, there’s only so much time in the day. How does one get about doing all those cool things that everyone seems to talk about all the time and that you’ve never heard of? Why is everyone so cool, except for you?

Okay, well, maybe I’m the only one who asks these questions (this is why you love me! Right?). But the truth is there are a lot of times where I get dissatisfied with gaming and what it has to offer, and I’m not really sure why. I thought about it for awhile and, after the playing through a few amazing titles in recent times, finally figured out a way to maintain my appreciation for gaming without becoming jaded, over-hyped, or burnt out. May I present to you: 

It Does a Body Good: 10 Tips for a Healthy Gaming Diet 

1. Play games. – Most of us took up gaming as a hobby, as something to do to take up our free time. With an inception like this, it’s easy to see how one’s mentality towards games can be a bit nonchalant. And that’s okay, really. After all, we’re in this for the fun, and for some people, having fun means no commitment, mindless activity, and robotic reactivity. But games are different. It’s not like shucking corn or folding laundry (no disrespect to those corn-shucking laundry-folders, love you), it’s playing a game. It does ask a certain amount of your attention and your engagement. In return it gives you the satisfaction of interacting with a working model, the ideas in someone else’s mind, and the joy of discovery. There are so many little things you may miss if you don’t really just sit down and play the games that you’re playing. Part of the fun is getting into it.

2. Play “good” games. – If you’re already a well-versed gaming aficionado, you already have a few media outlets you check on a regular basis. Good! These opinions and others are excellent resources for finding first impressions and keeping things on your radar. They’re also a great guide for deciding which games to plunk your hard-earned cashola on. For those who are a bit more like the nascent pupas of gaming butterfrees, don’t be afraid to search online for game reviews and give them a once-over before a purchase. Either way, it’s good practice to pick up one of these “highly acclaimed” titles that are well-reviewed by multiple outlets and barrel through them (Oh, I mean PLAY through them) once in awhile. Aside from the evident enjoyment you’ll get out of them, it’ll expose you to the world that is public gaming opinion: now that you have played a game which many others have, you have a voice and a valid opinion of it. This helps us to stay engaged with the community, which is important aspect of any hobby. This also brings me to my next point:

3. Play “bad” games. – As awesome as many media outlets are at providing us with competent, thorough reviews and opinions, they can often be wrong. During these times, the community rises to the occasion. What may be seen as a “bad” game by major media may in fact be a misunderstood gem, unpolished great idea, or simply unappreciated by major news. By staying involved with the community, you get exposure to these types of titles, which, by virtue of their “badness” may be obscure and unconventional. Experiencing these titles can often lead to a widening of one’s appreciation and definition of what games can be. At the same time, this experience can also help you refine your own tastes in looking for games.

Also, playing genuinely bad games can also increase the appreciation of good games, but most of the time that’s an exercise in futile frustration; I’m not really recommending it.

4. Play hard games. - All of these suggestions so far have been pretty objective (in a relative sense) because it’s about relying on (or rebuffing) the opinions of outside sources. This suggestion, though, is completely subjective. Hard means different things to different people. For some, Guitar Hero is the epitome of difficult, since they can’t seem to bring themselves to not fail every time they play “Crazy Train” on easy. Their friend though, that bastard, can do “Through the Fire and Flames” on expert with the guitar on his back (yeah, he’s the dude on youtube). On the other hand, this friend can’t play a game of Tetris to save his life, and you hand him his own cheeky bum on a chinet set every time you play puzzle fighter. It’s a strange, unfair world.

Still, part of enjoying and appreciating games is to play things you’re not so good at. Playing things that you might consider hard flexes those oft-neglected schemata muscles that your brain uses to categorize and compartmentalize things. Doing things we’re unfamiliar with (or even those things we are familiar with but don’t come to us naturally), helps us think outside our comfortability box. It also helps us to reframe, gain perspective, and respect others who are naturally good at those games. It also has that nice side effect of making us appreciate those games which we are naturally good at. They also help us to exercise skills we may not use often or give us opportunities to learn new ones.

5. Play old games. - After starting this blog, I had to resist this very serious compulsion to get games as they came out. I had to stay relevant. I had to stay “with it” and up-to-date. What I began to find, though, was that I wasn’t actually keeping up; I was always falling behind. I was chasing novelty and newness, and often missing quality and depth. Now, for big sites and journalists, it’s part of their job description to do this. They love to be on top of the latest trends and games, yes, but the truth is also that they came into the gaming fold through titles that gave up their fame long ago. These bygone games are not simply relics of the past; they’re often the foundations on which new titles are built.

Still, playing old games isn’t just a matter of giving these things their due; it’s also about understanding the medium. Games look and feel so different than the games of yesteryear, but the truth is that many of the same mechanics, technologies, and ideas continue to recur in present titles. What’s more, some of those mechanics haven’t returned and they retain their value and their brilliance only in the form of those old games. Engaging in these titles brings a tangible richness to the new.

6. Play multiplayer games. – Games aren’t necessarily a social endeavor, but they are a very human one. While animals certainly engage in “play”, only humans are the ones to create environments, settings, and even whole worlds for this play to occur in. When playing games, even singleplayer ones, we are interacting with individuals. It’s an unavoidable fact. Playing games specifically built for multiplayer is a whole ‘nother beast, though.

Multiplayer games are built to fit the needs of the huge range of skills, experiences, and tastes of hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of people. Implementing gameplay and interfaces that are accessible to such a wide group of people is a herculean task, but it can be done. Playing these games is more about the interaction than anything else, though. These games expose us to the wide variety of people that are “out there” who are playing the game that we’ve chosen to play. The thing is, they may not have the same reasons we do. We may like it for its simplicity, they may enjoy it for its art or style. We may enjoy it because it gives us a chance to compete with people and not robots, they may enjoy it because it lets them conquer problems with their friends. Either way, multiplayer games are unique in this point, they bring people together to face the same events, and say nothing and judge nothing of what opinions and thoughts come afterwards. Playing these games is an exercise in philological and psychological perspective-widening. Once we return to our own “real world”, we can take these experiences and use them for our benefit.

There is a pretty strong possible downside to this exercise in that you may come across complete douchebags. To avoid this, join a community or bring friends along to play with, which you may have acquired by practicing steps 1-3!

7. Play “indie” games. – There is definitely something to be said about the ability of money to produce amazing things. On the other hand, it’s also always refreshing to see things get created from absolutely no money at all (or very little). The personal benefit of playing these “indie” games (as opposed to the industry ones) is that it exposes you to the ingenuity of the medium.

Just as old games remind us of our heritage, “indie” games often wow us with their cleverness. Independent development, because of its no-pressure development style and devil-may-care creative approach, tends to produce strikingly unconventional material that challenges our presuppositions about what games are and aren’t, and can and can’t do. I could go on and on, but heck, just read this if you’re not already convinced.

8. Play “AAA” games. – Although major media outlets would have you believe that gaming is basically dichotomized, this really isn’t the case. Even though AAA “blockbuster” titles with huge budgets and even bigger development teams certainly have a different approach to games than indies, the truth is they’re all just interested in making good games (with a few notable exceptions). In fact, many AAA titles produced by big companies were in fact indie developed ideas or games that were essentially scooped up by these big boys and then given the sweet milk and honey they needed to become something even better. It follows then that AAA titles are simply good games, made better with money.

Of course, it isn’t always true, but the ones that fit this description showcase the full power of a good design, and as such help set the bar for future titles. Also, AAA games tend to be much more accessible, widely distributed, and overall better known, even amongst non-gamers. As such, we can use these titles as a way to engage these people and understand how they tick, which can bring more insight into the way we play games with and without them.

9. Think about games. – Any hobby worth engaging in is a hobby worth thinking about. This goes for any number of things a person might do, but it applies to gaming as well. And don’t think that doing so will somehow dispel the magic, mystery, and joy you get out of it; in fact it’s more likely that it’ll enhance those very things. It may feel a bit strange or nerdy at first, but thinking about the games you play is simply the common, natural exercise of reflection. In games, things happen. Anytime things happen, there’s something to think about.

I personally had a huge aversion to this very thing for a long time, largely due to the fact that I was usually discouraged from even playing games, much less thinking about them. Luckily for me, I couldn’t really help myself. I had to keep thinking about them for some reason. All the crazy puzzles, enemies, and bosses holed up very well in my brain after I defeated them. Eventually I just started writing it all out. What could I have done differently? What other possibilities were there for this type of encounter? What kind of insane drug was this guy on when he made this character? These are just a few of the questions I came up with as a kid. In my current, more mature years (har har), I ask the more abstract questions. But every once in awhile, I still like to wonder what the hell those artists are smoking.

The result is not really a greater understanding of the game, but actually a better understanding of myself: How and why I interpret the experience the way I do, what I notice and what sticks with me, and what I find amusing, challenging, inspiring, or cool. In fact, it’s this very exercise that often gets me psyched for new games when I see them, outside of any particular hype that’s generated by the community or news. Once you get to know yourself as a gamer, you can really enjoy gaming more freely.

10. Don’t play games. – Well, I don’t know how many of you saw this as a surprise, but moderation is the key in everything. No single step in this list will lead you to gaming bliss, but spending a fair amount of time in each will certainly get you to a place where you really enjoy what you’re doing. And not just a “contentment”, but a real, actual satisfaction with how you’ve spent your hobby time.

The point I’m trying to make here is that games are really just a hobby. As Jim Rossignol put it (granted, this is part of an answer to another question), “Fundamentally, games are a product of wealth, privilege and leisure time.” If you’re playing games, it’s likely you’re in a pretty darn good place compared to most of the world. Enjoy that. In fact, enjoy that by doing something besides playing games. I’m not trying to be facetious here, really; spending a lot of time doing anything will eventually get tiresome. There’s no need to wear out your welcome with games. And the truth is, some of you probably already do this when you do get tired of playing games. But why wait for it to get you down? Freeze that wart off before it gets too big; get out there and engage in something else in a game-like way, or not. But please, no gamification.

Following these steps have worked pretty well for me so far. In fact, I’m almost certain there are many of you, my dear readers, who already do something of the sort here. You start with a healthy serving “Bejeweled” paired with a touch of “Ben There, Dan That!” followed by a meaty main course of “Half-Life 2” drizzled with some “Amnesia: The Dark Descent”. For dessert, you take a swig of “Modern Warfare 2” and a spoonful of “Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood”. And of course, you never forget your little nightcap: “Endless Lines”.

I hope that these little tidbits of advice help you to avoid burnout, increase enjoyment, and help you maintain healthy appreciation for the great hobby that is gaming.

And don’t forget, moderation in all things, moderation itself included :)