I recently wrote an article exploring a game that made me angry and what that says about me. Reflecting on that article has caused me to think more precisely about gaming’s bias toward competition. In his article, “Winner: Is Competition Such a Bad Thing?”, Matthew Burns, a former Bungie employee (developers of Halo), reflects on how this bias plays out:
By holding victory high over any other kind of experience, games end up biased heavily toward creating situations that inflame anger and frustration. Players are routinely placed in conditions reminiscent of the Robbers Cave experiment–a classic study of conflict in social psychology in which two insular groups were brought into competition, which quickly escalated into open hostility. But game designers are somehow still shocked or dismayed when players’ behavior turns ugly, and we universally put the blame on our customers rather than our games.
So while the chance to win may keep millions of people playing games, emphasizing victory at the expense of less goal-oriented play means that game developers often overlook the deeper qualities that attract players in the first place (Kill Screen, Vol. 1, Issue 1, p. 41).
While it was certainly my fault that I lost my temper playing FIFA 11, it shouldn’t be shocking because after all, when all we do is compete, it shouldn’t surprise us when failure is maddening. Burns says our pension for competition has given us a “creatively impoverished medium. There is certainly more to life and gaming than winning and sadly so few games seem to be tapping into this simple truth.
This week, thanks to the polite nudge of a friend, I have been playing Minecraft, which has been one of the most fascinating and compelling gaming experiences that I can remember. The graphics are blocky and very low resolution–Mario 64 is more impressive graphically and it came out 15 years ago. You, the player, are what makes Minecraft special. You spend most of the game mining and the building things with the material that you mine. The scope of what you can construct with your seemingly limited materials is astounding. You decide how much you will get out of Minecraft based on how creative you want to get. The low resolutions make the player responsible for creating beautiful structures rather than the game itself. Your avatar is tiny, a mere handful of blocks put together to roughly resemble a human being. But what you can create is astounding.
Minecraft is not without adventure–at night skeletons, zombies, and creepers will attack you if you are not sheltered in your house. The mines, in which you must find the game’s most precious materials for building, also contain monsters. If you die you will start over outside the mine and potentially lose what you had mined for. While this could be potentially frustrating, I have found that these adventures enrich the experience of building. Your structures and creations become connected to the adventures you had mining for their materials and consequently carry more value.
Minecraft can be played with friends if you can find a server. Thanks to a friend, that is the only way I have played it and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Every time I load the game up, I am noticing things my friends have done to the world and its fascinating because its constantly changing and becoming more diverse. One time I loaded up the game and the only guy on our server who I don’t really know had built a massive glass bridge all the way across a rather large bay that separates his house from mine. There is an unwritten rule in our server that you don’t mess with other people’s houses. This guy had sort of messed with mine as his bridge connected to my house. But it was so amazing that I absolutely didn’t care and welcomed the change.
Early on I was amazed by every little thing that people would do in the game, my friend who helped build my house made a painting and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. Now I have 7-8 paintings in my room. As you progress, you and your friends find that you are building more and more amazing things and its a blast to share your creations and the stories behind them with friends. Further when you play with people you know, you find that there is more license to get creative with the world and even the story of the game that you are creating with them.
Now if you will excuse me, I am going to go make a statue of a giant leg on one of the beaches.