An Elf’s Best Friend

Recently, Michael Abbot of Brainy Gamer posted that “Games Aren’t Clocks”.

The thesis is:

The primary function of a clock is to tell time. We may admire its appearance or the intricacy of its inner-workings, but the moment it ceases to function, its value diminishes for most of us. What good is a clock that can’t tell time?

What is the primary function of a video game?

He decries criticism of video games based solely on gameplay:

I say it’s time to let go of our preoccupation with gameplay as the primary criterion upon which to evaluate a game’s merits. It’s time to stop fetishizing mechanics as the defining aspect of game design. Designers must be free to arrange their priorities as they wish – and, increasingly, they are. Critics, too, must be nimble and open-minded enough to consider gameplay as one among many other useful criteria on which to judge a game’s quality and aspirations.

I can’t say that I can endorse this. More later.

In response, Dennis Scimeca of Punching Snakes retorts, “Games ARE Clocks”. After bemoaning the state of terminology for games, and quickly touring the breadth of video games (going from art games like Jason Rohrer’s Passage, to The Sims, he concludes:

Where I agree with Abbott absolutely is in our need to view games holistically. Mechanics are not the end-all of appreciating video games, but asking critics to divorce such a defining characteristic from our appraisal of the medium seems untenable to me. The better course of action is to help identify and define new genres and forms for creators to work in which are similar to, but different than, video games, such that said creators have the choice to focus on design aspects they are interested or skilled in, without the burden of also having to deal with the aspects they aren’t.

Yeah, I’m pretty much there. Kate Cox, of Your Critic is in Another Castle, adds to the discussion with the observation that failure (and success) is an important, maybe even essential component of what makes a video game.

At its most basic, a game is something playable. Whether it’s got a story or not, no matter the genre, system, or type, a game is something that requires player input. You, the consumer, are in some way integral to this experience. Whether you push one button or speak a word into a microphone, whether you wave your arms at a motion sensor or deliberately hold still when you could act — a game requires you to contribute. That’s the sum total of the agreement on our current definition of “gaming,” and really that’s quite a low bar. Small wonder, then, that we keep looping through these arguments.
We don’t just have a win / lose dichotomy anymore. We do have completion and backlog; we have sandbox and short story. But every title I can think of — every title I’ve ever played and a thousand more I haven’t — has either a failure state or a success metric, and some have both. Our metrics aren’t necessarily competitive, and they might be imposed by the player rather than intrinsically by the game. There are little successes and big ones, game-ending failures and completely surmountable ones, but every pixellated problem I’ve ever pounced on has at least one or the other.

I can’t really disagree. But the clock metaphor is all wrong. You wind up a clock and then never touch it. Well, you used to. Now you just put the batteries in. Or plug it in. Maybe you adjust the time every once in a while, or you have to set the clock when there’s been a power outage, say, from a big hurricane that blew through. Just as a random example.

No, video games aren’t clocks. A video game that worked like a clock would be boring. Clocks are useful, but they aren’t exactly engaging or exciting, or interactive. There is certainly clock failure. (See above hurricane mention).

No, video games are dogs. And I mean that in a good way. Dogs are always happy to see you. Dogs, at least your dog, is more interested in you than anyone else on the planet, including your spouse. A dog will gaze deep into your eyes with the question, “What are we going to do now?”

I often play fetch with a pit bull named Doughnut. She’s adorable and she likes me. I take the chewed up tennis ball and I tease her with it. I might throw it high in the air or against the fence or just a bounce on the ground. I might try to fake her out and she might go for it or not (there’s the failure, Kate!). She has her own agenda, but it’s always in response to me. (Dougnut might not read this blog, but her master does. Hi Doughnut!)

Yes, that’s what’s important about a video game – there’s space in the game for me. The experience reacts to what I, the player do. Not always in a good, or desired way, but it reacts. When gameplay components seem to players to be afterthoughts, or poorly developed, the message to players is: You don’t matter. Your choices and/or skill aren’t important. This computer program is a vehicle for me to demonstrate my awesomeness to you, so bow down!

Understandably, players don’t respond well to this. How would you like it if your dog suddenly started acting like a cat? And the snootiest, haughtiest cat around, to boot.

(Once upon a time, our neighbors had a cat that was the most dog-like cat I’ve ever seen. She would fetch and had that same “what are we going to do now?” gaze that dogs do. But I digress.)

Games are not something you watch, they are something you participate in. If that participation seems an afterthought, a little pushback is understandable, maybe even in order.