Saturday, September 20, 2014

What every true gamer should know

Games are microcosms. They are small, self-contained worlds wherein you as the player are free to roam. The limits on just how much you can roam varies from game to game, but in general there are several ways to get things done. Which one you choose at any particular time might depend on your mood, intention, level of roleplaying or, indeed, skill level.

You are never free to roam as you wish. No game is ever without limits, and if you keep at it for long enough you will encounter these limits. In some games, such as tic-tac-toe, the limits are brutally visible: the 3x3 grid contains everything that will ever be. In more complex games, the limits might not be as visible, but they are still there. And you will encounter them, given time.

As your skill level grows, you will gradually become more and more hemmed in by these limits. What can reasonably be done has most likely already been done, and the temptation to go for the impossible grows with unreasonable speed.

When confronted with this unreasonable impossibility, there are two ways to keep on gaming. The one way is to impose certain limitations on what one can and cannot do during gameplay, in order to increase the difficulty level. These limitations include such things as not using healing items, not saving, never being hurt, not killing anyone, collecting every single gold star whilst doing all these other things, and so on and so forth. The more you selfimpose, the harder it gets, and the more impressive it becomes once it's done.

The other way is to go in the opposite direction. Ditch any pretense of limitations and abuse the underlying game mechanics until they break. Squeeze every single possible bit of utility out of the rules, and unleash it upon the gameworld. Find the edge conditions that give you unlimited money, then use this money to conquer the world. Find the loophole that lets you get all the super items, then get two of them. Find out where rule one and rule two combined produce strange results, then base your whole game around abusing these results.

One day, the island nation of Ryukyu shall rule the earth.

Here's the thing, though. It is very possible to frame a game in such a way that those who takes delight in pushing the limits and abusing the mechanics are every so subtly trained in the art of thinking in very particular ways. The limits are not so much limits as roadmaps, and pushing the limits leads not to freedom but to a very predetermined endpoint: to becoming a subject who thinks in certain terms, values certain things and sees certain things as both possible and necessary to do. The game games you as much as the other way around.

The game will not tell you this, of course. It will only ever give you the rewards it is programmed to give you: extra skill points, extra achievements, fancier armor, lemons, whatever. Extra trinkets to keep you playing along, happy that your progression is on the right path.

Looking for the ways in which you as a gamer is gamed requires you to think outside the sandbox. It requires you to ponder such things as whether or not the game you're playing actually makes sense - a question that is surprisingly often overlooked. What kind of character are you playing? Is the implied narrative actually relevant to anything you do? Is there some sort of meta-fictional context that would help explain why things are the way they are? Why is the graphics the way they are, and are there references to other visual arts to be found? Could the game be different?

These are not easy questions. They are also not the kind of questions that can be answered using the vocabulary of gaming. Mega Man might be able to navigate the world using the two all-encompassing actions of jumping and shooting, but if jumping and shooting are the only things you as a human being are capable of performing, then you are deficient in more ways than you know.

You could of course impose limitations upon yourself. Refuse to read about art, politics, ideology, feminism, psychology, history or anything else, and steadfastly keep trotting along the predetermined path. Or you could game the game as it tries to game you, and find that there is more than meets the eye.

Your move, player one.


  1. As a roleplayer, these limits of the rules are where I draw the line between computer games and pen-and-paper roleplaying: When we sit around a table with friends and we push the limits of the rules, then we invent new ones.

    1. To be sure, the point of tabletop games is the eternal negotiations about what is a rule, what it means and when it applies.

      You don't know someone until you've gotten into a very specific and very hard to relate negotiation with them. ^^