The Multiple Appeals of Gaming

In our discussion about what we should call heavily story-oriented games, we got to talking about what the different appeals of video game play may be. I encourage you to go join in that discussion if you haven’t yet, as I’d love your input on what to call “narrative games.” For now, though, I came across an interesting illustration of the different appeals that games have, and I thought it was worth sharing separately.

Just to recap, I suggested that players find multiple types of pleasure or engagement in games, including:

  1. Mastery, or feeling like you’re “beating” the game, winning in the face of its challenges.
  2. Story, or experiencing the game as a spectator who has some role in narrative progression.
  3. Camaraderie, or using the game as a means to socialize with other players and spectators.
  4. Tomfoolery, or experimenting with what the game can do and using it like a toy.

(And sorry I felt the need to categorize my appeals in terms with a rhyming final syllable. Academics love rhymes and alliteration in their sets of terms.)

As Church astutely pointed out, there’s a difference between a game’s release and the specific instance of the game performed by a player. (And, being a theory nerd myself, I felt the need to compare it to the distinction between langue and parole, or the rules of language versus the utterances of speech.) “Releases” nowadays are designed to accommodate multiple types of “games” depending on what players want to do.

This brings us to our relevant link. Someone at Kotaku asked readers about what “neuroses” gamers have about playing—what do you have to do when you play?

Some of the responses are just little obsessive reflexes (including at least a couple I totally relate to). I share it here, though, because I thought many answers neatly illustrate the “multiple appeals of gaming” point.

People who want story:

  • “I always deal the final blow on the final boss with the main character. Otherwise it just feels weird.”
  • “When I play a Zelda game, the final blow to any boss has to be made using a jump attack. It’s just not epic any other way. ”
  • “instead of constantly running or jogging like you do in most games, i simply choose to walk slowly which imo makes me more a part of the game (why am i always the only one running around in the town?!?).
    It also slows down the pace to enjoy some more of the art and makes some scenes more cinematic”

People who want mastery:

  • “If I start a game with collectibles, I will almost always try to finish it one hundred percent. I have to explore every corridor.”
  • “Whenever a game has a completion percentage in it, I have to get 100%, no matter how stupid or hard the game is.”

People who want tomfoolery:

  • “I constantly try to do thing you’re not supposed to in games. Like when you’re not supposed to kill someone i always try to anyway.”
  • “I like cutting the bark off of trees and messing with the animals. I even walked into traps in the forest on purpose. I just have to.”

I’m not sure how you’d classify some other items, like the fellow who feels bad for knocking people down in GTA, but I think of that as somewhat story-oriented. I had a similar problem in Mass Effect: Even when I was trying to earn as many “renegade” points as possible, I had a really, really hard time killing innocent people, and making my (protagonist’s) biggest fan cry made me feel really awful.

Anyway, I welcome you to add your own gaming “neuroses” (here or at Kotaku), or to suggest what other appeals of gaming we might have missed.

15 thoughts on “The Multiple Appeals of Gaming

  1. I like that breakdown. It seems to cover the major aspects of gaming. (‘Tomfoolery,’ though? Hookay…)

    One thing that strikes me is that the “story” segment seems to be more about “acting.” (At least the samples you quote here are.) I’m guessing this is equivalent to the ‘narrative’ function that we discussed earlier, but “acting” seems to be a distinct subset. Maybe ‘roleplaying’ is a better term here.

    And then there’s the aspect of “moral acting,” such as the respondent (not quoted here) who “always plays with a halo,” which mirrors the discomfort that you and others have mentioned regarding games like Mass Effect and Bioshock that give you the “horns” option. Interestingly, it seems to be easy to play a “little bit rogue” but much more difficult to be an outright sociopath.

    There’s also the whole “mother-camper” and “rocket-whore” aspect of the team games, which may be an amalgam of camaraderie and tomfoolery.

    And, of course, there’s the missing “Asswipery” (I’m trying to keep the theme going) subset of Tomfoolery. (AKA griefers or team-killing-fucktards.)

  2. Well, I’ll confess: I once saw the word “Tomfoolery” on a fellow’s business card, listed among his other specialties. I have been waiting for an excuse to steal that and use it in some other professional capacity for about eight years now. (My dictionary assures me that “foolery” is a word, but it is about fifty times less fun.)

    You may have a key point there with that distinction between “story” and “acting.” I think my current way of seeing it considers “acting” as a way of bringing about and establishing investment in a certain kind of story, but I’m certainly interested in considering the possibility that there’s a distinct pleasure to be had in the crafting of the role itself.

    Probably my understanding of this is being muddled by Mass Effect being so close to mind, where you can make choices for your character and still be surprised by what s/he does. All you choose is the short version of your choice (“I can shut him up”), and then you get watch the action itself (punching a guy out). That’s not really the case, though, in the examples quoted above!

    And I agree that “asswipery” is a valid subset of “tomfoolery.” I will probably not use that term if I ever try to adapt this for a publishable venue, but I appreciate you sticking to the naming conventions all the same.

  3. You will be glad to know that I actually managed to work that theory into an essay for my “New Media and Society” graduate class some time ago. My professor was duly impressed.

  4. I am slightly regretting breaking this discussion into two posts, so I’ll just put this comment in two places…

    … But anyway, reading up on the “simulationist” approach a bit, I realize that this does probably represent another sort of appeal that might not necessarily be equivalent to wanting a narrative. What really drove this home was idly browsing through the Mass Effect forums and stumbling upon a conversation about whether one of the potential love interests in the game is really what guys want women to be like.

    Some comments indicate that people’s response to the character was very personal—they liked or disliked her based on what they’d want in a partner themselves. In contrast, my own reaction to that character depended very much on the type of protagonist I was trying to construct—one got along with her quite well, another kind of detested her. It was much more like characters into a story than like putting myself in a character.

    The former, I suppose, is sort of a “simulationist” perspective, as opposed to a “narrativist” concern for plot, theme, and character coherence. (If I must be a stickler about my semi-rhyming terminology, I might make a distinction between “fantasy” and “story.”)

  5. I am indeed glad to hear that The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory was used in an academic setting.

    More semi-random thoughts: Where do Sim games fit in? I’d think they’re largely under Tomfoolery, but part of me rebels against that because I’m usually frustrated by their lack of transparency (I read rule books as entertainment, so I may be an outlier here. (A good friend of mine plays them exclusively and enjoys teasing out what the unspoken rules are.))

    The linear vs. branching story games are interesting for similar reasons. I tend to like both at various times, and am frustrated by both as well. Too linear (Myst 2 comes to mind) can get you bogged down at one point, while too much branching can leave you wondering if you’ve done well or not (depending on the feedback.) I’m thinking particularly of a text adventure game I played a bit ago (yeah, they’re still around) that had a very weird ending. I’m still not sure if I ‘won’ or ‘lost’ that game, or if I had merely reached the end.

  6. Good question about Sim games. I would’ve said they’re about fooling around, especially as Will Wright himself describes them as toys. Then again, I realize now that there may be a difference between the pleasures of “fooling around to break the rules” (which may be deliberately subversive) and “fooling around to explore the world.”

    Animal Crossing offers another example of this. You live in a little village populated by animals who end their sentences with customizable catch phrases like “meow meow.” The game has no real point or ending, as far as I know. Maybe there’s a difference, though, between wandering around and exploring and digging up fossils just for the sake of fooling around, and altering an NPC’s catch phrase so they end every single sentence with the words “blue balls” (as my friends did).

    As for how you did on that text adventure: I think that anybody still making text adventures probably doesn’t feel entirely beholden to the “you must win or lose” convention common elsewhere in the industry. I mean, they’re certainly not beholden to the “you must have graphics” convention.

    And I’m with you on Riven; that’s the only game I ever bought a strategy guide for (because I just wanted to see the end of the damn thing).

  7. Just as a follow-up about feeling in-character and the awkwardness about doing awful things: I just came upon another post on the Mass Effect forum indicating something similar. Writing of one scene where an old acquaintance asks for help getting someone out of prison who committed a violent hate crime against aliens, a player notes: “I was going to [help the prisoner] on my racist renegade playthrough, but once I found out what he did I just couldn’t do it.”

    It’s kind of weirdly fascinating to me that someone would go to the trouble of playing the protagonist as a violent racist (speciesist?) just to see what happens, but still couldn’t follow through with it all the way because it seemed so wrong.

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