The “Lost” Appeals of Gaming

Back in February, I presented a paper at the Popular Culture Association conference in St. Louis on what I’ve been referring to around here as the multiple appeals of gaming. I’ve been coming back to the paper on and off ever since, poking and prodding it in an attempt to yield something I’d be proud to publish.

The basic point of the paper is to offer a rough typology of elements that players find “appealing” about games, providing an analytical vocabulary that critics, scholars, and developers can use in describing what “works” (and what doesn’t) in game, and why, without assuming that it’s the players themselves who exist in types. The appeals I’ve been looking at are those that I’ve heard or read players themselves describe, even if indirectly, when discussing how they engage with games. I’ve been describing these appeals lately mastery, story, sociality, and foolery (not too unlike what I called them in my early musings on this subject). Some other kinds of appeals have occurred to me as potentially worth discussing, though I haven’t heard other players specifically describe them as much—e.g., do the Wii and Dance Dance Revolution offer an appeal of physicality distinct from other kinds of appeals?

It’s occurred to me recently, though, that I’m leaving out a couple other kinds of “appeals” almost willfully, and maybe that’s just a bit too convenient for me. You don’t hear players describing these as things they like about games, but you might hear players note them as reasons why they play games.

These are the appeals that players themselves refer to when they talk about planning raids for World of Warcraft even when they don’t really enjoy the game anymore. These are the appeals that keep people coming back again and again to Facebook games that offer no story, no challenge (and thus no sense of mastery), no social interaction, and no way to explore, break the rules, or otherwise “fool around.” These are the appeals that Ian Bogost was critiquing when he designed Cow Clicker.

Cow Clicker is a game on Facebook that involves nothing more than logging in periodically to click on a cow. It is meant as a satire of other Facebook social games, an object lesson on the pointlessness of games that require frequent, repetitive updating—what Ian calls compulsion—and offer no more challenge, strategy, or creativity than simply clicking a mouse—what Ian calls optionalism. (Ian describes other effects of formally pointless Facebook games, but I think you’d be harder pressed to argue that players actually respond to “destroyed time” as an appeal.)

Arguably, compulsion may be seen as a trait of the player than an appeal built into a game, but I mention it here because I think one could argue that some games are designed specifically to capitalize on this. Game designer Nels Anderson, for instance, draws out the comparison between these habits in Facebook games and “gaming” in the casino sense of the term. Facebook games that require you to do nothing but periodically click on a cow are essentially like slot machines, only without the slim chance of a monetary payout—they are compulsion plus optionalism in a nutshell. Roleplaying games and MMORPGs often skip the optionalism for a rather textured gameplay experience, but arguably encourage compulsion by requiring grinding or even by providing an environment in which new equipement must always be acquired for “Keeping up with the Joneses.”

And so I feel stuck in my mission to describe the appeals of gaming. I want to offer broad categories of appeal so that just about any other kind of appeal can be broken down into them—e.g., story might include either or both “spectatorship” (in narrative games with lengthy cut scenes) and “directorship” (in narrative games where you get to choose the direction the story takes). If I really want to be entirely inclusive in describing what gets and keeps people playing games (as opposed to proscribing what ought to be available as an appeal), I may have to figure out a way to include appeals that I personally find more problematic than appealing.

And as a bit of a postscript: I wrote this draft, let it sit awhile, and then found out that Michael Abbott is putting together a similar sort of project at his Brainy Gamer blog called The Fun Factor, which approaches this question more from the micro-level than my macro-approach. Head on over and leave a comment to describe what you enjoy about particular games, which he’ll be compiling later.