Remembering How Games are Played

Another epiphany in my battle against City of Heroes alt-a-holicism (an inability to stick with a single character). Today, I basically realized I’ve been playing the game the wrong way all along.

Recently, I thought that alt-a-holicism may be caused by a desire for both fun and functionality. Fun is largely subjective, but the functionality referring to a character’s capacity to meaningfully influence the game world in the ways I desired.

Now, I’m beginning to think the functionality aspect of it was only an excuse: it was always about the fun. What is the fun of playing games? Overcoming challenges; Learning; Basically playing the game to play the game and not out of some kind of artificial achievement bent.

The funny thing is, I think it’s the traditional MMORPGs that have taught me to play games the wrong way.

In your average Diku-Mud clone, the gameplay mechanic is easily mastered, and the difference between success and failure in gaining levels comes down to a simple matter of patience. Do this repetitive task over and over again and, in time, you tune everything out and simply start spitting out patterns of successful attacks.

In your average Diku-Mud clone, you stop playing well because playing well does not matter. You keep playing because you’re getting bombarded with rewards or perhaps have friends encouraging you to play with them. In time, you learn this wrong way of playing games.

We don’t consider this often, but games are basically learning tools in that they condition players to find the shortest path to success. However, there’s an inherent danger in that they’re artificial environments, and what paths to success we learn may be ineffective or even counterproductive in life.

By accident, my latest City of Heroes character provided an excellent working example. As a Trick Arrow/Archery Defender, he’s basically a weakling. I started him without caring that, as far as the spreadsheets are concerned, he’s not a great character. That was the first good step: I was now playing for fun alone.

Once I started playing him, I soon realized that the only way I was going to succeed with this character was to do my best. I couldn’t heal myself, I didn’t have an effective offense, and my defense was somewhat sketchy as well. I devised tactics such as rooting the target and attacking it at maximum range, outside of the opponent’s range. I integrated existing tactics, like fitting the maximum number of foes into my firing cones and using the terrain to force foes to move or get a shot in at me.

Suddenly, I noticed I was having a lot of fun. What was responsible for this sudden change? It wasn’t the game itself – I’d burned out from many a hero already, well after the latest major Issue roll out. No, what changed was the way I was playing the game.

I was not playing it the way I had been trained to play MMORPGs: “find mob, execute good hotkey combination repeat to fill experience bar.” Instead, I was playing it in the moment, paying attention and genuinely trying to do my best. I had rediscovered the game that I did not realize I had lost.

In the end, while I may not have cured my alt-a-holicism, I have identified a better way to play the game. Perhaps instead of rolling another alt, I should try to playing my existing one better. If I’m already doing well, find ways to play even better.

It’s not supposed to be about filling my leveling bar with pixels. Only by removing the focus from the artificial achievement constructs and onto improving my own personal capacity to play the game is it truly entertaining. If a game cannot offer this kind of challenge, it simply isn’t worth playing, no matter how many MMORPG-like exterior incentives are being dangled before the player.

Can Rationality Be Enforced?

I live under some unusual circumstances:

  1. I’m a 30-year-old who has been playing computer games for 24 years. Consequently, I’ve spent a lot of time in isolation, away from being swayed into certain logic by peers.
  2. I’ve been engaging in an occasional mindfulness meditation, granting me insights into my own flaws that I otherwise could never have found on my own.
  3. I’m a college graduate seeking a bachelors and possibly a doctorate, so a little more educated than average.

So it is that I come to this: the pinnacle of forum evolution. I tear the world a new one in terms of pointing out that here is a simple thing that would do nothing but make the world a better place. Immediately pops up a number of people who simply want to argue.

I realized that, in the grand scheme of thing, there’s a problem. It is basically this:

  • Rationality is hard, Irrationality is easy.
  • People will always prefer the path of least resistance.

Once again, Al Gore is concerned. Too many people are conditioned to act on emotion alone, and unfortunately this tends to ruin any attempt of rational discussion.

I have a simple idea to begin reform, and it goes like this:

Better online ranking systems.

We’ve all seen the “star” mechanisms where the denizens of a forum and rank a poster or a thread from 1 to 5 stars. The trouble with this is that a great deal of said denizens will tend to rank somebody at 1 if they annoy them and 5 if they’re excited about what they’re saying. Rationality does not enter the picture, because the masses are not rational – it’s too much energy for too little incentive.

Here’s my idea: We start with the 1 to 5 star ranking system, and call it a “logic meter” or somesuch label that describes just how well argued and concrete the post is. Everybody is allowed to rank it. However, here we have a twist: The poster of the message has the option of calling for a moderator to decide if the rankings leveled against them are correct.

If it is determined that an individual has ranked the poster with poor logic when, in fact, his logic was very good the individual ranker suffers a drop in their ranking. Naturally, the forum’s default threshold of visible posts would be at about ‘2’, and in time those who are completely irrational would simply become invisible to everyone who has yet to change their threshold smaller.

The neat thing with this system is subtle, but powerful: it encourages people to be rational. Before ranking down that message, you really have to consider just how rational it is. In time, you might get pretty good at behaving in a logical manner.

Who knows, perhaps this logical thinking will gravitate to the world, making it a better place? That’s the goal here. Now the only sticking points are coding a message board to work like this and getting people to use it. Those are very sticky points indeed, but a more rational world is worth it.