I'm not here to talk about Braid, today, but it's a good jumping off point for my discussion about why games are appealing to us. This is a question that has been addressed in the past plenty of times, but I'd like to give my own take on exactly what it is that games offer us that other forms of media can't quite give us in the same way. The most obvious answer would be fun, but I don't think that fun itself is exactly what causes us to play games; fun is simply one of the side of gaming that strikes a chord for us. Rather, what I think makes gaming matter to players is in how it reflects the human condition in extremely fundamental ways.
Braid is appealing because, through rewinding time, it lets us correct mistakes that normally we would have to live out our lives with; its themes of regret are central to us as temporally-bound human beings. However, Braid is also a fairly easy example to use, especially as it is often championed as one of the best by the "games as art" movement. Another game that mirrors Braid in this respect is the more recent The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, which, despite its much less serious tone, makes us consider certain questions about the nature of human motivation and about the limitations of our actions, and what we could do, and would do, if we transcended them. These two games are enough to prove that some appeal of gaming is in how it relates to human experience, but then, these are "artistic" games, and so it's very easy to say that they are exceptions.
Much of Braid's appeal is in allowing us to turn back the clock.
Because of that problem, I'd like to pick something a little bit more abstract and less obvious to demonstrate that the point is relevant to all games; namely, I'd like to discuss Super Mario Bros. This, I think, is a particularly interesting example, because often Super Mario Bros. is cited as perhaps the ultimate "fun" game - simple and elegant play mechanics collide with appealing visuals and sound to produce something that is wholly engaging, playable, and enjoyable, no matter who has the controller in hand. Yet at the same time, when we speak of "fun", this begs the question of "why is it fun?" The easiest answer, of course, is to say that it's playable, good-looking and well-designed, but this, I think isn't the full extent of the answer.
In the span of only a few minutes of Super Mario Bros. gameplay, one has already been touched by a number of fundamentally human actions: movement, acquisition, sustenance, loss, danger, aversion, success and potentially, death. These are things which we engage with in limited degrees on a daily basis, but in Super Mario Bros. we get to live out all of these extremely base experiences in the span of a few seconds - and it is through a combination of wit, skill and luck that we are able to prevail. The appeal of Super Mario Bros. doesn't just come from the fact that it touches upon all these things, but because it does so in a way that is both subtle and succinct; unlike our real lives, we aren't bound by time and coincidence in how events play out.
Not surprisingly, these reasons, in combination, also make up why the game is fun. For example, if I were to remove some aspect of movement from Super Mario Bros., say, walking, then our enjoyment of the game would be severely diminished; while Mario might still be enjoyable in the short term as a simple jumping game, I think it's fairly clear that movement, or more precisely progress, is needed for a game to be fun. Taking the example of collectibles, specifically coins, it's easy to imagine Super Mario Bros. without them, though it'd also definitely impact the game experience by a noticeable degree; similarly, removing power-ups would retail much of the game's fun, but it would diminish elements of success and growth. Conversely, aspects of the game such as danger and death are wholly fundamental to our enjoyment of it; without any sort of risk in Super Mario Bros., no pits to fall down or enemies to run into, the game would lose its edge, and there would be no real reason for us to actually play it. Thus, it's clear that how much a game resonates with us doesn't just depend on the fact that it does relate to the human experience, but how much its fundamental activities relate to our own, and in what proportion.
So, Super Mario Bros. is evidence that simple fun is a product of the combination of various fundamental human experiences, but there are other games which don't fall on the extreme "fun" side of the scale, just like there are those which don't fall on the extreme "art" side as well. Because of this, I need to pick a game that falls somewhere in between to see how my argument still holds up. I think Prince of Persia, the 2008 version, is a great example of a title that straddles the line between the two nicely. Its appealing watercolour visuals aside, Prince of Persia deals with fundamental themes like life and death as central aspects of its story, and this is reflected in gameplay as the player has to make death-defying leaps and fight for his or her life to restore order to the world.
Prince of Persia's platforming isn't all that dangerous, but
does that reveal something about why we play it?
I also chose Prince of Persia for another reason - namely, its lack of player death. This was, predictably, extremely divisive for almost everyone who played the game. Many players cursed it as far too easy, unchallenging, and generally no fun because of it, which plenty more were content and even relived with the fact that it wasn't overly punitive for player death. I'd like to think that this division doesn't shoot a hole in my proposal, but that it actually strengthens it. Different aspects of games are appealing for us in different proportions; the reactions to Prince of Persia suggest that this is a highly individual thing. Not all of us fear death equally, and not all of us have the same punitive stance regarding failure. Going back to Super Mario Bros., we see the same phenomenon in different players, with some valuing high score, some valuing mere game completion, and some valuing exploration and secret-searching. Some may just take pleasure in the mere act of running and jumping. I'm not a psychologist, but I'd imagine that a very large deal of information could be gleaned about a particular person's beliefs regarding life, based entirely on the games that they play.
Of course, after saying all this, I'm not dismissing all other reasons why games are enjoyable for us. Sometimes, games have very little to do with things that matter to us as humans, and are still enjoyable. For example, abstract puzzle games often don't deal with these heady and deep ideas about human experience. Yet I think that, in examining nearly every game, whether it's Pac-man, Need for Speed, or The Elder Scrolls, we don't play just because of some core "fun factor"; if anything, fun comes out of how game mechanics relate to ideas that are relevant to us at a base level, whether we are made to think about them or not.
As a parting experiment, I'd like to direct readers to the game Gravitation. Created by Jason Rohrer, it's a very compact game that will take only a few moments of anyone's time. I'm not going to examine it here in detail, but suffice is to say, I think that playing it will reveal much about why games are appealing, but also where they can fall short.
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