Video Games, an experiment about control

“The first thought of the day was to achieve the next challenge in the game. Seeing how the story would evolve, what the next level/chapter was, or just testing whether I could get more points, be faster, beat my own ranking or somebody else’s. The game has become a way to focus my attention, since I am playing it, I don’t need to think what I’m going to do today, or ever getting the feeling of ever being bored. There is always enough in it, to barely have time for eating and sleeping. I think I’m developing great skills as well. My concentration is sharper, and I now can react in nanoseconds, so I don’t get virtually killed, a thing I could not do before. The game is also my stress relief. Whenever I had a rough day or just need to discharge I can just hook up for a few hours and virtually beat anybody — that I can’t do in real life. After it, I feel like just finished a workout, although I’m not really a gym person, but that is how I think it must feel. Overall, I’m very happy with my game. I am in control of it” One Gamer, 2013.

In Video Games there is probably one simple identifier whether a title is good or bad: how much does it make the user stick to the game? Is very simple; one must get the player to hook up and provide enough entertainment until the next title (hopefully from the same company) becomes available. Does it make the user go crazy hours just to finish it? Does it encourage repetition and mastery of the game experience, so one can be ranked among the best among other players? Then as a game designer you have achieved the right balance between entertainment, challenge, social experience and attention grabbing.

Years before, the challenge have been the same for other mediums looking to grab attention and have some influence. Radio, TV, press, even in ancient times, you can say books were also using the same mechanics, of getting a reader to stay until the end, and devour what the author needed to say; usually, with a counterpart recommendation for someone else to have the same experience — social distribution, or word of mouth at play. The design of an experience was of utmost importance on all of the previous mediums, but I would tend to say video games are a level beyond all of those.

The business model of the medium also affected the way an experience was designed. In books, some publications and video games, prevails the model where user chooses the title and pays for it. Then, designer of the title has to answer to the they primarily, is his only concern besides the quality of content in itself. The reader, the gamer, are at the center of the experience design. In contrast, TV, radio, and web content is primarily subsidized by advertisers, trying to influence a public interested in certain content, information, entertainment. The user is important but not the center of the experience, the message the advertiser needs to get across is. This has a big implication in experience design, as is easier to focus and delight certain people in a narrow category, than to get a specific message across to the widest amount of people. A lot will be lost in the noise of competing messages and limited attention grabbing.

In video games, the designer has way more elements to entertain and hook the user into it. Beyond words, imagination and a few printed images that a writer would use as its main tools, the video game creator has sound, movement, full color, 3D imaging, real-time reporting of progress and benchmarking, as well as controlling the progress of the user throughout the overall experience. Haven’t unlocked X tool in level 15? you cannot finished level 16. Haven’t found enough friends that accept your invitation for the social game? then you cannot see what the next level gives. In a book, a video, a magazine you can always skip to the end, or have a glance of the whole experience, without having to dedicate completely to it. In a video game the user does not have control anymore on how they will enjoy the content. That is also designed for them.

And so far it has been an interesting experiment. The industry keeps growing in an ecosystem of titles, devices and distribution that keeps adding more and more elements into it (according to ESA $25 billion by 2010). Even in mobile and smartphones, with the apps revolution introduced by the Iphone and now battled by Android, games are always the most important selling item in any category — the Google app store is called “Google play” for a reason. 93% of children between 2-17 years old play video games (Wikipedia), and their experience is personal, pre-designed, and intense. An industry of video game addiction is starting to sprawl with clinics, and even governmental initiatives put together to provide treatment to the cases where gaming has gone out of control, and gets closer to contributing to some mental disorders.

Once I saw a documentary on Sesame Street, on how Jim Henson wanted to get preschoolers getting more than just passive interaction with the increasing hours of TV they were being exposed to in the 70’s. Literacy rates among 5-10 year olds were decreasing, and a group of TV pioneers thought a solution might well be to start preparing for school at a young age 2-5, with an entertaining program, that could be magnified through the little screen. A lot of testing was involved, and the first pilots didn’t really grab the attention of the children, until they realized that a combination of human and puppet characters was required both to provide familiarity and entertainment. The program goes to this day, and the experiment on a medium programming children to learn was a successful one. Now improved by many levels in mediums like apps, virtual collaboration, and mobile entertainment, all sharing a game element. Since, in regards to pacing the user experience and getting then to repeat, learn, and delight on rewards, video games had an advantage never experienced before.

The experiment of video games, their success, and how they control the user experience is still in the making; the applications many (included military and now business in the form of “gamification”); with longer term effects still unknown. Rather than put a case, for or against, their development, what is interesting to me about them, is how much we see them as the most promising medium to control a mind. Either self-control, by virtue of surrendering oneself to the game experience, or someone else control by virtue of designing the experience to the user more inclined to a message, a task, an outcome. There is many people alluding at the many hours from children to adults used in video games that can be “tailored” to the right outcomes. A video game for “water solutions” another one for “conflict resolution” maybe another one to get you to “meet your neighbors”. The theme, or underlying idea is that clearly the mind can be programmed, and that attention can be harvested so we can use it in the best way possible. How many people are playing a video game right now? How many hours are we dedicating to them? Aren’t video games an example that you can control a mind? Tacitly, we can approve of those hours to be used in a more useful, but still within a game, experience, and the word game has to be in bold. Life through the lens of a game. Not the second life game, the one and only life. Someone will design it and we will be entertained by it, it should also be easier than life in the natural form.

In the spectrum of getting better at controlling our minds for an outcome, and of no control at all, leaving life to random natural forces, we are definitively leaning to the former. As with other technologies before, we will adapt to this one and take it to the best of its abilities. But, are we reaching the point where the experiment is not one anymore, and we are changing our minds and morals to cater for a new life based on it?

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