Thursday, December 31, 2009

Versus Series 1: Games vs. Toys

We're back after a hiatus caused by my limited access to the Internet.  During that time, I wrote more posts that I'll be posting on a more than weekly basis.

"Video games," "gamer," "gamertag," "Games for Windows," "GameStop," "Game Spot," "G4."  Anyone taking a casual survey of the "gaming" industry would say that its primary focus was making games.  You couldn't blame this casual surveyor, then, for being the blind man who judged the elephants of the gaming world according to how favorably they compared to non-electronic games.

That is, until your favorite "games" started coming up short.

I confess to being that blind man up until quite recently.  As someone who judged video games according to the standard of games, it was a constant source of consternation to see that many of the video games winning almost universal acclaim were not good games.  (To avoid immediate alienation, I'll leave the judgment over which games are not good games up to you for now.) 

Let's briefly consider the criteria games should be judged by.  First, a game must have a goal.  Second, a game must have a way or multiple ways to reach achieve that goal.  Third, a game must have an obstacle or multiple obstacles preventing the player from achieving the goal.  Finally, a game must have a way or multiple ways of going around the obstacles.  A game will be judged according to how interesting each of these four components are and how coherently they interact with each other. 

As you may have already begun to realize, when looked at through only these four criteria, some of our favorite video games appear to be lacking.  The objective may be uninteresting, or maybe the way to bypass the obstacles seems out of place with the other three components.  Whatever the case may be, if popular video games aren't good games, then why do people like them?

The obvious answer is that they are being judged according to some other criteria; the obvious follow-up is, what?  One answer, and the focus of today's post, is the criteria for a good toy.  As mentioned in a previous post, video game arcades were able to offer themselves up as a reward for winning in the game, rather than offering some external reward (i.e., toy), which suggests that video games are considered satisfying as toys unto themselves. 

Think about how you would judge a toy.  On a superficial level, games and toys seem very much alike: they are both designed with the same end in mind--namely amusement.  It would make sense if they were fairly similar.  However, when one begins to examine how they provide amusement, one begins to see that in some ways, they are mutually exclusive to one another.  One glaring example comes from their relationship to rules.  Whereas a game does not exist outside of a set of rules, a rulebook for a toy--no matter how creatively and thoughtfully crafted--would be seen as a mere annoyance to a toy enthusiast.

I'll leave it at that for now, but I hope you won't.  I encourage you to keep thinking about the differences between a great game and a great toy, and which criteria you yourself use to judge video games.

My thanks to Larry B., who had the patience to talk about why I didn't like one of his favorite games and wound up helping me understand the notion of seeing video games as toys.

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