Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mad Skills

Many claim the appeal of games is their ability to provide escape, their ability to transport the player to unusual places where the rules of normal life don't apply. This could be a fantasy world where magic holds aloft spire-cities, or merely the ability to steal a car and not go to prison for it. While I don't think this is false, it also leaves out a very important (I would say more important) reason why games are appealing. The rules of mundane life may disappear in games, but they are replaced by other rules. Mastering these mechanics provides great satisfaction and explains why games are often described as "relaxing" despite them often being quite taxing and stressful.

Jamie Madigan on his excellent Psychology of Games blog wrote about this last week in the context of "recovery experiences." Basically, our mental processes need time to recover, e.g. having a weekend off after a week of work, and return to full function. Three mechanisms achieve this: psychological detachment (not thinking about work), relaxation activities (low-stress enjoyable activities) and mastery experiences (getting better at something). Games are interesting because they can potentially provide any and all of these experiences. The escapist functions cover the first two, but it's the third that's especially interesting.

Consuming other media rarely provides any kind of mastery experience. Maybe there's some feeling of improvement in parsing Shakespeare or a David Lynch film, but even that is a stretch and certainly not the norm. Games are often stressful. Being in the midst of a neck-and-neck Starcraft II match isn't relaxing at all. Nor is Mario bounding from tiny ledge to an even tinier ledge, suspended above a starry void. I imagine the mastery experience in games is similar to learning to play a musical instrument. It requires effort and focus. For a while, you have little to show for it. But it's satisfying because you know you are improving.

Michael Abbott recently began the "Fun Factor Catalog," an effort (inspired by a comment I made, of all things, about Michael's love of baseball sims) to categorize what we enjoy about games. Currently there are 40 entries and of those, my rough categorization would mark 26 of them as mastery experiences. They use descriptors like "feeling clever," "preparation enabling success" and "challenge that tests skill and concentration."

When I think about most of the games I really enjoy, there are certainly some where I engaged with the story and characters (Planescape: Torment, Fallout, any adventure game, etc.). But the majority of my favourites would be games where I had the opportunity to master their systems, to improve skills. I think this also helps explain why so many games can have a terrible story and lackluster writing but still be a very satisfying experience. Obviously these aren't binary experiences either, a game could certain offer both. But only a small handful of studios possess the talent and focus to deliver quality on both those fronts.

So what's the purpose of this observation? We need better ways to talk about what makes games enjoyable. As I said almost exactly on year ago, "fun" is grossly insufficient. Michael's endeavour is laudable, but I'd love to see more of a taxonomy. We talk about characters and narrative a lot, but the skill component seems unfairly neglected in our conversations. Do you find mastery experiences in games satisfying? What kind of games do you find provide the most engagement when it comes to improving skills? I'm definitely curious how others approach this aspect of games specifically.

[Update: Chris Lepine wrote a great piece on his thoughts here.]

Labels: ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think mastery experiences work best with games that have a strong competition or conflict component. I can remember playing Perfect Dark and Super Smash Bros. for hours to improve my aiming or learn a combo. And I'm still playing Othello years after my first game.
I like when I learn something useful outside the game (without talking about "edutainment").

Mastery experiences don't work for me when the character skills are too dissociated from the player skills. Leveling in Oblivion, and anything that implies grinding is tedious to me.
Oblivion also shows that lack of mastery can be harmful: leveled enemies and leveled loot didn't make for a very enjoyable experience. Shamus young puts it that way: "Did you just ding level 7? Guess what? So did every single monster in the game world. Congratulations on gaining absolutely nothing!"

We could postulate games as teaching, and play as learning. To make the learning experience enjoyable, you have to give the player feedback when he/she masters a skill. It's just what you said with the musical instrument.

I'm not sure it all makes sense – I feel I miss something important there.

August 31, 2010 at 1:20 PM  
Blogger Michael Abbott said...

Hi Nels. Your and Chris Lapine's most recent post go very well together. For anyone who doesn't know Chris, he writes the excellent The Artful Gamer blog.

As for mastery, well, there's mastery and there's GARGH, MASTERY!!! I can think of situations where dominating or otherwise 'owning' a game/level/opponent, etc. drives players to play. But another form of mastery is more aligned with the zen notion that suggests a wise master, peacefully at home with himself and his environment...which is very much how I feel about my 'mastery' of a game like Super Mario World (or even an acrade game like Robotron 2084). I know what to do, and I know where everything is, but the joy is in the pure play. The blissful run. I don't feel like I'm dominating or winning. Instead I find these experiences akin to meditation. Not the same, mind you, but somewhere in the neighborhood.

Words. Ugh. I'm not crazy about my choice of "fun" for the in-progress catalog you provoked, Nels. It hardly accounts for some of the experiences I and others listed over at my place. Maybe I need to give the teminology more thought. Perhaps, as you suggest, a taxonomy would be better, but I see constraints there too. I dunno. Whatever we produce, I'm glad that you and Chris are pushing us to think about why we play games because I can't think of a games-related question more worthy of our attention.

August 31, 2010 at 7:14 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Hugo I think where a lot of RPGs fall down is when the fail to provide a mastery experience. With something like Oblivion you don't really get better, the numbers on the virtual spreadsheet are just multiplied by some factor when you gain a level. Having just shipped two RPGs (well, almost) I can guarantee keeping progression in that ideal channel of challenge between too easy and too difficult is really hard, possibly more so than in any other type of game. It's hard to think of an RPG that actually provides a satisfying mastery experience. Usually the best they can do is offer something kind of interesting to do in between the parts most people actually care about (the story and dialog).

Either there's some dominant strategy or skill where the player destroys everything in their path without having to really try or everything in the world remains just as challenging. The more tactical ones (literally, e.g. Final Fantasy Tactics) tend to pull this off better. But my favourite RPGs tend to sidestep asking for mastery of combat entirely and offering alternatives.

It's a tricky beast for sure, especially for a game with really sensitive systems like an RPG.

@Michael Yeah, exactly! It often is (for me, at least) zen-like. Probably the game that's been most satisfying for a mastery experience in the past few years personally was Mirror's Edge. Getting a perfect run wasn't about dominating the level or the leaderboards, it saw about that Csikszentmihalyi-esque flow state of knowing exactly what needed to be done and executing upon it.

I'm sure there's some proverb about a true master becoming one with his environment rather than ruling it. That feels like the kind of mastery experience many gamers describe as invigorating and satisfying.

Big questions for sure, thanks for the interesting comments. Much to think on in this regard.

August 31, 2010 at 11:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Michael, @Nels: I was just reading this article over at The Psychology of Video Games. In a quote, there are a few words about mastery: “feeling like you’re making things happen the way you want”. Would it be a way to phrase what you said about that almost zen-like experience?
The rest of the quote talks about the appeal of video games, it is worth reading (as is the article) if you haven't already.

September 4, 2010 at 6:23 AM  
Blogger Per Hellqvist said...

Roleplaying games doesn't require the same type of mastery as an action game. Action games focus on eye/hand-cordination. While RPGs require the player to learn how the system works.

When I succeed at creating a powerful character build for a RPG I feel that I've gained mastery.

The comments seem to imply that games which allow direct control of the avatar gives a greater sense of mastery to the player.

I would love to know what other attributes add and subtract from the feeling of having mastery over a game.

September 13, 2010 at 6:03 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Per Hellqvist A good observation for sure. It's not like there's one kind of skill mastery and a game either has it or it doesn't. There's a number of different kinds, some of which likely appeal more to certain people than others.

The one other thing I'd note is it seems like the feeling of mastery is diminished the further away feedback moves from any decision the player makes. So one is more likely to feel skillful pulling off a crazy leap in Mirror's Edge because the action and result are seconds apart. That feeling of mastery in, say, an RPG coming from making some good decisions with skill allocation hours before probably feels less tangible.

September 14, 2010 at 6:56 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I feel like my game mastery starts to blend into other games. For example, I was playing Limbo and when I jumped onto a log that immediately started to slide down, I promptly turn around and ran. Why? Because I knew a boulder was coming. How did I know? Did I see it in a screenshot or trailer before I played the game? No. I just... knew. It was almost like I was viewing the game from a level designer's perspective and thought, "This looks like a good spot to throw a boulder at the player." And I guess that makes sense to me seeing as I plan to go into game design, I just didn't know I was so ... observant? Being able to predict what comes next on a meta level seems to be a growing trend for me, which I'm not sure if its good or bad. I guess I've been reading too many game designer books =P

September 22, 2010 at 1:48 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alli893 Interesting when the occurs, eh? It's not bad or good, just different. Helps get a better appreciation when folks have done something really well (or not). The best is when the expectations get flipped on their head and just when you expect a boulder ... you get nothing. Doing that elegantly? Fantastic.

September 22, 2010 at 9:50 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home