Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mastery and Dominion

A game's environment and characters can create a place for us to go, but only its rules can allow us to live there.

There's a bit of background on this post. Chronologically, I wrote this, Chris Lepine responded with this and then talked more about it here. I meant to put this post together a while ago, but hey, at least I didn't abandon it completely. Summary is Chris calls out the potential hazard of gaming serving just as a way to relieve stress and be distracted from the day-to-day. He contends gaming should satisfy by its own merits. I actually wholeheartedly agree, but realize that some of my phrasing may have confused things.

I spoke of "mastery," but perhaps that is a misleading phrase. By this, I really mean the player's relationship to the rules that govern any given game. It's understanding a set of rules, observing or creating goals and then utilizing knowledge of the rules to achieve them. Perhaps "fluency" is a better term.

Mastery is really just internalizing those rules to the point where the player can express agency within them. Initially one begins unfamiliar and awkward, but with persistence they will be able to improve and execute on their own desires. That act of improvement is satisfying, and more importantly, relatively unique in media. One can't really "improve" in viewing films or reading novels, or at least not in a way as immediately or to such great effect as games.

A comparable pleasure might be learning to play a musical instrument. For most, they won't be professional musicians, but the mere act of improving within a certain framework of rules is satisfying. When you start out awkwardly plucking a single cord, finally being able to play even something as simple as "Louie, Louie" is immensely satisfying. Making goals and working toward achieving this is simply enjoyable for many people, and this is part of what makes games interesting.

This differs from the experience Chris talked about with Jorge and Scott, which I'll call "domination" for the sake of clarity. Domination is framed in the context of winning, either at the expense of another player or the game itself. One player succeeds because another fails to. This experience can be satisfying as well, but I would say it's not the same as the above. If one improves at playing the guitar or painting or speaking a foreign language, it's not like someone else's talents in the same must then decrease. Mastery simply means getting better, not necessarily at the expense of someone else.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this mindset, but I agree with Chris that too much emphasis on it will, at the very least, occlude the most satisfying pleasures of playing games. Mastery and domination can be aligned, of course. In those Starcraft 2 multiplayer matches I've been spending too much time with lately, the only goal is to defeat someone else and I must improve to do that.

A good deal of discussion from Chris, Scott and Jorge focuses on the satisfaction and joy that comes from the transportive power of games, to create a fictional place and make you feel like you're in it. I too agree, but I'd also contend that mastery of that place's laws is just a different (and possibly more enjoyable) way of being in that world. When I was playing Mirror's Edge, the world didn't consist of alabaster rooftops and towering buildings. The world was two vents close enough to jump between. It was a canvas cover taut enough to absorb the impact of a fall. The world felt real and I felt the most in it when I could express my intent. I felt transported when I could slide under a girder, mantle up a wall and leap with spinning 180 degrees to grab onto a crane. That's the world of Mirror's Edge becoming real.

Rules make a place real and when we can express ourselves using them, that's when we've really been transported. At least, that's the way I've felt most satisfied gaming. I sure do hope this is clear. I realize there's a lot of handwaving and vagueness here. But hopefully not so much that it's nebulous and unclear.

Additionally, I've made a pretty significant decision that I'll be posting about here in a few days. I'm a little nervous but tremendously excited. I won't tease further, just expect something soon. Apologies for being coy ... somewhat, anyway.

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Blogger Michael Abbott said...

Ooh, now you have us on the edges of our seats, Nels. Well played!

I've enjoyed this unfolding conversation among you, Chris, Jorge, and Scott. It plugs into a few ideas I've been exploring with my 'fun factors' project. At first I thought we were mostly plowing the same row, but I've begun to think we're actually not. This subject deepens and broadens the farther you go.

October 19, 2010 at 11:15 AM  
Blogger Jason T said...

Oh, you TEASE!

Anyway, I'm super interested to see we arrived at some of the same concepts separately – I've been making a similar distinction between "mastery" and "domination" in my academic writing on appeals of gaming (such as in the paper I presented at the Popular Culture Association in February, which I have yet to actually send anywhere for publication). I was seeing domination as a subset of mastery, but I'm interested in the direction of thinking of it as fluency – less concerned with victory than just existing comfortably, perhaps?

And to Michael:
How do you see this diverging from the "Fun Factors" project? I see us all coming at it from different angles, but there seems to be a lot of convergence.

October 19, 2010 at 12:12 PM  
Blogger Hugo said...

There may be some digging to do in the first chapters of Ralph Koster's A theory of fun. There are some pages about understanding, “chunking” and “groking” the rules of a game.

If I remember well though, Koster says that games cease to be fun once you've completely understood their patterns.

Also, I have to agree with the previous comments... You're being such a tease ;)

October 19, 2010 at 12:27 PM  
Blogger Jason T said...

Interesting point, Hugo, though here's where I think we get into trouble in defining engagement with games as "fun" (as discussed around here), and in equating "fun" with mastery. Can't we think of games that we play again and again even after we know them inside and out?

I wish I could find a particular article I read awhile back (perhaps on the Escapist?) about how the author replays Super Mario World whenever he just needs to unwind. I've done similarly with games I've played into the ground already, like Mass Effect, or games specifically designed to be relaxing rather than challenging, like flOw and Flower.

Games may cease to offer a sense of mastery once you've grokked their patterns, but I think there may still be appeals of another kind to be had.

October 19, 2010 at 1:18 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Michael I know, I'm the worst. But I couldn't resist.

Maybe the fun factors is more of a "how" games are fun and this line of thought is more of the "why?"

@Jason I forgot to call it out, but I remember reading your post and that you'd be presenting it.

Yeah, the distinction for me is simply getting better at something and being able to achieve goals is inherently satisfied. It doesn't have to be winning or victory as we commonly think about it (of course, it often is). Fluency isn't a bad term, perhaps.

@Hugo It's been a while since I read Theory of Fun, I should give it another look. However, I'm not totally convinced that a game stops being fun when the "mystery is gone" so to speak. Maybe for a single player game, but as Jason notes, some people find comfort in the known. There's substance to what Raph is saying, of course, but it's probably not simply cut and dry either.

October 20, 2010 at 10:36 PM  

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