The Videogame Straitjacket

Like many others, when I was kid, two of the games I had the most fun with were Lego and Meccano. It would be trite to go into the reasons why, and it’s enough to say that construction kits like these offer kids a unique place to use their imagination to build anything they want, and the freedom to experiment. Plus they’re cheap and pretty much indestructible, which always helps.

So when I read a review* of Howard P. Chudacoff’s new book Children at Play: An American History, I was pleased to see that he argued that children’s play has become far too regulated and controlled by adults. In terms of playgrounds that have built-in areas for attendants and ‘facilitators’, Cindy Dell Clark, a historian at Penn State Delaware county says:

“Parents are thinking that they’re helping kids with play that has a goal. It’s not really play, because play is something that’s self-determined.”

Chudacoff also makes a good point when comparing old-fashioned toys to ‘entertainment products’ (including, sadly, Lego kits that can only be built into a single prescribed model)?:

Chudacoff led the way to a small, old-fashioned Providence toy store, Creatoyvity, which carries hardly any toys licensed from television and movies. Chudacoff looked over the figures of knights and kings, gorillas, giraffes, cows, monkeys, rhinos, chickens and dinosaurs, as well as the beads, blocks, paint, glitter, trucks, cranes, tractors and wooden toys imported from Germany.

“It’s a toy store rather than an entertainment center,” Chudacoff said, explaining that with so much commercial licensing, toys have become more of an offshoot of the television and film industries than elements of play.

One result is that a toy comes with a prepackaged back story and ready-made fantasy life, he said, meaning that “some of the freedom is lost, and unstructured play is limited.”

I found myself nodding vigorously at this page. It really is a shame that the most popular toys don’t aim to stimulate kids’ imaginations; instead, their goal is to capture their minds into a vast franchise that includes dolls, cartoons, toys, videogames, movies and books – no need for imagination here, we’ll spell it all out for you!

And then my nodding was abruptly terminated by the next paragraph:

Video games put more of a straitjacket on imagination, he complains. And online versions of traditional games like Monopoly don’t permit players to make up their own rules (like winning money when you land on Free Parking), to harvest the fake money and dice for an altogether different game or even to cheat.

Chudacoff has a good point here – at least when it comes to the games he’s thinking of. There are precious few videogames that allow for the same amount of freedom and play that, say, the outside world does, and a computer version of Monopoly is inferior to the physical version (although the less said about the credit card edition, the better).

It troubles me, as a player and a designer of games. There are clearly some ‘sandbox’ games that allow players to really explore a huge number of possibilities, like the classic Sim City and, to a lesser extent, The Sims and Civilization; but these are rare, and don’t offer the same kind of interaction with other kids that games in the real world do. I recall one of my friends telling me that he had to be careful to make sure his younger brother didn’t spend too much time on the Playstation, since if left alone, he would spend hours playing the same racing game. Is that games are for kids, ways to distract, addict and occupy them?

In a way, I ought not to feel too bad about this. It’s always going to be difficult to mimic the freedom that the real world can give you in making up rules and using your imagination when you’re dealing with a game that has certain fixed rules. There are games – normally card games – whose goal is to exercise the imagination, like The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen by James Wallis, or indeed pratically any role playing game; but they have the advantage of being played face to face. These aren’t videogames, which are poised to become the dominant form of entertainment in the next few decades.

I see more hope in certain types of online multiplayer games. The game in which I’ve personally seen imagination run riot the furthest is Urban Dead (which I’ve written about previously). Urban Dead is a game in which tens of thousands of people battle against each other as zombies and survivors. In a fantastic twist, people can switch between the sides by being bitten or ‘revivified’ – combined with the exceptionally simple gameplay, the game becomes essentially endless, with bands of zombies or survivors grouping up and starting wars amongst each other. The creator, Kevan Davis, recently added the option for people to find items in museums. They serve absolutely no function in terms of gameplay, but after someone discovered a stuffed crocodile and placed it in a building, The Cult of the Stuffed Crocodile quickly sprang up, with players departing on pilgrimages, setting up false idols (e.g. stuffed rabbit), initiating holy wars, etc. It all sounds pretty ridculous, but this is exactly what kids do when they’re playing in the woods or treehouses and stumble across some abandoned toy. Urban Dead has no story, no history, no world, other than what the players create for it themselves.

Conversely, the most popular online games prefer not to leave the story and world for the players’ imagination, because most of the time, the imagination of players is not so good that other people would pay to see it. You need professionals if you are going to do things properly.

I agree with this view, to an extent. I was at a seminar about virtual worlds a few months ago, which inevitably turned to Second Life. I am sick of hearing about Second Life, but there was someone going on about how user-generated content is about to overturn all the professionals. I disagreed vehemently – yes, the new tools available lowers the barrier to entry for making really good entertainment, but you still need talent. A pad of paper and a pen costs nothing, but you don’t see everyone suddenly becoming an excellent writer; the same counts for any other skill. A game needs to have some rules in order for play to flourish, and choosing those rules is a hard task indeed.

Having said that, there is a difference between user-generated content and the fact that players will often derive more enjoyment from a given entertainment if their imagination and desires are somehow integrated into the story and gameplay; this is not only evident in Urban Dead, but other MMOG sandbox games like Eve Online. Granted, these games do not have anywhere near the numbers of World of Warcraft, but I would argue that they are the future, and once the balance between player freedom and imagination, and high quality direction and story by designers is made, you will see them become far more popular.

As for alternate reality games, I think the genre is so broad that it covers anything from sandbox games like World Without Oil to more traditional, story-driven ARGs. What is clear is that people are truly enraptured by the moments of sheer freedom in ARGs where players are given a challenge and they can tackle it in whatever way they choose, whether it be answering thousands of phone boxes, finding one person in six billion, or writing a book in the space of a few weeks.

Today, videogames and ARGs are primarily entertainment, and there is nothing to be ashamed about that. People will always want racing games and beat-em-ups and adventure games where the rules are set and there’s no need to use your imagination – I certainly enjoy them myself, and I believe that at their best, they truly are art, as good as classic novels or movies. However, videogames and ARGs have yet to shine at producing sandbox games that allow players of whatever age to experiment, learn and become free in – and I regard that as a most interesting challenge.

* The review of Chudacoff’s book was in the New York Times. Their article is no longer public and you have to pay to read it. This is unfortunate – for them, not for me – because they won’t get the traffic and ad impressions that I would’ve sent their way. Since the review was syndicated to the Ocala Star-Banner in Florida, among other newspapers, I was able to link to it perfectly fine. I find the whole practice rather ill-thought-out.

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