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Engineering Boredom: The Lucrative Trend Toward Mediocrity in Video Game Industry

The only prospect for excitement when discussing the cumulative progress of technology and it’s effects on society, is excavating synonyms for ‘boring’ from the Oxford English dictionary and seeing how many of them could fit in a sentence. However, scarcely a day goes by in the life of a contemporary urban dweller without exposure to some wearisome announcement about what the future may have in store for us.

What is notable about these dreary accounts of unstoppable progress, is that they increasingly rely on technology to announce their uninspiring visions of the future. We can watch a Marxist professor delivering a monotonous speech about the loss of cultural value on youtube. Read a variety of uneventful blog entries authored by half literate teenage girls paying homage to their new telephones, inevitably accompanied by pictures of themselves taken with the phone in question.

A significant portion of humanity seems to be caught either in a frenzy of self congratulation or of doomsday prophecy. The conversation on the subject has become so monochromatic that any fresh idea, no matter how outlandish it may seem would be an improvement to the current trend of exhausting repetition.

The outlandish claim I wish to make is that contemporary developments in video games industry have in fact not favoured forms of innovation to make video games more fun. Contrary to expectations the biggest companies in video games industry seem to be more concerned about keeping games as boring as possible.

There are several reasons for this trend, some of them apply to just about every industry. After all no industry would want to invest a great deal in risky innovations if there is still a great deal of income to be milked out of existing products. The appeal to lowest common denominator appetites like sex and violence is a common attribute video games share with the movie industry.

But surely, the reason for playing games is to have fun! If the game is incapable of delivering the amount of entertainment to the person playing it, the player in question can just turn it off and do something else. But as most ‘compulsive’ gamers can testify video games do not in fact cause a hypodermic rush of euphoria. What they do instead is offer the promise of satisfaction after the next achievement, and then after the next one and so on. This is why comparisons between video games and narcotic drugs are fundamentally misguided. The chemistry of an addictive video game has far more in common with a carrot on a stick than it does with crack cocaine.

At the root of this lies a tendency on the part of the gamers to compromise from their expectations and comply with the restrictions of the game. Naturally, as elaborated in Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens,  play in it’s very nature requires creating a distinct atmosphere impermeable by the ‘real world’. It is also to be expected that the rules of the game be followed by the players involved, so as to maintain it’s integrity. The relationship between the system that contains the game and the player therefore consists of, the player submitting to the rules and the system stimulating the same player’s senses just enough to not make them want to reach out for the nearest Thesaurus.

However, a lot of games produced today seem to intervene in the regular exchange between the game and the player. Especially games in the MMO and social gaming market seem to be actively dealing boredom to their customers in the shape of a perpetual promise for imminent satisfaction. Jaron Lanier in his One Half a Manifesto is addressing a similar issue by discussing the Turing test:

Let’s start at the beginning, when the idea first appeared. In Turing’s famous thought experiment, a human judge is asked to determine which of two correspondents is human, and which is machine. If the judge cannot tell, Turing asserts that the computer should be treated as having essentially achieved the moral and intellectual status of personhood.

Turing’s mistake was that he assumed that the only explanation for a successful computer entrant would be that the computer had become elevated in some way; by becoming smarter, more human. There is another, equally valid explanation of a winning computer, however, which is that the human had become less intelligent, less human-like.

An official Turing Test is held every year, and while the substantial cash prize has not been claimed by a program as yet, it will certainly be won sometime in the coming years. My view is that this event is distracting everyone from the real Turing Tests that are already being won. Real, though miniature, Turing Tests are happening all the time, every day, whenever a person puts up with stupid computer software.

For instance, in the United States, we organize our financial lives in order to look good to the pathetically simplistic computer programs that determine our credit ratings. We borrow money when we don’t need to, for example, to feed the type of data to the programs that we know they are programmed to respond to favorably.

In doing this, we make ourselves stupid in order to make the computer software seem smart. In fact we continue to trust the credit rating software even though there has been an epidemic of personal bankruptcies during a time of very low unemployment and great prosperity.

We have caused the Turing test to be passed. There is no epistemological difference between artificial intelligence and the acceptance of badly designed computer software.(Lanier 2000)

A similar issue also happens among gamers. Online environments like World of Warcraft (WoW) or Second Life (SL) are notorious in terms of how little control they allow their players in terms of controlling their environment and making significant changes to their surroundings. An extremely interesting account of how the concept of heritage is utilised in SL, suggests that the company responsible for the game- Linden Lab has a noticeably reactionary policy regarding what constitutes heritage in the SL world:

1 The creation of heritage sites and establishment of SL’s digital archives seem focused almost entirely on the development of a sense of ‘rootedness’ and the creation of an official public memory of the creation myths of the virtual settlement.

2 Partially as a function of point 1, heritage in SL is focused on origin myths and is connected almost explicitly with the actions of the ‘ruling class’. There is little evidence of heritage being used to celebrate the actions of ‘ordinary’ residents within SL.

3 There is little space for the existence of subaltern or dissenting views within SL’s heritage discourse.

4 Processes of community-building are clearly evident in the erection of memorials and the production of heritage sites in SL. Memorials help to transform SL from a digital space into a ‘place’, and emphasise a sense of community and shared origins.

5 While the preservation and creation of official heritage sites helps to make SL seem more like the ‘actual’ world, the official histories they embody create an origin myth that acts as a way of maintaining a shared sense of belonging and values in a ‘virtual’ community.

6 Work on CMC communities has demonstrated many similarities between the processes that operate in virtual and local communities (e.g. Blanchard and Markus, 2002), and SL appears to be another example of a case where processes of community building from the actual world are used to produce conditions of social cohesion in virtual communities. (Harrison 2009)

From it’s very beginnings SL has contained the promise of some sort of utopia. A lot of the sparkly eyed literature about it has to do with how SL can provide some sort of experimental basis for an ideal society. What this literature ignores is the rigidity of control Linden Lab exercises over the SL world. The noble experiments the ‘pioneers of the digital world’ are engaged in thus never to be completed. Instead they are to be compromised beyond recognition and voluntarily shrink away, much like the dignity of human intelligence in the case of the Turing test.

So  the general trend in software development therefore is for products to not deliver what they supposed to but to convince their users to stand by just long enough so that they can be robbed out of their hard earned money.

Lack of satisfaction and enjoyment is one of the things that is most commonly expressed by players of WoW. Blizzard, the developer of the game has just recently released a new expansion-’Cataclysm’. One player who has been playing the game for the past seven years has compared it to the previous expansion that was released two years ago-Wrath of the Lich King (WotLK).

It’s better then wotlk! but like i’m tired of having to be online 24/7 to farm gear for this and that and raid 5-6 hours 3/days a week. Farm this farm that, rep here, rep there, pvp there, pvp here, join this join that blablabalbal

The sentiment is very representative of a great deal of players who have been playing on the same server since the game came out. In average, reactions seem to range from mildly fatigued and indifferent at best to profoundly depressed at worst.

The history of social groupings in the game illustrates a very clear pattern of players constantly trying to squeeze out something fun out of the game, like it was an empty toothpaste tube. Since the game itself does not allow individual players to make any significant changes to their game or social environment. The history of every single player I have met is full of legendary tales of old friends who are never heard of again or game content that used to feel much more significant.

One of the things WoW does is provide a multilayered experience. So there is always a temporary distraction that players can engage in until their next fit of boredom. Nevertheless; old time players have all been persistent in reporting a sense drudgery not unlike the example above, regardless of what their favourite in game activity is.

For instance players who are mainly interested in socialising are blaming Blizzard’s mismanagement of inter-server migration policies. Players who are mostly into the competitive element of the game are disappointed by the beginner-friendly features that are being regularly introduced into the game, which makes it a great deal easier for achievements they worked extremely hard for to be completed with a fraction of the effort. Finally those who are interested in exploring the content of the game have reported a degree of displeasure with what they consider to be a loss of what they considered to be the ‘epic’ quality of the environments and events.

It is difficult for a social scientist to explain what potential there is for satisfaction in video games without quoting somebody else. In this respect the video game designer Jonathan Blow- who’s latest game I have found to be absolutely delightful, can provide a degree of enlightenment.

Games create a temporary world. a low stake subdomain, which is simpler than the real world. Where there is an explicit meaning of life.  There is a point to being there. Whether it’s maximising a score, or getting to the end of the story, rescuing the princess. You know why you are there and you know what you have to do.[…] The meaning of life in this existence is something that I really care about. It’s something that’s been tugging at me for my entire life and people throughout the ages. So I think I am not alone in this. This is part of why games are compelling to me.

if games were just an avenue  of expression maybe that by itself wouldn’t be too interesting. But what is interesting is that when we develop the medium to a point where we can express confidently and consistently through it, then those artistic expressions are going to come at a different angle, from a different perspective, then they would in another media.

as human beings is enriched, it’s made broader, by the fact that we have these different form, to communicate with and to feel by. What games can do is to add a different one.

To conclude, I wish to remind that the task Jonathan Blow invites us not one to be shied away from on the basis that video games are just some sort of mindless distraction. If as Blow suggests there is a potential for making games that make statements about the human condition that have the power to move people and satisfy their cravings for amusement in a profound way, it falls up to developers to take the risk of facing up to the responsibility of enriching human experience as opposed to aggravating their boredom for profit.


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