A Night about Video Games with Cognitive Science Nerds

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My friend Keith Lim pointed out this excellent "Defining Gameplay" event hosted by the SFU Cognitive Science department. Then, more importantly, after I expressed a bit of interest in going but didn't do anything, he followed up by nudging me into contact with the organizer. Yada yada yada, I attended along with my similarly old-game-obsessed friend Josh, and we brought a lot of old games with us for people to play.

The feature attraction was Alexandre Mandryka, who had an hour to define "gameplay." He started by pointing out that as a native French speaker, "gameplay" was confusing because in French, "game" and "play" are practically the same word ("jeu" and "jouer"), as in most Romance languages.

From there, he riffed well and at length on what "fun" was, the ideas of flow, fun, and challenge, and some concrete rules for building good games, almost a Strunk & White for game designers. It was a good talk and I enjoyed it.

I thought his definition of "fun", as I remember it, was more narrow than was reasonable, but from that axiom he went in interesting directions. I thought the rules he laid out were crying out to be violated to tweak a game to be even more fun, but I think he would agree, in concert with his analogy to harmonic tension and resolution. I know his talk will be online soon, so wait for that, and in the meantime, check out Alexandre's corporate website, which is full of good stuff.

I presented a 2-minute lightning summary* of my "research," which in my case consisted of a self-deprecating joke about "curator" being a generous title for a know-it-all with an attic full of old game systems, a summary of past exhibits, and an invitation to come play games with us after the talk.

And people did! Josh and I collectively brought enough equipment** to set up an Atari 2600, NES, SNES, Genesis, N64, and Playstation 2. We had multi-player SNES Bomberman (aw yeah); Mario Kart 64; 2600 Warlords; NES Gauntlet II, Track & Field, and Duck Hunt all going at various times, and much fun was had. My glory, though, was a steady run of 4-player rounds of Pac-Man Vs., a Nintendo DS game (a mini-game included in "Namco Museum DS", really) where three players are playing as ghosts. Several of the players got their first taste of playing Pac-Man!

Despite our game chaperoning duties***, I managed to leave our station long enough to try out an Oculus Rift. In the game I tried, you play as a psychic detective, and you are trying to solve an assassination by jumping through the minds of the crowd and hearing their thoughts and seeing through their eyes. I wasn't very good at the game, and it wasn't the easiest environment in which to experience it, but I think the wild and crazy kids at Radial Games are on to something. They have a principle of producing games on a ridiculous cycle time: 2-3 weeks is typical, versus an industry that tends to think in years. They swore by the Unity Engine as a great tool for doing quick designs. I had a good long talk with two of them, and I would like to know more.

The density of interesting people and ideas in the room was high. The event didn't really wrap until after 10, and I wish it had been possible to talk to twice as many people and eavesdrop on twice as many conversations and play games for twice as long****.

One attendee asked me a great question about genre in video games at the end of the night, and I came up with a glib answer, but maybe a good one. Her question was (roughly) given my historic understanding, what did I think about how we classify video games?

I replied (again roughly) that my tendency was to think in terms of common game mechanics, not genres. So rather than speak of "survival horror", I would think in terms of games that used mechanics like constrained cameras and limited resources to create fun. I then riffed that this suggested you could create a "survival resource management" game, which seemed like a brilliant new idea until I remembered that Banished already exists. (Nonetheless, I'd say it's a good idea to imagine blending a mechanic associated with one genre with a different narrative theme or set of mechanics from a second genre. There's some fertile ground out there).

I didn't say this at the time, but what's going on here is I try to care a lot about the ludic elements of games, and a little about the narrative elements. So it's one thing to like "fantasy" or "horror" or "sports" games, but I enjoy games that use an especially compelling mechanic, whether it is new or familiar, and I have a personal preference for certain mechanics. I'm not blind to narrative elements, but I think they're secondary: a bad story rarely sinks a game that plays well, and a great story is hard-pressed to save a game that plays well.

It is fascinating that the same ideas keep working over and over again. We still play versions of Pac-Man that are recognizably similar to the original (if not outright emulations of the original) and we are still interested in tropes that were established early in the history of video games. It's remarkable that 2D platformers got their start in the early 1980s, and are still a vital and popular genre today. Never mind the success of Spelunky and whatever side-scroll Super Mario game is out now, some people still care about the high score record for Donkey Kong!

The evening was a reminder that I like video games as a social experience, as an academic subject, and as a thing to play. I like bringing out my systems for other people to play, and I like learning more about the art and science of video games.

And boy howdy do I like to talk about them.

*Protip: if you're given two minutes, it's probably more time than you expect, but finish under time. This rule is double when you're the last speaker before the prize draw and pizza.

**My Versa is a pretty voluminous small car. The systems and TVs I brought virtually filled it. I could have wedged in a passenger, but only just. CRTs are really big.

***in an inspired touch, I decided to spend the previous evening threading my three Nintendo DS handhelds onto a single long piece of twine which I jokingly referred to as a "link cable." It wasn't a bad crowd at all, but doing this was an inspired touch for keeping track of the systems and making it clear that they were a set for playing a single game. 10/10, would do again. As long as I have you here, I saw something I'd never seen before: network lag while playing a DS game over a local ad-hoc WiFi setup. Not sure why that happened. I also, in the run-up to the event, was standing in a local used-game shop contemplating whether I wanted to buy a fourth DS for $45, thus completing my insane complete playable Pac-Man vs. set. Sanity prevailed, and of course someone had a spare DS up in their office when we got there. But I feel a Craigslist search coming.

****I confirmed how much fun playing games in a group, in person, is for me. Apparently I not only heckle people during bike races, I also cannot play games with people without firing out a steady stream of crazy smack-talk ("Hello Pac-Man, I see you, I'm going to get you...are you afraid of ghosts?...no! No! Run!!!"). I also learned that it's fairly easy for me to throw a game of Pac-Man when playing less-skilled players (avoid getting a power pill, and also, I'm bad at Pac-Man), but when I get into a game of Warlords, it takes only seconds for the red mist to descend, at which point I will do anything to win no matter the opponent (I'm not very good at Warlords either, though).