Friday, 14 May 2010

Cold Turkey Sandwiches

For various reasons, I haven't actually played any video games for a week. That is seven entire days. For the first six days I was too busy, but on the seventh day I rested (but of course). Mysteriously however, I did not fire up the XBOX. Instead I got a cup of tea and read Black Hole.

Eventually, I realised that six days without playing video games had blunted the razor-sharp edge of my desire to play video games. As someone who dedicates a large proportion her life to trying to convince people that video games are absolutely not a waste of time, I feel this is something I shouldn't really be admitting.

Does this mean that video games are addictive? Do I play them not just for the stories and the art direction but for the dopamine hit? Is Peggle as emotionally and intellectually numbing as hard liquor?

Well, yes.

On a very basic level, addictive substances or activities activate dopamine receptors in the brain's reward circuit. There are physiological and chemical differences between substance addictions and behvioural addictions, but I feel safe in saying that some activities, including video games, are addicitve in a way that others are not (way to sit on the intellectual fence there, Well-Rendered).

Because there are plenty of articles out there, academic or otherwise, which explore the psychological and physiological aspects of video game addiction, I'm not going to spend too much time on (as L'Oréal would have it) The Science Bit.

It's fairly safe to say that games with an apparent numerical component are inherantly more addictive than games without. Of course, all games are digital, but some games tactfully pretend not to be.

Games which make no attempt to pretend they're not all about the ol' numbers tend to fall into two camps. On one side we have casual games with tantalising high scores, represented by Tetris and Peggle. On the other we have Role Playing Games, or RPGs which allow the player to create a character defined by a set of numerical values which can only be improved by dedicating a vast amount of time to the game.

Most people have played Tetris. It is a profoundly simple game which involves using only the four directional buttons in order to manoeuvre the seven differently shaped Tetrads into position in order to complete "lines" and clear the screen. As the game progresses, the Tetrads fall progressively faster and it becomes harder to twist or shift them into place before they come into contact with the surface of another Tetrad and are fixed into place.

The game is addictive because it combines being extremely simple to learn and extremely difficult to be good at. Like many simple games, it also has a scoring system which players are compelled to try and beat. Especially if it is their little sister who is currently reigning champion.

Like many vintage arcade games of Tetris' generation, the simplicity of the game meant that a high score was the only means of keeping players interested. Because most people in 1984 only had access to video games in arcades, the three-letter High Score tag provided both a means for players to assert their skill over fellow players and an incentive to put another token in the machine for another try.

This example is rare because it implies that someone by the name of "DAN" was playing. More common names for great aracde players are "ASS", "POO" and worse. One of the better episodes of Friends tells the story of how Monica's joy at receiving an original Ms Pacman arcade game as a wedding gift soon turns to despair as she realises she has to beat a phenominal high score with a filthy name before her seven-year old nephew turns up to play.

I've spoken about Peggle before.

The premise of Peggle is very simple. The player simply aims the cannon at the top and clicks once in order to fire a small ball. The ball bounces around, and the more pegs it manages to hit, the higher the player's score will be. Although there is some skill involved, success or failure in the Peggle world is largely down to luck.

The premise is a loose adaptation of the Japanese arcade phenomanon Pachinko. The only difference being that Pachinko isn't a video game. It's the demonic love child of Bagatelle and a fruit machine.

It is here where the distinctions between video games and other games (specifically those with a gambling component) become a little blurry. Somebody with a psychology degree or at least a good understanding of gambling addiction could probably make a good stab at explaining why it is that humans feel so compelled to peform repetative tasks for the possibiltiy of a reward.

Arcade video games aren't really gambling - there is generally no possibility of any financial reward. Further to that, most video games - in arcades or otherwise - are more dependent on skill than Peggle, and true gambling requires a large element of chance. A video game player does, however, gamble with their time.

As a penulty for dying (being shot one too many times in Time Crisis, for example), many arcade gamees require that the player inserts further coins before continuing their game. In this sense, if a player enters the arcade with only enough coins for one round of Time Crisis, he or she is gambling that they are a good enough player to receive more enjoyment by playing the game (by being able to play for longer for less money because they die less often) than they would spending those coins at the bar instead.

Isn't time worth more than money, given that we all have a finite amount?

Arcade video games now form only a small proportion of the video games market, and now it's not only easier to determine a games cost:fun ratio, but this ratio generally has nothing to do with a player's skill. Most games these days allow players to adjust the difficulty, and because most people tend to buy video games rather than rent them, even a mediocre player can improve at their leisure.

Consequently, the fact that video games consume vast amounts of time is a more pressing consideration than it once was. I have said before that although video games are more seductive than books, they perhaps give you less to "take away" once you've finished with them. You're unlikely to emerge from even the most well-written game with a better vocabulary or critical faculties. Long-time video game enthusiast Steven Poole likens the video game experience to menial employment given its lack of any tangible reward. And yet employees in call centres across the country and tapping their fingernails, impatient to get away from their office computer, rush home, draw the curtains, turn on a different computer and spend the next four hours playing World of Warcraft.

Articles about World of Warcraft are wheeled out now and then by sensationalist newspapers because "more addictive than crack cocaine" makes a snappy headline. Some might say that it's no different to any other video game, and doesn't deserve its scapegoat status. But sites such as the World of Warcraft Detox Forum would suggest otherwise.

World of Warcraft MMORPG, (pronounced "mummorperger" with a hard "g"), which stands for "Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game", which differentiates it from a JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game) or an SRPG (Strategic Roleplaying Game), for example. Phew!

Basically, playing a MMORPG entails creating a character with certain skills or traits, and then controlling the character's evolution thoughout the course of the game. In an RPG, a character is only able to evolve once the player has been playing the game for long enough to earn (usually) Experience Points, or XP. In most RPGs, the player is able to decide how they spend these points. Would they rather become stronger and thus more deadly with an axe, or would they be better off mixing more complex potions?

The aforementioned numbers come into the equation because your character's skills are defined by a set of numbers. In Tetris, you have to stay alive long enough to generate a vast high score. You do this by getting really good, which takes months. In World of Warcraft, you have to play the game long enough to generate great abilities.

World of Warcarft presents players with a double-whammy of features which make it incredibly hard to switch off. On one hand RPGs are extremely addictive because your character's next skill level (finally being able to repair one's own bow and arrow as opposed to taking it to an armourer, for example) is always just out of reach. Non-online RPGs feature a horizon which eventually stops moving away because the game's story is only so long, the game's disc only features so much content. As addictive as it may be to continue building your character up until you finally fight Mankar Camoran, or whoever, once you have done so everything seems to wind down.

With a MMORPG however, this doesn't happen. The gameworld in World of Warcraft was vast to begin with, but because it is online, new areas are being built all the time. Add to that the fact that it is monumentally time consuming to level up your character, and you basically have a recipe for an experience that's like The Matrix except with bright colours and dragons instead of philosophising whilst wearing raincoats.

Neo at least had the choice of choosing the blue pill in order to remain within the Matrix (even though we all know he decided to take the red one). World of Warcraft players sadly have to wake up every day in the grubby "real world" bit of the Matrix.

World of Warcraft is in part a behavioural addiction like gambling and Pachinko machines. But more than that it is a compulsion to reach an ever-receding horizon. Chasing the Dragon, if you will.

My waning desire to play video games this week doesn't mean that I don't like them any more. Contrary to what the Daily Mail would have us believe, video games are not as addictive as crack cocaine, and they are certainly not as destructive. I've yet to smoke a bit of crack with a really great narrative arc.

It's alright Mum, I'm joking.

It does mean, however, that I am conscious of the fact that one should play games because they are wonderful, and not to escape from a less than satisfactory reality, whether this be via compulsive behaviour (Peggle) or imaginary lands (World of Warcraft).

I hope you're all well, and sorry (again! I know!) for the late posting.

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