Video games are stupid. Throw story at them.

Taylor Clark has a storming piece up on Kotaku today. He’s right: most popular video games are dumb. And that’s fine, so long as we don’t assume that’s the only thing games can do.

To accept childish dreck without protest-or worse, to defend the dreck’s obvious dreckiness just because the other parts of a game are cool-is to allow the form to languish forever.

Yes. Preach it. Preach it also to readers who love Dan Brown’s fiction in spite of the writing, and everyone who overlooks the hour-long goodbye scenes at the end of the Lord of the Rings films.

Most popular things are dumb, not just video games

Video games are not unique in being collaborative creations in which many elements are brought together to form a whole; nor are they alone in being often poorly integrated, with areas of brilliance marred by areas of dreck (or indeed whole areas of dreck occasionally elevated by moments of brilliance). All media have these problems.

But video gaming is such a small field at present. Our examples of brilliance and of dreck come from a depressingly limited pool of options, especially when we examine big-budget titles. Truly stand-out works in any field are rare. Most media plays to the majority. In video gaming, it is the mindless that has proven to sell well – so mindless most games remain.

Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) applies not just to things being bad, but also to things being dumb, crude, silly. It’s not just video games; it’s also everything else. There shouldn’t be any shame for gamers in saying: yes, a lot of games are dumb. A lot of everything is dumb. A lot of dumb things are fun.

But Clark’s right that by saying video games can only be dumb, we’re doing the medium a great disservice. In the 18th century there was a widely held perception that novels could only be dumb, until classics began to emerge and a canon formed. Video gaming has been around for a much shorter time and has much farther to go before it reaches maturity – technology is still not stable, barriers to entry are still falling rapidly, the business model is still all over the place, and all those things impact the kinds of games that are produced and the processes by which they’re made. But video games can, and should, aspire to greatness, both mechanically and narratively – and ideally, both at once.

Narrative and gameplay should be the same thing

Matthew Burns, who’s worked on several big-budget games, says he doubts that such a thing is possible given the current climate. There’s a rather circular argument here. The kicker quote:

it is extremely difficult— maybe impossible— to come up with a story and characters that, when placed within the context of most current video games, don’t feel inherently silly

Most current video games are inherently silly, therefore it’s impossible to put anything on top of the silliness to produce something that’s less silly. Well – yes. There’s an assumption here about the place of writing, story and characterisation in games – that it’s not an inherent part of the context of games, but rather something added on top. But if you start from the premise that your game is about hyperviolent destruction of mythical monsters, you’ve made a lot of decisions about the story and the characterisation already. Even the best writers won’t be capable of making a game deep, believable, complex or realistic if the gameplay is fighting against that narrative at every turn. See also: GTA4.

Gameplay and narrative shouldn’t simply inform each other. They should be inextricable from each other. Games that aspire to being well written can’t just plaster story on top of mechanic like wallpaper. It has to be mixed into the mortar, built into the foundations. It doesn’t matter whether you’re gunning for embedded or emergent story, froth or experiential narrative or whatever – you can’t slap it on top of gameplay like an afterthought, because gameplay mediates the entire experience.

If you’re playing a different story than the one you’re being told, then the game can’t attain that coveted, if ill-defined, goal of comprehensive intelligence. It’ll always be fractured; no matter how carefully the cracks are hidden, it won’t ring true.

Game making at Kitacon

Playing at KitaconAt the weekend Grant and I were invited to give a NERF panel at Kitacon. We started out thinking we’d talk about story in Zombie LARP again, as the crowd there are mostly unaware of what we do and are pretty into their storytelling, retelling and reimagining, from what we know. But when we realised we had a whole hour and a room to ourselves, we wanted to do something a little more interactive.

These days Zombie is a pretty massive affair, with 130 or so players at each event and more different NERF guns than you can shake a stick at. Way back when we started, though, it consisted of about four of us running around each other’s tiny student digs waving two NERF Mavericks and a Buzz Bee Double Shot, and dying messily in kitchens while disapproving flatmates tried to make dinner.

The process of making the game was, in itself, playful. Fun. It’s fun to run around with NERF guns and pretend to be zombies, but it’s also fun to turn that into a game with rules, like we all did when we were young kids. Making a thing you can play with your mates is its own sort of play.

So, we thought, what if we turned that into a panel? 20 minutes to make a game, with everyone in the room taking part; 20 minutes to play, and then some time to clean up and debrief and work out how to make it better?

We put together a set of questions to act as a game machine – a series of decisions to help a group of people get from zero to minimum viable game in as little time as possible, then iterate quickly between short rounds of play. We stuck with NERF guns as a basic mechanic, because they provide an easy seed for ideas, and because we find their “toy” status makes adults more likely to forget they’re adults and get into playing in the real world. We tested the system with my nieces and nephews while on holiday and ended up with Teatowel Panic, a team-based capture-the-flag-style game with wandering monsters, which we thought was a pretty good sign. The players also developed an unexpected extra mechanic when my dad started wandering around picking up ammo and then giving it to the teams at random.

The folks at Kitacon were brilliant and got what we were trying to do very quickly. I think it helped that we were in a place where normal rules of behaviour were at least partially suspended, with people who were quite happy to play for the sake of playing. We ended up with a game tentatively titled “Make the Geneva Convention Cry” in which players had to get a bomb into each other’s team bases and the best way to win would be to kill as many medics as possible. After round 1 we introduced a couple of new mechanics, and the second one went well enough that we left it as it was for the third game. Team Laser Explosion won the first two, but Team Monkey Pirate were the last ones left alive in the third.

We’re going to do it again, I hope – possibly at Gamecamp as we had such fun with Zombie there last year, and possibly other places. I hope – and I’m pretty sure – we’ll end up with something completely different every time.

Braindump: just add points

Interesting presentation by Sebastian Deterding looking at what user experience designers can learn from game design.

Although news orgs face very different challenges from UX designers, the basic messages about shallow vs deep engagement, using multiple interacting points/currencies and measuring achievement, effort and attainment in a meaningful way are very relevant. Take a look:

It’s interesting to look at the Huffington Post’s community moderation badges in terms of this presentation. My gut instinct is that they fall, along with Foursquare, into a category of too simplistic game-like systems (“Just Add Points”) that don’t actually tap into the power and fun of learning that is one of the fundamental building blocks of good game design.

It’s also worth checking out this post on rescuing princesses at the Lost Garden. If you click through to the slides (PDF) there’s a thoughtful discussion of the differences between app and game design, and a very useful breakdown of STARS atoms – essentially, small chunks that introduce players/users to new skills, let them discover how to use them, and ensure they have mastered them.

Between them, these two posts and the thoughts behind them make a mockery of the idea of game mechanics as simple point systems you can pop atop pre-designed apps or comment systems or whatever it is you’re already doing. You have to design with exploratory learning in mind, with a learning curve that doesn’t flatten out horizontally or vertically and with end goals and nested goals to maintain engagement.

I wonder how the Guardian’s crowdsourced investigation into MPs’ expenses would have gone if they’d added this sort of rich game-led design? As well as giving long-term and short-term goals/rewards (like Twitter translator levels, perhaps) with status bars to show progress, perhaps they could have rewarded people who found something of real import with a status bump, or added exploratory learning elements by advancing users towards the goal of signing off on things other people had flagged as interesting. Or teaching basic maths, or collating data into a wiki-style “what does my MP spend” database, or encouraging/letting users learn to create their own visualisations of the data. Hard to say how well or whether that would have worked, but it’s easy to see wider possibilities in projects like that.

/end braindump