Something has been bothering me lately. Well, as is usually the case, lots of things have been bothering me, it’s just that this one thing was worth writing a post about. It was sparked in part by a presentation/lecture I watched by Jonathan Blow called “Video Games and the Human Condition”, in which he discusses his views on the current state of the game industry. If you’re interested – and I do recommend checking it out if you’ve got the time, as it’s a very interesting talk indeed and forms the backdrop for this post – you can check out the entire one and a half hour (yes) lecture online over ‘ere, along with an abstract providing a summary of the event.
J-Blow sez “Farmville players being farmed”
Some background to contextualise that talk is probably necessary. Jonathan Blow (or J-Blow as he shall henceforth be known) is an independent game designer. His time-manipulating sidescrolling platformer Braid got quite a bit of acclaim from the gaming press and public alike when it was released in 2008 on the ‘Micro$oft X-bawks’, later also being picked up by PS3 and PC gamers. He’s been pretty vocal about game design for quite a while through his blog and the press willing to give him a voice, and the talk I linked above sort of encapsulates his entire vision in a coherent and structured way. His views on a lot of the current trends in game design are.. quite negative, to put it lightly. He criticises mainstream game developers not just for not pushing the medium forward (due to a lack of innovation which is itself a consequence of the millions of dollars currently being pumped into every triple A title) but also for focusing too much on the superficial aspects of games (visual fluff, for one thing) instead of the core aspects.
Crucially for my current argument, however, he’s also said on more than one occasion that current schools of game design aren’t just bad for the artistic potential of the medium (which, by the way, I tend to agree with – although my stance isn’t nearly as radical as his), but some trends can also be qualified as just plain EVIL. As in, morally reprehensible and WRONG. Ethically unjustifiable. In the lecture he elaborates on Farmville as a specific example.
Basically, his argument is that these types of games are built in such a way that they psychologically manipulate people to play them. Players, so says J-Blow, are no longer actively engaging with the game, playing it because it’s fun. They’re being exploited as a resource, treated solely as contributors to a rising number in profits. The Farmville devs have zero respect for their playerbase, and use every trick in the book to keep people playing, while in essence their game is devoid of any depth or significance or emotional impact. The “game” part of Farmville can be reduced to basically just clicking on cows over and over and required no effort on the part of the devs to create, and what players see is all just fluff to draw them in with maximum efficiency. Thus J-Blow argues for a 180 degree turn away from those trends of game design (culminating in Farmville), which would focus on doing everything the current strands of game design neglects: push the medium forward through innovation, respect the players by treating them like actual, intelligent human beings, speak to the human condition through narrative, etc.
How is this relevant to us (ex/semi-)WoW-players? It’s relevant because J-Blow has also used World of Warcraft as an example for this kind of EVIL game design, albeit a considerably less EVIL one than the likes of Farmville. WoW uses a lot of the same tricks: the questing, levelling and reward structure is such that we’re compelled to play on, even if playing the actual game might not be all that fun. We’re just playing because we’re going to get that awesome new spell soon, or because our level will be 42 instead of 41 in half an hour, or because we just want that last silly, ultimately meaningless achievement to clear the ‘Professions’ tab in the achievement pane. The play in itself is no longer the goal – in fact, the play in itself has lost all meaning and value. It’s the psychological tricks that push us forward in the end. So sayeth the J-Blow.
They just don’t understand
Now, obviously this alone has vast implications. But the potential implications aren’t really what I wanted to focus on for this post. The reason I wanted to post about this is because it makes me SAD. It makes me SAD because it can easily be placed in a much wider, unfortunately negative discourse about WoW. Everywhere I look, the game seems to be criticised or derided for a multitude of reasons.
A couple of other examples. On my deeply beloved blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun, a post about the newly released intro movie for Cataclysm was accompanied by this: “Tell you what you shouldn’t do directly after watching this incredibly expensive bit of drama. You shouldn’t watch a YouTube video of an actual WoW boss fight. I think that might be a bad idea.” I’ve gotten so used to reading comments like that about WoW that I’ve ceased throwing fits as I usually did, I just click to the next article and sigh. Where I used to want to scream out “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND”, now I just accept it, knowing that if I were to post a comment like that people would accuse me of being an addict. While naturally, it IS true: as everyone who took part in the raiding game in any way can attest to, encounter design is something WoW does INCREDIBLY well. I’d argue it’s some of the best co-operative game design out there, in fact. Of course it’s going to look stupid to the uninitiated and when comparing a 5 year old engine with a spangly new CGI clip.
Another example can be found in a seemingly large percentage of people who once played WoW but have since moved on. Why is it that pretty much every one of such ex-players I’ve seen seems to speak of the game very negatively? References to some variety of harddrugs are never far away when speaking about their WoW “career”. I’d say that if the game draws you in to such an extent that you can safely compare it to cocaine, that’s mostly your own bloody fault, not the game’s. I’m sure J-Blow would be quick to disagree.
I’m so tired of that attitude. Am I the only one who actually has fond memories of playing this game? Who’s very much enjoyed (most of, granted) the time he spent in this world? Who sees a tremendous value in various aspects of its design? Who appreciates and respects Blizzard for a world they clearly crafted with a bucketload of love and very hard work? Well, clearly not, considering there are a lot of blogs out there (for one thing) proving otherwise. I just wish that destructive attitude towards WoW, that sense of hopelessness and negativity I’ve pointed towards in this post, was toned down a bit. That the game’s strengths were more known to “Joe Public” (is that a thing?). WoW is not destroying the world, guys. If it destroyed your life, it’s probably because you let it. It is a fantastic, almost uniformly fun, wonderfully designed, lovingly crafted game, and I wish people would treat it as such more often. Instead of only focusing on the bad side. I guess it’s cool to hate the biggest fish, and (in the case of ex-players) it’s easier to place the blame for bad occurrences in your life on factors external to yourself.
J-Blow sez “You cannot enjoy this thing wot you are enjoying”
To return to J-Blow for a moment, he’d probably acknowledge that, yeah, I might want to play WoW and actually enjoy playing it even though it’s evil. He’d also say I’m getting fooled by Blizzard’s tricks, and that I probably don’t really know WHAT I want. That I might enjoy another game (designed entirely differently) far more, and that it might be better for me as a person as it could provide me with more meaningful and useful experiences. Which would actually stimulate me to use my head or have some semblance of emotional impact, as opposed to the MINDLESS ZOMBIE STATE WoW causes.
This attitude SOUNDS incredibly arrogant (note that I’m not transferring his exact words here), but the question is if he isn’t, at least on some level, a bit right? I’d say that he is, in the case of Farmville and its ilk. I’d also say that he’s right in positing that humans don’t always know what’s best for them, and that we do tend to really enjoy things we shouldn’t on occasion. That other experiences might in fact be more desirable.
I think there’s nothing inherently wrong about enjoying WoW. Going by Blow’s argument you could say WoW should be treated as a sort of guilty pleasure. Something that’s also best and quite easily forgotten once you stop engaging in it. I don’t think we should necessarily handle it as such. I think there’s plenty of value in playing WoW. I’ve gained friends through WoW which, if I don’t end up chatting with them for years to come, I’ll at least remember very fondly. My first levelling experiences are some of my most cherished gaming memories, and some of the greatest co-operative play I’ve experienced in any game. The same goes for the raiding I’ve done, and the people I’ve met through that. And aside from all that, aside from that social aspect which one might argue isn’t really the explicit result of the game design (I’d say that it is, at least partially), I also very much enjoyed the large majority of the rest of the time I spent in the game.
This isn’t just a matter of clicking cows, of vapid, meaningless gameplay designed to manipulate me into playing it. It’s about overcoming challenges which make me feel a genuine sense of accomplishment. About engaging with a virtual world which still grants me more freedom and is more immersive than pretty much any other I’ve experienced in games. About quests which on one occasion might make me laugh with some random pop culture reference, on another surprise me with an inventive game mechanic.
And even if it were all just fluff, which it obviously isn’t. Even if I were just playing the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster action movie starring Will Smith and generic pretty blonde actress #124, would that be so bad? Occasionally a popcorn movie is exactly what I want. Not all of my entertainment needs to be exceedingly deep and meaningful and subtle, sometimes I’m happy with it just being entertaining. But as I said, WoW can also be much more than that. Calling it evil is going several bridges too far.
That’s not to say we should abandon all criticism. This post doesn’t advocate that at all, I’m just trying to make people celebrate instead of frown upon their own and others’ experiences. Criticise all you want, as long as it’s constructive. But negativity for the sake of it is so tiring. Granted, J-Blow has a well-constructed argument which has quite some merit in the grand scheme of game design. I’m just sick of people making me feel BAD about playing this game. I’ve derived too much enjoyment, too much meaning, too much value from WoW to go along with that.
Remember the titans
So my recommendation, in the end, is this. Enjoy. Play the game and love it. Don’t be ashamed about loving it. Know WHY you’re playing, know WHY the game is valuable to you. Know what you’re getting out of it. And always REMEMBER that. 5 years from now, when you have one and a half kids and are living in a house of your own with your second wife and you’re managing that multinational everybody hates, and you’re reminiscing to that period of your life when you were still young and naïve and had zero kids and were living in that small apartment with those inexplicable stains on the ceiling, and you think back on the time you spent playing WoW. Remember the good things. Not just the bad. Please. It’ll be worth it.