Video games : board games like other ?
Perhaps without realising it, you are a gamer. If you still think of gamers as pale, spotty boys glued to controllers in permanently darkened bedrooms, you are wrong. This stereotype is a hangover from the 80’s when there was more than whiff of truth to this. Today the gaming landscape couldn’t be more different: the average age of a gamer is now 32 years old and 2 out of 5 are female. In fact, today a gamer could be anyone and everyone thanks to the rise of social gaming. Kids start playing as soon as they can hold a mouse on sites like moshimonsters and even grannies can get their digital kicks thanks to Facebook. Increasingly games and their mechanics are being used to engage people in fun and playful ways other than via traditional games delivered on consoles. But how did we get here?
Early games gave us blocky graphics, primary colours and short bursts of gameplay with easy to understand scoring and simple control systems. As technology advanced, games evolved into increasingly complex beasts that required gamers to master tricky controllers that grew more buttons with every new release of hardware. Game worlds demanded that you immerse yourself for hours, sometimes with little reward and a lot of frustration. However, the complicated and hence exclusive nature of games meant many rejected games as a valid pastime because it took too so much effort to get past the first post. Today, with the rise of easy to navigate UI (user interface), games have never been more inclusive and it’s often smaller productions that are bringing in the mainstream with their casual gameplay, tapping into existing social frameworks on the web like Facebook.
Facebook as a games platform took the games industry by surprise, while the traditional industry was focusing on pumping pixels for better graphics and faster reactions times, companies like Playfish and Zynga have been making simple games that are garnering audiences of millions. Millions and millions and millions. Zynga alone boasts 250 million unique Facebook users, all playing regularly. These free-to-play Facebook games have simple and accessible interfaces, basic customization and are hooking in people of all ages, particularly women. The fact that you can play at your computer, socialize with friends and not have to be playing simultaneously (this is called asynchronous play) makes it a very enticing prospect. Add to that a slot-machine style reward system and you can see why Facebook games are another nail in the coffin of Bingo halls and slot-machine arcades as older women forego a social night out in favour of a social night in playing Farmville or Café World.
But you don’t need to be sat in front of your TV or even your computer to enjoy games as they are taking to the streets – literally - and it’s not just on traditional handheld devices like Nintendo’s DS and Sony’s PSP. Thanks to the success of Apple’s highly desirable iPhone, there’s been a gold rush of gaming apps that have left iTunes virtual shelves heaving. There are over 32,000 gaming apps currently available for download with an average of 88 more being submitted to Apple every day. The always-with-you nature of the device means you can dip in and out of games designed for short play times and the fact that it’s ever ready to show off your latest discovery when out with friends can’t have hurt sales either. Whilst many of these games conform to traditional gaming formats that hark back to the simplicity of 80’s games, albeit with touchy feely controls, it’s the location based ones that point to an interesting future on mobile technology.
One thing all mobiles share is the ability to connect to and share GPS data (Global Positioning System). This allows you to interact with the environment around you, whether that’s to play a virtual round of golf using the streets as your green (Gigaputt) or to claim and digitally defend your real world territory in the Mafia themed game Turf Wars. These games aren’t a million miles from the rapidly expanding social network apps like GoWalla and FourSquare, which both have game-like mechanics that reward the user for checking in (registering their presence) at locations, and sharing these updates with friends.
They aren’t alone to use game mechanics to make everyday activities more playful and interesting. The Nethernet is a massively multiplayer role playing game (MMRPG) that uses the internet as its playing field. Traditional MMRPGs are persistent game worlds where players earn experience points to level-up (develop) their in-game characters by performing quests and interacting with other players. The Nethernet has taken this statistic driven, social gameplay and applied it to surfing the net: you collect points for visiting sites to level-up your character and can interact with other nethernet players by creating web-trail based quests or by leaving them treasure or booby prizes on the sites you visit. Despite its passive nature, it's a great way to get people to engage and explore the internet in a rewarding way. Not all games rely so heavily on score and statistics though, some are definitely more thoughtful and experimental in their nature.
Jason Rohrer’s ‘Passage’ is a memento mori game, a reminder of death, and was conceived when a close friend died. It presents an entire life, from young adulthood to old age and death in the space of five minutes. In many ways, it’s more an experience than a game but it uses game mechanics like hunting for treasure chests to convey its narrative. Built by one man, Passage has touched people in an emotional way that many of the bigger game productions aspired and failed to do.
Increasingly, games are being made by tiny teams again, as it was in the eighties, thanks in part to accessible software like Flash and Unity that make it easier than ever to create games with LittleBigPlanet (LBP) on the PlayStation 3 (incidentally made by a team of only 30) enables would be designers to create whole worlds within their game. LBP provides the tools, you provide the creativity. The forthcoming LittleBigPlanet 2 is gives even more control to the player. As they say ‘it isn’t a platform game, it’s a platform for games’. Creativity in games is rife and now everyone can get in on the act. And you may just make some money out of it in the process.
As technology grows up and becomes more accessible, games are a great way to engage with it, to experiment and explore, connect and collaborate with friends and strangers, test our creativity and maybe even do something good for the world, all in a playful way. So the next time a game tries to entice you with its teasing ways, don’t resist, give in and engage with our growing community.