After yet another TED talk espousing the mind-controlling properties of games, it is time to say again: “It’s not that simple.
Games are not just ultimate Skinner boxes. In fact, as we know (thanks Alfie Kohn), Skinner boxes don’t really work on humans. The talk even says it directly. You can only give people 5-20 repetitions before they get bored. After that rewards stop working. You get acclimated.
Games are the grand experiment. We developed the power to make universes. Places where every sound, every object, every rule created by a human being. A place to try being God. And what did we do with this power? We turned it on ourselves. We choose to study who we are. How we think. We discovered rewards. We discovered motivation. But we are also discovering acclimation.
Consider story games vs. game-y games. Story games are games like Mass Effect, Final Fantasy, or Uncharted 2 that, rather then use deep sets of interesting rules, rely on an outside motivation to drive you through the universe. Traditional stories, rigidly enforced and passively received. And often it works. At least until you get to the end. But then the rules suddenly stop feeling compelling. Why? Why don’t you keep playing? Acclimation! We want end points. We want to see differently, try new things, explore. Develop and grow. No single task or grouping of tasks is enough to contain us.
As designers, acclimation is our burden and our saving grace. We have to overcome it to maintain engagement. But it trains our players. It makes them smarter, wiser, more engaged the next time we do something different, interesting, worthwhile. It’s what breaks the “addiction”. It’s the learner mastering the subject, and walking away with a new piece of knowledge. It’s what gives the next designer a chance to entertain.
Games can’t “control” people. Jesse Schell talks about it like it’s something to fear. And while I agree the coming point-pocalypse is something for concern, all I think it does is make us stronger. We are human. We’ve built universes to test that out. And we always win, in the end. We walk away, and do something else.