On the Obligations of Video Games

Steve Gaynor, a designer at 2K Marin, understands that he works in an entertainment field, and provides a product nonessential to basic human needs. That doesn't mean video games - and their makers - have no obligation to the public.

News reports frequently mention studies that indicate some benefit to playing video games, whether in cognition or critical thinking skills, or physical benefits like hand eye coordination or therapy. Gaynor incorporates some of those examples into his manifesto, which is that games must make the player think. It's a bedrock design principle that will keep gamers from being an underserved constituency.

All media and genres of art have their schlock; Hollywood is a great example, so are commercialized works of fiction, paintings, you can come up with an example of high art and yard-sale garbage in all cases. But games seem to face a higher barrier to acceptance and legitimacy, both due to their origins and their nature. So it would seem to me that the obligations Gaynor describes for games are not only to gamers, but also to the medium as a whole.

An Obligtion [Fullbright, blog of Steve Gaynor, Jan. 23]

Video games by their nature rely on the input of the player to mean anything. The fact that you can fail at your entertainment is in some ways a barrier to entry for video games. But it's also the medium's defining characteristic, and our one inherent hook for engaging the player and making them important.

It's our opportunity to make the player think. Not to encourage or invite players to in the way that challenging music, art or film might, but to absolutely require demonstrable logical reasoning from our audience. To immerse them in a world and motivate their progress through it with the promise of constantly evolving core interactions and intriguing fiction, then require them to engage their powers of visualization, abstract thinking and mental mapping to proceed. It's good for the health of the player's brain. I think of that as being meaningful and enriching entertainment.

This kind of on-the-fly problem solving is accomplished by activity in the player's prefrontal cortex, employing fluid intelligence and working memory. One's fluid intelligence decreases over their lifespan, making them less able to formulate new ways of thinking. However, some scientific and military studies have shown that engaging in interactive mental exercises that require us to make these kinds of connections can slow the decline of fluid intelligence, essentially keeping our brains younger and healthier as we age. They're the kinds of mental challenges that video games can ably provide— creating and maintaining logical connections between new and abstract concepts and spaces to overcome obstacles— that might confer this benefit to players, along with their escapist fun.

Not all games work this way, certainly. As blockbuster, spectacle-focused rollercoaster games rise in popularity, we seem to see less of these sorts of challenge structures in gaming's mainstream. When the game I'm playing doesn't need me— when I can sleepwalk through it, when I can tune out and let it wash over me, when it doesn't make me think— an opportunity has been wasted. Our work can be more than an empty waste of time for our players. We can entertain them while engaging their minds in ways beneficial to their cognitive wellbeing. I think that there is practically an obligation to do so, if we're going to dedicate ourselves to creating interactive entertainment at all.

- Steve Gaynor

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