Playing at Living, Living to Play

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Play This Thing too much, or maybe it’s because I’m really enjoying the crap out of Guitar Hero. I don’t know. What I do know is that my friend Maura’s comment about GH and RockBand contributing to "fake artistry", along with other comments other (offline, and therefore unlinkable artistic types said) really struck a nerve. Are these games causing a problem – not so much for me, but for my son who is learning to play an instrument?

I don’t think so – but I wanted to make sure the reason why I believe that isn’t some knee-jerk justification of my own behavior. (That is, by the way, why I’m posting this; feel free to poke holes in this line of thought.) I started thinking about all the different "simulation" games we have. Guitar Hero and Rock Band, obviously, but there’s also flight simulators (complete with a community and people who build realistic cockpits and "fly" multi-hour regular airline routes). There’s Spore and the Sims, and SimCity. 4x games like Starships Unlimited and Sid Meier’s Civilization series – and then we get into board games. Risk, Settlers, Axis & Allies. Operation.

And then there’s playing house and dress up (and their big cousins, role-playing games and LARPS and all the re-enactment societies). All of these are under the same rubric of "simulation" that Guitar Hero falls under, though we wouldn’t normally think of them the same way. But we play simulation games of all types to do things we normally can’t (whether due to physics or society or age), or to "try out" things that have a steep learning curve. They allow a degree of control that you can’t otherwise get

So what’s the problem? All of the computer "music" games (including Wii Music, though it provides a bit more flexibility) ultimately constrain choice. You can "play" the songs handed to you, and while Wii Music allows you to "arrange" them differently (and doesn’t really penalize you for variation), it’s impossible to go off on an improv jazz solo where you decide the notes.

I don’t think this is as big of a deal, and lumping all the sim games together kind of explains why. At the most basic, Candyland is a sim of a trip through a strange landscape (despite costik’s in-depth analysis) – but the choices therein are extremely constrained. It’s fine when you’re little, but you quickly become tired of that. So you move to slightly more complicated sims, and so on. Maybe "Life" next, or "Sorry"; things that allow some choice. Eventually you get to things like Talisman, Risk, or Settlers. The same applies to card games – "War" isn’t much fun when you’re older, but Munchkin and Hold ‘Em are.

It’s really obvious when you look at flight sims. The most realistic ones aren’t much fun for most people: You crash. A lot. But playing Descent (even though one presumes the ship IRL would be more complex than a 747) is something that most people can grok with a relatively low learning curve.

The remaining complaint I can think of is this: That someone would mistake a game for reality. I can grok this idea too; our sims have become more and more realistic, even though the learning curve may not. We can easily design a cockpit that looks like a real 747, but that handles like our simple flight sim. That could fool people. (A recent BMX game we rented had a warning that mastering tricks ingame was not the same as mastering them IRL.)

Except, well, that’s a sign of mental illness, not game design. This same bugbear was raised about D&D and LARPS decades ago (and thanks again to Mike Stackpole for helping to dismiss it with the Pulling Report). Yes, the games we play might engender a desire to experience the applause and mastery in real life. Either we’ll find out pretty quickly that we don’t care that much, or we’ll be newly inspired and driven to do the things we’re able to do in the game… and transcend them.

I never really wanted to play a guitar; I had the opportunity to mess around with some enough as a teenager to realize my aptitude was elsewhere. But maybe my son will want to learn that instrument as well. Perhaps the idea of creating music will more strongly appeal to him – and the frustration of constrained choice will encourage him to pick up the bow to his cello.

Then again, maybe it’ll inspire me to borrow his cello as well.