We live in a nation of overwhelming abundance. Food, information, and entertainment have become so cheap, so easily accessible, and so personalized to our tastes, that it’s become possible, with even a modest income, to never go without. Despite how utopian this sounds on the surface, we know from experience the dark side of plenty. Now that food scarcity in America is mostly a thing of the past, we’ve seen obesity rise at incredible rates.
This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Nothing about our bodies and psyches were designed for constant abundance, so they gorge, confident scarcity will set in sooner or later, but it never does. We’ve known about the problems inherent to the overconsumption of food for generations, but it’s only with the rise of the digital age that we’ve had to deal with overconsumption of information and entertainment.
In The Information Diet, Clay Johnson takes on the problem of information gorging, and recommends creating an info diet for oneself. Rather than consuming highly “processed” information (information removed from its source and colored by multiple layers of ideology) Johnson recommends consuming information in as raw and local a form as possible. Read the actual bills being passed in Congress. Read original scientific papers whenever possible. Read more news about one’s neighborhood and city than about the nation or the world. Consume consciously, he urges, so as to avoid becoming another cog in the machine of Big Info and its 24-hour content and controversy farms.
I decided to take his advice. However, in the course of revising my bookmark folders (deleting the time-wasters, adding more local journalism and raw science) it struck me that my gaming habits were just as much in need of prioritization as my info intake. Games and gamification are everywhere now, and are unlikely to go away. Like the carefully crafted headlines and linkbait we see everywhere on the web, most games, from flash games to triple‑A titles, are designed to simply to grab the eyeballs and keep the player clicking. In fact, the growth of the gaming and info industries are remarkably similar, as their histories are basically histories of the development and refinement of mindhacks designed to keep their audiences in their seats.
The question I’ve begun asking myself is, if I’m taking time to weed out junk information, how can I weed out junk games? What qualifies as a worthwhile game, something that I’ll be glad I played afterwards? What criteria can I start using other than, “That looks fun”? How can I make my gaming life saner, more grounded, and more human?”
To begin with, I’ve decided to game more locally. That is to say, play games that help to anchor me more to the place I’m in and the people I’m with. Many multiplayer games can be paradoxically isolating, so ideally the goal would be to play more games in the same room as the people I’m playing against. LAN parties, console co-op games, whatever it takes, make multiplayer personal. The frenetic multiplayer of online Team Fortress is a vastly different experience from that of playing it in a room with friends, the main difference being that in the latter case I don’t feel as if I’ve wasted my time. I’ve built real friendships. Physical board and card games, of course, are ideal for this.
Next, I’m attempting to resist games that drive me into repetitive loops of behavior. Shooters come to mind first, unless they are particularly creative, but also many flash-based or Facebook games. After a few hours, I begin to realize that I’ve spent the entire time performing a loop of the same action or series of actions. The game has barely changed, and in fact the longer I play, the slower it changes. MMOs are notorious for this. Instead, I’m trying to play games that really evolve as they are played, that expand and increase in richness. The science of feedback loops has been perfected in many online time-wasters, but these should be recognized for what they are, ludic junk food, without substance or human value.
The flip side of this is that I’m looking for more games that go out of their way to let me do new things. Games are active art, so a sign of a good game to me is that it lets me do interesting things, in new ways. A good game will give me the experience of playing a role that I will never fill in real life, and then challenge me with the ramifications of my actions. These sorts of games are genuinely enriching. They broaden the mind and expand the range of possible experience, the way that any great art does.
This is related to another factor I look for now: attention span. Many games I play are a bit like reading a comic strip collection: bite size pieces of entertainment, related to one another, strung together in a loose order, but not really dependent upon one another. They’re designed for the quick fix, the jolt of humor, horror, positive feedback meant to string me along until the next endorphin rush. Games that demand an attention span are another breed. They tend towards the more strategic, they reward patience, and they aim for true immersion rather than the feedback-trance. They tend to take their stories more seriously, and demand more ingenuity and involvement from their players.
A great example of this is the masterful adventure game The Last Express, which requires the player not only to track the personalities, movements, and relationships of a good dozen-plus characters on a train, but also expects the player to have a rough grasp of early 20th century history. It features nuanced acting (the characters are actually rotoscoped actors), a compelling plot, branching narratives, and themes aimed at adults. It treats the player like a grownup, one who expects a worthwhile experience.
Interestingly, I’ve also found that another of the best places to look for experiences like these is among the games released by the interactive fiction (text adventure) community. Many of the most interesting and rewarding experiments in gaming narratives are coming from that quarter. Also, as I’ve written before, the world of boardgames is replete with works that take their players far more seriously than the majority of video games today.
Time-wasting, attention-span-killing, isolating video games are not just harmless entertainment. While they are unlikely to kill anyone, they do no favors for the player’s mental or emotional health and feed the rampant immaturity and myopia we see all around us in game design. By discerning these and cutting them out from our lives, perhaps we can not only send a message to the designers, but also make our gaming lives richer, more human, and a great deal less of a waste.
No one has ever regretted forgoing that last achievement for Burrito Bison Revenge.