The Gaming Diet 4



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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.

(From Randall Monroe’s XKCD)

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 shot from The Last Express.

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.


Ben Milton

About Ben Milton

Ben Milton makes his home on a hill in Oregon with a wife and the lonesome ghosts of a dozen boardgame prototypes.

  • Really inter­est­ing thoughts — I was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the notion of “ludic junk food,” and not just because it would make an amaz­ing punk band album title. As a visu­al artist, too often I find the term “ludic” being used with­out qual­i­fiers — that some­how, when it comes to the avant guard, all play is cre­at­ed equal. Especially now that I’m enter­ing my 30’s, I find the amount of time I can devote to games (despite hav­ing them as the sub­ject of many of my projects) has dwin­dled. I’ve been sub­con­scious­ly re-assing what kinds of games I enjoy and why I enjoy them. Similar to your assess­ment, aside from mov­ing more toward the strate­gic, I find that the inter­per­son­al part has become a huge pri­or­i­ty as well.

  • Sside from my other com­ments, I had orig­i­nal­ly just intend­ed to ask if you had sug­ges­tions for the most inter­est­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing inter­ac­tive fic­tion, since you men­tioned their qual­i­ty in your article?