Although videogames are strongly associated with themes of war and violence, the cutting edge of the artistic exploration of imaginary worlds is happening under peaceful regimes. In this piece, I examine four different regimes of play (War, Challenge, Puzzle and Peaceful), their brief history, and their essential nature.
One of the many intriguing observations in Sheri Graner Ray’s Gender Inclusive Game Design is the report that young boys, when asked to come up with a game concept, almost always suggest something involving violence and death. This male bias towards martial themes has infected the digital games industry for many years, to the extent that it has often obscured another male proclivity, the preference for challenge. If we accept puzzles as a form of challenge, it was a considerable number of years before videogames offered an entirely different approach to play – the opportunity to play in complete peace. These overarching ways of organising a game are what I am terming the regimes of play, and for the purposes of this piece I’ll consider four such regimes, although in practice many different divisions could be drawn.
Firstly, War, which describes any violent regime in which the player not only kills but risks being killed – Space Invaders or Defender, for instance. Characteristic of the War regime is the use of weaponry, usually (but not always) some kind of gun. As I have discussed before, the gun is one of the dominant representative forms in the contemporary digital games market. The War regime is so quintessentially ‘gamey’ that it is easy to forget that the most successful digital games have not been under this rubric – Tetris, The Sims, and so forth represent no weaponry at all. Nonetheless, this regime appeals to the core male audience for games, and there are many successful franchises that utilise it. The prevailing trend, in fact, has been a move from operating within the War regime towards representing war simpliciter e.g. away from abstract space combat representations and towards actual 'real world' war – Call of Duty being the obvious poster child.
Secondly, Challenge, in which the player risks failure (which may be represented as death) – Pac-man or Pong, for instance. Under the Challenge regime, players may also expected to repeat tasks until they succeed – as in Donkey Kong or Frogger. Indeed, part of the balancing act that games face under the Challenge regime is how to balance the player’s frustration against their eventual success – set the bar too high, and few players will persevere. Set the bar too low, and many players will quickly lose interest. But when the bowl of porridge is just right, it’s a magic formula for success – as can be seen clearly in Angry Birds, which manages to play on the near-miss effect to give players the strong feeling that they can beat it with ‘just one more try’. In common with War regimes, any particular Challenge regime can lean towards being punishing or forgiving i.e. more frustrating versus less frustrating. The prevailing trend in the digital games industry since inception has been for increasingly forgiving games that still deliver challenge, and which have consequently reached out to an ever-wider audience.
Thirdly, Puzzle, in which the player does not directly risk failure, except by being too confused to continue. In digital games, the Puzzle regime is almost as old as War, being essential to all the text adventures and their descendents from Colossal Cave Adventure onwards. Under the Puzzle regime, players are allowed to play without either weaponry or fear of death – but at the cost of being stuck when they cannot work out what to do. Experiments in the 1980s did pursue ways around this problem, such as Magnetic Scroll’s Jinxter (1987), which used an unusual fail-continue structure such that even if the player fails to solve a puzzle, the story still progresses. However, the game was impossible to complete without correctly solving all the puzzles, rendering its innovation impotent. The Puzzle regime is far and away the least commercially successful form – but since the personality preferences of programmers and game designers lean heavily towards the enjoyment of difficult puzzles, the form never disappears and a lively niche market has persisted.
Lastly, Peaceful – the rarest of all play regimes, and thus the most interesting for art/games to explore. The roots of this regime lie in the dungeon and village structure of early computer role-playing games: Japanese developers began exploring what happens if you ditch the 'dungeon' aspect of this model in the mid-1990s. Harvest Moon (1996), a Peaceful computer RPG set on a farm, ultimately led (via a series of clones) to Zynga’s mega-hit FarmVille (2009). At a similar time, Nintendo included a “Birdman” mode in Pilotwings 64 (1996), which offered players the chance to fly around the fictional world of the game under a Peaceful regime with no stated purpose or goal beyond personal enjoyment. The colossal success of games such as FarmVille and Nintendogs demonstrate that Peaceful is not only a viable commercial regime of play, it is capable of attracting an incredibly wide audience. It is worth noting that Minecraft not only offers a Peaceful regime, it effectively offers two different Peaceful regimes (Peaceful and Creative) – which almost certainly contributed to its success.
This spectrum of regimes of play runs from the “hot” excitement and anger of War and Challenge, through the “cooler” frustrations of Puzzles, to the thinner experiential play of the Peaceful regime. Art/games since 2005 (the year of both Façade and The Endless Forest) have been experimenting with what can be offered in this space, with Dear Esther and Proteus being recent additions to the artistic exploration of the kinds of thin play only possible under a Peaceful regime. It seems far more likely that innovative play experiences will come out of this side of the regimes of play than out of the well-worn track of War, Challenge and Puzzle – but never underestimate the essential creativity of the digital games community when it comes to finding new ways to approach old ideas.