Game Dissonance (2): The Aesthetic Flaws of Videogames
Wednesday, 07 October 2020
In part one of this serial, the concept of cognitive dissonance was introduced, along with Clint Hocking's ludonarrative dissonance, concluding that it was only a special case of a more general phenomena: game dissonance. This week considers how game dissonance functions.
When we talk about videogames, we tend to focus upon the aspects of the experience that we are enjoying. As a result, when our enjoyment is disrupted, we usually conceptualise this as a flaw in the game, although there are times when we will admit that a game is simply "not for us" and step aside. This creates a selection bias whereby we are misled not only about "what games are" (we will tend to think that what they 'are' is what we happen to like), but also about how our experiences in games are functioning in terms of our cognitive faculties. As a result, enormous volumes of text has been written about the qualities of great games and how to make good games, yet almost nothing has been written about the aesthetic flaws of videogames.
In February 2015, I published an article that addressed this deficit. It came at an interesting point in my life as a blogger, as encapsulated in the three comments it received. One was from Spry Fox's Dan Cook, who up until that point had been a regular correspondent with me on game topics - and indeed discussions with him over the wrapping paper fallacy had led directly to my writing the piece in question. Another was from game design legend Raph Koster, another of my long-standing game blog correspondents, and someone who I had perpetually only just missed encountering in person during my many years at GDC. The third was from a new face, Chris Billows, who would go on to be the most important of my blog correspondents over the next five years, both encouraging me to keep writing, and sharpening through opposition my understanding of a great many concepts that would become key to my thinking.
I eventually buffed up The Aesthetic Flaws of Games into a paper for the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA), entitled No-one Plays Alone, and presented it in Dundee in 2016. It went on to be republished (in a slightly altered form) in the organisation's transactions, about which I was rather pleased - although as usual for my dabbling in academic circles, it had zero impact upon the research community, which remained steadfastly committed to their prior discourses (as inevitably they must!). This paper was the first time I had cohesively elaborated my understanding of player practices, which is to say, the habits we pick up when we are playing games that go on to assert constraints upon us when we make games. To understand games in terms of player practices is to appreciate that anyone who thinks their game concept was entirely their own invention is fooling themselves; we don't invent new games from whole cloth, we iterate on the player practices we already learned and crossbreed them with new influences, often from other kinds of media.
What do I mean by a player practice? A clear example can be found via recurring control schemes. Dungeon Master (1986) provided the prototype for the FPS by being a novel new form of computer RPG played in real time, and allowing the player to move square-by-square through a dungeon using cursor keys. The same control scheme was inherited by early id shooters like Catacomb 3-D (1991) and Wolfenstein 3D (1992), but as id moved away from Dungeon Master's square tile grid into free movement with Quake (1996), they added 'mouselook' as an option. This was to set the agenda for every FPS afterwards, and by Valve's Half-Life (1998) cursor keys were no longer the standard, but rather ASWD and 'mouselook'. Nowadays, any PC player who plays an FPS inherits this player practice, even though they have no conception that it descends from an older practice. A similar (yet more extensive) example is the conservation of game inventory elements.
Because player practices are the habits of players, they are more than capable of triggering cognitive dissonance when they come into conflict with other mental states. In the 2015 article, for instance, I gave the example of Metroid Prime (2002). This completely tore up the rule book when it comes to the player practices of FPS games, which for consoles had been set with GoldenEye 007 (1997) in response to Quake. The console adaptation of 'mouselook' was twin stick controls - but this practice had never taken off in Japan, quite possibly because of the smaller community of PC players in that country. Nintendo handed development of Metroid Prime to a US developer, we can deduce, to attempt to come up with a new version of the FPS controls, one that Japanese players could operate. While they broadly succeeded on this account, they also created a serious issue with many US players.
I have called this problem perplexity, meaning not mere confusion (which is a positive part of the play experience of, for instance, adventure games) but rather cognitive dissonance caused by the player having learned one player practice and then encountering a game that it is impossible to play by that existing practice. Thus, some players of Metroid Prime (especially in the US) complained in vociferous terms about how dreadful the control scheme was. But the scheme itself is fine, taken in isolation; indeed, it works rather well on its own terms, providing all the expressiveness of a twin stick control but never requiring simultaneous operation of both analogue sticks.
The problem was not that the control scheme was flawed, as such, it is that it was different to what players had already acquired as a practice, and this disparity caused game dissonance. It should be clear that in this case there was literally no aspect of that dissonance that can be attributed to a disconnect between story and game. Rather, two different player practices - the one already learned, and the one Retro Studios invented - could not be reconciled in a proportion of the players of the game. This is what I'd consider to be the textbook example of the how clashes between player practices cause game dissonance, and in cases of perplexity that dissonance is resolved either by 'converting' to the new practice in its context (that is, loving Metroid Prime) or by 'rejecting' it (and therefore heaping scorn upon the control scheme).
The second of the three aesthetic flaws of games I previously identified is inelegance, which occurs when game systems become so bloated or disconnected that players become aware of something troublesome in the design. Here, the problem is not so much a disconnect between the previously learned player practices and those of the game being played, so much as it is a disconnect between one set of player practices the game is teaching and another. The mechanical systems of the game simply do not fit together, and the player becomes acutely aware of it. Once again, this is an example of game dissonance; two (or more) cognitive models are failing to align with one another. It's unusual, though, as those models are of the same game (at least in the sense we usually talk of a single 'game').
It is interesting to look at examples of older games that switch their control schemes around. In the 1980s, this was very common: Horace Goes Skiing (1982), Aztec Challenge (1983), Beach Head (1983), and Raid Over Moscow (1984) are all examples of games consisting at heart of at least two and as many as half a dozen entirely different sequential game sections, each requiring players to learn different practices. Players in the 1980s accepted this willingly, in part because it was the usual practice in the 1980s to play lots of different games in the space of an hour. Whether in the arcade, or working through an audio tape of pirated games, players routinely played videogames as a buffet at this point in time.
Today, however, we view this kind of wanton collision of disparate play activities as decidedly inelegant, and typically criticise them unless they have some clever conceit to bind it all together, such as the Warioware series' (2003 onwards) microgame concept, where a single command ('Enter!', 'Rub!' or 'Don't Move!') introduces a fragmentary game snapshot. Our player practices have shifted: we now rarely play multiple games within the space of an hour, and are far more likely to immerse ourselves in a single more substantial game for hours at a time. Thus while Paradroid (1985) was considered one of the greatest games ever in the 80s, the use of a frequently recurring mini-game within a game today is largely frowned upon, except in open world games whose gigantic sprawling worlds never manage to have enough to do without either a built-in level editor ('virtual Lego') as in Minecraft (2009) or a pile of content that compensates for this excess of space. Such examples avoid accusations of inelegance at the moment because there is an awareness of a core game world with consistent (elegant) practices, with mini-games and the like being merely 'extra content'. I leave open the possibility that in forty years time this approach will seem as inelegant to players as the 80s games mentioned above tend to seem now.
Finally, the aesthetic flaw of rupture occurs when the imaginary world a game builds in the player's head is catastrophically disrupted by an intrusion of something that cannot be reconciled with it. The player is broken out of the experience, and becomes aware of the elements of their play instead of being immersed in the world evoked by those elements. Once again, this is clearly game dissonance, but here the incident tends to be more acute, as our experience of immersion is interrupted ('immersion' being nothing more than a term for our intense mental engagement inflated in importance by our love of videogames). As with all forms of cognitive dissonance there is a clash between mental states, but here it is because the game is making its representations play by different rules. For example, the world implied by the game mechanics and the world implied by the story might pull in different directions - this is the case of dissonance that Hocking was drawing attention to under the name 'ludonarrative dissonance' (see last week). But rupture also happens when a player's engagement is focused upon the game systems and they are forced to confront the story systems instead - those who are not fans of cut-scene heavy games such as Final Fantasy VII (1997) and its successors are acutely aware of this problem!
We generally fail to recognise that our engagement with most game systems is in itself a story-generating activity. All game systems are representative i.e. they ask that we imagine some specific arrangement. It is precisely because games are inherently representative that we make the mistake of thinking there is an unavoidable clash between stories and games - but what we mean by 'story' here is 'a story in the style of a movie or TV show' i.e. a screenplay. The problem is not and never has been an insuperable gap between games and stories, it is that the stories created by screenplays diverge dramatically from the stories that game systems produce on their own. Sometimes this tension is felt as rupture (the imagined experience collapses), sometimes as inelegance (Hocking's complaint about Bioshock is more of this kind), but in all cases it is game dissonance.
The aesthetic flaws of videogames as videogames are therefore examples of Festinger's psychological model of cognitive dissonance manifesting within our play experiences. These can be further understood as clashes in our habits, our player practices - either between those practices we have learned from earlier games, or within the practices a single game is expecting us to learn and execute. In this way, game dissonance is a more precise concept than cognitive dissonance: it zeroes in on the ways our learned habits condition our experience of the imagined worlds of videogames. Recognising this allows us to think about how we can avoid game dissonance through clever narrative design.
Next week: Elegant Narrative Design
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