10 February 2011

Forging Great Life Moments through Video Games - by Alan Jack

      Posted 02/05/11 07:22:00 pm  

There has been a lot of talk over the past year of how video games can not only entertain but touch and move us. Developers are looking at new ways of using narrative in games to create a compelling experience. However, of all the things video games – and games in general – do, there is one we commonly overlook: the ability to bring people together in a way that is memorable and compelling.

I was about 17 when I took my first job – looking after kids at an after school care club at my old primary school. The most commonly encouraged activities were drawing, playground games, and music. Yet old habits die hard, and somehow an afternoon didn’t feel complete if I didn’t squeeze into a tiny school chair to play a level of Streets of Rage on the club’s old Master System with one of the kids.

Almost a decade later, I was performing a study into Memorable Gaming Moments as part of my undergraduate University course. In my research, I asked people to tell me their most memorable gaming experiences, and analyzed them for commonalities. One result in particular stood out for me – of those respondents who did not play games regularly, there was a very high tendency to not focus on the game they were playing, but the person they were playing it with. Whether they remembered playing number games with their mother, watching their brother completing Legend of Zelda on the Super Nintendo, or playing Mario Kart with their friends, it seemed that there was something about games in a multiplayer environment that was compelling enough to create fond and vivid memories.

Games can remove emotional and social barriers to communication. I wouldn’t really know what to do if left sitting at a table with a 6 year old child; our worlds are so infinitely different that any attempt at communication would be futile. Put a game of Connect 4 between us and we’ll communicate on the same level perfectly well. The social playing field is levelled when a genuine playing field is brought in.

Video games can do this in even better ways, because video games can remove not just emotional and social barriers to communication, but physical ones as well. When teaching small kids to play guitar, I had to restrict my abilities while they had to push theirs, and thus our interaction was, at times, stilted by frustration and bitterness on both sides. Yet when we played on the old Sega Megadrive, we were equals, despite my towering size and the physical requirements of beating down street thugs. Video games even allow us to compete as experts in complex areas – we require little more skill than to push a button or manipulate a crosshair to become soldiers, spies and adventurers.

This facet of gaming is in danger of becoming a lost art in today’s world of games development.

Motion control is touted as the thing to bring families and friends of all ages together. Certainly, the unintuitive nature of the controller is something that has acted as an entry barrier in the past, keeping parents and younger gamers from interacting with their more controller-savvy peers. Yet motion control relies on physical activity in the same way playground games and sports do – and, as such, excludes the less athletic and the less able. As I was playing with the Kinect recently, I was reminded of the first night I hung out with a friend of mine who was in a wheelchair. It had never before struck me as in any way profound that we spent that night as virtual professional wrestlers, grappling, fighting, climbing and leaping in a digitised ballet of over-the-top athelticism. It is unlikely he would have been able to participate on the same level as me were the game controlled by our bodily motions.

Social games, on the other hand, are a fad that ought to be taking advantage of this, and aren’t. One might suggest that the time-shifted social interaction they currently offer is just somehow less compelling than real time encounters, but history would suggest otherwise – can we not be moved by a touching email or text message? Some of the most romantic statements in history have been made in letters. Social games could, in fact, stand to be incredibly compelling and memorable games that could allow us to test the limits of our relationships in a safe environment, and create truly memorable moments we’ll treasure forever.

(I’m reminded of the Animal Crossing Tragedy story:http://animalcrossingtragedy.ytmnd.com/ )

Moving forward with future game developments, it is worth considering this aspect of gaming. As Ubisoft begins demanding multiplayer in all their games (for whatever reason) perhaps now is the perfect time to think about what a shared gaming experience can mean beyond just being more visceral fun. Considering how a poignant moment of social interaction can become a treasured memory could prevent your next development being a fleeting moment in time, and make it a real part of someone’s life.


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