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Solving Problems Just For Fun

In which Joey discusses divinity, the human experience, and how the "evil empire" that was Electronic Arts might one day save humanity.

Joey Gibbs, Blogger

July 23, 2011

5 Min Read

Sorry for the mild delay true believers! Although it IS 343 o'clock by the count on my HP, so I guess it's as good as any time to write about more game design theory. Last week I made a distinction between "interactivity" and "agency" within the confines of a game system. This week I'm going to talk a little bit about games - how I define them in the context of my thesis and how they affect player agency.

Since this is the internet and not a formal academic paper, I have the liberty to not only speak in the first person but also to set the stage for some serious theory with a philosophical exercise:

Imagine that you are god.

Seriously, bear with me. This will be coming back to games. Eventually.

Not the god, necessarily, but some like omniscient, omnipotent being that exists always and everywhere. You've been around since the beginning of things and, in all liklihood, will continue to be until the end. Think about what it's like to have the general potency of your favorite deity: You know everything. Not only can you do everything, but you can create new everythings. Any action you take is the work of less than a thought. For you, things simply are, or they are not. Total consciousness, absolute power.

Now imagine that you are you.

The vast majority of the power that you enjoyed as a god is gone. Instead of always and everywhere you are here and now. You're limited by the brevity of your existence, the frailty of your body, and the confines of your own conscious mind. Compared to all that god-like power, just being you kinda sucks.

But hey, it's not all bad! All of use are burdened with constraints, things that limit us from doing what we want, from accomplishing what we want. How many of us have wished that we were superheroes, gifted with the power of flight? Soaring through the heavens under our own power, much like the birds that we've come to envy? In this example, we have a desire - flight - and a collection of very real constraints - gravity, clunky simian bodies, etc. In short, we have a problem: How do we get from point A (the ground) to point B (flight) with that big wall of constraints in the way?

Well, how do you go about solving a problem? Greatly simplified, you define where you are, you define where you want to be, you define the constraints working against you, and then you define the resources that you have available to you. After that it's just a matter of figuring out a way to play the system, to use what you have to work around the constraints.

It started simple: How do I get those tasty ants out of that big, rocky anthill? Well, let's see here... Got a few rocks... some leaves! Wait, no... OH YEAH! A STICK! Then I just poke it into those tiny little holes and... OM NOMS. All it took was one of us to figure out the whole anthill/stick thing and soon everyone was doing it. Then people started using sticks for different tasks, then tying rocks to sticks, and - well, you get the idea. We came up with airplanes in much the same way, although admittedly there was significantly more trial and error.

The point is that us human beings have been beset with problems since the get-go. Our ability to recognize problems and to solve them is one of the things that has helped us become the dominant species on the planet. We solved problems for thousands of years until something really awesome happened:

  At some point, we started solving problems just for fun.

Jesse Schell argues in his "The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses" that games are just problem solving activities undertaken with a playful attitude. A less academic statement I hve never heard, but boy is that true.

It makes a lot of sense if you think about it - the more problems you solve, the more practice you get, and the more practice you get the better you become at solving new problems. Wouldn't it make sense if the people who suddenly liked solving problems became better adapted to their environments all those thousands of years ago? It probably went something like this:

"Yo Urg, I bet I can dig ants out of that anthill with this stick faster than you can."

"Shut up Trogg. Why would I want to dig for ants when I'm not hungry?"

Trogg probably drove his fellow neanderthals insane trying to get them to dig for ants past the point that no one was hungry. Why do work when no work is required? Simple: We're talking about practice. Trogg was probably way better at gathering ants than everyone else in the clan.

But that's what life was like back then. Problem solving and competition. The ones that were particularly good competitors and particularly good problems solvers had a higher chance of surviving to reproduce, and the rest is history.

Today we're obviously not vying for ants (not usually, anyway), but the ludic spirit remains. If you need proof, just look at pro football: Why kill yourself trying to drag a little balloon of synthetic rubber 100 yards through a forest of slavering maniacs with gland problems? Because it's fun.

And I think that's really what and why games are: We're not omniscient and omnipotent - we're just puny humans with a lot of things that keep us from getting what we want. To combat those constraints, we've learned to enjoy practicing solving problems. The more we practicing we do, the better we get at solving real life problems.

As a final example, take the big problem in the Mass Effect series:

Goal - live happily ever after. 

Constraint - fleet of interstellar bug machines intent on harvesting all life in the Milky Way.

Solution - not sure yet, but I'll figure it out next March. Or, you know... whenever ME3 comes out.


The galaxy isn't at risk of invasion by Reapers from the dark spaces beyond the stars. I mean, probably not. But if it ever is, EA and Bioware have made sure that all the nerds on earth will be ready.

That's enough for this week, I think. Next time I'll start talking about how constraints are built into games as game mechanics.



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