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The Gamer's Paradox: The Journey and the Destination

Our culture often teaches us that games are meant to be won, and the enjoyment in the moment is incidental. If we want games to rise as an art form, we need to reverse that.

Craig Ellsworth, Blogger

February 7, 2012

7 Min Read

I just realized something interesting about how I've grown as a game player:

When I was young, and I played Super Mario Bros., I would use warp pipes to get to world eight as fast as possible so I could try to beat the game.  When I player Super Mario Bros. today, I go through every level without warping.

When you're young, it's all about beating the game.  You want to make it to the end, to beat the final boss, and to watch the end credits.

Similarly, I would cheat my way through games.  I would turn invulnerability and no clipping on in DOOM just to beat it quickly.  I bought MYST and a strategy guide to go with it.  And when I discovered you can 'beat' MYST in five minutes, I would play it just to do so.

What is the point of doing that?  All I did was rob myself of the joy of actually playing a game.

These days, I don't cheat, and I don't care about beating the game.  I care about the moment to moment experience, and I care about enjoying what I am currently doing.  I'm not looking forward to the end of the game; in fact, if the game is great, I dread the end.  I don't want to finish the game; I want it to continue indefinitely.

Now I find I prefer games like MMOs with ever-expanding content so I never run out of stuff to do.  If there is a level cap, I get my character to one level before the cap, then start a new character and repeat until the level cap is raised.

When I think of sports, and of how so many of the players just want to win, I wonder what joy they get out of the game in the first place.  When I play a one-on-one basketball game, my aim is not to win, but to enjoy myself.  And win or lose, I've accomplished my goal.

It strikes me as particularly interesting how I've played board games with others before, and they don't start to enjoy the game until they've won once.

When I read a book, my favorite ending is the non-ending:  a cliffhanger the prevents a resolution, so I am hungry for a sequel.  I don't want any kind of media to end; book, movie, song, or game.  As long as it's good, why would I want an experience to end?

When it comes to a non-interactive piece of media like a book or movie, that works; but when it comes to games, it's actually a paradox, because the point of a game is to win, meaning to end the game having completed the goal.  The purpose of a game requires it to finish.

(Pardon me while I discuss stuffy academic nonsense for a minute...)

Games have classically required four components: interactivity, rules, goals, and end states.  These are all fairly self-explanatory, and you would be hard-pressed to think of a sport, card game, or board game that does not have all four of these components.

But in recent times, the two components that have become questionable are goals and end states.  Typically, if there is no goal or end state, you're just playing with a toy, not a game.  So by this qualification, Sim City is not a game.  There is no designer-defined goal, only what the player decides themselves, and you cannot win or lose.  The game continues indefinitely, so there is no end state.

But Rollercoaster Tycoon is a game, because any given level has a goal: have x people in your park, make y money, etc.  The end state is that you've unlocked every level and successfully completed every level's goal.

Yet both Sim City and Rollercoaster Tycoon are Management Simulations, and their gameplay is quite similar (Rollercoaster Tycoon is derivative of Sim City at that).

Hardly anyone but stuffy academics would argue that Sim City is not a game, however.  Similarly, MMOs with infinite (ever-expanding) content wouldn't qualify under this definition.

(So I shall end this stuffy academic talk here.)

Now, growing up, I didn't care much for Sim City; the idea of playing mayor didn't interest me.  But I played Rollercoaster Tycoon relentlessly.  Did it appeal because it had an amusement park theme?  Certainly that was the initial lure, but I mostly played the game because I wanted to beat each level and unlock the next one.

Despite playing it often, I can't say I had too much fun once the novelty wore off after about four levels.  So Rollercoaster Tycoon was only addictive because of its goal and reward system, and without it I would get bored with it as quickly as I tired of Sim City.

I've railed endlessly (see other articles here) about how a great game doesn't need to be addicting for players to be engaged with it for a long time; indeed, I think all that is necessary to keep a player coming back for more (beyond making enjoyable gameplay in the first place, which is nothing to sneeze at) is to throw out the old definition of a game and remove the end state.

Or, at least, separate the goal from the end state.

(Back to the stuffy academics...)

The goal of the game is it's objective, and it's end state is when the game ends (did I need to explain that?), and these two usually occur at the same time.  Often, the goal of a game is to have a certain condition in effect when the end state occurs.  Take football, soccer, hockey, basketball: in every one of these sports, the end state is that a time limit is reached, and the goal is to have more points than your opponent when the timer runs out.

Now, in that example, there is a win state and a loss state; one team achieves the win state, the other team achieves (for lack of a better word) the loss state.

In a game like Tetris, there is no win state, only a loss state.  The game (theoretically) continues forever unless you lose.  The goal is to have as many points as possible when you lose.  You cannot win at Tetris, you can only lose and brag about how much you scored before losing.

Similarly, a tabletop game like D&D has no win state; if your party does not die, you can adventure forever.  There are always more adventures to go on, and the DM can always make up something new.

In MMOs, there is often no lose state, either.  If you die, you pop back up like nothing happened, or at worst are punished, but you do not have to roll up a new character to continue.  These kinds of games simply never end (sometimes there is "endgame content" but this is a misnomer unless you are prevented from continuing without starting a new game/character).

(Ok, we're out of the academic discussion at last.)

We have a paradox in games because of the conflict between its definition and what it's trying to become:  the point of a game is to achieve the goal, and in doing so end the game, but a great piece of entertainment (or art) is about the experience in the moment, not getting it over with.

Books, movies, music, and other art do not have goals, except to entertain the audience or bestow a message.  The longer the piece lasts, the more entertainment value is achieved, or the more the message can be driven home.

If we want to turn games into an art form on par with those other forms, perhaps we should rethink what it means to be a game.  If we stop thinking of games as needing to end, needing to be beaten, we can finally make games about the journey, not the destination.

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