Monday, July 5, 2010

Limited Pleasure

It is easy to think of games as portals through which to experience a world unrestrained by the limits of our own. A game can make something as spectacular as interstellar travel feel effortless. Banal activities like driving a car become exciting again: “Shall I stay in my lane and obey traffic signals, or shall I instead use the car in front of me as a makeshift ramp and hop over a drawbridge?” Games not only show us these worlds that flaunt the rules we live by, they allow us to participate in the fantasy.

This sense of freedom in games accounts for some of their appeal, but it also obscures another important factor that draws us to them. For all their grandeur, even the most empowering and complex games create limited worlds. Unlike the chaos and infinite complexity of our lives, games are governed with systems that can be learned and mastered. This simultaneously satisfies our desire to understand the mysterious while soothing our fear of the unknown. Viewed this way, almost all video games are exercises in pleasure of limits.

Games serve our desire to collect and explore the unknown while also providing us specified parameters for measuring success. The Pokemon trainer can take solace in the fact that their Pokedex will always be able to tell them how close they are to “catching them all,” but the field biologist must live in perpetual uncertainty as to whether every species in a single forest has truly been studied. Convenient mini-maps and readouts showing the percentage of possible activities we have explored in Liberty City allow us to definitively measure our knowledge of the town. The city’s virtual denizens and hollow buildings are crude facsimiles of the real things, but their simplicity allows us to grasp the city and its workings.

The limits built into our virtual avatars allow us to chase and achieve the fantasy of ultimate mastery over skills. Since the earliest days of RPGs, we have expressed such complex terms as vigor, agility, and wisdom in numerical terms that are then used as predictors for success. Only through rigorous training or outstanding circumstances can we begin to guess at the extent of our own abilities. Games allow us to dispense with the guesswork: Once Link gets twenty full heart containers and powers up his magic meter, he has reached the pinnacle of his abilities, and so have we as players. No amount of extra training could possibly improve him, which is comforting because it is something about which we are always uncertain. Would another couple minutes jogging help that twinge in your back?

The systemic limits in games also provide us with idealized versions of social interactions. When we deal with artificial intelligence in games like The Sims, we can recreate recognizable, yet manageable reproductions of familiar social situations in a way such that they are unambiguous. Feelings of love, jealousy, and happiness are reduced to simple numbers and graphs from which we can make informed decisions. By placing a limit on the consciousness of others we can inhabit a world devoid of missteps and irreversible errors. We know these virtual constructs more thoroughly, more absolutely than those we meet in our daily lives.

Limits act as an equalizer in terms of social interaction when playing multiplayer games. While the rules of Halo, or Star Craft may be nuanced and complex, they are standardized. Everyone interacts by using tools made available for the entire population. Players can be more or less adept in using these tools, but the social rules have defined parameters that can be learned. When we step away from these limited worlds, things quickly become overwhelming. A game like Sleep is Death is intimidating because its complexity stems from its potential for variety. Without a prescribed framework, it begins to take on the frightening openness of the world from which video games usually allow us to escape.

Every marvelous power a game grants comes with limits that make exploring the experience manageable. Because they are structured in terms of basic rules, games can never truly reproduce the complexity of our lives; they can only approximate it in ways that are inherently more simplistic and understandable than the outside world. They provide us the ultimate fantasy: through their limitations, games grant us respite from the awesome, terrifying chaos of our normal lives.


  1. Not only through their limitations, but through control. We are usually given a LOT of control over avatars and even worlds in games, control that we don't have in real, chaotic lives. Between strong control and the limitations of data sets and game mechanic possibilities, a lot of chaos is mitigated.

    Great article, Scott!

  2. How do you think a game like EVE Online fits into this vision? Apparently some people thrive in chaos. Or more interestingly, some people thrive on trying to stem anarchy, building organization amidst a not easily understood virtual world.

  3. It's also interesting that at times we complain when freedom is taken away. Mass Effect 2 is a prime example. Many people dislike the simplification of the leveling and equipment systems in the sequel.

    The Zelda example was great. It's a liberating feeling in games when you know you have hit the pinnacle of what you can be. In a way that makes your own freedom of no longer having to keep looking for ways of improvement.

    Regardless great thoughts...

  4. Thanks for a nice article.

    I'd be interested to know if you think that these limits could be considered as examples of 'chunking'. That even in our everyday life we naturally deal with the chaotic noise of existence by cutting everything out that is irrelevant.

    If you take that viewpoint, games don't contrast with life so much as provide a prepackaged version of it we are naturally programmed to accept.
    It seems like the many of the best games are those who have flexible limits, who prevent us from becoming board by forever shifting the goalposts preventing us from ever truly achieving mastery.

    EvE seems to be about players trying to identify the limits of the game, as well as the thrill of trespassing some limits/rules which are found in reality.
    In their daily life if they defrauded someone of all their money they'd go to prison, in EvE they are lionized for it.

  5. Hey Tesh,

    So true! Where else but games can we make our "bodies" do exactly what we want them to do, or design or cities to our precise specifications? I've always thought the term "God game" applies to pretty much every game, not just games like Black and White.


    I actually feel like EVE is quite a bit like Sleep is Death. It is so open-ended that, for some, it becomes overwhelming. Its entire gameplay structure is reliant on its players, which is pretty scary.

    Hi Vanlandw,

    Thanks for stopping by! It's quite a fine line, isn't it? I'd bet that the people annoyed by the limits in ME 2 were the kind of folks who came from a tradition of much less limited RPGs. Folks that had never played an RPG might not even know what they are missing.

    I guess the relative comfort of limits is defined by one's formative game experiences.

    Hey Codicier,

    And thank you for stopping by! I definitely think that game's scratch that primal urge to systematize and define everything.

    Additionally, they allow us to indulge in nearly consequence-free chunking: in the real world, it can be really hard to decide what to screen out and what to take to heart. Even more discouraging is the fact that you may never even know that you are ignoring something that could significantly impact your life. Errol Morris wrote a cool piece on "The Anosognosic's Dilemma"," which explored the idea that "something's wrong, but you'll never know what it is." Furthermore, you might not even know that you don't know that something is wrong.

    My mind hurts just thinking about it.

    Games let us solve the dilemma: they are limited systems in which we can chunk with 100% confidence. Even something as crazy as EVE has outer limits that can be identified (even if these limits change from time to time).