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Good, Hard, Dumb?

When I was a kid, I spent a huge amount of time on my old-school Gameboy trying to get past level 5 on Super Mario Land.  I was fascinated with how simple it was: Move to the right, jump on things, eat mushrooms.  It was a pattern that, if followed in real life, would lead to ruin – But it was so fun.

Until I finally realized how hard it was for a 5 year-old to beat.  As I mentioned, I just couldn’t get past level 5, much less beat the game.  After a while, I stopped thinking it was fun at all.  So, why was I so fascinated by it?  Was it the challenge?  The plumber?  The mushrooms?

Well, I think it was the mindless novelty of it, actually.

A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to catch the feeling that games like Mario, Doom, and the other second generation video games seemed to create when they were children – Too many of them focus a lot on the difficulty.  While I don’t have to go a whole lot into Shamus’s Do It Again, Stupid to make my point, if you look at a number of older games, that was the “difficult” part of the game play – Extremely punishing for even the smallest mistakes that would cause you to do something over and over again.

Is it fun to be tasered every time you spill some food?  Surely the reward of eating is nice, but every you spill something or drop a Cheerio you wouldn’t be able to finish the meal.  The fact that you didn’t get electrocuted this meal doesn’t make the meal that much more rewarding.

So it definitely wasn’t the punishing game play that a lot of developers seem to think is what we want.


Take a glimpse at film history and compare it to gaming history.  When “Moving Pictures” first came out, I’m sure they were fascinating to the people who watched them.  The actors weren’t that good, the movies were short, and generally seen as a passing novelty by the average Joe.  After about a century of development, though, film has turned into something where even the average films are more fun to watch than the old ones.  There is some stagnation of ideas, but that’s a different topic that I may or may not cover some other time.

I think Video Games are going through the same trend.  We’re rapidly making the transition from entertainment to art.  Games are less of a novelty than something to be carefully considered, discussed, and tasted.  What’s really going to push the industry forward is the same thing that pushes any art based industry forward – New ideas and new ways of doing things.  Clinging to the old days of “difficulty + punishment = fun” isn’t going to get us anywhere – Try playing nearly any Facebook game now-a-days.  How many of them have extreme punishments?  How many of them are extremely difficult?  Then why do some many people think they’re fun?

Yes, I think that difficulty is an important aspect of some games – Challenges are something people enjoy overcoming.  But a game about the choices that you make doesn’t have to have any difficulty at all, but would be more of an expression of what happens when you do what – There could be some perceived challenge from trying to get a desired result, but in the end there would be no punishments beyond the natural result of what you chose.


I’m kind of rambling, but there’s a fine balance that game developers have to meet when making a game, and a key feature that most game developers seem to be missing is the artistic value of what they’re making.  Ramping up the difficult is surely going to challenge someone’s button mashing skills, but is it going to help the person develop a deeper sense of self?  Are the players going to question their beliefs without feeling that their beliefs were directly attacked?

That’s what we need more in games.  Art.

And explosions.  There’s never enough explosions.


Good Games move the industry forward, present something meaningful or though provoking, and challenge us without eviscerating us every time we fail.

Hard Games can challenge a player’s skills, but the difficulty and the game’s gimmick (Graphics!  Run over pedestrians!  Time Travel!  Scantily Clad Women!) typically become the focus of the game.  Nothing much usually happens here, but they can be entertaining for some people, or perhaps even inspire us a touch.

Dumb Games neither challenge, inspire, nor move the industry forward.  They’re cheap cash cows that exist for no other reason but to hook people on psychological factors that focuses on rewards and repetition or love of a genre (Like the Harry Potter games).  Dumb games are kind of like gambling machines – They can be fun, but you’ll most likely end up putting a lot more into one than you get out of it.

Not all games fall under one category, and some games can fall under several categories.  Not all of them are inherently bad, either, but Hard and Dumb games tend to have a higher chance of being bad than a “Good” Game.

The novelty is starting to wear off.  The industry, like me, is no longer a child any more.  The reward of getting to level 6 is no longer something to strive for.  The only way we’re really going to improve modern games is to make them deeper and, well, Gooder.


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