Put The Ghost Back Into The Machine
Earlier I wrote a rather lengthy and apparently well received bit about how some/many/all MMO operators aren’t in-tune with the emotional investments that their players have with their experiences. In the process of writing that tl;dr, though, I started to think about the problem that may be the root cause of a potential disconnect.
We (as consumers) are all giddy about the features of a game, the bullet points, and the promises of specifics that we are told/that we hope will differentiate New Game from Old Game. These changes are rarely earth-shattering. They’re usually one-off additions, or tweaks to the way Old Game implemented ”Feature X” so that the developer diary videos can claim that they’re being “innovative” with their re-skinning of familiar mechanics. Even when the features don’t deviate wildly from the norm, we like to hear about how familiar systems will be handled: how will LFG work? Will we have guild banks at launch? How about crafting? Skill trees? Pets? We’re just as guilty of approaching these games in terms of mechanics as the developers are of talking to us about the game as if it were some kind of construct that was nothing more than the sum of it’s parts.
So I guess it’s really not a surprise that a lot of these games are built on mechanics, and without a soul. Not a metaphysical soul, of course…that would be creepy. But it seems that so many games aren’t being pitched to us from the standpoint of why we should play them, just that we’ll be excited to play them because of the exciting motions of the buttons and levers.
I think I’m starting to understand where the “art game” differentiates from the “mainstream game” in this regard. I’m not saying that the next MMO that’ll get my money will be pitched as some kind of meditation on human tragedy as it stood between the years of 1850 and 1895 or anything, but I’d like to see a big budget game downplay the levers and buttons and elevate the real investment we have in these games, in time and emotion, by supporting what we put into it at it’s development core.
Easier said than done, naturally. The only emotion that games are good at on a regular basis is fear, and even then it’s the “popcorn fear” of things jumping out of the dark when we least expect them. When a game proposes that it’ll “make you feel stuff”, I think the majority of us shut down and ignore it because we don’t play games to be told how to feel; I think we do want games that allow us to feel, or games that recognize that we’re capable of generating our own emotional response – and can be counted on to do so. Focus on mechanics as the reason to play New Game A over New Game B or Old Game C is cold, calculating PR. We do love it, to be certain, but maybe if games were pitched as spaces for emotional resonance and less about how many stats you’d have or how many raids you’d have, we wouldn’t feel so bored with New Game X.