A few months ago, game designer and occasional journalist Tim Rogers wrote "Who Killed Videogames? (A Ghost Story)" for the site insertcredit.com. It is a sprawling, multi-stage affair, about the rise of social games and, as the title implies, the death of videogames. It is extremely excellent, and worth reading. In fact, if you leave now and go read that instead, I won't even be offended.
Rogers is an Old School Videogame Nerd. In a different part of the internet, he claims to have spent his twenty-fifth birthday playing through the entirety of Super Mario Bros. 3 without taking a single hit. In this article, he calls games like Super Mario Bros. "terrifying cyber-contests that whipped us into shape", and suggests that they are, overall, better for children than Little League baseball. Like all people willing to put in the time to get good at games, he hates the Mario Kart Blue Shell.
It may not take much guesswork to figure out how Tim Rogers feels about Farmville (again, I refer you to the title of his article). He describes attending a social gaming conference thusly:
As I attended boring lectures and stone-cold seminars, the reality settled onto the gathered bright-eyed, idea-filled game developers like an ashen snow-blanket: these Zynga guys were making literally a quadrillion dollars a month off trite, shallow, ugly, awful, stupid half-formed pseudo-games.
I recognized this feeling from my own life — from Stephanie Meyer and Nicholas Sparks and Danielle Steel. I thought: after all these years of serious gamers shouting that games are art, this is their proof. Welcome to art, folks. Here's your prize.
Since "social games" kind of just means "games played on Facebook or an iPhone," let's clarify. We're talking about what I'll call Villes: games that give you a little virtual place for free, and then allow you to expand and decorate that place through time, money, or assistance from other players. Not all Facebook games are Villes — Words With Friends, for example, is not. Excepting the frequency with which it asks you to post things in your Facebook feed, and the real human strife caused by placing a Q on a triple-letter-score tile flanked by two I's, Words With Friends is not especially evil.
The point of Rogers's article is not just that Villes are bad games, but that they are bad things. They are actively harmful; their motivations and methods are morally suspect. These are serious claims.
The heart of his argument is that they are not designed to do anything but exploit certain peculiarities of human psychology. They are not supposed to be fun; their designers are not attempting to make them fun. They are, instead, Skinner Boxes, with a particularly cruel twist: constrained environments in which certain actions lead to certain benefits, which actions become either more difficult or more expensive (in terms of real-world currency) over time.
This is why these games are free, brightly colored, and cute: if they get enough people in the box, some of people will keep hitting the button. If there are time delays constricting how often the button can be pushed, some people will pay for the privilege of hitting the button sooner. Although this sounds like a Dire Metaphor, it is almost literally accurate: pay fifteen in-game-currency units (sold at ten for a real-life dollar) to get the Pig Pen now, rather than waiting to accrue that many units over time.
At this point you are (statistically speaking) probably thinking, "no one would ever spend real-life money for in-game-currency units; real-life money can buy food and Moleskine notebooks and box-sets of The Wire, while in-game-currency cannot." In fact, only about 5% of people who play Villes spend any real-life money on them. Through some tricky math, we can figure that roughly 95% of the people who play Villes spend no real-life money on them at all.
And yet: all the people at Zynga get paid, over and over again. They are reported to have a really nice employee cafeteria, from which the employees can acquire food whenever they want at no cost to them. While other entertainment companies are trying very hard to sue people for using their products for free, Ville-makers are just monetizing the freeloaders differently, by using the 95% to help them find more people in the 5% profile.
This is why every game finds some way or another of making you shove the game at your social network connections. The Ville-makers call this "viral marketing," and this is why we all hate the phrase "viral marketing" now. Back in the day, "viral marketing" was when you liked something and told someone about it, or (later) when you liked something and, in using it, prominently displayed its logo. The Ville version is actually worse than the previous two: instead of finding people who actually really like this thing (or at least actually really like how cool it looks on you), the Ville kind of viral marketing is only trying to find people with a psychological profile particularly susceptible to paying real-life money for virtual rewards. Their business model, and their nice cafeteria, depends upon it.
In 2007, another enormously profitable game company gave away a different sort of game for a different sort of free. Portal was bundled in with The Orange Box, a software combo pack containing the enormously successful Half-Life 2 (released on its own three years before) and Team Fortress 2, a new sequel to the online multiplayer original. At the time, there was no way to buy Portal on its own.
It became much more than just the prize in the software cereal box. Critics raved about Portal, and the internet (as the internet sometimes does) went totally crazy over it. If you've ever wondered why on earth the people around you keep insisting that the cake is a lie, the answer is Portal.
The game looks and plays like a first-person shooter: your screen shows the view of the main character, a silent protagonist named Chell. But the only "gun" you ever get is the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, with which you can shoot two portals onto flat surfaces — one orange portal, one blue portal — which, basically, makes your own personal wormhole. Go in the blue portal and come out the orange portal, and vice versa. Momentum is conserved throughout the process.
Portal takes place in a series of test chambers that are somehow managed by Aperture Laboratories and the artificial intelligence GLaDOS, who communicates with Chell over loudspeakers in the white, brightly lit, geometric test chambers. The game offers no explanation for who Chell is or how she came to be a part of whatever tests these are, or for what she is being tested. But the environment looks standardized and vaguely medical, and GLaDOS has a pleasant voice (not unlike Siri) and an idiosyncratic way of phrasing things — and the levels themselves are lovely little logic and skill puzzles, pushing problem-solving abilities, timing, and manual dexterity.
As you work through the chambers, the pleasant demeanor of the game begins to shift. This begins with GLaDOS, who adds some useful tidbits to the instructions for various puzzles, like:
Well done. Remember, the Aperture Science 'Bring your daughter to work' day is the perfect time to have her tested.
As part of an optional test protocol, we are pleased to present an amusing fact. The device is now more valuable than the organs and combined incomes of everyone in SUBJECT HOMETOWN HERE
The tests themselves begin to manifest some sadistic tendencies, like pits of toxic goo, that seem somehow not strictly necessary for a reasonable testing process (although, of course, GLaDOS recommends you take sufficient precautions).
And then you get to test 17, and the Weighted Companion Cube: a box, three or so feet to a side, with a little pink heart in the center of each face. "The Weighted Companion Cube," GLaDOS tells you, "will accompany you through the test chamber. Please take care of it." The Companion Cube serves you well: as footstool, as weight to hold down door-activating buttons, as shield. At the end of the chamber, you find an ominous metal contraption off to the side. GLaDOS congratulates you on your success, then gives you the bad news:
You did it! The weighted companion cube certainly brought you good luck. However, it cannot accompany you for the rest of the test and must, unfortunately, be euthanized. Please escort your companion cube to the Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator.
If you wait — and everybody waits — GLaDOS continues to cajole you to burn the cube ("Testing cannot continue until your companion cube has been incinerated") and it soon becomes obvious that there really is no way to save the Cube. If you would like to see level 18, you're going to have to drop the cube in the incinerator. When you finally do, GLaDOS congratulates you: "You euthanized your faithful companion cube more quickly than any test subject on record."
As of the time of this writing, a search of "weighted companion cube" on Etsy returns 38 items: pillows, tee shirts, buttons, even a torso-sized "squishy pillow." Or you can get an official plush Weighted Companion Cube from Valve directly.
Something about this little box — which is, except for the hearts, identical in every way to the standard box, which is found in large numbers throughout the game — touched people. After an hour or so working through these puzzles in loneliness and curiosity, with only the disembodied voice of GLaDOS (who might be trying to kill you) accompanying you, the Weighted Companion Cube is, well, your only friend. The only thing on your side. And then, because someone told you to (Milgrim-experiment-like), you toss it down the chute.
Here is something that is basically emotionally empty (the heart decal is such an obvious semiotic play for emotion) that you come to care about, ludicrously, because you are told to care about it, and because you spend a little time with it. That GLaDOS is toying with your sympathies just means that Valve is toying with your sympathies; they put her there. What makes this so different from Farmville?
Tim Rogers will say that skill is one of the things that distinguishes between Portal and all of the Villes: you have to be good at manipulating the controls of the game in order to proceed (and the game gives you the appropriate means to develop that skill). But I think that the most important distinction is intent: Portal manipulates you for your own good.
The peculiar genius of David Foster Wallace is such that he can, in a footnote, clarify something that the rest of us muddle over for years. In the full-length version of "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (in the collection of the same name), he makes a tricky distinction:
even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift, i.e. it's never really for the person it's directed at.
This basic idea — that art must somehow give something to its audience — should be fairly intuitive to anyone who has spent time and effort in consideration of art. We are comforted by poems in times of loss; we energize ourselves in the morning with music. We steal clever metaphors for our own conversations. We use the actions and ideas of characters to make sense of (and empathize with) the behavior of the people around us.
And these are, if you will, the secondary benefits of art: the aftershocks. The things that happen after the mysterious communion in which some little black marks or a collection of sounds or an assemblage of lines lights up the electrochemical power lines our brains braided together the first time we fell in love or shouted in anger at a parent. Art gives us some curious version of life's most charged moments, so intense that we sometimes mistake it for life — so intense that sometimes it is.
This kind of connective event is only possible with effort on both sides: the artist has to make something you can connect with, then you have to engage with what the artist has made. This means, in part, making yourself available for emotional manipulation — lowering your guard, letting the music take you. When Joss Whedon kills your favorite character, you let him make you cry, because that is part of the experience he wants you to have.
This is the biggest difference between Portal and all the Villes. Portal manipulates your emotions in order to give you a wonderful experience: a few hours of pleasure, a sense of accomplishment, a way of thinking about organizational authority, and some spectacular dialogue. The Villes, however, do not give you anything: they try to instill in you a set of compulsions, and pay money to satisfy those compulsions.
This essay could be reasonably understood as my apology to Stephanie Meyer, Nicholas Sparks, and Danielle Steel. However uninteresting I find their characters, however trite their scenic descriptions, however contrived their plot events and however simplistic their themes, I have no reason to believe that these books are not legitimate attempts to connect with another human being. Such books may not be the most skillful examples of literary communication — and, hey, we're all living in the shadows of giants — but this (with some contribution to damaging stereotypes aside) is the extent of their crimes.
But that certain games should be criticized (and, I think, justly) for lacking this connection is very significant indeed. It means that the personal interchange that defines art is something that we have come to expect from our videogames — even though we don't expect it from other games, like Scrabble or Croquet. It is not enough that they give us some way to pass the time: we want a real person on the other side.