Feel Something! (Or how I learned to stop worrying and love FarmVille)

Posted: November 7, 2010 in Game Design, Games

I have a rant I must rant.  It is about the diversity of emotion within games and how we can evoke something more than ‘smug’ superiority.

The debate on whether games are art is decades old and has come to the surface over the last year or so with Roger Ebert’s comments igniting the ire of the game design royalty.  While I am a believer that games are an art form like any other, I am saddened by the seemingly narrow range of emotions that most designers focus on.  Clint Hocking talks about BioShock and his criticism of game’s continuing down a path of reduced agency.  While I agree that allowing greater agency can lead to rich experiences, I do not agree that they get us closer to what we want, which is for the author to express something and the player to feel or experience something.

Even in games like FarmVille where the author is reduced to crafting the meta-structure and the playscape is entirely player crafted, it is the evoking of emotions within the player that is most important.  Is agency fun?  What are we crafting here?

While the play pattern of FarmVille and its ilk is essentially a currency grind, with a small amount of story layered on, the game has reached an audience unavailable to all but the most successful ‘AAA’ games.   My core question is does FarmVille essentially provide all (if not more) of the emotions provided by more sophisticated games but in an easier to use package?  Once all these new audiences have grown used to our typical toolbox of compulsions and incentives, will they continue playing games or go back to mediums that provide richer emotional experiences?

What we need in games is not necessarily greater agency, but greater emotional engagement.  This doesn’t necessarily mean cut scenes, or photo real characters, but rather the attention paid to the variety of emotions we create in the player and techniques we use to craft them.  Peter Molyneux has been talking like this for years and Fable seems to be proving him right.  While released on a hard-core console, Lionhead’s flagship game is reaching a broader audience while maintaining perceived quality.

The smug winner or the dejected loser seem to be the canonical archetypes of gamers.  The tension of the battle ended by the delight of victory or the bitterness of defeat have their place, but are they the end of things?  FarmVille has no winner or loser and it is both popular and profitable while barely qualifying for what some would call a game.  Perhaps it is because FarmVille provides players with both a broader and deeper range of emotions while still providing the standard feelings of progression, growth and mastery.  Social games have shown us that there are other ways to use this medium and I hope that its only the beginning.

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