All entries for Monday 07 December 2009

December 07, 2009

Frustration in Games

The following ideas are based on an innocent article I read years ago, but which has been stuck in my head ever since. I will be talking about games, and when I say "game", I'm referring to word as it is used in common speech. It can be solitary or involving several players; it can be a board game, a video game, a verbal game, and so on; but it must be something we play for fun, not for personal profit.

What makes a game a good game? Which aspect do all fun games have in common? What force drives our attention to the game, and keeps us motivated, addicted? I am not trying to give explanations as to why we have personal preferences, rather I want to make a conjecture about why the popular games have become so, and why many other potential ideas for games, while technically "games", would never be considered fun. So, in general, why do we like the games we play?

The answer, when you think about it, is less obvious than it would seem. Let's review some possibilities. Is it the chance that we might win, that motivates us? Partly, but consider a game where you win with absolute certainty. Surely such a game presents no interest whatsoever! The possibility of winning is naturally a crucial element in any good game, but the ability to win is, in itself, not what makes a good game. Is it the social aspect, then, the fact that it is a peaceful and relaxing way of interacting with other people? That, again, is a common trait in many games, but games like Sudoku, Crosswords or Minesweeper are also found amusing by many, and those games involve no human contact. The simple observation that it makes us forget the worries associated to our daily lives? This may very well explain why we play games in the first place, but not why certain games are generally found fun, while others have never seen the day of light.

My claim is that what keeps us attracted to certain games, is the element of frustration.

It may sound contradictory at first, but think about it. In almost every game, there is a rule which restricts you moves, blocks your play, or limits your abilities in some other way. Consider for example chess -- I will use chess as a recurring example throughout the post. Already, most of your pieces cannot move in any way they like, and to complicate things further, your most powerful pieces are initially stuck behind a row of slowly-moving pawns. The same kind of restrictive rules seem to apply to most other games I can think of: in Risk you lose men quickly, but regain them very slowly; in SET, the cards have to match in a very specific way; in Minesweeper you are only given partial information about the grid; in the well-known online Helicopter Game, green blocks constantly obstruct your way. All this contributes to the element of frustration, the feeling the game will not allow you to have things your way. And this might well be the secret little ingredient that will make you come back for more.

Now, some may argue that such restrictions are necessary, in order to make it non-trivial to win the game. But while this is true to some extent for single-player games, it does not hold when two or more people are playing against each other. Imagine a hypothetical variant of chess, in which most (if not every) piece would be allowed to move and capture like a queen. This is an "improvement" from standard chess, a removal of restrictions, but both players should still find it difficult to win, as both players will be following the new rules and thus none of the the two should have an advantage over the other. Likewise, in any other multi-player game, removal of restrictive rules should not necessarily facilitate a win. But still, what we see is that all but every multi-player game has rules that cause frustration of some kind. Not just irritation at the other players' behaviour, but also annoyance at the difficult position in which the rules themselves have put you. Who hasn't been frustrated because they were stuck in a puzzle game, or moaned at the lack of cards in your hand during a card game, or cursed at the sharp turns of a high-speed racing game -- and yet, kept playing? Regardless of what your favourite game is, chances are it has frequently caused you to feel angered, or at least slightly annoyed.

For every game there is, it is possibly to think of a less frustrating version of the same game. And still, the final product turned out to be what it is. For some reason, this unforgiving aspect of the rules makes a game more interesting, and the games with innocent and non-irritating rules, like War or Rock-Paper-Scissors, bore us quickly. There must, of course be a reason for this, and although I'm no psychologist, I think it;s safe to say that it is linked to the pleasure gained from overcoming a problem. If the game is harsh on you, you may feel a certain sense of achievement after winning, whereas if the game doesn't In a game involving multiple players there will of course always be the pleasure of having beaten the others, but an extra reward is offered for enduring, and beating, the game itself.

A final note: I'm not saying here that the more frustrating a game is, the better it is. What I mean to say, in a nutshell, is that every good game needs a certain degree of frustration incorporated in the rules. The art of making games, is finding this correct balance.

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