Video games have changed

Ryan Neely, Reporter

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Full disclosure: I own stock in both Nintendo and Activision Blizzard

At this point, video games have existed for decades. While the industry may have seemed like a fad back in the ’70s, today it is a multi-billion dollar industry. What about video games is captivating all of these people?

Nolan Bushnell (co-founder of Atari) once famously said, “All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.” This mastery he describes involves the player gaining a better understanding of the mechanics and gradually improving. This requires a bit of dedication, and it can sometimes result in frustration. Nonetheless, the struggle is what players enjoy. A high score would mean nothing if the they did not earn it. This sense of fulfillment can also come from completing a series of challenges gradually increasing in difficulty, or competing with others.

That said, there has been a different philosophy on display in role-playing games (RPGs). The origin of these is in tabletop (non-electronic) games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, where characters improve their abilities over time rather than the players themselves. Since nobody is going to get more skilled at saying “attack the dragon” and rolling a die, artificial progression comes in the form of improving stats (attack, defense, etc.) and gaining more powerful equipment. This provides the illusion of progress without requiring anything of the player, save for time.

RPGs have also come in the form of video games, like the Final Fantasy series, being turned-based endeavors relying heavily on stats and numbers rather than hand-eye coordination. In these, again, mastery does not come from the player but is granted by the game itself. Since then, other genres have introduced RPG elements. For example, in the original Halo trilogy’s single-player mode, each enemy took the same amount of hits from beginning to end, but as it went on, the player would have to face more plentiful and powerful enemies. In addition, the weapons that the player used at the beginning would also continue to be used until the end. As a result, the player would have to improve their own skill at the game. This seems like a basic concept, but it is a key distinction between it and other games. In the Destiny series, which the developer of the first Halo games (Bungie) went on to create, RPG elements were introduced. Players can gain new abilities and more powerful weapons simply by continuing to play. Players are encouraged to replay the same portions of the game simply to gain an advantage.

To look at how this design affects how the game is played, we must look no further than the reveal trailer for Destiny 2. In it, one character attempts to rally a crowd to go and defeat the villain. After their unenthusiastic response, he reminds them that they can get loot (in-game rewards) for doing sp, and they begin cheering. While this is obviously an attempt at humor, it does speak to the reality that in games like Destiny, players are incentivized more by the rewards for playing than the act of playing itself.

For a distilled example of this phenomenon, we need not look further than Cookie Clicker. It is a browser game in which the player simply clicks on a cookie in order to build their collection of cookies. They can also spend cookies on helpful items that make gathering cookies easier. At no point is the player improving their cookie clicking skills. It just feels like they are accomplishing something, since the cookies pile up more quickly over time.

Some games, however, have added a new twist to this phenomenon: giving in-game items a real-world value. Many have added microtransactions that allow players to bypass these repetitive actions. It seems quite peculiar why some would choose to play money for the privilege of not playing a video game, but nonetheless, they do.

These sort of antics began on Facebook games like FarmVille (remember those?), but they eventually seeped into smartphone games, and then even big-budget $60 console games. In particular, Halo 5 had a multiplayer mode called “Warzone” in which players can pay real money (or play the game repeatedly) in order to gain access to better weapons and vehicles. In addition, these were acquired randomly, so the player did not know how much they were going to have to spend or play in order to get what they wanted.

Halo 5 is not unique in this regard. The trend of “loot boxes” had become a bit of a fad from 2015 to 2017. That said, since the famous backlash to Star Wars Battlefront II (the bad one), these have mostly only contained cosmetic items. These still encourage unhealthy and addictive behavior, but at least they do not completely destroy the integrity of the game. Games like Overwatch that do this can get away with predatory monetization schemes because cosmetic items can much more easily be ignored.

The World Health Organization now considers Gaming Disorder a real mental condition. Remember, video games have existed for decades. How come this affliction was just discovered last year? Clearly, these trends in the industry are changing the way that people play video games. When they are designed to encourage obsessive behavior, that’s exactly what is created.

The saddest part of this all is that Cookie Clicker-esque mechanics can be used very well in ways that aren’t obnoxious. The Ratchet & Clank series (starting in the second iteration) had some extremely fun upgrades to in-game weapons that kept the player coming back to see what was next. The games were not particularly difficult (in fact, they were remarkably easy), so agonizing repetition wasn’t necessary. Perhaps this has something to do with Ratchet & Clank games not having to string players along in order to sell yearly expansions, à la Destiny.

Another series, Animal Crossing, rewards continuous playing with in-game items (even keeping a real-time clock so that the player would have to return every day for the full experience), but it is not a “game” in the traditional sense, but a life simulation, in which the player takes the role of a villager going about their daily business in a small town. Yes, it is very strange, but at least it isn’t an insult to the very concept of a video game (like Halo 5).

The importance of analyzing how video games utilize these reward systems is not to say that they are always illegitimate, but to remain aware of how these systems influence the player. They can make people spend many hours engaging in activities that they are not actually enjoying or spend large amounts of money on virtual items. Video games have always been designed to take advantage of psychological reward systems, but when encouraging addiction or real money become involved, they can become incredibly dangerous.