Chris O’Brien of the San Jose Mercury News has launched NewsTopiaville, an interesting project that will “explore how game mechanics can be applied to reinvent the way we produce, consume and interact with news.” The project is ambitious, interesting, and worthwhile.
But I want to clarify something about the term “game mechanics,” which I think is being misused — or at least oversimplified — in the gamification discussion. Without understanding the term’s fuller context, there’s a risk of masking the challenges of gamifying the news.
In the gamification discussion, “game mechanics” typically refers to (in O’Brien’s words) “features like leaderboards, progress bars, rewards, badges, and virtual goods.”
These are indeed game mechanics; I would categorize them as “motivational” or “psychological” mechanics.* (UPDATE: See footnote for another definition.) They can be a big part of what makes people keep playing a video game — what makes us want to play for just five more minutes (which inevitably turns into two hours) to reach the next goal.
But motivational mechanics are not the only kind of game mechanics.
When was the last time you played pinball?
If you’re a normal person — i.e. you don’t make pilgrimages to arcade “museums”, like I do — I’d guess a decade or more. Where would you even find one to play? The only place I know of in D.C. that has pinball is the Black Cat (Attack From Mars and Spider-Man, I believe).
I thought about pinball’s physical disappearance as I watched Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball the other night. The 2006 documentary charts the inexorable decline of Williams’ pinball division, as the pre-eminent pinball maker of the ’80s and ’90s tried to “reinvent” pinball at the turn of the millennium.
While Tilt studiously avoids positing a direct cause for Williams’ demise, its subtext is pinball’s cultural disappearance. After all, Williams wouldn’t have needed to make pinball relevant again if it were still part of the culture. But it’s hard for something to stay culturally relevant when people rarely encounter it.
Pinball didn’t reach the brink of extinction — Stern is the only manufacturer left — because people lost interest, but because people forgot pinball even existed. And for this we can’t blame Williams’ doomed-from-the-start Pinball 2000 initiative, Jar-Jar Binks (who played a role in said doomed initiative), or simple disinterest and flipper fatigue. Rather, pinball disappeared from the American cultural map because the one place where most people encountered pinball — the arcade — disappeared, rendered irrelevant by the home-video-game boom heralded by the first Playstation.
This deserves an essay-length post, but for now video game fans should check out this excerpt from Nathan Rabin’s latest My Year of Flops entry at The Onion A.V. Club. It’s about Delgo, a fiasco of an animated movie, but perfectly describes why most video game stories are terrible.
immediately digs itself into a huge hole with an incredibly confusing, convoluted opening explosion of exposition via voiceover narration from Sally Kellerman outlining a fantasy realm staggering in its pointless complexity. You see, once upon a time in a land called Jhamora there lived a bunch of slithery lizard-people known as the Lokni. A loss of natural resources forced a bunch of dragonfly-looking motherfuckers known as the Nohrin to settle on Jhamora with the permission of the Lokni. Alas, Sedessa (voiced by Anne Bancroft), the power-mad sister of Nohrin king King Zahn (voiced by Louis Gossett Jr., the young people’s favorite) decides to terrorize the Lokni out of a sense of racial superiority. In the process she and her goons murder the father (Burt Reynolds) of the titular young Lokni boy-lizard (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.). Meanwhile, Sedessa is stripped of her wings and banished from the kingdom of the Nhorin as punishment for her brutality. Fifteen years later, Sedessa forms a strategic alliance with a race of ogre people and conspires with one General Raius to exacerbate tensions between the Lokni and Nhorin people so war will break out and she can seize power.
Does that make any fucking sense at all? Incidentally, all of this unfolds in the five minutes of exposition that opens the film. I was immediately lost. I found myself thinking, “Why am I expected to care about this?” and “Am I going to be tested on this?” instead of waiting breathlessly to find out what happened next. Before the action had even started I was hopelessly confused. …
Movies like Dragon Wars, Wing Commander and Delgo err in thinking that sci-fi audiences embrace movies like Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars and The Matrix because they have elaborate, involved mythologies, not despite then.
The Lord Of The Rings of the world suck audiences into their fantastical worlds with engaging characters, non-stop spectacle and compelling storylines, then get them to care about their mythologies. Delgo, on the other hand, assumes that the battle is won before it’s even begun and that audiences will give a mad-ass fuck about the complicated interrelationship between the Lokni and the Nohrin races because the film’s mythology was cobbled together from bits and pieces of The Dark Crystal, Lord Of The Rings and Star Wars.
I can’t begin to list the number of video games that make this mistake. Even critically acclaimed or otherwise interesting games, like Okami and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, stunt themselves with this nonsense.
I stopped wanting to explore Oblivion’s world and backstory, for example, as soon as I came across gobbledygook like: “The Khajiit began the fight in an unusual way by sending tree-cutting teams of Cathay-raht and the fearsome Senche-raht or ‘Battlecats’ into the outskirts of Valenwood’s forests.”
In light of Rabin’s great column, I’ll be interested to try out some of the winners of the Interactive Fiction Competition that Chris Dahlen notes in another A.V. Club piece.