Monday, September 28, 2009

Play is Extreme Simulationism

In the end, the most lasting effect of the Tools of the Mind studies may be to challenge some of our basic ideas about the boundary between work and play. Today, play is seen by most teachers and education scholars as a break from hard work or a reward for positive behaviors, not a place to work on cognitive skills. But in Tools of the Mind classrooms, that distinction disappears: work looks a lot like play, and play is treated more like work.

-Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control? by Paul Tough

The boundary between work and play is blurred by the hellish commitments MMO players make to their guilds and online friends. Players willingly spend thousands of hours in-game, having fun in very few of those hours, and later find a huge, soul-sucking void in their past where one, individual, mediocre game once stood proud. Play can become life—perhaps this is the much fabled immersion everyone talks about. But what does immersion mean when the most soul-sucking game is probably one of the least immersive?

Play is a model of life. Play trains us to perform actions in the real-world. Play is a safe environment to learn about and practice behaviors that will benefit us later in our lives. Do MMOs take advantage of this? There are some abstract behaviors like guild leadership that can translate into leading other organizations. But most often useless memorization of irrelevant sets of stats and game mechanics decides the victor.

What if we made mechanics in MMOs more like the mechanics in real life? When does the simulation stop being fun and start being work?

Imagine being a blacksmith in an MMO. Imagine that you are actually a blacksmith in that world. Do you have time to wander around the country-side hitting bunnies with sharpened metal? No. You’re busy doing your job. You make so many swords, barrels, horseshoes a day and that is your life. You do it for 20 or 30 years after your apprenticeship ends and you die. Is that fun? It’s certainly repetitive. But there’s a lot of learning, skill, and knowledge there. Certainly a game wouldn’t force the player to stay logged in for the entirety of the character’s “day” in the world, but I don’t think that a player logging in for an hour or two and actually doing some smithing—and not clicking on a button that says “smelt copper bars” and waiting for a progress bar to fill, but actual game mechanics that emulate the process of creating a bar of copper out of some ore—is bereft of fun.

You could learn a lot about the world you live in through playing such a game. You can have fun while you learn—you can have fun by learning!

Imagine making a sword over the course of a half-hour and when you’re done with it, you have the knowledge that you actually made that and that someone else’s character’s life (permadeath would be crucial if we’re going to get serious about dramatic play here) depends on its quality. That is so much more meaningful than spending three hours smacking kobolds that’ll respawn thirty seconds later; and there are real world takeaways from that session aside from some money disappearing from your pocket every month.

I’m pushing past moderate simulationism here, but I see definite possibilities for games beyond A Tale in the Desert to harness real-world processes to make crafting—and the rest of the game—more fun, more rewarding, and more real.


Foge said...

What do you think about the "crafting" games in things like Fable 2 or EQ2?

I assume that you are thinking of something with a bit more meat, but you might be able to combine the "sim" with an interesting mini-game involving several stages. For example, to create a sword, you might have one step to heat the metal, one step to shape the blade, then one step to sharpen it. Each step is a mini-game and the quality of the final product would be based upon your performance in the mini-game. FWIW, "crafting" in Free Realms was a bit like this, although there was no pretense of "sim".

evizaer said...

EQ2 doesn't go far enough. It makes an essentially AFK thing into a boring process that you'd rather be AFK while doing. I am not aiming for slightly more gameplay, I'm aiming for almost an entire game for each profession. In order for alternate paths to be equally appealing, they have to have equally deep gameplay. MMOs will benefit significantly from taking crafting seriously. (I'm not even convinced that MMOs take combat seriously at this point.)

Dblade said...

I think the success would be limited, for the same reasons why not many people play either tourist trophy or the Moto GP games.

Both games are designed to be serious simulations of motorcycle racing. This isn't arcade racing with time limits and floaty controls, success requires you to learn how to shift your weight, use both front and rear braking, corner effectively, and other things that are direct paralells to real life racing. The problem is both games are hard as hell.

I tried moto GP and I couldn't even get the bike to start without wheeling it. Part of it is the nature of trying to feather acceleration on a game pad, but another is the game is too close to real life. Just getting it to turn through pylons is an achievement.

I think if you stick with it, it could teach a lot of the real-life lessons and positive aspects you want to see. But most players either cant manage to do it, or don't want to invest the time in either game. That might be a problem with your system, if it takes a high amount of skill and dedication.

Tesh said...

It's only a problem if you're angling for the mass market. For a niche market, like the one that buys Moto GP games, it could work well enough.

I'm all for a game world that treats non-combat jobs as interesting things in their own right, complete with a real effect on the world. It's just not for everyone. *shrug*

Dblade said...

moto GP never reall cracked more than 50k copies for each iteration here in the US though, with the bulk of sales coming from europe, and even then it was 200k. Tourist trophy doesn't have sales figures, but in japan it was 110k, and maybe that again for USA and EU. Not bad, but the team that did Gran Turismo did it.

I think we overestimate niche appeal sometimes, beyond a critical level, some niche games may not be able to draw people enough to stay profitable.

Eugene Conniff said...

But Dblade: imagine an experimental MMO that literally limited its scope to JUST those crafting jobs. You play in a "community" - which would be a world instance with a population cap somewhere between, say, 10-25 players. There are no players who are warriors, wizards, knights, champions, etc. Those characters are all NPCs who desperately need the things your community is creating, and who defend your community from the terrors you cannot actually protect yourselves from.

You can walk around your small world and interact with players as you like, but aside from that element it would be a purely rural crafting experience. ALL the gameplay would be centered on the act and nuance of crafting, and because the designer isn't bogged down with the need for a "massive" world full of crap, can afford to make that as deep as they like.

Since worlds are small both in scale and population, you could push off most of the responsibility of server control to the community, the way Minecraft does (I don't even think minecraft HAS an official server for SMP). So being niche would be fine.