Casual Gaming: Lost in Something-Ville?

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What’s the point of video games? Contesting opinions, particularly in the games as art argument, average out somewhere between an effort in escapism and a way to waste time.

The troubling reality for the development of this industry is the popularity of what can only be described as junk food games, especially amongst the Facebook community. For every successful piece of game development work, be it a blockbuster or independent gem, there is an equally rife ‘casual’ and ‘social’ game like a Something-ville that captivates the masses. It’s difficult to blame people for playing games with a low learning curve, small time investment requirements, and some social interaction, but what is their popularity suggesting about the future of casual gaming?
The monetization factor alone is worth analysis. Most games that fit into this category cost nothing to play and are supported through microtransactions, small in-game purchases that make gameplay easier or more interesting. Microtransactions are brilliant. iTunes took over the music industry based on the idea that people would be willing to pay a little bit for the singles they loved instead of a lot for albums they happened to know the names of. The problem with many present-generation social games is their construction based solely on that concept. Developers want to turn a profit, sure, but that’s no excuse for lowest-bidder-style design, totally lacking in-game motivation, focused solely on play mechanisms built to be annoying enough that users will pay instead of having to do them, at least occasionally.
Pong was a simple test of reflexes. Super Mario added to that with an interesting environment and a plot to save a princess. Pokemon demanded strategy and gave players an immersive world to explore. Farmville’s motivation is to have a better farm than your friends, which can be accomplished through periodic punctuality measured by clicking on your crops or animals. That’s not gameplay. And the community aspect is a glorified high score list with a few features that cannot be fairly described as collaborative or multiplayer – your friends can visit to see what you’ve done and do some click maintenance for you. The worst part is it doesn’t even have substantial aesthetic appeal! What are we asking for from game designers when we reward the Something-Villes of the industry with our attention, time and money?
To be fair, the video game industry isn’t hurting. In fact, developers have continued make a living and to churn out what can only be described as masterpieces throughout the rise of click-or-pay social games. The problem is that, despite all of the evolution that has come about in gameplay mechanics, graphics, sound design, and even storyline, some of the world’s most popular games now are little more than the counterparts of what existed when the internet was just starting to become cool. This is not a testament to the timelessness of these games, but to the tendencies of some developers to focus on exploitive design. As Super Meat Boy creator Edmund McMillen put it, “there’s a difference between addicting and compelling….” The lack of substance in these games suggests that social pressure is responsible for getting people to play, making them not want to fall behind, and driving them to catch up to the competition when need be. For the same reasons that it’s hard to quit a book that you didn’t realize was rubbish until three quarters of the way through, after a certain amount of time invested users have every reason to just keep going.
There are plenty of games out there that fit the needs of casual and social gamers that allow their developer to profit while also possessing, dare I say it, more artistic value. It can be very difficult to rationalize and assess the valuation of something that is fundamentally designed to waste time, but opening that can of worms brings about the larger debate of why art has any value. That’s why the Citizen Kane of video games isn’t required, but having some sort of entertaining skill-related gameplay mechanism or in-game motivation for monotony ought to be.
This isn’t just a concern for people who identify as gamers, or a manifesto for a community that demands the world experience of World of Warcraft and World of Goo. Escapism is no less important now than it was at any point in history, and what better way to escape than an interactive environment. An interest in games that are actually fun for the sake of playing has driven the market for games on the iOS and Android application marketplaces, bazaars that are hardly exclusive to the technologically savvy. That’s promising, but the solution to this situation is up in the air, really. Developers need to make money, and people do things that aren’t good for them all time, but there is obviously room for improvement. If nothing else, let’s hope that people start playing games instead of spending their time competing for high scores in punctuality.

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