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Rebuttal to "Just One More Game..."
by Aaron Chapin on 04/06/12 12:34:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Sam Anderson's April 4th article in the New York Times Magazine clearly illustrates that even in today's world, you don't have to understand something to write a cover story on it. It takes a lot of gall for an outsider to make a sweeping declaration that a vast number of works in a medium are “stupid”. Anderson takes that boldness a step further by being staggeringly ignorant of the current state of games, as well as intolerably selfish in his outlook on the topic.

Anderson’s criteria for a “stupid game” are unclear at best; Chess, Angry Birds, and Farmville are all lumped together. Both abstract and themed games fall into the “stupid” category, from digital titles like Little Wings to classic board games like checkers. A game played by the ancient Egyptians is presented alongside Plants vs. Zombies. It seems that the unifying factor is simply that playing these games can be used to occupy leisure time. The only exceptions Anderson cares to mention are Triple-A titles from a dated list of consoles. This isn’t surprising, since he readily admits that he had previously renounced gaming in the early 90s.

A devil’s advocate could argue that the engagement loops of “stupid games” are often smaller, requiring the user to continually re-engage with the game in order to play for long periods of time. The discrete elements of play, small as they are, encourage the player keep trying a level after a loss, or keep pressing onward longer than they had intended. The amount of time required to boot up a game console is enough friction to keep the weak-willed from indulging unnecessarily, and the restriction of locality forces the player to limit their play time.

This is a gross misconception; anyone who has ever been deeply engaged in a long-form title such as Mass Effect or Skyrim will be able to tell you a story about how they played the game from the instant they bought it until they had to leave for work or school the next morning. For that entire day, and possibly the weeks following, even when they weren’t playing the game, they were thinking about it in their spare time. Anyone who has ever been invested in a book will be able to tell you about similar marathon sessions lasting into the early hours. Many a bookish commuter has been so engrossed that they missed their train or their bus stop during a particularly interesting chapter. Cinephiles that spend their time dissecting plot points and pointing out technical gaffes are just as invested in their task as the Angry Birds player attempting to get the perfect angle with their boomerang bird.

Anderson initially gave up video games out of a fear that he wouldn’t be able to control his gaming behaviors, and his extensive personal anecdote seems to suggest that he has been once again subsumed by the hobby. He presents his story as a cautionary tale, illustrating that from the moment he purchased his iPhone, the relapse was inevitable. A clearer example of the slippery slope fallacy would be harder to find. The concept of game addiction is brought up all throughout the article, even though none of the actual experts interviewed share Anderson’s dystopic view of the future of games.

How addictive games can be is still the subject of debate. It is true that game designers often try to make their games more “addictive”, though they tend to use the word as a synonym for “engaging”. There are certainly companies and designers that try their hardest to manipulate players psychologically but the effectiveness of these techniques has not been proven. The ethics of specific gameplay mechanics definitely warrants people who know what they're talking about.

The insidious thing about Anderson's article is that it really looks, at first glance, like he's done his homework. He mentions Jane McGonigal, Mark Pincus and other big industry names. The independent game movement gets a nod in his interactions with Zach Gage. Triple-A publishers are thoroughly derided as being stodgy and risk-averse. Their corporate monopoly, according to Anderson’s narrative, was finally broken by the messianic arrival of the iPhone. The iPhone has played an undeniable role in gaming's pervasiveness today, but Anderson quite literally credits Apple for the the current state of gaming. Anyone with even passing knowledge of the industry would be loathe to omit the contributions of the Wii, Steam, and others in a miles-long list of factors that made both creating and distributing games easier. It doesn’t seem coincidental that the iPhone is the only game console Anderson seems to have interacted with since hitting puberty.

The problem with Anderson’s points stems from two root causes. First and foremost, he’s giving commentary on a medium that he purposefully withdrew from twenty years ago. He may have re-engaged himself a year ago, but that gives him as much credence as a person who hasn’t seen a movie since “Titanic” attempting to objectively judge “Hugo”. Extensive research might have been able to get him up to speed, but it is obvious that he learned just as much as was required to seem knowledgeable. Referring to “Draw Something” as Zynga’s top game, when the sale of OMGPOP was announced approximately two weeks ago, reads either as ignorant or deceptive.

Despite being a self-professed outsider, Anderson makes himself a focal point of his story. It is his narrative that the reader has to consider, the not-so-heartbreaking tale of a man playing iPhone games late at night. Compared to the stories of MMO players dying due to self-induced malnutrition, or game-playing parents neglecting their real-life children, Anderson’s narrative is compelling only to himself. With so many stories that already exist about game addiction, it seems like Anderson focused on himself because he wanted to.

It should be obvious that Anderson is not the sort of person who is qualified to rule that certain games are “stupid”. Nor should he be elaborating about a hypothetical future dystopia where games exist purely to suck players’ wallets dry using dirty psychological tricks. Regardless, he insists on sharing his maudlin predictions, misleading readers who don’t recognize the ignorance of his claims, and enraging those that do. Games are not just simple, silly time-wasters; they are valid equally as forms of entertainment and artifacts of our culture. Knowledge, perspective, and respect are required for anyone hoping to provide insight into their future.

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Roger Tober
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I liked it also. I don't see why we need to get defensive about it. It's one person's point of view. For me, they are just time killers when I am waiting for something else to happen: a download, a phone call, whatever. Mine has always been Free Cell. You can tell how good a game like that is by how long it takes to get to a place where you no longer get better. I've never reached that with Free Cell, but it's close. It is just messing around with alternative paths in order to obtain some goal. I'm not much for the rapid ones, I like the laid back, no time limit type.

Adam Gashlin
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I'd be able to think about it more dispassionately if he didn't lead off with "stupid games". First in quotes, used without justification from then on. There's lots of other possible terms, even some mentioned in the article: knitting, submission, time wasting, even mindless would be better. Is he calling himself stupid for playing them? Plausible, but rather a big assumption for the millions of other players. The designers for designing something insipid? I don't get that vibe from the article, if anything the designers are portrayed as clever and successful. Are the games stupid in that they are unsophisticated? Doesn't seem likely, some fairly involved games come up in his examples. Maybe he's trying to insult people into reconsidering their habits? I feel that's giving the author too much credit.

To me it just comes across as sensationalist name-calling. I made an effort to look past it, and there was some substance to the article, but as a worshipper in the church of Tetris it put me on the defensive immediately. Why should I strain to accommodate my mind to such a blatant troll?

Jacek Wesolowski
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It could be that, English being a foreign language to me, I didn't understand the piece in question fully. Nevertheless, it did appear to me as a competently written presentation of a subjective, yet fairly well informed insight from a layman. Which is great, in my opinion, because games are meant mostly for laymen. I want laymen to speak up.

The author did make it sound a bit as if iPhone had created a phenomenon, which is a huge oversimplification, but that's about the only reservation I have. In particular, he made it clear that the term "stupid games" was meant to summarize his emotional attachment to a specific category of games, and not the fact (or opinion) that those games are stupid. Also: he wrote about "stupid games" *as opposed* to other kinds thereof (e.g. AAA games, which he mentioned explicitly and even went on to give a brief description of their production model). It's not an article about games in general.

Jerome Grasdijk
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It is true that many games may appear stupid. For example it is hard to call Angry Birds or Journey the most intelligent of games. But the market clearly speaks in their favour - plenty of people buy and play them, because it speaks to something other than a cinematic or strategic appreciation of play. They are the short form, just like a half-hour soap episode is the short form of a two-hour drama film.

I find it a little pretentious to write them off as stupid just because they don't fit the model of a blockbuster or something like chess, and it sounds like Mr Anderson may have missed the boat by not separating out the truly stupid iPhone games from the ones that clearly display value and generate player attachment.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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Nope. A half-hour soap episode is not the short form of a two-hour drama film, nor is Angry Birds a short-form Starcraft II. Both the soap and Angry Birds are simple throwaway content. An episode of The Wire or a round of Virtua Fighter 5, for instance, would have depth comparable to the long-form movie or game.

You also missed that Anderson's "stupid game" includes chess. It seems he doesn't have any better definition for "stupid game" than "game I played but in hindsight am sorry of playing".

Steven Halls
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Aaron has misinterpreted the writers (Sam's) use of the word "stupid". Think of "Stupid pet tricks". The word has sn alternate meaning: "endearing things that are silly, but we smile and enjoy them anyway".

Adam Gashlin
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That's fair, I misinterpreted it as well. Looking at the cover that explicitly says "Silly Digital Games" should have clued me in. I don't like having buttons pushed, and the internet has conditioned me to assume people are doing it intentionally.

nicholas ralabate
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"There are certainly companies and designers that try their hardest to manipulate players psychologically but the effectiveness of these techniques has not been proven."

I'm not so sure that the techniques of psychology and behavioral economics are unproven -- these are empirical fields, after all. To reference a modern trend, I see gamification as simply a rebranding of behaviorism, the proof of which goes back to the first half of the last century.

"The ethics of specific gameplay mechanics definitely warrants people who know what they're talking about."

That is an article I would be willing to read, but Skinner faced the same problem in justifying his methods. I think some of his rationalizations in "About Behaviorism" can actually be applied to the empirical approach in gaming as well.

Andrew Peery
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This blogpost reads as a personal attack of the journalist who wrote the article. I wish it came from a less defensive frame of mind because I think there certainly exist many counterpoints to what Sam Anderson (NYT journalist) wrote. Specifically, I see a positively bright future that uses games to educate. Harnessing the power of technology does not mean riding it into self-destruction.

Woody Fentress
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Good read. The NYT wonders why their readership drops so much every year. It is because of opinion pieces like this that are baseless when people used to go to them for real news.

Vin St John
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This article was a mixed bag for me. I agree with the comments that his 'outsider' perspective was actually quite welcome. I liked hearing someone who never thinks about games pretty successfully reason their way through all of the problems with games that a developer might think about from day to day. That much was fascinating.

I agree that "stupid games" got me thinking very defensively, and even when I got over that, irked me because it was a useless phrase without any clarification of what was meant by that.

Furthermore, the "newsgame" that they chose to surround this game with on the site is the stupidest newsgame I've ever seen on their site. I can't tell if the irony was intentional or not.