THAT Camp and “casual” games
Greetings faithful readers!
1. My gaming time this past week was comparatively light, because I spent the weekend at The 2011 Great Lakes THAT Camp talking about video games, rather than at home playing them.
“What is THAT Camp?” you say? Excellent question! THAT is short for “The Humanities and Technology, and THAT Camp bills itself as an academic “un-conference,” where archivists, librarians, academics, and tech people (collectively, some of my favorite people in the world) get together to talk and work, rather than to present and listen.
As a pseudo-academic myself, it was wonderful. I was (not surprisingly) most interested in the game-related conversations, which ranged from using games and insights from game design in the classroom, to using games to explore past cultures (and the way that how we’ve understood past cultures has changed over time), to the nature of interactive narrative itself. Maybe most importantly, while I’ve always been deeply interested in how games (and literature) require the player (reader) to co-author their own experience, I’ve always viewed myself as a non-coder. That is, while I have the tools and capability to be a writer, I didn’t believe that I had the tools or capability to be a game designer. After THAT Camp, I’ve become aware of some tools and learned some things that might change that. (No, I won’t be designing Portal 3, but there are ways to create games that are much closer to the demands of indie, digital filmmaking than I ever would have imagined. That is to say, it’s not easy, but you don’t necessarily need a team of coders, knowledge of multiple programming languages, and support from Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo to do it.)
I’m sure that ideas from THAT Camp will pop up from time to time in this column over the next several weeks, and I’ll provide links where I can. You’ll get a great start by checking out:
- The THAT Camp web site/blog, which includes notes from many of the sessions—http://www.2011.greatlakesthatcamp.org/
- Play the Past, a site devoted to cultural/historical games—http://www.playthepast.org/
- Inform 7, a tool for creating text-based games—http://inform7.com/
- The Electronic Literature Collection, an archive of digital (usually interactive) fiction and narrative—http://www.eliterature.org/
- Alabaster, an interactive retelling of the Snow White story—http://www.inform-fiction.org/I7Downloads/Examples/alabaster/
And there’s more, of course there’s more, but that will do for now.
2. What game time I’ve had this past week has been largely devoted to LEGO Harry Potter. (Probably, in part, as a break from “serious” or narrative games I was spending so much time talking about.) I’ve made no secret of the fact that on the whole I’m a fan of the Lego games, mostly because of the combination of humor, inventive visual presentation, and the way that it appeals to my OCD collector impulse. There are a million little things to chase after in each game, many of which require a second or third playthrough of each level to obtain, after you’ve unlocked a character with a new ability, or explored a little bit more.
Although I do have to admit that part of the appeal for me of the Lego games is the way that collecting items is primarily a function of time invested in the game. The game itself never really gets harder, and if there’s an item you can’t reach, it’s usually because later on you’ll unlock a character who can jump higher, or climb walls, or make things float, or whatever. The mechanic is one of collection furthering collectability, and not one of increasing difficulty and technical mastery.
That is to say, the core mechanic of the Lego games is a casual gaming mechanic, in which the game provides small, incremental rewards for investing a great deal of time into short, unconnected sessions of gameplay. The contrast to this mechanic would be “hardcore” games, which teach the player a specific set of skills and reflexes to allow progression through a series of increasingly difficult gameplay segments. (Think Halo, where you can clearly tell the difference between occasional players and those who spend hours and hours in online multiplayer sessions.) The true distinction between “casual” and “hardcore” games in this model may not be the total amount of time invested in the game, but the way in which the “casual” game allows the player to walk away from the game and return without having to re-learn significant proficiency in a particular skill set. If I’ve unlocked Jar Jar Binks in LEGO Star Wars, then I always have a character available who can double jump, and reach those out-of-reach items. If I’ve been away from Halo for a while, then I need to relearn the maps and re-exercise the reflexes and quick in-game judgments that let you pull the trigger before the other guy does.
And I think the fact that “casual” games may end up consuming every bit as much time, may reward every bit as much as investment as “hardcore” games—albeit in different ways—make “casual” and “hardcore” fairly misleading terms to use to describe the distinction. (After all, I barely got out of Mafia Wars alive. I still say there was nothing casual about how I played that game.)
3. I just got my hands on Portal. More on that next week!
Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.