So let’s say that you are one of the people who aren’t certain. You go through your life carefully and surreptitiously, never overstepping for fear of making a mistake due to your lack of firm, comprehensive knowledge. Perhaps you make your opinion known on one topic or another, but are always extremely careful to qualify it with statements that demonstrate how little of the matter you actually know, or reassure your listeners that this is merely your own, uneducated opinion. You may be very knowledgeable indeed, but that only serves as a further limitation, as you’ve learned enough to recognize how much more there is that you do not know (there have been a couple studies on a correlation between acquisition of knowledge and perceived competence: those who learn more sometimes tend to believe less in their ability to speak/act/think knowledgeably on a topic. I’ll find references later).

I would argue that should you overcome this self-imposed limitation, you may very well find more enjoyment (or perhaps fulfillment would be the better word) in games than many others. Games, even the most scripted and the most vague, work because they are always limited. There is a finite amount of information that needs to be grasped in any game to make yourself an effective participant. A given number of players, a set number of tools, a dictated amount of rules; any and every game structure can be learned in a matter of days, not lifetimes. And for the uncertain individual, that can be very freeing and empowering. A game like Go has lasted for centuries because the basics of its ruleset are comprehensible to everyone, and can be learned in a few hours: players take turns placing black and white stones in an effort to capture each other’s stones and territory by forming walls of their own connected stones. There are a handful of other, minor rules, but the game at heart is that simple.

Now, the beauty of Go, and of good games in general (mmm, accidental alliteration), is the means by which those rules are utilized, sequenced, and timed. The very simplicity of Go allows for an infinite (or a number so large we cannot help but conceive of it as infinite) number of combinations and strategies and testings and responses, dictated only by what you can conceive of and how your opponent plays. Yet somehow that preponderously large number does not produce the same kind of mental paralysis that uncertainty in other contexts does (well, at least not to the same degree, but I’ll get into that later). The reason is that my actions are limited. The response I choose out of the unknowable number of responses is an uncertainty, but the way I must respond is supremely limited: I must place a stone or pass. Those are my only two options. And the choice between placing a stone on a 361-n (where n is the number of stones that have already been placed) point or not placing a stone at all is a much, much easier decision (even if that decision proves to be wrong or costly) than choosing the best way to explicate the nature of the Wisconsin union protests or deciding if marriage is a good idea or picking what I want to eat for dinner. I can be more certain about a Go placement, because of its limitations, than I can ever be about the rest of my life.

Uncertainty obviously still exists. I cannot play most first person shooters, and I am absolutely terrible in player vs player situations in World of Warcraft because of the uncertainty of other players, of opponents. Go may be limited, but the way my opponent in Go attacks and defends, baits me and falls into my traps, is something I cannot know for certain, and that gives me a great deal of anxiety. I freeze up in player vs player in ways I avoid entirely when I’m working with other players to fight a monster. Even if the encounter meant to battle that monster is complex (and some of them can be very, very complex), I know what the monster is capable of. It has a limited number of abilities, and (at least in the current incarnation of Wow) uses them at a non-entirely random sequence. It is often predictable, and when it is not I have an equally limited number of tools to choose from to respond. The variation in response is entirely on my part, and so I can have confidence in the choices I make of when to use a given spell or which spell to use. When I am playing against other people, though patterns are frequent, there is so much more uncertainty about what tool they will use, when they will use it, where they will go, who they will attack, and on and on and on.

I don’t play many FPSs or fighting games (or PVP all that much) partly because I hate to lose and am a poor loser, but also because I very often feel a paralysis of uncertainty in those situations. There is too much that I do not know, and so I act and react slower, which is death in the twitch-based gameplay so prevalent these days. I cannot shrug off my mistakes, because for whatever reason I see them as a kind of failing of competence, which my self-esteem is not strong enough to handle. If I fall behind the community in acquiring familiarity of a new game, or map, or composition, or whatever, I tend to drop the game itself before long.

And yet games remain fun and enjoyable for me and many others, because those losses and failings are minor. They occur in strictly limited contexts, and have strictly limited consequences. When I screw up in a WoW raid, I know what I did wrong and can immediately fix it the next time around. The number of options are limited, and are therefore knowable to me. When I succeed, it is because I know the encounter and have made the correct choices, sometimes one every second for 10, 15 minutes, time and time and time again. There is satisfaction in knowing the entirety of something, and mastering it. Games are a means by which that satisfaction can be achieved and repeated in a limited amount of time.

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1 Response to Games

  1. Eun Sung Lim says:

    Yo Michael! It’s Eun Sung. It’s been a while. It took me some time to read this far back in your blog. haha You know I completely agree with you insight on the reason people game and its connection to understanding the entirety. And, I believe the game makers, at the least the good ones, are also very aware of such reasoning whether they have been able to put it in words like you did or not. That’s why so many of the more popular games have bonus stages or seemingly impossible missions and bosses as that’s what drives people to continue play the game, not necessarily because it’s a challenge but it’s the only way to understand the entirety of the game that has been designed for the players. Good luck with everything in Michigan and let’s keep in touch!

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