23 October, 2008

Only Entertainment

Part of the reason I haven't wanted to write a game journal about Titan Quest is because I'm still not sure if I'm happy to be playing it. And it's hard to separate real life guilt (where I should be spending more time looking for a job) from my grinding vertigo and concerns about virtual addiction.

Generally, I hate grinding. All games are grinds at some level, though. They all feature repetitive tasks. But in good games new moves or weapons or skills are frequently being introduced to keep things from getting stale. When things do get stale, it becomes very apparent that I'm in one of B.F. Skinners' operant conditioning chambers, being forced to press certain buttons over and over to get poorly spaced out rewards. I'm simply occupying my time, not enjoying it.

But do better spaced rewards and more varied sounds and lights make the experience any more valuable? It depends what you view as valuable. They make it more stimulating / engaging / entertaining. To the extent they may keep the mind and hands active, they might have some therapeutic benefits. It's better than TV. But it's still only entertainment.

I'm still specifically thinking about Jonathan Blow calling out World of Warcraft as fostering addiction. The anecdote I remember from Psych 101 was about animals and levers. If an animal gets a lever that always sends food down the chute, it presses it when it's hungry. If food coming down the chute has no relation to the lever, the animal loses interest in it. If the lever randomly causes food to come down the cute, the animal pulls it all day, just so see how much food it can get. You don't have to look any further than slot machines to see that the same principle applies to humans. Random payoffs foster addiction.

But all games are random payoffs. They're explorations. Usually they're literal exploration of a space. Always they're an exploration of mechanics and strategies.

So where's the line? It is repetition? If I find a group and learn my role to kill a boss in WoW, is that okay? But then it becomes bad if I do it twenty times until he drops the loot I wanted? Or is it the slowly ratcheting up of the amount of repetition over the course of the game that's somehow underhanded? Or is the fact that I had to make ties to a social structure to progress the dangerous part?

If that's the case, every team based FPS would be dangerous because clans will beat random players almost every time. There must be something else...

I just don't get it. A game's a game. A person chooses what they want and is responsible for those choices. If I have nothing I'd rather do than laugh and clap my hands, I don't think it's the magician's fault.

So, back to me wasting my life.

I'm farming loot in Titan Quest. I've currently got four characters I'm playing. In the original game, it sucked because one character would keep getting drops another could use and would have to sell them. But the expansion added a transfer ability, so now everyone has pretty nice gear, not to mention the stuff I've given away to my co-op group.

It's nice to finally be making gear choices instead of feeling like I'm always at the mercy of the Random Number Generator. As a result, the game's a lot easier, but then it becomes more about optimizing: picking targets, spending skill points, sorting loot; seeing how fast I can burn through an enemy camp.

Right now my rogue is having trouble with undead, who are immune to poison. I've tried to increase my trap laying skills to let the traps deal with them, but that takes too long. Meanwhile my warfare and storm magic characters are virtually unstoppable, regardless of the opposition. Their damage output is so high that even the most heavily armored enemies are little more than speed bumps. Is this a design flaw that undead are immune to the rogue's poison and bleeding damage, but no common enemy type is immune to normal damage or lightning? Possibly. I'll try to find a way around it (without dual classing, which feels like a cop out).

1 comment:

Chris said...

I like the ideas explored in this one.

With regard to lever pulling, I think addictive-level-pulling sets in when you stop pulling the levers that reliably deliver food in leiu of other random stimulii, especially when you're hungry.