Deep in the Box

First, I’d like to take a moment so everyone familiar with slang of the UK can snicker on their own for a bit.

Now, when I introduced myself a few weeks back, I said a fair bit about games being more than games; I wrote about how they were more than just methods of whiling away the time, that they are assuming the same role as literature and television in the shaping of our perceptions and are becoming a solid part of our memories. However, I have to admit that when selecting games for myself, I tend to gravitate towards a certain bland criteria: experience systems.

Heart-pounding excitement!

Essentially, experience systems are all about the numbers. Bash something insensible, wring out the numbers from its battered frame, and slurp up those numbers to add them to your own. Keep doing this until all those numbers reach a certain threshold, whereupon a wave of energy surges within you, typically in the form of light shooting out from every pore and orifice on your body (even the naughty ones). Empowered with might and vigor, you can now embark on the noble quest of brutalizing stronger things for their number juices. Certainly, reaching these thresholds (or leveling up as it is more commonly known) offers incentives such as: obtaining new weapons to hurt things with; learning new methods of hurting things; unlocking new locations where one might hurt things; and so on. Mind you, strip away sound effects and graphics and text, and all that’s left are the numbers.

MAH BOI, this is what all true warriors strive for: having many ways to cause pain

Not that numbers are a bad thing. Everything on a computer or video game console have numbers tied to them. The very building blocks of each letter I am typing right now are the iconic 1’s and 0’s that laid the way for every digital discovery in this era. I’m not arguing that experience points are a bad thing either. While not quite a feature to wholeheartedly praise, it is still a valid way for games to portray progression. In fact, they even present it in a more satisfying manner. In reality, progression occurs constantly for everyone; every action and thought we make is a minute but undeniable movement forward in the storyline of our own lives. On the other hand, there is also the frustration of being uncertain of success. In a diet, how do you know for sure that every responsible choice of meals definitively leads to a healthier body? In a job, how do you know for sure that every hour of overtime will lead to a promotion? You can trust in your dietitians and your employers, but the cynical find certainty in something more concrete.

Am I succeeding and getting ahead in life? Of course I am! I hit level 67 an hour ago, and look! Look how much that bar rose just now when I filed those insurance claims!

Experience points and experience bars are intended to be clearly understood (gaining abilities to crush my enemies like tiny strawberries is a pleasant bonus). Do I want to reach level 12 and learn a new skill to crack skulls with? Then earn 1200 experience points! I can earn them anyway I like, but as long as whatever I do earns me those points, I am guaranteed swift progression… in the beginning at least. Most games that use experience systems make it such that the first few levels are easily and quickly gained. However, as these games go on, earning enough experience to hit a new level takes increasingly more time. One might see this as understandable; games can’t be too easy for the player or he’ll lose interest. But then there’s the fact that this is also a means of getting a player to spend more time on a game, even if he’s having less fun or becoming more bored.

Obviously, I’m not going to play a game if it immediately becomes less a game and more an exercise in monotonous tasks, yet changes like these happen gradually enough that I won’t pick up on it until after I’ve pulverized my 37th identical zombie in a row. Fine, so I can quit the very moment I am aware I’m being bamboozled into mindlessly punching goblins on an assembly-line. I could just get up, uninstall that game, and run out into the wonderful sunshine outside so I can forget all about that initially-fun-but-now-boring game. And yet I can’t, because the experience bars I lauded so much for their clearness not only represent what I can get and how soon I can get them, they now also symbolize what I have already spent. Every level and skill and weapon I’ve earned become telling reminders of the hours and effort I’ve consumed for the sake of virtual progress, and knowing all that makes it a wrench for me to denounce all that as superficial or useless. Even if I only wanted to dip into a game for a bit of quick fun, the allure of constant rewards ensure my entrapment within a virtual and mundane box.There’s a reason I return to the box metaphor (besides juvenile genitalia humor); game developers, particularly for MMO-type games, make use of the ideas behind a Skinner Box. They literally have the design of experience systems down to a science, a dispassionate money-hungry science. I don’t particularly mind them, but I am also not comfortable being seen as a rodent pushing a money-dispensing lever. Those of you who don’t play Role-Playing Games, the games that experience systems are so intrinsically tied to, might not see this relating to you. On that note, I ask that you examine the games that you do play, whether they be the genres of action or racing or farm simulation. Is there any point in the game where you are making a bar fill up with something or other by doing things? Is there any point in the game where you are trying to raise one number enough to match another number so as to obtain new game items or unlock new game areas? If yes, then you are as subject to the experience system as much as me and my RPG-playing ilk, subject to game designs that aim to keep players firmly nestled in their seats out of compulsion instead of fascination.

Skinner illustrates his theory with a WoW gamer

I don’t mind games using experience systems, but I do mind when they’re explicitly used as time-traps, shanghaiing attentions for the sake of increased exposure and extending subscriptions. And while I may be prone to performing repetitive tasks, blatant tricks are where I draw the line and get out of my box.

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