Wednesday, 7 March 2007

'You get 256 Gil, an Ice Ring and an Antidote!' The Pleasures and Pain of Play: Rewards

Games, particularly those of a digital nature, are fun; that was my original motivation for taking an interest in this module. We certainly derive pleasure from playing video games, whatever reason it is that drives us, but like nearly everything in the world, games can have an ugly side – certain elements of them can inflict ‘pain’, whether it’s seeing the dreaded ‘Game Over’ screen or the frustration of just not being able to move on to a new level. But despite these ‘pains’, we still keep faithfully playing. Why? What generates this fun, or indeed, pleasure?

One of the theories of fun we studied in this week was that of Rewards. Steven Johnson in his ‘Everything Bad is Good for You’ (2005) suggests that our continued pursuit through sometimes ‘painful’ hurdles in games is due to our human need to achieve rewards in our life. He says this ability in games overcomes any appeal other features may have, i.e. amazing graphics, the ability to act in a way you could never in the real world.
Let’s look for rewards in the game I’m currently fixated on, Fi
nal Fantasy XII. There are different types of reward to be found here. I particularly enjoy ‘Rewards of Glory’, for example, though there is no real impact on play, I find watching cut scenes as I get to a certain point in the game to be a pleasurable interval. There are also ‘Rewards of Sustenance’ which are extremely helpful; receiving a nice handful of health-enhancing Potions after obliterating a particularly nasty baddie is always a nice boost.

I found that Barry Atkins’ comment, ‘our pleasures in games that would occupy even the most skilled player for 30 or more hours are necessarily fragmentary and incomplete’ (We Are Having Fun, Aren’t We? Pleasure and Aesthetics in Narrative Videogames) can be easily applied to RPG’s, and therefore FFXII. Rewards are fleeting. We know they will not last for long, but the anticipation and excitement of the next reward lurking around the corner will drive us on, even if ‘pain’ is waiting for us too.

To summarise, it can be accepted that games do not have to be fun sometimes. However, we can relate to the need for rewards in real life, within games. So for a treat which can be so readily available, why wouldn’t you play?

Mage's robes and summoning staff at the ready? Er...not quite. Step into the Magic Circle and get a new lusory attitude!

When you enter a game, suggests anthropologist Johann Huizinga, you step over a boundary. The area you enter from that point onwards is known as the ‘magic circle’. The ‘magic circle’ and its boundaries can be psychological or physical; a game in a non-reality or a game played on a pitch, for example. The decision to do this is always a conscious one, and it is also a decision you are aware of, to adopt a ‘lusory’ attitude when you enter this space. This attitude means there are always basic foundations and rules you must follow, no matter how we as individuals engage in the game.

Let’s consider a physical game; the so-called ‘on-line tag’ that I played as a kid. The physical boundary here was the painted lines of the playground. Stray from them, and you were out. Keep running along them and you were always considered a part of the game, whether you were the chased or the chasee.

It can be questioned that if we need play in our lives to escape from the real world, surely the rules and restrictions of this ‘lusory’ attitude are a hindrance? In Rollercoaster Tycoon 2, for example, I am allowed to carry out the highly unrealistic task of designing entire theme parks. The idea of this is unrealistic (and let’s face it, dangerous). Yet when it comes down to it, the game will punish me for building roller coasters that can be seen as nothing other than death traps by diminishing my reputation (killing dozens of people isn’t a good thing apparently). In this way, I am forced to accept some moral foreground if I intend to win. Cutting corners might seem easy, but it’s not right.

On the other hand, perhaps we need rules in our play because we feel at a loss without them – they are also a constant reminder in our lives outside of the ‘magic circle’. David Parlett, on board games, said, ‘all games must have rules of some sort, otherwise they cease to be formal entities and become merely undefined periods of unstructured play’ (Rules OK , 2005). Do we crave freedom in the ‘magic circle’, but have a need for our play to be defined by boundaries at the same time?

Let's Not Lose Our Heads, Shall We? Rhetoric and Moral Panics

Before getting onto the topic of what causes a moral panic, we should probably take a look at an example of one in the field of digital games. In 2003, Rockstar Games released Manhunt. Now I haven’t personally played this game, but when I viewed clips of it during a Playing the Game lecture, my eyebrows raised a little… Not because I was shocked by the violence, (though maybe a little saddened by the, er, creative use of a plastic bag to strangle a victim; let me summon Shiva* or wield a Keyblade** and I’d be much happier, thank you) but because I can never see any excitement in games that are driven purely by violence. That’s the kind of consumer I am. Anyway, a few months after the release, seemingly unrelated, Stefan Pakeerah, a 14-year old, was killed by a friend in Leicester. Some months later, the media (the Daily Mail in particular, who proclaimed ‘Ban These Evil Games!’ began to have a party over the claim that the killer’s obsession with Manhunt had led to his friend’s death.

Taking this example, let’s run how a moral panic is generated. Firstly, ‘a moral panic starts with an unspeakable tragedy which sparks an attempt to ascribe blame and responsibility’ (Henry Jenkins). Stefan’s parents caused a stir when they claimed that their son’s killer, Warren Leblanc’s (who was 17) obsession with playing Manhunt was to blame. The media picked up on this and the frenzy this caused resulted in stores removing the game from their shelves. This shows the incredible power the media has; if they proclaim that something is a danger or a threat to society, it is likely many people will follow suit in this thinking. Rhetoric (persuasive expression which can be subtle or obvious, but always seeks to have certain individuals' or groups' beliefs listened to and followed) is put into great use here. However, it can be said that such a media circus can cause a deviancy amplification spiral. I would agree with this. Of course it will attract attention if efforts are made to highlight only the negative aspects of something. If a highly impressionable mind is attracted to the ideas and image that are put forward, there could be a small chance of it creating deviant behaviour.

Rhetoric can also be found within games themselves. Language and clothes for example, can convey certain ideas and values. An interesting point I would make here would be related to Grand Theft Auto. Plenty of bad aspects are highlighted about this series of games. One thing that is rarely brought to light is the strong anti-drug stance that can be found within GTA III and San Andreas through the characters’ behaviour. Surely this is an example of rhetoric too? I don't see anyone wearing a sandwich board about that.

Despite the possibility of deviant behaviour, I cannot quite conclude that the playing of games, watching television, etc, means that you will recreate the behaviour found in those mediums. Playing The Sims with a manic grin as you control every movement of your perfect family does not make you display tyrannical behaviour in the real world. Perfecting your skills on Trauma Centre: Under the Knife does not (believe me) mean you’re ready to get out your scalpel and head to the local hospital.

Though I will admit to the occasional need to shout ‘Objection!’ after too many hours of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

*One of several beasts that can be summoned in many of the games in the Final Fantasy series.

**Weapon found in the Kingdom Hearts series. Essentially a giant key that, well, unlocks things. It’s also a good idea to get out of the way of anyone swinging one at you.

What's The Name of the Game?

So, in our first lecture, we tackled the question; how do we define a 'game'? Seems simple, but it's a tricky question when you really think about it. The philosopher Wittgenstein had some ideas to consider. Interestingly, the guy wasn’t at all bothered about games; it was language he was most intrigued with…but he still had something worth listening to.

Wittgenstein says that there is no way to fit games into a single category, and furthermore to apply this to digital games, as Steven Poole says, ‘few modern video games slot very neatly into discrete categories’ (Trigger Happy, 2000, p21).

Think about it. Pac-man, Bingo, Dance Dance Revolution, Chess...they’re all similar in that they are all games. However, can you say chess is all down to chance, the way a game of bingo might be? Do you speed around trying to avoid ghosts and eating energisers on a tennis court? Of course not. But we would still define each of these different activities as games; does this make them the same? As Wayne Saunders says, ‘games and puzzles resemble and differ from each other in complicated ways that are sometimes worth worrying about and sometimes aren't, and in any case change with our priorities. In this they are like the rest of life’. (The Life of Games, 2000).

Wittgenstein expresses these differences as family resemblances. Does this idea work? I think so. You take your average family, for example. Look closely, if necessary, you will find features that all members of the family have in common. However, there will also be plenty of differences too. Let’s apply this to a couple of games I’ve been playing.

Always handy for procrastination, online Backgammon comes in handy. Now some say this is a game of skill, but I don’t really agree. When one ill-fated roll of the dice over and over again rules your moves around the board, you’re doomed whether you’re the best player on the planet or not. Dance Dance Revolution, a game played on the PS2 through a dance mat controller is competitive, like Backgammon, whether you’re trying to beat your best score or someone else’s. However, there is no luck involved. You have to practise because skill is required to win at this game.

To summarise, Wittgenstein’s main point seems to be an advisory one – to attempt to give a concise definition of a ‘game’ could well be futile, unless you are of a very narrow mind. Settling for giving examples of what a ‘game’ could be is probably the better choice...

Important Details


Poole, S. (2000). Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution, New York: Arcade Publishing Inc.

Atkins, Barry. (Date Unknown). We Are Having Fun, Aren’t We? Pleasure and Aesthetics in Narrative Videogames. Retrieved 8th March 2007 from

Jenkins, Henry. (2000). Lessons from Littleton: What Congress Doesn't Want to Hear about Youth and Media. Independent School, Winter. Retrieved 5th March 2007 from

Parlett, D. (2005). Rules OK. Retrieved 4th March 2007 from

Saunders, Wayne. (2000) The Life of Games: Family Resemblances. Retrieved 7th March 2007 from

Total Word Count for this blog - 1628