A Tale of Two Games

Two Playstation 2 games have captured my attention lately: Burnout 3 and Katamari Damacy. Both games are a reminder that no matter how jaded you are as a gamer, there’s always the possibility that the next game you play might shock you with its compelling originality or perfectly calibrated fun.

Burnout 3 is a perfect illustration of the old gaming maxim that a good game takes minutes to learn but a lifetime to master. It’s a racing game, but with a twist: most of the events reward you for forcing other cars off the road and you also get rewarded for especially spectacular crashes yourself. There’s no fiendishly difficult sequence of combinations to memorize, no hopelessly inbred genre conventions to decipher. I don’t even like racing games but I love Burnout 3. The gameplay offers variety and depth while always remaining powerfully intuitive. After a few runs on any given map, you begin to see much more intricate possibilities of maneuver and attack: the game opens up to more and more interesting play each time you play. I’m even toying with getting a steering wheel-and-pedals peripheral to go with my PS2 since my thumb is sore from pressing the “X” for acceleration so hard.

Katamari Damacy has a different kind of freshness to it. Even the unvarnished, basic description of the game gives you some sense of how odd and unheralded it is: you roll a sticky ball, a katamari, around a surface littered with objects in order to make a bigger and bigger ball. If you bump into something too large, your ball loses some of its accumulated detritus. Often you’re trying to reach a minimum size within a time limit, so you have to build your ball efficiently: if you pick up an oddly-shaped object, particularly something long or pointy, it will be much harder to roll the ball smoothly. Throw in the game’s underlying surreality, a story in which you are the whimsically cartoony son of the King of All Cosmos (who accidentally lost all the stars one night and needs your katamari to replace them) and couple that with some appropriate music, and you have a game that seems unlike anything you’ve ever played.

Thinking about the relationship between human universals, global modernity and ethnographic particulars is a pretty fundamental part of my mainstream field of expertise in African studies. So I tend to see many other issues in the same way. Games have the interesting attribute of being historically common (to the point of universality) to all human societies but also of being clearly epiphenomenal in their universality (e.g., not even the most simple-minded devotee of dumbed-down forms of evolutionary psychology would argue that game-playing is itself adaptive, only that the cognitive skills used in game-playing might be). Video and computer games are also powerful ways to trace the distinctive flows and possibilities of modern global culture. But gaming cultures are sometimes intensely national and local: boardgames in contemporary Germany, MMOGs in South Korea. Burnout 3 and Katamari Damacy strike me as a pretty good test bed for playing around with these questions with regard to games.

Both games tend to appeal to a wide cross-section of the audience for video games. They both sit on a very simple conceptual foundation, without much complexity in the interface of their gameplay or much referent to video games as a medium or other genres of popular culture. Even someone who had little familiarity with console games or video games as a whole could probably learn to play (and enjoy) both games in a relatively short time.

But how much of Burnout 3 requires the prior referent of driving cars for its success? Would it be as much fun without the pent-up aggression that any driver (or passenger) has acquired by being stuck in traffic jams, being cut off and so on? Equally, how much of Katamari Damancy comes off as original because of translation effects? How much of its whimsical surreality stems from a much more structured national relation between Japanese and American popular cultures, the kind that gives rise to memes like “all your base belong to us”? If Katamari Damacy was wrapped in the graphical and narrative infrastructure of an Id game—say the ball was being pushed by a hyper-steroidal, “realistic”, character trapped within H.R. Giger backdrop—would its gameplay still have its structural originality? Is the newness of the game just an affect of a different use of the conventional console controller?

What makes it possible to make Burnout 3 or Katamari Damacy and achieve the sensation of originality in a heavily saturated marketplace: local cultures of gaming production and consumption, the contemporary global circulation of the video game as a technologically novel mass medium, or the deeper cognitive pleasures we take in the structures and forms of play?

Comments on A Tale of Two Games:

greglas says:

My first reaction would be that originality in domestic video games is hard to find because it's hard to produce (risk-averse financers & game dev culture), and hard to promote (games are an experience good that consumers don't understand, they trust licenses and genres more). So there's kind of an anti-originality syndrome in (mainstream) game production and distribution, just like there is in (Hollywood) film-making. Which presumes there is such a thing as originality, btw.

But I think your suggestions about culture and originality are much more provocative. Because the interface of play with older video games and contemporary console games is so simple (much more simple than language), games are a universal language where we can "speak" (in a sense) with another culture. My early arcade experiences back in the 70's & 80's were full of attempts to "read" Asian games -- and obviously that's still going on today -- try figuring out Serious Sam. (I'd be wary of attributing *that much* of Serious Sam to Croatian culture!)

But I do think cross-culture design/play is often a good way to introduce "originality" into game design, but (as you note) it makes the question of originality problematic if you believe originality is somehow required to be associated with a certain type of authorial creativity.

Is anyone aware of any online papers investigating these kinds of cross-cultural interpretive issues in game play? It seems like it could make for some great reading and theorizing.

Posted Oct 11, 2004 11:28:50 AM | link

Edward Castronova says:

Burke> ...simple-minded devotee of dumbed-down forms of evolutionary psychology...

{meekly raises hand}

That's me, I'm a recent fan. Anyone have references for non-dumbed-down evolutionary psych?

I agree, though, that the adaptive things are
a) the capacity for play, and
b) the mental structures that play produces,

I might quibble with the idea that all play structures are epiphenomic (warning: writer does not completely understand word. writer is mimicking). I think that games of resource competition are probably adaptive and universal. But football and Civilization are not.

Let's see, guess about other play-forms that may be adaptive: Chase and Evade, Find the Hidden Thing, Act Like Grownups, Complete the Collection/Puzzle, Do Something as a Team, Get Past the Obstacle, Explore.

Posted Oct 11, 2004 2:37:58 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Dumbed-down evo psych, to my mind, first off misses the important qualifier in even the most committed and strongly formulated evolutionary psychology that before speculating about the adaptive character of particular human behavior you first have to demonstrate with some rigor its universality (which ideally ought to be both temporal and spatial, e.g., not just widespread today but widespread over recorded history). Second, it misses the point that particular behaviors may not be directly adaptive but be the epiphenomenal result of some other adaptive feature of human psychology and physiology. This isn't quite what Gould means by "spandrel", but it's close.

Anyhoo, in this context, I would say it's a mistake to confuse "play" and "games", to open a ludological can of worms. Play is clearly an adaptive part of how many animals learn important behaviors, and I'd actually say it's one of the things you could most clearly make evolutionary psychological claims about that even I, evo psych skeptic, would not question. The relation between "play" and games strikes me as enormously complex, however. It's a pretty close relation when we're talking about Hide and Seek, or even, as you suggest, "Let's Act Like Grownups"--it gets vaguer when we're talking about football, and it gets very, very distant when we're talking about chess. But games like chess, checkers, go and so on are as universal as playing something like "Hide and Seek". It's that universality that I would be disinclined to make evo psych type claims about the adaptive value of, that really seems an epiphenomenal consequence of some other cognitive capacity of human beings.

Posted Oct 11, 2004 2:50:00 PM | link