Compared to most six-year-olds, who usually have the attention span of a golden retriever on amphetamines, I was a patient child. At least, under the right circumstances. After rifling through dozens of 5.25 inch (truly) floppy disks, I would find the one I wanted, slide it into the disk drive of my Commodore 64, put in my proper commands at the two-tone blue main screen, and wait. And wait some more. I cannot fathom the cumulative hours lost watching a monochrome game-company logo progress through all 16 available colors. The “ECA” of Electronic Arts, big block letters composed of rainbow horizontal lines, remains emblazoned in my subconscious to this day.
Fortunately, the limited capabilities of the hardware compensated for this lost time by keeping learning curves low. Though designing/programming legend Sid Meier was indeed at work back then, games like his Alpha Centauri or Civilization series would have a while to wait before becoming feasible.
Go back even earlier to the Intellivision and the Atari 2600. Their games, due to their relative simplicity, were essentially – and almost invariably – low time investments. There were exceptions, sure, but those exceptions stood out. Anyone who’s played the Intellivision’s Triple Action can attest to the clarity and directness of many of the era’s titles. The world was a different place when you couldn’t save your game.
With the lack of even the possibility for anything more, the simple games (which were the only games) were the money-makers. But things changed. The hardware advanced just enough, leaving a development gap that was promptly filled. The “bigger is better” ethos, loosely and liberally applied, took – and still takes – videogames on a long, uphill road. This road represents the doctrine of progress.
But the high-polygon flash of the explosion masked a subtle, often undetected truth. The road had actually split, and only one path truly began the climb. This marked a definitive philosophical bifurcation in attitudes toward gaming. As a gamer, you now had a choice. Take the low road, and you can jump in whenever you like, without much of a commitment, guaranteed to meet (but rarely exceed) your expectations. Take the high road, and you force yourself into a sometimes trudging uphill climb into a potentially fuller, more robust gaming experience. You do end up higher; you just have to work for it. The developers face the same decision regarding what type of title to launch. The road metaphor is perhaps analogous to the distinction between the experience of MTV and feature films. You can get your flash, quick fix of buzz entertainment, or, lose yourself in a grandiose, multi- million-dollar Gesamtkunstwerk. Each choice has its strengths, and each its fans.
As much as hardware develops, the envelope never stops being pushed. And why not? Given the growing market share of videogames in the entertainment industry, isn’t this what people have been shown to want? Aren’t the games actually better? Constructing a detailed, elaborate environment means for more involved gameplay, and a more immersive experience. Or does it?
I still remember that to play Mechwarrior 2, I had to set my resolution and terrain detail so low that the mountains had jagged slopes, and the only way I could know for sure I had actually achieved anything was from that sultry, mechanized, computer voice narrating my clumsy piloting through choppy, staccato visuals. Further stifled by the need for the included sheet of commands that utilized most keys on my keyboard, I soon found myself hearing her say, “Gauss Rifle. Gauss Rifle. Gau-Gauss Rifle,” over and over again as I repeatedly selected it as my weapon, since that became more fun than what I was actually supposed to be doing. Maybe I needed a new PC. But maybe I would have just rather played Triple Action, and faced my opponent in battle tanks, with a total of only four commands: turn left, turn right, move forward and shoot. Of course, not all high-profile titles leave those kinds of scars. But some do.
The split in the gaming road lends itself well as a clear instantiation of an important philosophical question. How valuable is progress? Most take the importance of being cutting edge as a self-evident truth. In the gaming industry, the headstrong march to push every envelope has sometimes been to the detriment of gameplay, a fact of which the committed low time (and low income) gamer is all too aware.
The fact is, technology will always be moving forward, keeping the cycle running fluidly, trapping high-road gamers into a never-ending struggle for more, ringing the familiar bells of the perennially dissatisfied middle-class American. Buy, consume, then buy some more.
The case is like that of the mythical Sisyphus, eternally pushing a stone up a mountain slope, whence the stone falls back under its own weight, and the climb begins anew. That high road can perhaps be likened to this slope, with the endless cycle of renewed and heightened expectations keeping any end inevitably unreachable. Perhaps, as with our look back at early games, there is indeed wisdom in classics. (Sisyphus would have probably had better success with my Mechwarrior-mountains, since the slope was composed of diagonally-arranged horizontal lines, where he presumably could have taken a break.)
There is something to be said for the low-investment gamer and for low-investment gaming. There is a kind of minimalist purity in avoiding a Sisyphus gaming climb to the hardware and complexity summit, only to roll back down and climb again. Then again, once you do reach the top, the view can sure be spectacular.
Simon Abramovitch is a philosophy graduate and freelance writer, and currently maintains a blog about the purpose of humankind at www.thehumanpurpose.com