Dif­fi­culty Switch

Hard game crit­i­cism

EDGE - - CONTENTS - IAN BO­GOST Ian Bo­gost is an au­thor and game de­signer. His award­win­ning A Slow Year is avail­able at www.bit.ly/1eQalad

Gambling’s flir­ta­tion with gaming only de­val­ues it, says Ian Bo­gost

Gaming has largely ig­nored casino ta­ble games, slot ma­chines, lot­ter­ies, sports bet­ting, and other types of gambling that also go by the name ‘gaming’. In part, this was be­cause videogames were con­sid­ered chil­dren’s toys, while gambling was adult fare, and highly reg­u­lated. But more so, the two sorts of gaming just didn’t seem to have much in common. Sure, some videogames, board games and role­play­ing games use prin­ci­ples of chance common to gambling – dice and the like – but that hardly makes them gambling.

But two mo­ments in the his­tory of games of­fer ex­cep­tions when gaming and gambling met at the same ta­ble. The first was the video ar­cade, which re­sem­bled the sticky, dark en­vi­ron­ment of the casino. Lights and sounds lured play­ers to th­ese video ma­chines, into which they dropped coins for small doses of en­ter­tain­ment. Ar­cades looked and felt like casi­nos, and they drew con­cern and re­proach for breed­ing gen­eral dere­lic­tion.

But those re­ac­tions were grounded in fear more than in truth. Harder to deny were the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween some slot-ma­chine de­sign tech­niques and those of coin-op ar­cade games. Both adopt a type of op­er­ant con­di­tion­ing that psy­chol­o­gists call par­tial re­in­force­ment, pro­vid­ing re­wards for de­sired ac­tions. In a par­tial re­in­force­ment sched­ule, a be­hav­iour gets re­in­forced only part of the time. The ap­peal of slot ma­chines comes partly from con­tin­u­ing to drop coins into the ma­chine in the hopes of get­ting a pos­i­tive out­come. Coin-op ar­cade games aren’t quite the same as slot ma­chines, be­cause the player is in con­trol of the out­come. But thanks to the ap­par­ent ran­dom­ness of en­emy be­hav­iour or the foibles of dex­ter­ity, coin-op games can feel ran­dom, es­pe­cially to novices. The coin-op ac­tion ac­cen­tu­ates the ef­fect.

The sec­ond en­counter be­tween gambling and gaming comes in the 1990s, with the in­ven­tion and rapid pop­u­lar­ity of col­lectible card games (CCGs) such as Poké­mon and Magic: The Gath­er­ing. Though games of skill when played, the method of ac­quir­ing them – blind pur­chases of sealed packs of cards – looked like gambling to some.

In fact, US at­tor­neys even mounted a class-ac­tion law­suit against Nin­tendo over Poké­mon, and Wizards Of The Coast over Magic, ac­cus­ing them of run­ning il­le­gal gambling en­ter­prises. Prov­ing such a claim would re­quire demon­strat­ing the games had the prop­er­ties of gambling: prizes, pay­ments, and chance. The suit went nowhere.

To­day, gaming and gambling have be­come bed­fel­lows again. In Ja­pan, the kompu or ‘com­plete’ gacha rose to promi­nence, de­rived from coin-op­er­ated ‘gachapon’ vend­ing ma­chines. A player pays for a ran­dom chance to ac­quire a vir­tual item. In kompu gachas, a se­ries of such items must be col­lected to un­lock a larger prize. The Ja­panese gov­ern­ment threat­ened crack­downs on kompu gacha, and ma­jor game op­er­a­tors vol­un­tar­ily with­drew the de­sign in 2012.

But ver­sions of the ran­dom lot­tery spin re­main popular, from Puz­zle & Dragons to

Be­jew­eled Blitz. Even highly praised in­die ti­tles make use of the tech­nique. Late-2014 mo­bile hit Crossy Road, a Frog­ger -in­spired end­less run­ner, uses a stylised gachapon to dole out new mas­cots. Free spins can be earned by col­lect­ing coins in the game or watch­ing ads, but the ma­chine might de­liver a mas­cot the player al­ready has.

The free-to-play econ­omy is re­spon­si­ble for re­con­nect­ing videogames to gambling. Com­merce is used as a way to avoid the un­com­fort­able ex­pe­ri­ence of un­der­go­ing par­tial re­in­force­ment. Frus­trated with the

Crossy Road lot­tery ma­chine? No prob­lem, just buy the mas­cot you de­sire via IAP.

The crit­ics of the ’80s and ’90s wor­ried that games were too much like gambling, and that young peo­ple would be cor­rupted. But per­haps a slot ma­chine in ev­ery game en­acts an uglier tragedy: that such tech­niques triv­i­alise gambling, rather than en­cour­ag­ing it. To de­lib­er­ately play with fate has been a part of hu­man cul­ture for mil­len­nia. Even if they don’t qual­ify as gambling, some­thing about CCGs and gachas sure feels like it, but in a di­luted form. At least casi­nos and lot­ter­ies can re­sult in pay­outs! Poké­mon cards and Crossy Road mas­cots are only use­ful within a self-con­tained uni­verse. Gambling forces its play­ers to put money on the line and to feel the ter­ror of risk, the plea­sure of beat­ing out lady luck, and the guilt of her in­evitable vic­tory. It would be a shame to re­place that tra­di­tion with a silly play­thing you’ll for­get about next month any­way.

Per­haps a slot ma­chine in ev­ery game en­acts an uglier tragedy: that such tech­niques triv­i­alise gambling

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