I tend toward perfectionism, I admit, and toward completionism. These are (especially together) nearly as often failings as they are virtues. Still, we all have our own issues and despite my drive toward achievement I tend to shy away from competitive games; I don't like to get into contests that I have no chance of winning.
It's not that I need to win all the time; rather, it's an awareness of my weaknesses. I'm an overweight asthmatic with a bad knee; I wouldn't enter footrace unless I planned for some reason to place last. I do enter trivia contests, because at least there I have a chance to rise or fall on my own merits.
This means there's a genre of gaming I tend not to tackle. I stick to single-player games, whether narrative or competitive, or occasionally to cooperative multiplayer games. I don't want to put myself in an us-vs-them situation either on my own merits or as the weakest link of a team. Competition is, of course, easiest with the gaming partner who lives with you, but I'm particularly adverse to competing against my spouse. It's a level of marital discord that I simply don't need.
But speaking of my spouse, thanks to deals on sites like Groupon and LivingSocial, we manage to get away once or twice a year on little, inexpensive-but-lovely B&B trips in the region. (There are rather a lot of picturesque country getaways within a 3-hour drive of Washington, DC.) We take these trips as a time to unplug, but sometimes find ourselves with some quiet afternoon or evening time to fill.
As it turns out, nearly every B&B on Earth seems to have a Scrabble set somewhere.
|Not a euphemism: we play Scrabble on vacation.|
Here's the thing I like about playing Scrabble with my husband: we're both terrible at it.
I'm great at thinking of words, but without the right tiles in hand or the right spaces on the board on which to put them, it doesn't matter. Meanwhile, his strategic sense is better than mine, but I have an unerring ability to steal exactly the letter he was going to build from on his next turn.
We're both awful. And we're matched 2-2-1 over the last year's worth of trips, from Labor Day weekend 2010 to Labor Day weekend 2011. And we both stay awful, and thus the games, while competitive, remain fun and not hostile.
Here's the thing about gaming: we really are all designed to overlearn the system. It's just how games and players work: we look at a system and then we dismantle and master it. And it's something each of us does methodically (though methods vary), up until the point where the pleasure wears off.
|That "splort" is so damn satisfying.|
When the pleasure wears off, some of us quit. I don't tend to play Fruit Ninja much on my phone anymore, because I reached a mastery plateau: incremental increases in high score take far too much play time, and suck the fun out of the attempt, making it instead a grim, pulp-covered death march to the next "correct" move. Others double down and find a new pleasure, in the competition itself. When you've mastered the game, you no longer derive joy from your own high scores -- pssh, of course you're awesome! -- but from knowing your score beats others.
When the going gets tough, some of us go for a walk outside and some of us plan to become national champion. It takes all sorts.
When we talk about "casual" gamers vs "core gamers," I don't actually think we mean the type of game each camp enjoys. There are Boggle and Scrabble players who will absolutely school you, and who make it their mission to do so. Somewhere out there, there's someone who's gotten a 100% and an Ace on every level of Peggle and Peggle Nights. In EQ2, there are folks out there who are so hardcore into the crafting system (and just the crafting system) that they know more about it than the dev team does. And no matter who you are, someone out there is way more into (and better at) Wii Tennis than you. Meanwhile, there are folks who play Call of Duty once or twice a month for fun, gamers who pop into World of Warcraft occasionally just to chat with buddies, and players who don't care about their KTD ratio in Halo or Counter-Strike.
When we collectively talk about gamers and gaming, though, we tend to separate the "casual" and "core" gamers by their preferred genre. There's a definite dismissive attitude ingrained in the culture: "Mom's not a real gamer, she just plays Facebook games." And yet, what if she plays them consistantly, constantly, to a point of true mastery? And of course, even a competitive PvP game isn't really good sport if girls are winning.
From my point of view, I think one of the biggest challenges we have in talking about gaming and gamer populations comes from our whole really being made of two halves. This is where the constant (and somewhat exhasting) ludonarrative debate comes from, among critics and writers. In short: when we talk about games, are we talking about their rules and forms of mastery, or about the stories they tell? Both, or neither?
|Seriously, more time on animation than on fighting.|
On the one hand, we have a physical challenge, one that can be mastered and set aside. But in our biggest games, the skill or reflex mastery comes paired with a narrative that has to run its course regardless of the player's level of accomplishment. For the first half of Divinity II, the fights are too challenging; for the last third, they're far too easy. When starting a Japanese-style party-based RPG like Chrono Cross, fights begin as an elaborate process that you can have difficulty learning -- but then, aside from bosses, descend into farce, taking up your time with repetitive intro and outro animations and fanfares.
A film director can and does control the pacing and delivery of the entirety of his product. A game designer has more trouble with the pacing. If a game is strictly, 100% linear with no deviations, it's a niche product: an interactive novel, or the game-film. The tautness, delivery, and coherence of Heavy Rain varies depending how you play it. One way it's a thriller; another way, it's slightly disconnected; a third way, it's a drama. In the end, though, there are a total of four characters and 12 endings, and so David Cage and Quantic Dream are able to shape it to their whims.
There's only one way to play Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and only one way to play Uncharted. But there are a dozen ways to play Mass Effect. Can BioWare forsee that I'm going to go search every planet and complete every side quest in the galaxy? Can they predict which one I will finally skip?
For me, of course, the answer is back up there in the first sentence: I tend toward completionism, and will perform, and try to master, every skill a game sets before me. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to start a New Game Plus in Bastion. It has these proving grounds, you see...