Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Cognitive Games

As I've begun to think more about the types of games I most enjoy, I've realized that the games I like best are those that require an investment from the player. It seems that the games which demand the most often have the most to give back. Of course not all demanding games are richly rewarding, but for the most part games that are demanding seem to perform the unique role of games as learning tools better than those which aren't. The enjoyment an individual derives from games compared to other entertainment media depends in part on how much they enjoy the learning aspect of games, and the purer the game, the more it relies on learning.

I call games which stress learning cognitive games. There are two broad categories of cognitive games, complex games which demand the player to learn complicated systems and interfaces, and games with relatively simple mechanics but which require total mastery of those mechanics. In the case of the simple games, the learning process is often more akin to learning to play a sport than it is to the process of learning a complex game. I enjoyed both types of games starting at an early age.

My first exposure to complex games was through pen and paper role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. P&P RPGs are usually quite complex because their rulesets need to be able to handle an extremely open-ended game and thus adjudicate an endless number of possibilities. Of course, the game master is there to make judgments on how to apply the rules, but the fact that D&D has been so successfully translated to computer simulations which lack human game masters is a testament to the game's complexity. In fact, the computer RPGs which are directly based on P&P systems are probably more complex on average than those which aren't.

In addition to ridiculously complex RPGs, during the 80s and 90s computers also held host to numerous other cognitively demanding games, including turn-based strategy and war games, flight simulators, real-time strategy(RTS) games, and various simulations. Most of these games had thick paper manuals and complex controls which took advantage of every input device the PC had to offer. These are games which required study, and people like me were happy to spend hours poring over the manuals and devising strategy when not actively playing.

Console games, on the other hand, tended toward the simple variety, but there were still cognitively challenging games. Tetris and other similar block puzzle games have very simple systems that are easy to understand but demand faster and faster mental processing and reaction from the player as the difficulty increases. Many side scrolling platformers and action games likewise have fairly simple mechanics(alther much more complex than Tetris) but require dedication from the player to acquire the necessary hand-eye coordination to complete the game. And to provide one more example, fighting games like Street Fighter require the development of timing, coordination, and dynamic strategic thinking. And with each game employing different systems, skill in one doesn't translate 1:1 into other games no matter how superficially similar they may seem.

The one characteristic all cognitive games have in common is that they punish you for making a mistake. Negative feedback is necessary to enforce learning. The trend these days is toward positive feedback in the form of rewards or unlockables, and although those can be useful and fun, I still think cognitive games need negative feedback. If the game is so lenient that the player can progress the narrative even while playing badly, he probably isn't even aware that he is playing badly. Imagine learning to play chess against a computer AI simulating a typical 10 year old. Despite the depth and potential complexity of the game, you would be unlikely to appreciate the finer points without a more challenging opponent. Perhaps one reason competitive multiplayer modes are so popular is because in the modern narrative-focused game that is the one mode where failure, and thus learning, is unavoidable.

I've recently been playing three games which I consider to be good examples of cognitive games, Armored Core 4, Virtua Fighter 5, and System Shock. The telling point to be made here is that System Shock is over ten years old and the other two games are continuations of series which began long ago(Armored Core 4 is actually the 12th game in that series). Are games today less cognitively demanding than the games of old? Are new franchises of cognitive games likely to find mainstream success in today's commercial environment? The recently released Bioshock, a spiritual sequel to the System Shock series, is an excellent subject for analysis, but one which I shall have to tackle in a later post!

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