Tom Chatfield on

Computer Games

The Senior Editor at Prospect Magazine discusses computer games. Says they aren’t just for teenage boys locked in their bedrooms – they are vital tools for social development. Thoughtful and personal

  • 1932111972.01.LZ_


    A Theory of Fun
    by Raph Koster

  • 0415487552.01.LZ_


    Homo Ludens
    by Johan Huizinga

  • B001P3OLVA.01.LZ_


    Play Money
    by Julian Dibbell

  • 0691127506.01.LZ_


    Playbooks and Checkbooks
    by Stefan Szymanski

  • 0061339202.01.LZ_


    by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Tom Chatfield

Tom Chatfield is a writer, pianist, workaholic and senior editor on Prospect magazine. He is also an expert on electronic games technology and his book Fun Inc dispels preconceived ideas about computer game-playing. Tom Chatfield's articles in Prospect Tom Chatfield on Twitter Screen test by Tom Chatfield

Save for later

A global industry worth almost 50 billion dollars, virtual worlds with more inhabitants than some small countries… is this the age of the videogame?

The medium is coming of age alongside its audience. For the first time, you have an activity that is pretty much ubiquitous amongst under-18s, but that is also crossing generations; the average games player is now in his 30s. And, as people grow up, what they want from the medium also grows up. People are getting older but they are not setting aside their consoles, and this means that the limiting conception of games as something for teenage boys locked in bedrooms – which is where it all started – is simply ceasing to be true. What I am interested in is the wider consequences of play being for everybody, in its electronic form. Games are now starting to compete with the most sophisticated forms of other media, as well as the crudest. And they are taking up an increasingly large amount of our time. I think that this is a big deal. We need to be able to talk incisively about what the medium has to offer, and what its real dangers are, instead of falling back on a vision of games that’s ten years out of date and riddled with cliché.

Why do you think there is such a fear of games as breeding grounds for pathology and addiction, or in cases such as Grand Theft Auto, a new generation of serial killers?

You have this emerging medium which is a lightning rod, a convenient symbol, and something very easily misunderstood. Because of the history of games, there have always been insiders and outsiders. Now, we have a situation in which the experience of one generation is being very rapidly outdated by the experience of the next generation. This fracture is dangerous and it presents enormous challenges: in this sense, people are right to see large and real social concerns in games. But most critics haven't yet managed to open up a productive or realistic debate, because they tend to start from a position that is not based in the reality being lived by most users of new media, but rather in fears based on a few exceptional cases. Of course, it's a very old fear to worry that people are vulnerable and can be ‘taken over' by something that is excessively stimulating, compelling or emotional. But this kind of fear has been articulated even about the written word, and it's no good if it's not anchored in precise observation. Plato was worried that writing was going to make people soft in the head; the novel was criticised as too exciting for women to read; we have had it with television in turn. What we have found is that people do indeed behave pathologically towards a medium sometimes, but that driving causes for this behaviour can never be reduced simply to ‘X is bad for everyone'. You have to understand why, and how different people's interactions with different cases within a medium work.

Turning to your first book, A Theory of Fun. This book deals with the fundamentals of what makes a game good and posits a biological explanation for their appeal.

The reason I like A Theory of Fun is that it’s by a professional games designer, one who was responsible for the first MMO (Ultima Online in 1997). It’s a book about games in general, not just about electronic games, and it reminds us that game-playing is a human activity that is at least as old as civilisation. Today, we are seeing a new form of it, but in order to understand it properly, we need to begin with this really deep evolutionary hold that games have on us. Koster looks at games as something that are about learning above all; they are, in his phrase, ‘chewy’ environments for our brains, where we are performing a task again and again to get better at beating the particular properties of a particular environment. He certainly gives the lie to the idea that gaming is new, at least in terms of being unprecedented. I love his eloquence in explaining that, first of all, you have to understand games in very old terms if you want to understand which aspects of our natures are being foregrounded and tapped into by this modern explosion in a particular form of game.

Your second book, Homo Ludens, also deals with the notion of play from a cultural and anthropological perspective.

It was written in 1938, and it’s a study of what the author calls the ‘play element of culture'.  So really it’s another book about the way that play precedes culture, and is a distinct and very complicated human phenomenon. The author sees play as something that has many interlocking facets, and that has given rise to much that we think of as civilisation: something that encodes a crucial set of human values, ideas and ways of being in the world. As he points out, all animals play; play is a bigger thing than mere culture, and an important counterbalance to those ‘serious' elements we sometimes seek to reduce life into: the Darwinian business of work and struggle. A lot of people say play isn't ‘real' or ‘serious' and mean this as a critique. But that's the point of it – that human reality is richer and stranger than the animal business of survival.

Moving on to Play Money by Julian Dibbell. This deals with the emergence of virtual economies within Massively Multiplayer Online games?

This is where it gets really interesting in the present day. If we want to talk about the biggest problems and challenges around games, too, economics seems to me a much more fertile ground for worry and exploration than the vague fears of corruption that are doing the rounds.
Play Money was written by an American author called Julian Dibbell, who decided he was going to spend a year trying to earn enough money to live off purely by trading in virtual goods. Virtual goods are things that only exist within a game world, but which people value so much that they are prepared to pay real world money for. It sounds uncanny and paradoxical, but makes perfect sense: game worlds exist to reward people, you have to put in a lot of effort to get stuff within them, and a lot of people wish to short-cut that effort. It’s simple supply and demand. There is a demand among millions of fairly affluent players for virtual things that take hundreds or thousands of hours to earn, and so the supply exists to meet this demand, especially in places like China, where the national average wage is not very high.
At this point, virtual economics start to look astonishingly real. It’s possible to construct, out of nothing, a virtual arena that generates enormous notions of value from its players. It begins to blur the boundaries between what is playful and recreational and what is hard work, what is business. This, I think, is one of the reasons that games are a fascinating window into the world’s future, because the ways in which we are recreating and entertaining ourselves, and the activities that we think of as business and money, are blurring in some ways.
After all, it’s easier to trace the chain of value of spending 100 hours of effort earning a virtual sword that then has a monetary value put on it by the market than it is to understand why it is a derivative is worth a certain amount of money. If you want to talk about the potential of game worlds, this is hugely important. Economics has never been such a precisely measurable science before – these may be games, but they are also very real and very valuable economies, with real world economic phenomena appearing in them. Unlike real life, however, you can measure every single variable precisely down to the tiniest millimetre, and you can easily set up controls, comparisons, you can tweak variables. Down the line, this could have very wide applications.

Tell me about Playbooks and Checkbooks.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a compelling account of the unusual economics that have grown up in the last century around the extraordinarily profitable arena of sports. It’s interesting because, in order to make sports work as an industry – in order to make the money – you have to indulge in all sorts of practices that defy conventional economics.
For instance, a sport league needs to be competitive to be enjoyable, so, unlike in a business arena, crushing your opponents by too much damages everyone’s ability to make money. So leagues are highly redistributive in terms of the money; for instance, the value of the premiership is not dependent on how good its best two clubs are. It’s dependent on how good the competition is. Theoretically, the top few clubs could claim almost all the money because they have the clout in terms of their following, players and bank balances. Instead, though, it’s realised tacitly there has to be a good level of competition, there have to be good matches.
However, the great story of making money out of sport is how staggeringly popular vicarious play is as an activity. The last football World Cup was the single most viewed activity in human history, and in terms of vicarious participation it dwarfs any religion. I am very interested in what happens when what has been a vicarious activity is made a mass participatory activity, because people, who have an intense curiosity about watching play, can now participate in it on a vast scale. If we look at the special economics, rules and circumstances that have grown up around sports, this is a very useful index of the play economics of the future.

Your final book, Flow, discusses the notion of flow and what it has to do with videogames. Talk us through it.

The notion of flow is the idea that there is a state that is characterised by complete immersion in an activity, by a constant response to stimuli, and a perfect match between your ability and the challenge in front of you. This combination puts people into a state that has often been described as feeling like ‘flow', where you are learning and acting and responding at a super-efficient rate.
This physiological phenomenon has been likened to many things – to what happens when a sportsman is hitting the perfect drive in golf, or a musician is performing a piece at the peak of their powers. It’s a notion that has really been taken up by the gaming community because games are an interactive medium in a way that nothing else is – you’re getting many of thousands of tiny responses a second. And they’re a dynamic medium, in the sense that they can offer you an environment that adapts to your performance. Recently, an influential game called Fl0w was designed by a man called Jenova Chen, the idea behind it being that if you can come up with an adaptive environment that responds to what people are doing, they are learning at a much faster rate and their ability to respond to this environment is exponentially increased, as is their pleasure and immersion in it.
‘Flow' is a term that can be over-used and isn't always too precisely defined, but as an idea it's one of the most exciting things around in games theory. Because we can actually start to measure this kind of state neurologically, and start to break down this resonant but imprecise word into a number of human phenomena relating to learning, to action and to memory. This gives you powerful insights into how we can make a whole spectrum of activities more intuitive, more appealing, and more open to a wider range of abilities – how we can draw in people from higher and lower ends of abilities, and give them both a satisfying environment. It's as relevant to schools and businesses as it is to entertainment companies, and it's only just beginning.

Finally, I have to ask, your FiveGames?

Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii is a beautifully designed game world – loving attention to detail, the quality of design, it’s just immaculate. I have also been really enjoying a clever cheap game on the PS3 called PixelJunk Monsters, which is a tower defence game, because I think it’s a very simple, beautifully executed example of a game you just want to play again and again and again to get better at particular tasks: in this case, building towers to defend cute furry things against cute monsters.
I have always had a very soft spot for the original SimCity game. I still play it. It’s a great example of how simple rules can give rise to amazing, emergent complexity and how satisfying it is to play with a city as a virtual toy and complex system. People often miss the fact that the most popular type of games are not violent, but rather systems management games. The idea of a city, where you play god, try to make it grow, is very satisfying.
I also always loved Super Metroid on the SNES. You could play it in different ways – either just complete it, or complete it and try to find every secret in the game, and it was so well designed it was an absolute pleasure to try and discover all the bits that the designers hid around the place.

I think I can guess your next one.

Oh, go on then, World of Warcraft. I have been playing since Beta – so for its total existence – and what’s interesting about it is what it allows people to do. You can go in and be a twat, you can go in and help people. I’ve made friendships within it, I play it with my wife, I play it with good friends, with a guild on the east coast of the States, who we occasionally fly over and stay with. We’ve had people who’ve never left the States before come over and stay with us. It’s a delight. It’s a game that gives people a large selection of different things to do. It doesn’t set out to suck out your life, rather just present players with a broad choice of activities. Only a few people play it obsessively at the top end; most people just enjoy it because it’s witty, post-modern, and well-designed. It is the daddy.
I know you only asked for five, but I can't finish without mentioning perhaps the cleverest single game of the last decade, Portal, which just has a brilliant concept – you fire a gun that allows you to create wormholes, instantly transporting you between any two surfaces in a maze-like 3D landscape. Brilliant gameplay, but also a wonderful script and amazing voice acting. The script is hilarious; it’s a comic masterpiece. It shows that games can be well-designed, fun to play and funny.

March 15, 2010