After listening to Jonathan Blow’s “Design Reboot” lecture last December, I made a small resolution that I would try to reduce my time spent on games that rely on meaningless reward systems. What had really struck a chord for me in Blow’s talk was the way that he equated these types of games to eating fast food. For him, World of Warcraft (which I’ve never actually played) is essentially a game that rewards players not so much for solving difficult puzzles or honing specific skills but rather for simply “running a treadmill.” As a person who wants to have a meaningful life, this notion really stuck with me. Putting it into practice, however, has proved tougher than I thought.
Fortunately, at least some of the games I’ve been playing recently—Portal and Half-Life 2 in particular—do an excellent job of providing meaningful and interesting gameplay. And while I haven’t actually rid myself of games that contain meaningless reward systems (Would that even be possible without giving up games altogether?), I'm at least becoming more aware and somewhat less tolerant of games that make me feel like I’m just running on a treadmill. My experience playing No More Heroes, for instance, has actually provided me with a good illustration of both mindless drudgery and meaningful gameplay and storytelling, all within the same game.
The real meat of No More Heroes consists of a series of one-on-one battles between the protagonist, Travis Touchdown, and ten bizarre and colorful assassins. For the most part, I’ve found the stylishly violent boss battles and their associated comic-book style cutscenes to be quite fascinating. Unfortunately, getting to these various boss encounters requires that the player earn money by running around the city performing repetitive side jobs. In addition to finding this rather boring, I also find it somewhat insulting. It’s as though the game is telling me, “Your time isn’t that important, so I’m just gonna force you to mindlessly jump through a bunch of pointless hoops.”
It’s easy for me to identify and criticize the drudgery in No More Heroes because I find it boring. But it’s not as easy for me to recognize pointless gameplay when I’m actually enjoying it. That’s probably why it’s been so hard for me to put my resolution into practice. In Super Mario Galaxy, the player only needs 60 stars to beat the game, yet I still felt irresistibly compelled to get all 120, regardless of how much time it took. Why? To play as Luigi, I suppose. In Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, I’ve been sinking hours and hours into getting an S rank on every level just so I can unlock the infinite ammo option. What’s the point? I think it’s a valid question to ask myself.
I’m not saying there’s something inherently wrong with trying to get all the stars in Super Mario Galaxy. But it’s not above questioning. Reward systems exert a strong pull with a lot of game players. Oftentimes it seems that all a developer has to do to extend the life of a game is to add some arbitrary unlockable item. Is Super Mario Galaxy a better game because players can play as Luigi after getting all 120 stars? Is it good that Call of Duty 4’s multiplayer gives players a specific icon next to their name for leveling up through all 55 experience levels 10 times over? I think that many of us game players allow ourselves to be too readily manipulated by these systems.
This is a complicated issue. The variations in how reward systems are integrated into videogames lie along such a broad continuum that it’s hard to draw any clear lines separating the good from the bad. God of War and World of Warcraft both contain reward systems, but no one would liken playing God of War to running on a treadmill. To be honest, it’s not really clear to me at what point that line gets crossed. I’m sure I’ll play many more games over the years that involve their fair share of mindlessness. After all, there’s nothing wrong with a little mindless fun. I just hope that this medium will continue to grow into something that goes far beyond virtual fast food.