Habituation (Bogost on casual gaming)

Matt Barton's picture

Chess: Easy to learn, hard to master?Chess: Easy to learn, hard to master?I recently read Ian Bogost's book How to do Things with Videogames and was quite impressed. There are many good essays in this book worth discussing, and hopefully once this hellish semester/winter from hell is over, I'll actually have some time to blog about them. At any rate, one in particular that I think will interest folks here is called "Habituation," which tries to complicate Bushnell's argument that a great game is easy to learn, but hard to master.

According to Bogost, this maxim is misunderstood. Most people assume that this maxim applies to the game mechanics or rules being easy to master, but what it really refers to is conceptual familiarity. The reason Pong succeeded where the earlier Computer Space did not is that most people are already familiar with ping pong, so they brought a lot to the table, so to speak. By contrast, Computer Space was based on the game Spacewar!, which only a tiny fraction of people had played, and no one was familiar with the zero-G dogfight.

Furthermore, Bogost argues that what we really want to achieve in games like Pong (or pool, darts, etc.) is to learn the rules to the point where we don't have to think about them as we play. Darts, pool, and other bar games are just something to do while you drink and chat with your buddies, not sports that many people take seriously. Thus, what we might call a "casual" game is one that's become habitual, where we can play it without really thinking about it. This frees up our mind to do other tasks, such as converse or think about other things. I've noticed some of us hear saying that they like to play games like Far Cry or Postal in order to relax.

By contrast, there are certainly games that confront us with so much complexity as to require constant active thought. The adventure game genre seems to embody this, but also intense competitive games.

Take World of Warcraft, for instance. I think most players play habitually. They play to relax, chat with their friends, maybe kill some time. Only a few are out to achieve "sublime mastery," rocking the PVP charts DPS charts. These are like the folks you see at a pool hall who have their own custom sticks and totally dominate whoever the play. The rest of us might admire them (or think--wow, what a waste of time and money!). However, seeing these people makes us aware that a higher level of skill exists, and that at least some folks think it's worth acquiring. This raises the cultural value of pool.

Another example Bogost gives is chess. Most of us who enjoy the game aren't chess masters. But we know that these people exist and that if we put the time and energy into it, we might approach their level. Whenever you play chess, even if it's just for fun, you're "tracing the edges of the game's beauty" (128). This makes a lot of sense to me. I'm far, far from being a chess master, but I do admit that one of the reasons I enjoy the game is that I enjoy the thought that people have taken the game to such a level, and it's complex enough to deserve that level of sophisticated play.

Coming back to the WOW example, I think one reason why casual players like me enjoy it is that we're aware of the hardcore players who have really achieved mastery. We might not want to be like them, but they still inspire us and give us a deeper appreciation of the game and what it makes possible. We like to think there's a whole other level of mastery that we will likely never achieve--don't even necessarily want to achieve--but it's nice to know it's there.

When I think of games that I don't like, I do see that a lot of the problem is that they're not "easy to learn" from a cultural level. Take fantasy role-playing games for example. I am deeply steeped in fantasy, having read many novels, watched many movies, etc. Thus when I see a new RPG, I'm already conceptually familiar with it and thus it's much "easier to learn." By contract, RPGs that intentionally veer far away from the familiar stereotypes (orcs, elves, dragons, etc.) are confusing and thus harder to learn. Science fiction games have long suffered from this problem. Everyone knows what to expect from an orc. But an alien could be almost anything from Spock to a ray of light; there's no conceptual expectation.

So I guess the lesson here is that a game designer who wants to be successful shouldn't make his or her game "hard to learn" by making it hard for the target audience to relate to conceptually. They should also make it relatively easy to achieve a level of competence, but include ways for really proficient players to reach a higher level--and make sure to celebrate their achievements so the more casual types can admire them.

What do you think?


Rowdy Rob
Rowdy Rob's picture
Joined: 09/04/2006
Bogost is WRONG!!!

Great post as usual, Matt. I do have some disagreements with some of the premise(s) stated (by you or Bogost). I think that it's not so cut-and-dried that "conceptual familiarity," or "habituation," is a key factor in the success of a game.

When you mention "Pong versus Computer Space," I think this is a classic example of "easy to learn, hard to master" in the "Bushnell" sense, not the "Bogost" sense. Pong had one paddle as a controller, and all you did was move your "paddle" up and down to hit the ball. "Computer Space," on the other hand, was comparatively much more complex in game mechanics and controls. Although it was based on an obscure mainframe game, "Computer Space" was released around the same time that the "Star Wars" phenomenon was happening, so if anything, "cultural familiarity" should have worked in "Computer Space's" favor, not against it! But Pong was just plain easier to learn (and play) for the average person in the new (at the time) videogame era.

I think most "great" games are "habitual" in the fact that the interface does not get in the way of the gameplay, not in the fact that they are less complex or lacking in intense thought. The "adventure" genre that you invoked generally requires intense thought, but the interface itself (in a good game) is "habitual" in the fact that it doesn't get in the way of the gameplay; you jost "do" without thinking of the process of doing. This is no different than waggling the joystick or mouse in an action game.

Back to "conceptual familiarity," I think that's actually a somewhat gray area; it's a bit nebulous, since just about everything is familiar on some level. PacMan, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, and so forth, are familiar from a "cartoon" level. Tetris? It's fitting blocks together. WoW? It's D&D, Lord of the Rings, etc.

I think part of the attraction of "good games" that is missed here is that it's not that there's a separation between the "elite" and the "casual," but that good videogames give the impression that YOU can be "elite" by playing "just one more game." You can become a little (or a lot) better just by continually playing, getting a higher score, completing that next level, getting more loot, solving that puzzle, or whatever, with just a little more time and effort. In contrast, in a "real life" game like bowling, chess, or football, you're going to have to practically devote your life to the pastime to really become elite. For example, my bowling average has remained about the same for the last 30 years or so (around 120), but one of my friends regularly bowls in the 220 range, and he bowls four times a week!!! I ain't gonna do that!

Even a game like WoW gives players this "carrot-on-a-stick" path to greatness. WoW is not really a simple game, conceptually, but the more you play (even casually), the better you get at it, and before you know it, you've topped out your level! I really don't think that most videogamers care that much about "elite" gamers in the same way that people care about "elite" sports heroes or whatever. Something about videogames makes them more about you. I don't think most people care about, or want to be, an "elite" videogamer. At least not in the same sense that a high school basketball player wants to be the next Michael Jordan. I just want to have an intense and fun game session myself.

There's a lot more I could say, but just thought I'd add some food for thought. Anyhow, very thought-provoking post, Matt!

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Hi, Rob, thanks for replying.

Hi, Rob, thanks for replying. I hope I'm not misrepresenting Bogost's views too badly here; I was working from notes rather than the book. I'll try to make sure I don't have any errors here later.

At any rate, I think his point is precisely what you're saying--most of us do not want to be elite sports heroes or gamers. However, we still like the fact that those people are out there, since they inspire us to want to do the sport or play the game because we know that level of mastery exists and is appreciated. Imagine a game like Tic-Tac-Toe where anyone can literally become a grandmaster after only a few matches, or any videogame that is simply too easy.


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