Just what is it that makes Computer Games so Different, so Appealing?

Jesper Juul: "Just what is it that makes Computer Games so Different, so Appealing?". IGDA Ivory Tower Column. April 2003.

Academics are often called upon to provide handy answers to questions such as the one posed above, but while we may try to create research that is accessible and applicable, we also face the fact that many questions do not have simple answers. The question here lacks a short answer because, as with other cultural things, it is constantly changing: The history of computer games is really a history of continually making computer games attractive in new ways.

This is not to say that all games are infinitely different and that there is nothing to talk about, but rather that there is a lot to talk about. For example, the current IGDA T-shirt proposes a solution to our question:

A game is series of interesting choices.
-Sid Meier

By which Meier means that a good game is a series of mentally challenging choices. In recent years, this has been a commonly quoted rule #1 on how to create good games and good gameplay. A further elaboration of the rule typically goes something like this:

  1. No single option can be consistently superior to the others.
  2. The options should not be equally attractive.
  3. The player must be able to make an informed choice.

Going through a random list of games, from Donkey Kong, to Civilization, to Counter-strike, to Super Monkey Ball, certainly confirms that interesting choices exist in these games and appear to be a central part of their attraction. We could go even further back and look at tic-tac-toe: As the reader may recall, tic-tac-toe has the property that if your opponent begins in the middle, you must always place your first piece in the corner, otherwise you will loose to a reasonably intelligent player. This explains why tic-tac-toe is a children's game: Tic-tac-toe remains playable only until you discover the pattern, thereby making the choices uninteresting. This not only confirms the idea of interesting choices, even in a simple game, but also highlights what we already know, namely that any specific game does not suit all people equally well.

But some games do away with interesting choices altogether. The object of the music/rhythm games Dance Dance Revolution and Vib-Ribbon is simply to hit the right buttons on the Playstation controller or dance mat at the correct time. These games do in fact not contain any interesting choices whatsoever - but performing the non-interesting choices is marked by some other form of enjoyment, namely that of being in time with the music. They are still enjoyable games, which goes to prove that interesting choices is not all there is to it.

The idea of interesting choices is a good example of the “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail”-syndrome, since we can go through just about any computer game imaginable and find interesting choices, but we can also find a lot of uninteresting choices that are nevertheless enjoyable: Having cornered your opponent to perform the final kill is great fun. So is being in time with the beat, seeing your character advance a level, or doing a routine to perfection.

Sid Meier would probably agree that there is more to games than interesting choices, the point here simply being that there is no single sentence describing what makes games attractive.

What this tells us is that game development and innovation is often about finding that something previously considered dull can actually be interesting, and that in a sense, innovative games are a discussion about what games are. For example, most people would a few years ago have supposed that household chores were too dull a subject to become a central part of a computer game, and they would all be wrong. In a historical perspective, The Sims mirrors the appearance of the realistic novel in the later part of the 19th century where, broadly speaking, novels began to describe everyday life rather than heroes and dramatic events. The development of any art form is at least partly to find that the emphasis can be shifted; that the details of everyday life can be interesting; that the painting does not have to represent anything; that the rhythm can be as important as the melody.

Since I can assume that the readers of this column are or have at least at one point in their lives been hardcore gamers, it's also quite likely that they do not actually enjoy The Sims. But why does it sell? Brian Eno has suggested that the interesting thing about pop music is the wide range of people and expressions it can contain, covering a spectrum from classically trained musicians to people who are merely in it for the style. Perhaps what we are seeing is a similar widening of the computer game market: Awful games like Deer Hunter do make it to the top 10 sales chart. But the fact that game connoisseurs can scoff at the tastes of the broad public or simply say "clever, but I think it's a yawn-inducer", indicates that games are becoming like pop music. The rift between the hardcore and the casual gamer - and between different player types - is a sign of the maturity of the market.

That is the long answer to the initial question, the only short one being that it depends, and that it changes. This serves as a reminder about what academics can provide: While game studies and ludology should not shy away from short & snappy answers, it is clear that some of them will have to be rather long and complex. Even so, there is probably some kind of core that most games share, of challenges, of getting better, and, in computer games, of enjoying a fictive world. But the innovative games are often those that find interest in what has hitherto been considered boring or unimportant. And that's part of what pushes computer games forward, making them different, making them appealing in new ways.