against effortlessness

some applaud games for their ability to lead you along an ideal path as if effortlessly. the first level in super mario brothers is praised for teaching you the basics of the game as if by accident, which has been hoisted as a template and ideal for design. the problems is, mario 1-1 is a tutorial, a patronizing one at that (as it was made for children), so why has it been made out to be so much more than it is in videogame culture?

often people mistake an “open world” which provides a neat and tidy trail to follow as meaningfully different than a game where you merely move in a line, i.e. Mario. these are the same. yet in one context the game is constructed for you to follow a path, much like a film, so your interaction in the work is fundamentally grounded in the agreement to let the work take you where it wants to go, and your engagement lies in making sense of how the pieces come together. the promise of the “open world” game is one where there is no agreement to follow the lead of the work, that what you do within an impartial space (one that is still constructed, but does not lead you) is the matter of dialogue itself. there is much value to be had in this–at the heart of the “open world” marketing lingo is the promise of embracing the unique properties of computer games, wielding cyber-spaces to have intimate dialogues with our actions and beliefs. yet much of these promises have failed to be realized due to ‘effortlessness’.

effortlessness is a trapping of videogame culture, derived from the product-oriented mentality which seeks pleasure from consumption at the expense at all else. this kind of thinking has long held back games and poisoned the well of discourse, hijacking any ambitions towards systemic meaning and reflection back to an individual’s deeply personal experience in being dissatisfied with a product. this reductive nature halts games from offering challenging ideas and sends a message to game creators that it’s ground better left untouched, else you face the wrath of a gamer scorned.

effortlessness presumes that your interaction with a game must always be pleasant, that the game should come to you and never you to it. most importantly, it is the presumption that your deeply held views should never be questioned, and this is dangerous. it is based on a false presumption of the mechanisms of film or literature, that their inevitable sequentiality entails effortless interaction with them, which is not the case. and regardless, it is the same regressive appeal to artistic respectability which games consumers use to excuse themselves of complacency. effortlessness is fundamentally reductive, asking a game world which could have been complex and beautiful to instead be a dull pleasure delivery device with a vague semblance of verisimilitude, for the sake of pleasure delivery. instead of games which explore the machinations of fuedal politics and relate their contexts to our lives, we get milquetoast drivel such as (but not limited to) skyrim, and we get deeply problematic inrooted ideologies spreading pervasively through our culture. is it a coincidence that videogames culture is so individualistic, conservative and monolithic, and that games lean so heavily on nietzsche’s ubermenschian philosophies, social darwinism, and wagnerian aesthetics in their pursuit of effortless pleasure, all of which are fundamental underpinnings of fascism?

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2 thoughts on “against effortlessness

  1. “it is based on a false presumption of the mechanisms of film or literature, that their inevitable sequentiality entails effortless interaction with them, which is not the case.”

    do you think a highly-linear game experience could work/be good in the ways that film and literature actually do/are, separate from this false presumption?

    just found the site through a reference in the latest GB guest column, loving it so far. thanks for your time!

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    1. of course. however, this works best in narrative contexts where you are along for the ride in another’s shoes. often games try to have their cake and eat it too, trying to lean into the appeal of the medium’s non-sequentiality while also telling highly superficial, rigid stories based on the traditions of film/lit. the recent Firewatch comes to mind as a sterling example of a game which understands sequential storytelling and applies it meaningfully and naturally. ultimately, the harmonious exchange of mechanical storytelling and traditional storytelling uplift the entire game.

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