Games have become a new culture in our lives but why did that happen? It may be because art, stories and the music in games are so much more accessible to young people than books or other media. Games are shaping culture and they often are blamed for encouraging violence and wasting time. But games are not the evil products of modern technology, they are just tools. It is up to their designers to have them express ideas, to teach and train us to have more positive lives.
The origins of digital games can be traced back to the early 1950s, but digital games did not reach mainstream popularity until the 1970s and 1980s. As a young person born in the late 1980s, my generation grew up with digital games. We are the video game generation. We live in a world where we have always been shaped culturally by literature, history, art, music and media, but now games are becoming one of the dominant new media in the young generation’s lives. Games have changed us, our brains, our subconscious and how we think. How can games influence us for better lives? If we see the world through the lens of games, will games be our tools to change the world?
II. Historical, Theoretical, Artistic Context
Research published by Carnegie Mellon University claimed that the average young person today in a country with a strong gamer culture spends 10,000 hours gaming by the age of 21. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success says that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. So what exactly are gamers getting good at? In the United States 10,080 hours is the time children spend in school from fifth grade to high school graduation. The amount of time we spend on games actually is the same as education. What are games teaching us?
In order to find some answers to those questions, we may need to consider how games influence our subconscious. Psychology researchers have been trying to find a way to trained our minds or to induce modes of consciousness to clear the mind and ease many health concerns, such as depression and anxiety. One method is hypnosis. During the hypnotic state, a person can concentrate intensely on a specific thought or memory, blocking distraction. He can easily experience time disappearing. He can concentrate totally on his response to the instructor’s suggestion that he will block all other external stimuli. Does that sounds familiar? It’s actually extremely similar to what happens to a gamer. If we are playing games for hours, this state continuous to affect us even after we quit the game. We may find the image still playing back in our minds. When we close our eyes the vision becomes even more clear. Games can easily reach our subconsciousness and give us suggestions subliminal.
Game designing is a business, a way to make a living. And it’s true, gaming is a hot startup sector. But because games can deliver messages to our subconsciousness, we should take more care with the content of the messages hidden in the games. Is it about money, violence or hope?
Games are not what they look like on the surface. When we look at games, we see that the storyline has very little relationship to the actual shape of the game. Games cover up the structure underneath — they cover it up with game art, music, and experience. We all know languages have their limitation. Long narrative dialogue will not be the tools for game designers to communicate with players. Visual language and sound design become the mouth and tongue for a game. Every image has its psychology reflection, even a basic shape can speak to us if we arrange it properly. For example, circle represents the notions of totality, wholeness, the self, the infinite, etc. The psychologist CG Jung thought the antithesis of the square standing for the ultimate state of Oneness, with octagon in between. Kandinsky also talks a lot about his theory of the basic shape in his book Point and Line To Plane. Artists and psychologists have researched visual languages, color theory, and graphic metaphor. These theories also can be used to create game art. Many indie gamers are inspired by fine art and they’re trying to make their games unique art. A puzzle game Monument Valley concept drawings by company artist Ken Wong is an exploration. Its visual style was inspired by Japanese prints, minimalist sculpture, and was compared by critics to M. C. Escher drawings and Echochrome.
Another language system in games is music and sound design. Normally we tend to consider music as melody and rhythm. It’s invisible. But if you have sound editing experience in audio software, you can see any sound could be visible as an audio wave. Let’s try to see music as a wave. It contains three parts: amplitude, frequency and unique patterns. The amplitude is tone, frequency is pitch and pattern is timbre. All sounds have these three elements, so any sound could be music. The reason we can easily find rhythm in music and singing is because the rhythm is obvious, but if we loop any sound including speech, we can find it has rhythm, too. So the sound design in games is not just limited to music, it’s also used for feedback and to support mood. It is like the monologue in dramas, it contains emotion and information. If we see audio as a long frequency, low wave with dark timber it will be a sad sound while a short frequency, high wave with bright timber will be happy, the emotion we can feel here depends on our cultural expectations, since game reinforce our cognition of sound patterns. In the game Journey (see fig. 2) the sound designer built a specific language system so that talking is more like singing in the game world. This breaks the barriers of language and gives back the original beauty of music as a form of universal understanding. It has been proved by players that sound could be a successful emotional communicator for people.
Many educators considers that everybody has one of the three basic ways to process the world: visual, auditory or kinaesthetic. Games create a full sensory experience to get your attention and make you fall in love with it. Players explore game worlds using auditory, visual, and even body languages by interactive processes. Games could be efficiency tools for education. That’s why many education games have come out for teaching children with more fun and effective ways. Like Scribblenauts Remixand Math Doodles.
很多教育学家认为所有人都有三种认知世界的方式：视觉，听觉或者触觉。游戏创造了全感官的体验来让你爱上它的世界。玩家在视觉，听觉和肢体的互动中来认知游戏的世界。这就是为什么游戏可以是很好的学习工具的原因，而很多教育类游戏确实广受家长们的欢迎。比如Scribblenauts、 Remixand 、Math Doodles.
Instead of passing judgment on young peoples addictive to games, we need to take a deep look at why games are more attractive to them then their real lives? If our lives are designed to be as exciting as game play, would it be easier for us to handle the tasks in our real lives? American game designer Jane McGonigal. has a theory about what elements make a game, they are: goal, rules, feedback systems and voluntary participation. Let’s think about one type of game from these properties. The goals in this game are not that clear, you don’t know why you play it. The rules are not fair to everyone and it changes a lot without prompts. The feedback is weird, you don’t know when you will get feedback to your actions and sometimes they’re lying to you, you won’t distinguish which activity will benefit you, become more confused and with no clear sign for finishing the level. Most of all you can’t quit the game, everyone has to be in this game whether you like it or not. Does that sound fascinating? But it’s a real game we play everyday, it has a name called Our Real Lives. Probably that’s why many young gamers spend so much time in the digital world. Life is a mystery with a lot of struggling to a young person. By switching to the digital world, gamers can release the frustrating on their real lives, games fulfill people’s hunger for success, collaboration, provide an opportunity fighting for a goal, etc. If we have chance to advance life as a game, what can we do?
A theory called The Flow Channel was introduced in Jesse Schell’s book The ART of Game Design to provide a solution to advance experience of gamers. Flow theory is from the investigations of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of “optimal experience”. It is a state of consciousness that makes an experience genuinely satisfying. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. This positive state can be controlled by ordering the information that enters our consciousness, not just left to chance. By apply this experience in game design, we can help our players discover true happiness and greatly improve the quality of our lives. As a game designer, our goal is to keep our players in the flow channel for as long as possible. In order to control that, Jesse discovered five factors we should consider in game design, they are: Challenges vs. Skills, Anxiety vs. Boredom and the one that balances them all is Difficulty Balance. If the challenges of the game come up too slowly our player will switch to the Boredom realm and will possibly abandon it. On the other hand, if the challenges rise too fast our player will switch to Anxiety zone and they will likely to quit the game, too. Both anxiety and boredom drive the player to frustration. Our aim is to make the player stay in the flow. However instead of increasing difficulty in uniform acceleration (see fig. 3), Jesse suggests a better way of advance the experience is slightly decreasing and increasing the difficulty at a fixed rate. When a level is completed and the player moves to the next one, the difficulty is decreased a little bit for a while and given a short period for the player to feel powerful so the feeling of progress will be reinforced. However, after a while, we need to offer more challengers to avoid players entering the Boredom realm (see fig. 4). The Flow Channel concept is a very powerful one, not just to for game design, it also can be used in our life when we want to achieve goals.
Jesse Schell 的书《游戏设计的艺术》里介绍过一个用于提高玩家游戏体验的理论叫做“心流”（Flow Channel）。“心流”的理论最早是由心理学家Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi提出的理论。它指的是一种让意识达到极大满足的状态。在心流状态中，人们感到深度的喜悦，充满了创造力，并且感到完全的参与其中。这种极有力的积极状态并非偶然获得，人们可以通过控制信息进入我们的意识的顺序，来获得这种愉悦的感觉。通过在游戏里有意设计引导玩家达到这种心流状态，我们能够让玩家感到极大的喜悦从而提高他们的生活质量。作为一个游戏设计师，我们的目标是尽可能久的帮助玩家维持“心流”状态。为了做到这一点Jesse发现有五个重要的因素值得我们注意，他们是：挑战vs.技能，焦虑vs.无聊，以及平衡了以上两对最重要的一点，叫做难度平衡。如果挑战上升的太慢，玩家会进入无聊模式从而弃玩。如果上升的太快玩家就会进入焦虑模式，同样也有极大的可能弃玩。所以焦虑和无聊都会让玩家挫败感上升。我们的目标是让玩家保持在心流的通道里。然而比起让挑战和技能一起匀速直线上升（图1.），还有一个更高招的手段，那就是当玩家完成一个阶段的挑战后，在下一个阶段的开始让游戏难度稍稍降低一会，先让玩家享受一下胜利带来的力量，这样会加强过关的成就感，然后再提升游戏的难度。（图2.）心流理论不仅可以用于游戏设计中，他同样也可以在真实生活中帮助我们达到目标。
Designing games is a process for designing experience, designing joy. Gaming is an intuitive human activity, it’s not an evil product of modern technology. The exploration for developing games is an exploration for developing happiness. Using gaming theory to design our lives can make us more positive and happy. What can we learn from games to apply to our real lives to make them more fun? The advice from a game designer will be: design your life as a game. Set a clear goal and separate it into several levels, be careful about the difficulty balance, make yourselves stay in the Flow channel. Giving instant feedback is extremely important, giving credit for any achievement as well. Although life will not give us clear rules, we can set our own and it will release anxiety to make life easier. Collaboration with others to achieve the same goal will make achievement more satisfying. Linguistics is not the only tool for communication. Images, music even body language can be tools to dissolve communication barriers. Above all, live life as a gamer, keep your curiosity and passion, fight as a hero and achieve your Epic Win!