We are familiar with the topic of video game addiction, but Bogost takes up the topic of habituation in a different and perhaps less extreme sense. He begins with the familiar saying of games that take “a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.” He explores how the accessibility of games draws in part upon external contexts. For example, a game like Pong! (or really any sports-themed game) rests upon the existing cultural context for such games to make them familiar and easy-to-learn. Over time that context has grown so that gamers become familiar with the mechanics of video games themselves. The physical game controllers for console games are fairly standard and used in standard ways; PC games use the mouse and keyboard in predictable ways as well. Games also have standard kinds of interfaces and informational displays: missions, skill trees, experience points, achievements, levels, bosses, etc. These things have become as familiar as the table tennis table on which Pong! was based.
But what about the “lifetime to master” aspect? This takes us back toward McGonigal and our discussion of the psychological aspects of gameplay. The ability to set goals and encounter challenges that are difficult but achievable (not too hard and not too easy) is important. Games become “catchy,” or so Bogost suggests, by relying on “small atoms of interaction,” as when the Tetris pieces come together in satisfying ways. It’s the same as stringing together a series of intricate passes in FIFA or pulling off an acrobatic kill in Assassins Creed.
I am interested in how narrative intersects with this experience. Some familiar games like Poker or Chess can be replayed 1000s of times. A complex video game like Halo or Skyrim has less replayability because once you’ve played all the missions, the story becomes less interesting. Yes, you can play more than once, maybe even a dozen times, but that’s nothing compared to the replayabilty of a card game. So then we see a game like Titanfall, which has a very thin narrative and focuses mostly on multiplayer interaction. Call of Duty would be another example of this.
I wonder if we can consider this issue without falling into a discussion of addiction. (I think we can and should discuss addiction, but this is a slightly different issue.) What makes a game appealing? Catchy? What keeps us playing too late into the night? What creates that itch we feel that brings us back the next day?
This image is based on the work of Csikszentmihalyi, who we encountered in McGonigal’s book where she focused specifically on the “flow” that we enter when skill and challenge come together at a high level. I would guess that habituation has more to do with arousal or relaxation than it does with flow. While flow is rewarding, it is also exhausting. In games we move back and forth between these states as the challenge levels rise and fall and we are called upon to learn new skills.