Video Games & Decisions

I’ve written a couple of times about Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad is Good For You. He intentionally takes a controversial point of view, that pop culture (which is usually referred to as an example of the downfall of culture or something) is actually making us smarter. While I don’t agree with everything he has to say, I think he makes a lot of good points. His chapter on video games is particularly interesting, because it’s such a new medium, and because it’s rare that someone acknowledges anything good about video games, aside from the occasional reference to improving hand-eye coordination. Johnson mentions several things (like probing and telescoping), but the really interesting thing about video games are the decisions we make while playing.

When you think about it, that’s what video games are all about. They are constantly forcing you to make decisions, to choose one thing over another, to prioritize. Johnson writes:

All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding. No other pop cultureform directly engages the brain’s decision-making apparatus in the same way. From the outside, the primary activity of a gamer looks like a fury of clicking and shooting, which is why so much of the conventional wisdom about games focuses on hand-eye coordination. But if you peer inside the gamer’s mind, the primary activity turns out to be another creature altogether: making decisions, some of them snap judgements, some long-term strategies.

Shamus wrote a perfect example of this last week. He wrote about his typical strategy when playing deathmatch-style games like Unreal Tournament. His strategy involves lots of decisions and the fast-paced action of the games requires him to make these decisions within mere seconds. He wrote out the process of his decision as a humorous exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Watson:

“You see Watson, the lift on the far side of the room is moving back down to its default position, yet the door at the top is closed. Note also the spread of burn marks on the floor: All in a straight line, evenly spaced. Finally, one cannot miss that there are two medkits in the corner.”

“Yes, it was evidently quite a battle. Very confusing, Holmes!”

“Not so! The descending lift and closed upper door suggest that someone came in through the upper door and jumped down onto the lift, instead of riding the lift up to the door. If he’d been going the other way, the upper door would still be open! This means our quarry cannot be on the upper level. Furthermore, given the other clues in this room we can determine not only what happened here, but we can also discover who was killed and who did the killing!”

“Impossible! The body of the victim is destroyed, and the killer is gone, how can you know who was here?”

“Note the pattern of burn marks, Watson. A even line such as this is only possible with a full volley of rockets, aimed downward. Only our foe xXRoquetManXx is reckless enough to use such a technique, which means he was most likely the victor. We know the victim couldn’t have been Ownz0r, because we just got done ambushing him in the boiler room. Er, again. This means that our third adversary, Sn1pa, must have been the unfortunate victim here. So, here is what happened… xXRoquetManXx entered from the upper level and spied the other player below. Having already queued up the needed rockets, he aimed down and obliterated the unwary Sn1pa with the barrage, producing the burn pattern we observe. He then leapt down, touching off the lift as he landed. And finally, we can deduce that when he fled the scene he was unscathed, or else he would have helped himself to the nearby medpacks.”

“Amazing Holmes! But bugger all, it would be even more helpful if we knew where he went! There are three doors down here on the lower level. Which way did he go?”

“Even simpler to deduce! He certainly didn’t head for the boiler room, since that’s the way we just came in, if you remember, and we did not encounter him. It’s unlikely that he headed for the exhaust room, since that leads to some health and a rocket launcher, and we have already determined that he has both.”

“I get it now, he’s headed for the toxic waste pit through the third door. Brilliant! Let’s get after him!”

“Easy Watson. No sense in going that way. He’s had a good head start, and we’ll just end up ten steps behind him. He’ll be gathering up all the weapons and armor ahead of us, becoming stronger while we waste time fruitlessly trying to catch up with him. The toxic waste pit leads ’round into the boiler room eventually. So, if we double back now we should get there a few seconds before him. We have just enough time to reach the upper catwalk. He has us out-gunned with his rocket launcher I’m afraid, but we can insta-kill him with the Shock Rifle if we can take him by surprise. Let’s go!”

Shamus electrified xXRoquetManXx with the Shock Rifle.

xXRoquetManXx says: dammit shams how r u ALWAYS BEHIND ME??????

Obviously, he doesn’t make decisions explicitely like this – most of this happens without really thinking about it. It has to, because you don’t have time to think much in these types of games. I haven’t played one of these types of games since Return to Castle Wolfenstein – the mp_beach level was great fun, and I think a lot of people had a sorta sixth sense about the typical strategies used to complete the level. Sure, there were lots of people who were just good at button-pressing and aiming, but there was a lot of strategy involved too. I actually haven’t played Unreal Tournament since the UT99 game (as I’d heard that 2003 and 2004 editions weren’t that great), but it sounds like UT 3 is going to be pretty good. I may have to check it out.