“I say this kind of thing, and everybody’s like, ‘whatever dude – you’re smoking something,'” said Blow. “I want to frame this; it’s a matter of scale. What I see as a primary challenge for mankind in this century is to understand and deal with the fact that despite these good enterprises — human rights, safety, leisure time — we do these at such a scale that we cannot help but have them affect the world, as with global warming, ozone holes, pollutants – we haven’t dealt with it yet.”Carrying over the analogy, Blow said, “We don’t intend to harm players but we might be harming them. When tens of millions of people buy our game, we are pumping a mental substance into the mental environment – it’s a public mental health issue – it’s kind of scary, but it’s kind of cool because we have the power to shape humanity.”
Jonathon Blow has talked about this before in a presentation that was made available via interweb video a few months ago. He does a much more complete job of explaining what he’s getting at this time, and this confirms for me that I think he’s on to something. This presentation makes it clearer what he was getting at; mostly it confirmed the way I took what he had said earlier, but I know in discussing this with others they were jumping to conclusions like, “He thinks rewards in games are bad?” which is pretty clearly ruled out this time. The point he’s making isn’t “games are bad”, but “we’re usually missing out on doing things better.”
I think it’s important to point out that this doesn’t seem to be against well-polished games, which is an easy but mistaken conclusion to come to after he uses WoW and Halo 3 as bad examples. Those games are highly accessible and entertaining because they are well-polished, but (in Blow’s explanation) are using reward mechanisms that lack substance (or worse, teach an unhealthy world view: “It doesn’t matter if you’re smart or how adept you are, it’s just how much time you sink in. You don’t need to do anything exceptional, you just need to run the treadmill like everyone else.”).
As far as I can tell, those two things are orthogonal. A game could have more meaningful mechanics and rewards and at the same time do thorough playtesting and design analysis to make sure that the experience of the game flows smoothly for players. He gives Portal as an example of a game that does things well, which I think proves the point.
I hope that a video of the presentation is made available soon. It’d be great to see it in its entirety. In the meantime, the writeup at Gamasutra is pretty thorough.