Jon Blow on how most games today are junk food

“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.

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13 thoughts on “Jon Blow on how most games today are junk food

  1. That’s why I don’t like a lot of the MMORPG games today. It’s all about how much time you pump into it. Progressing in WoW has nothing to do with how much skill you have but how much time you have. In a complete 180 degree view though, I was talking to a friend today about how crazy it is when you play online first person shooters. It’s amazing how these people can be running by you, turn around and place a perfect shot right between your eyes. I guess a lot of companies opt for making money over making quality games. I need to rant on this more someday.

  2. Interesting perspective, which seems entirely plausible. I wonder just how aware game companies are at how they affect their audience/consumers. Usually, it seems most of the concern falls on certain overly-done issues like violent content, sexual content, etc. Are they trying to build a game that’s merely to waste some time with no value, or creating something that might challenge the way you think? (I’ve grown mega-bored with such concepts as “farming” and certain point-gathering things in such games as Guild Wars. I woke up one day after a long haze of playing and said, “Wtf?” There is no point to it and there is no end to it. Duh, right? After you do the story content and explore areas and so forth, these things lose their sparkle. How do you continually engage your audience with something that feels like the accomplish or learned somethiing?)

    And funny you mention FPS, Mike. I’ve gone back to playing my Day of Defeat more regularly. There are some insanely good people out there, which makes you wonder how they trained their reflexes to be so quick and precise. (All hacking, aside, of course.) It certainly has nothing to do with any graphics or environment, but entirely about the experience and teamplay and challenge. Especially since it’s OTHER PLAYERS that continually challenge you, always adapting and changing.

    Okay, trying not to tangent too much. The question, still, is what to do with that untapped power/resource available to any game creator with such a wide audience. The idea perplexes me. Games are usually part entertainment, potentially part skill-development, part education. What has Tetris done for us? Does every game have to be Carmen Sandiego? Could one really start making a case for mind control or conditioning? Is this all about saying it is just “an artist’s expression?” How far down the rabbit hole will this go?

    I guess I like to keep my games simple, mindless, unfiltered. I keep my educational sources to reading, etc. Then again, I don’t like mixing my corn with my potatos or meat on my plate.

  3. I didn’t mean to ramble so much, sorry.

  4. Dang, one more comment, after reading the article: if we took away all the treadmill factors out of MMO’s we’d just have any console RPG. You’d finish it in a certain number of hours and be done. Not that those aren’t fun. MMO’s are dirty internet crack dealers.

  5. Hah, I love your view on MMO’s with that last comment 2ndhandsoul. Going back to the article, I guess the question being asked is “What does/is/should a game mean?”. Is it a piece of art, a mental exercise (aka problem solving), a story telling method, a technology exercise (think Quake 3), and educational resource, a time waster, a reflex builder, a social shocker (Grand Theft Auto anyone?), or how about a method to make money? Or is it some sort of combination of these? And of course everyones opinion of what a game should be differs from person to person. Even from different points in ones lifetime.

    Mr. Blow seems to be saying that game designers are polluting the “gamespace” of society with badly designed or executed games. Now I agree with this… there are a ton of really bad games out there. I think back to a game featured in EGM a few years back… a paintball first person shooter. It got ranked at close to 0.0 I believe.

    I guess I’m asking, is there some moral high-ground that designers should take in creating games? It’s quite easy to rank graphical appearance in a game. Harder to rank gameplay and fairness. Harder yet to rank a “fun” factor. How can you tell if a game will pollute or not?

    From my perspective, I’ve always liked co-operative multiplayer games but the downside to those is that you always get douchebags playing. For example playing Half-Life 2 is fun… but you are truly alone in the game-verse. Battlefield 1942, when playing with friends on one team, is a lot of fun. Especially in a LAN setting because you can verbally abuse the person that blows your cover. =) But when you get to these gigantic MMO games you get point-pushers coming out of the wood-work. For me, it stops being fun at that point.

    Also when you mentioned the games Tetris and Carmen Sandiego it reminded me of a comment my friend made to me. I was talking about how I bought the board game Monopoly because it was cheap and I really enjoyed playing it as a kid. My friend said that these days if a board game company would get the idea of Monopoly sent to them they would turn it down laughing. Times change and while Tetris was awesome in it’s day can someone really create the same type of game today? I think yes when I look at some of the flash games people love to play but I think no when comparing Tetris to something like WoW. How do you even compare those two? Can you even?

    Anyways… I caught the rambling bug from 2ndhandsoul.

  6. I don’t think what you’re talking about in terms of “bad games” is what he was talking about. It’s not just about low-rated games, or even games that aren’t fun. He’s talking about games that are fun, or we think they’re fun, but they’re stimulating us in a completely shallow way that doesn’t contribute anything to our lives.

    If that still doesn’t make sense, you’d probably have to give the presentation a listen and here it straight from him.

  7. No…I think he’s (or I) get the idea. Perhaps you should reread my/his/our comment(s). Buried in there is exactly that premise. I read the entire article. Most of my rambling prior to my final comment parallels a lot of Blow’s supposition. Then, reading the whole thing, I realized my last comment was only really needed. Mike’s appears to go along the same tangents, roundabout to the main subject.

    From the article, however, it doesn’t appear that Blow is entirely concerned over the “meaningful contribution to our lives” aspect to the game, other than giving a heads up that the *negative* contribution be avoided. It appears that he is trying to bring to light that games are “not just entertainment” like many have considered the whole industry before. There are effects one cannot entirely fathom yet. It’s a question of ethics. I don’t think Blow was getting to anything like we should create morally upstanding games, but ethically upstanding (to some degree). Stepping into the arena of morals might begin to take one set over another set, and then that’s getting into the realm of prejudice and discrimination. Ethically, it takes into account that it isn’t alone in the universe and does not seek to negatively affect the universe. Blah blah blah.

  8. What I mean by the terms “ethics” and “morals”…

    ethics – the practice of morality
    morality – values of right and wrong

    Games should practice good morality and conduct, but they aren’t about trying to peddle their morality to others, necessarily. Of course, unless it is a game that obviously revolves around a particular set of morals, such as a Christian or Jewish game or something, I guess.

  9. That’s right 2ndhandsoul, I’m verbally dizzy from spinning around.
    I actually totally agree with your comment Josh. A lot of the “fun” games, especially the big hitters like WoW, are very shallow (according to me anyway). It’s the same grind, grind, grind day in and day out. I guess you receive some satisfaction beating a huge boss occasionally. But that’s what I was getting at. What if you’ve had a long hard day at work and you want to just sit down and grind some levels away? Does every game have to be deep and meaningful to us? Can some be timewasters? I think different games can serve different purposes to us.

    On the flip side I totally agree that a lot of the games out there are just plain boring crap. Pretty 3d crap… but it doesn’t matter how you package it. Another question I ask is why are those games so popular? Is it the hype? I think it could also be the fact that it doesn’t take much to be good at these games, like WoW. It only takes time out of your day. But guess what, that means that EVERYONE can play and succeed in play plus the company makes a ton of money. Everyones happy. (Well except of the player’s mental stimuli).

    And what about a great brain-twisting, challenging, and mentally stimulating game? Graphics aside probably only a few people will really enjoy it, while the “stupider” people will say it “sucks”. I don’t think a game design company is going to invest a lot of time and money making a game like that.

    And now a little micro-rant: I think that’s where homegrown games can flourish. Heh, even opensource games! Of course they won’t make you a ton of money (probably), and the graphics won’t be as good as the latest 3d shooter (probably), but the gameplay could be amazing. The story could challenge you. The puzzles could keep you stumped for weeks.

    Anyways, I totally agree with what Josh and Mr. Blow are saying. I am trying to see a bigger picture though. Or at least a different angle to the picture. But Mr. Blow is making a call to arms for game designers to make better gameplay and more deeply challenging games, and I am completely for it.

    (ps. I would also ask that they make more cross-platform games. Especially Linux games. But that’s a ball of wax I shall not go into now.)

  10. From the article, however, it doesn’t appear that Blow is entirely concerned over the “meaningful contribution to our lives” aspect to the game, other than giving a heads up that the *negative* contribution be avoided.

    That is definitely a failing of the article, then. His argument is that we should be giving people games that teach something positive and expand our minds. On the other hand, it’s easy to read that and think “edutainment?” which is not what he’s getting at at all. Carmen Sandiego is not really the role model here. The teaching that he’s referring to isn’t explicit teaching, but the subconscious lessons that you take away from a game. For example, when you walk away from a session of WoW you don’t think to yourself, “All I need to do with my life is clock in time to achieve my goal, and being exceptionally talented or skilled won’t make things any better.” But that’s the sort of world view that WoW presents to the player.

    Everyday Shooter and The Marriage are the examples he gave. Note that Everyday Shooter isn’t trying to explicitly teach anything, but it’s a very well-made composition. The idea, I think, is that it enhances our life like a well-composed song.

    What if you’ve had a long hard day at work and you want to just sit down and grind some levels away? Does every game have to be deep and meaningful to us? Can some be timewasters? I think different games can serve different purposes to us.

    Mike, I don’t think games need to fall into “mindless” or “too hard for most people” categories. It’s possible to design something that’s both challenging and accessible – Portal is a good example of this. And I don’t think meaningful play has to feel like work either. Games can be designed to be relaxing but still have more substance than the WoW grind.

    That said, nobody’s saying that we should abolish all “timewasters” really, or that players should feel guilty for playing them. He’s speaking to game designers and developers, not to players. Besides, I can’t imagine ever having the problem that the majority of games are *too* meaningful and worthwhile, but when that happens I’ll be sure to come up with something ridiculously silly and capitalize on the market opportunity.

  11. The teaching that he’s referring to isn’t explicit teaching, but the subconscious lessons that you take away from a game. For example, when you walk away from a session of WoW you don’t think to yourself, “All I need to do with my life is clock in time to achieve my goal, and being exceptionally talented or skilled won’t make things any better.” But that’s the sort of world view that WoW presents to the player.

    Hmmm. Well, I don’t want to tangent yet some more here, but I do seek clarity. I don’t want to argue on semantics, if that’s what’s the matter here. What I wonder is does Blow mean games ought to teach meaningful goals according to the real world, or meaningful goals according to the game’s objectives? I’m finding it hard to phrase what I mean properly…

    Say there’s a game with an interactive deity A.I. (to borrow from another of your posts from before). This deity presents the player with different ways of worship and relationship through acts and so forth. This in turn changes some of the player’s experience in the game world, with abilities or further relationships with other deities’s followers, etc. Anyway, is Blow’s meaning here, if applied to this hypothetical thing, to worry more about what this experience is teaching ethically/morally to the players, or the lessons it teaches the player about the game and its universe. Are they to worry about having an evil deity available to players that teaches sacrifices and so forth or that the deity really is limited and pidgeon-holes the player into certain behaviors and reactions? Sort of like the D&D model of cleric vs. a more give-and-take model that we talked about. Does this game present more value in that experience, since it fits the game and broadens that enjoyment and also creates a wider view?

    I am not sure I’m making perfect sense. I hope my gist is taken, sorry…

  12. P.S. I also don’t mean to focus on pseudo-religious content. It’s the example I first thought of.

  13. Probably at this point the safest bet is to just listen to the presentation itself. The whole thing is about an hour long, but the first 20-30 min is where he really digs into this stuff. (There’s a link to the full audio of his talk in my latest blog post here.)

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