Monday, 27 February 2012

Post-Fun: Your Phone is Killing an Art Form

As an artistic phenomena becomes more popular it becomes stupider. This isn't to say that the population, en masse, are idiots, only capable of enjoying the basest of culture. Top-flight football involves as much skill and understanding as the opera. Hirst's spot drawings have as much to contribute to discussion of colour and presentation as Blumenthal's food. Audiences cross over, and consumers combine niche interests to suit their appetite. But, to appeal to everyone all the time, culture gets stupid. Has anyone actually seen Blumenthal's menu for Little Chef in real life? No, because we've all been at stupid McDonalds. How many of us have actually been to a Hirst exhibition? Very few, compared to how many of us have read the (mostly) stupid press coverage of his work. Every middle class person you know under the age of 35 may have watched the HBO masterworks, but everyone has been engrossed in stupid, stupid Hollyoaks. However, there is no cultural phenomena for which this is more true than computer games.

Smart phones and the aggressive marketing of the female demographic now means that the computer game market is bigger than many could ever have imagined. There are many games that fit into the Heston Blumenthal end of the cultural spectrum - Skyrim is ambitious and accomplished, and, as unattractive as I personally find running around shooting things in a realistic setting, the Call of Duty series has some merit in recreating the experience of warfare. Many independent games are embracing a postmodern cannibalism of gaming conventions, the excellent Braid and Super Meat Boy amongst them. Yet, as this detailed and nuanced article from Wired explores, the rise of the casual gamer, on smartphone and social network, is also the rise of the stupid game.

Ian Bogost's 'Cow Clicker'
The crux of the Wired piece, an interview with game designer Ian Bogost, is that Facebook games now appeal to only the basest parts of our intellect. They set arbitrary, easy to complete tasks that reward with just the right frequency to keep us coming back. Like rats in a lab running through a maze for a treat, except the maze is just a straight tunnel you have to walk down 5 times a day. And we don't even have to walk, just click a button. Monetization of this model involves either advertisers paying for our blind commitment to that part of the Internet, or the motivation of slight improvements to the game through in-game purchases. Bogost was upset at this development in the industry that he loved, so he created Cowclicker, a game satirising the likes of Farmville by having just a single square of pasture with a cow on it. The game involves clicking on the cow, with a hilariously large number of clicks triggering a slight reward. The best of these was, for 2500 'mooney' (the game's currency), a cow image that was exactly the same as the free cow gamers have at the start of the game, but facing right instead of left. A brilliant satire, but with one flaw - it became incredibly popular.

The games that Cowclicker satirises also exist on the casual gamers console of choice - the smartphone. Games on smart phones fall into one of three categories: the port of an old console game, original game ideas that have some sort of narrative arc and a definable ending, and manipulative games with arbitrary tasks designed to consume your time and generate in-game purchases. It is not so simple to say that these categories are definitive labels for intelligent and stupid games, however. Many of the ported old games hide pointlessly repetitive gameplay behind a smokescreen of nostalgia. And anyone who has tried to get three stars on all levels of Angry Birds knows that even games with an achievable ending can involve plenty of mindless play - something that even infects the originator of the 'different levels with same gameplay organised into worlds' model, where gaining all 120 stars in Mario Galaxy 2 prompts an instruction to go back through every single level to gain 120 more. The third type are the most blatant, however, and it could be argued that they pave the way for more intelligent games to include more manipulative forms of monetization into their designs.

Tiny Tower involves building a tower, with competing needs for residential and various forms of commercial floors. Except they don't really compete. There is no scarcity of resources, the gamer must merely wait for his tower to generate enough money to allow them to build another floor. The manipulation of the gamer comes through incremental reward - to get money you must re-stock your commercial floors. This can take anywhere between 5 minutes and 5 hours, after which your phone will prompt you to click on the floor to complete the stocking process. The more floors you have, the more often your phone will prompt you, so the more often you return to play the game. It's an alarm clock for a non-event. Temple Run, on the other hand, is just an Indiana-Jones-ified version of the Chaos Emerald levels on Sonic 2. In other words, the gameplay of a mini-game from a game made two decades ago, with the style of  film made three decades ago. Postmodern asset stripping should be celebrated when it creates something new and interesting, but in Temple Run it is at its most cynical.
Sonic 2 / Temple Run
Temple Run's debt to Sonic 2 is at the heart of the problem with the rise of the stupid game. By reducing the narrative and complexity in games, cynical developers are sending the form back to poorer times. Naivety has a legitimate place in art: music has genres including punk; numerous visual artists play with the idea; and novels written from a child's perspective can provoke interesting insight, with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas more recent examples. The difference between this and gaming however, is that examples in music, visual art and literature use a naive approach to create a new perspective. There is no argument that Temple Run or Tiny Tower change the way we look at the world, or medium of the computer game, in an interesting way, or that they are even intending to.

The concluding rooms of the recent Postmodernism exhibition at the V&A documented how the movement, after gaining mass popularity and ubiquity, became corrupted by money and was destroyed by the vapidness that resulted. To illustrate this, exhibited in one small space, was a Warhol Dollar Sign, Jeff Koons' silver Louis XIV, and a yellow sequined jacket by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. Temple Run, Tiny Tower and others like them are the gaming equivalents of these gaudy pieces, suggesting that they might be as dangerous as they are stupid.

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