How 'gamer' taste makes life harder for game developers


Veteran game designer and teacher Naomi Clark has launched an interesting essay series about some observations she's gleaned working with playtesters (the people developers bring in to give feedback about games).

In her experience, many game consumers have internalized complicated value systems about their experience of play, and the "payoff" they expect for their time and effort. While feedback from all types of players can be informative to designers, lots of self-described "gamers" imagine themselves as part of an elite class of especially-discerning consumer. To such a person, even the idea that such a class may not exist, or that its expectations may be restrictive or short-sighted, is somehow offensive enough to spark seasons of internet rage. As Clark writes:

This player's view of games is a familiar one that I'd like to articulate in a slightly less familiar way: it's a portrait of a game as a machine that a player cranks in order to generate certain types of expected gratification: challenge and mastery, less a matter of learning useful or transferable skills than an inculcated feeling of having improved and overcome; novelty, the sensory experiences of something he hasn't seen, heard or read yet; acknowledgement in the form of reward.

It's not a stretch to imagine that these are the payoffs he was looking for. On top of that, he extends his preferences in games to All True Gamers; he declares that developers who don't cater to these preferences are disrespectful, gouging, worthy of anger.

Clark posits that this machinelike view of games the consumer often internalizes doesn't leave room for designers to think about aesthetics, tone, or how different kinds of rewards might mean different things to different players. There's no room for taste:

Games have the opposite problem: an elitism defined by the absence of taste, or simply by bad taste: an overweening concern with effective production of profit-generating emotional payoff that's grown homogenous through the optimization of business practices and Metacritic scores. If this wasn't so, it wouldn't even be partially intelligible to speak of "what gamers like" as if it's unitary, authoritative, or elite.

Stepping into games is like arriving at a cheese-tasting party where most of the crowd is angrily murmuring that cheddar and swiss are always and objectively the best cheeses on grounds of utility and pleasure, that assholes offering a plate of mold-laced bleu are an affront to any real cheese-lover, that brie may simply be too soft to be a real cheese.

I often say that this tension comes from video games at last beginning to come into their own as expressive works, as cultural media, and the qualities associated with such works are often different than the values of "technology product culture" might suggest. It's interesting to see how these tensions affect the practical work of game development and the kinds of feedback creators can expect.

Clark's full essay is available on her website, and you'll probably want to bookmark her site as the series continues.