Fatherhood and the limits of game design

06 October 2010 | 2 comments

The seductive promise of gamification is that ‘Games can make [insert your thing here] BETTER! EASIER! MORE REWARDING!’ – and even if we were to posit some kind of perfect gamification process where that were genuinely true, and access a great big swamp of money to build with, I’m still certain that there are a great many things that could never, ever go within those square brackets.

Take fatherhood. I intermittently enjoyed Heavy Rain, but one moment where the game failed utterly was in a sequence where I had to soothe a fractious baby. I know it failed because just before playing it, I had been soothing an actual fractious baby. My daughter is now 7 months old – let me tell you, there is no timed combination of button presses that could magically bring her to a state of calm. No consistent solution – just trial and an ever-evolving and mutating array of errors.

I can’t even begin to describe the radical, wonderful, enlightening and often painful process of becoming a father, but I’ll tell you this; I don’t need any flipping badges for it. I am undoubtedly learning, and there is definitely a great deal of pleasure in the mastery of some things, and there are a whole bunch of really powerful feedback mechanisms that let you know when you’ve got stuff wrong (see: nappies, crying, sleeplessness), but it’s inconsistent, messy, human, and absolutely not a game. And no game design, no matter how smart, no matter how well-researched the psychology that underpinned it, no matter how un-gamelike the presentation, could improve the experience.

Picture by Dino Olivieri.

2 comments on this post.

  • On 13 Oct 2010, Alexis Kennedy said:

    Here is what I learnt about caring for a newborn baby from the Sims 3.

    - Babies’ needs are tracked by slowly dropping bars, so you can plan your day around when they’ll need feeding or changing.
    - To change a baby’s nappy, toss them in the air and enjoy a brief whirlwind examination.
    - You can identify why a baby is crying by holding your mouse over it.

    Glibbery aside, the messiness point is bang on. Games are attractive partly because they’re experiences that are essentially tidy. Other experiences are attractive because they’re *not* essentially tidy.

  • On 13 Oct 2010, Alexis Kennedy said:

    ‘examination’ -> ‘animation’

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