Sep 302014

The_Doors_of_Perception_by_cheapexposureI read an article on the internet, as I am wont to do. This one was about how modern games are lacking a certain innovation that was around in the classic era of gaming, and speculates it may be that older hardware restricted older games to have to focus tightly just on the really good stuff, whereas modern games can sprawl and waste resources and lose focus. Maybe that’s the case, I dunno. But I suspect something else is at work here.

I lean heavily toward bio-determinism. I suspect that older people are more cautious and younger people are more headstrong and reckless not because of differences in life experience, but overwhelmingly due to hormones and biochemistry. If you were to somehow magically stick a 60-year-old man into the body he had at 18, he’d start acting much more like a reckless teenager rather than a wise patriarch, life experience be damned. Stick a teenager in a 60-year-old body and he’d slow down right quick and see the wisdom of contemplating his actions a bit. (Tangentially, I suspect the trend of the constantly-raising-average-age of the population over the last century is at least partially responsible for the lower rates of open warfare in industrialized countries. Wars are at least partly hormonal. I think one of the reasons we jumped so quickly into Iraq after 9/11/01 was because the Taliban fell too quickly and our society had not yet collectively burned through the desire to hurt Arabs in revenge, so we went looking for another target to vent on. Maybe a good leader could have redirected that energy rather than encouraged it. But I’m getting off track.)

It’s been noted quite a bit in the past decade(s) that play is the natural way humans learn. In many cases, simply encouraging play is about as effective as forcing kids to go to school. Game designers already know this, a large aspect of game design nowadays is how to manage the learning curve – effectively teaching the player a new skill in a way that is challenging them to explore new aspects of this skill at every level, right on the edge of their ability without being past it. Portal is one of the most acclaimed games of this century for this reason – every time the player is reaching mastery of a portal technique a new aspect of portaling is revealed to them, a way to apply what they’ve learned in a novel way that unlocks new avenues to explore and learn. It is a learning super-stimulus. (plus GLaDOS is awesome).

Two things happen as you get older. The first is simple experience – once you’ve gone through your first good FPS, or Tower Defense, or RTS, you’ve exhausted that learning path. Further games in that genre will always be less compelling unless they introduce a new mechanic to learn. But much more salient to my point – the older you get the less biologically driven you are to learn things at all.

While I don’t think learning ever becomes not-fun, it becomes less and less fun compared to other activities as one gets older. And since play is the act of learning, play itself simply becomes less fun due to hormonal reasons. I’ve started to notice this in myself as well – I get less enjoyment out of learning new things than I do out of creating lasting stuff (like a chicken coop, or a YouTube short, or a podcast). Before learning would be an end in itself, and if I never applied any of it I didn’t care. Now it’s often a means to an end, and I get impatient with learning things that I don’t think I’ll have much use to apply in the real world. Video games and boardgames just aren’t that interesting anymore.

I can see how this trend could continue, to where I get annoyed with having to learn new things even if they ARE applicable. Like how to use that new-fangled VCR or SmartPhone. I just want to Do My Thing, why’s everything gotta be so complicated?

I am tempted to throw out evo-psych justifications for this (early life is for learning, mid-life is for doing. What’s the point of just learning if you don’t do stuff with it before you die?) But we’ve all been warned away from falling into the trap of inventing just-so stories for our pet observations, so I’ll leave it as a parenthetical and not expound on the issue.

What I’m driving at is this: it’s not that new games suck, and there was a golden age of gaming. This is just yet another instance of a generation aging and saying “Thing X really reached its peak back when I was in my teens & twenties. That was the golden age, the new stuff just isn’t as good.” And it’s not that the new stuff isn’t as good. I see tons of 20-somethings who love the hell out of the games coming out now, and raise an eyebrow at what we call the Classics. It’s that we’re getting older and our brains are resistant to New Things (including new learning and play). I find this is the case with everything ever labeled as having a “Golden Age.” Sometimes I look at the Golden Age of comics and I think “Wow… I’m glad we live in an awful degenerate age, cuz that Golden stuff is crap.” When we try to play and expect to get the same reaction as we did back when our neurochemistry was primed to most enjoy playing, the fault isn’t with the games nowadays, it’s with your understanding of what is enjoyable to you given the body you are in.

  4 Responses to “Golden Ages don’t exist”

  1. As a young-twenties person who fully agrees with the linked article and was barely alive, let alone playing games, during the “classic era”, you’re pretty clearly wrong in this case.

    There are good, innovative games being made these days. They’re almost all small-budget indies or smaller-budget webgames, with all the resource limitations that came with the old hardware on a new platform. Large budgets, large resource availability, and large financial stakes have made modern games more risk-averse and less focused, trying to cover all the bases.

    • The Last of Us came out in 2013. It certainly wasn’t constrained by prior-era hardware. :)

      • The Last of Us isn’t exactly a shining example of interesting new games being made. It is probably better than your average large-budget title, sure, but that’s not saying much. And it’s also smaller-budget than your average large-budget title, IIRC.

        • To be completely honest, I haven’t actually played it (I don’t own a PS3). I just heard it was really good.

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