Killing versus Skilling

All of this Skate 3 play has made me think harder about skill in games. Normally it’s not something I need to think about much, because I’m fairly unskilled at games in generally and unashamedly play them on “easy” a lot of the time in order to breeze through and enjoy myself. To balance this out, I’m pretty dogged about completing them, so I think it’s fair enough.

But with Skate 3 I’ve run into an intense desire for mastery. Not so much for its own sake (although that’s part of it), but largely in connection with the challenges the game sets. At present I’m on the hunt for an achievement you get when you’ve “killed” a number of challenges, the equivalent of beating them in “hard mode”. So why am I prepared to play on hard in this instance, but not in others. The classic contrast being first person shooters, particularly my aversion to building the skills needed to be even moderately effective in multiplayer matches.

I can think of two pretty solid reasons for why this is so, one emotional, one technical. Emotionally speaking: I don’t actually like killing people in video games. I do one hell of a lot of it, I’ve massacred thousands, but I don’t actually enjoy it. The nearest thing to actually enjoying shooting people in games I can eke out is that kind of “grim satisfaction of the haggard warrior” sort of vibe perhaps. A necessary job well done and so on. On the other hand, I love everything about the aesthetics and experience of skateboarding and that extends to its virtual counterpart. It’s a lovely form of artistic expression, very much like dance in many ways. In fact, I’d reckon that Skate 3 is the best “dancing” game out there at present. It includes rhythm, tempo, stillness and explosive motion, grace, kinesthetic know-how, and on and on. Way more than, say, Dance Central.

Reason number two is the technical thing, like I said. With digital killing, there’s no real training process for getting better at it. Practice, in my experience, doesn’t make perfect, it just makes more dead people with bullet holes in them. I’ve watched people play FPSes who are extraordinarily good at them, they make it look great, but I have no clue as to how they got there. Chances are that this connects with the affective reason above – I may just not have “pushed through” some barrier of technical skill because I don’t want to. Part of the problem is that the fundamental skill is “run around, aim at someone with your gun, and kill them”. It’s very simple in terms of the basic operations, and insanely complex in terms of executing them well.

On the other hand, Skate 3 is brimming with a complex array of basic operations and combinations, such that there’s a huge basic vocabulary to learn just to reach a kind of entry level. One you have the vocabulary of “tricks”, you can learn the syntax (or grammar?) of “lines” (aesthetically pleasing patterns to skate along doing your tricks that multiply your score). There’s much about the game that simply draws you into become more and more skillful at playing it – the challenges, for instance, are often designed to force you into perfecting a particular move or sequence. In other words, Skate 3 wants you to get better. In a sense, it wants to teach you how to dance.

Shooters largely don’t want (or need) to teach you much of anything – you know what to do: kill all those dudes. You just don’t really know how to achieve it particularly well, if you’re me. And the game could care less about your problems on that front. And there’s another group that could largely care even less: other players in multiplayer. They’re happy you’re completely confused about how to go about the simple act of shooting and killing them.

I’d rather dance.

19 January 2011
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