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We Don’t Play ‘Em Like We Used To

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“Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game. One of the responsibilities of designers is to protect the player from themselves.” - Sid Meier

Pixelated Playground

A cool autumn breeze stiffened my curled fingers as I clutched my Gameboy Color - with a coveted see-thru purple shell, mind you - as my friends and I desperately tried to solve the impossible. For us, myth was tangible, and we didn’t try to find our treasure buried in the sand. Instead, we dove into the pixelated depths of a Gameboy screen, sharing whispers as wide-eyed children gathered in huddles during recess. The nebulous legend that gripped us during all waking hours was that of the elusive Mew, supposedly hidden beneath a nondescript truck in Vermillion Harbor. A mythical creature rumored to lurk in the 8-bit backdrop of Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow.

We spent countless hours on this quest, sinking into the game’s world, driven by a shared sense of curiosity, camaraderie, and the pure exhilaration of exploration. As you may already know, Mew was not under an immovable truck. Heck, Mew wasn’t even in the game! The elusive 151st Pokemon was a total fabrication, a playground rumor that somehow made its way around the country, captivating scores of children. Objectively, we were ‘wasting’ our time, spending valuable recess hours chipping away at an endless hole. But were we? This was our time - a celebration of unstructured play, exploration, and the joy of discovery, punctuated with moments of frustration, triumph, and shared laughter. Online walkthroughs or encyclopedic wikis did not direct us. We were on our adventure, using imagination and trading secrets to navigate the game as best we could, hoping against all odds that we would catch Mew someday.

Nowadays, I have 6 Mews stored away in my Pokebank, enough to make my inner-child shudder, and 2 of them are even shiny (a scarce off-color variant). I can use different Mews for different team compositions, depending on their nature, their IV and EV stats, which item I gave them, and their synergy with the other Pokemon on my team. Of course, Mew is hardly a competitive Pokemon these days, so all 6 mostly sit tucked away, not having been used on a team of mine in years, much less celebrated for being captured in the first place. What in god’s name happened..?

The Professionalization of Play

To understand the difference between the gaming of then and now, we must turn our attention to the Pokemon games of today. Suppose you venture beyond the simple joy of the primary campaigns. In that case, the games quickly spiral into a complex web of understanding EV and IV training - hidden stats determining a Pokemon’s potential strength, defense, health, etc. - understanding Pokemon natures, optimal items, ‘meta’ team layouts…the list goes on and on. The game morphs into an esoteric science, replacing the playground with a competitive arena. My friends and I no longer brag about the Pokemon we caught; no, we battle with them. And nobody wants to lose.

Many resources, from YouTube tutorials to extensive blog posts, lay the blueprint for crafting the ‘perfect’ team. Suddenly, the game is no longer about embarking on an adventure with your favorite Pokemon or feeling the thrill of catching a rare creature. Instead, one can quickly find themselves playing someone else’s version of Pokemon, a Youtuber’s checklist of what works best, devoid of personal flair or narrative. The deeper one’s knowledge of the game, the more one feels obligated to choose between creative self-expression or competitive advantage. This drive toward optimization is not confined to Pokemon alone, of course. The echo of meta-driven discourse resonates across genres, turning joyful exploration into a rote optimization task.

Take Street Fighter 6, a title designed with diversity and inclusivity at the base of its identity encourages newcomers and veterans alike to dive into its vibrant, action-packed world. Unfortunately, even before the release, the game was consumed by an onslaught of character tier lists and community forums buzzing with theoretical discussions about the ‘best’ characters. Instead of enjoying the distinctive play styles of the various fighters and reveling in the learning experience, players were drawn into a meta-focused vortex. Hopping online on day one, players were met with the same 3 characters ad-nauseam, fighting against what ‘The Community’ had determined was best. What should have been a new sandbox of discovery and creativity was quickly transformed into a hierarchical battlefield dictated by online lists of speculated character rankings. People were told their favorite character wasn’t good enough before the game even launched.

The Last Bastion Falls

Role Playing Games (RPGs) are traditionally revered as a bulwark of player choice and narrative agency, a genre for players to customize and personalize to their heart’s content. It only takes a cursory glance at online communities to see that even RPGs have not been spared from this pervasive phenomenon. Whether it’s Final Fantasy, Zelda, or Diablo IV, the modern gaming landscape is littered with guides dictating the ‘correct’ way to navigate these worlds, the optimal character builds, the most efficient team compositions, and more. I had a friend who beat Elden Ring in roughly 50 hours, and said many of the bosses were easier than expected. I was floored, 50 hours in I had barely left the few starting areas. “Oh,” he said, “I skipped all that. A guide showed me how to beat the game.”

Articles showcasing the location for the best weapons, videos detailing optimal paths for leveling, and constant discussion about which way of playing is optimal, at a certain point, it feels inescapable. I was poking around the Diablo IV subreddit, and massive swaths of conversation centered around which subclasses were weakest. To be clear, asking devs to buff your favorite playstyle is fine, and open conversation about improving the fun of a game should be encouraged. But a community calling a play style ‘completely worthless’ simply because it’ll be clearing a dungeon a few minutes slower than other classes highlights an obsession with results over fun. Dedicated players are becoming hyper-fixated on the destination, actively working to experience as little of the journey as possible. 

The thrill of grappling with a challenging boss, experimenting with different strategies, learning from failure, and finally tasting the sweet victory of overcoming a challenge becomes diluted. As a kid, I would spend days, sometimes weeks, facing a particularly tough boss in Final Fantasy VII. The fun was in trying and failing, knowing that if I put my mind to it and learned the boss’s patterns enough to capitalize on them, I would forge my path to victory. The joy of stumbling on a legendary sword is heightened by the personal narrative accompanying your exploration to get there. If you know where Link’s best weapons are hidden throughout the map, subconsciously, it becomes harder to use the lower-powered weapons reasonably. Does victory feel as sweet when a guide lays bare all the secrets?

The Price of Optimization

As gaming becomes increasingly structured and professionalized, it’s worth asking what we’re losing in this relentless pursuit of optimization. Enjoying the process of chasing a high rank can be rewarding and, to many, extremely fun. However, if choosing a sub-optimal build in Diablo IV or using your favorite Pokemon brings you personal joy, are you not engaging with the essence of playing a game? At its core, this medium uses interactivity to supply a player with fun, creative, and self-expression moments. The constant urge to become ‘the best’ or to follow the established meta often distracts us from this simple fact.

Game developers and studios are not entirely blameless in this regard. As discussed in my previous post, the push towards live-service games focuses on grinding for faster character leveling or the subliminal push to maximize playtime in pursuit of progression. This inevitably all contributes to an environment that values efficiency over joy. Why spend time banging my head against a wall when I have 4 battle passes expiring at the end of the month?

The onus, ultimately, falls back on us, the gaming community, to reclaim the joy of gaming. We must work to champion the freedom to choose our path, to celebrate every player’s unique journey rather than a standardized meta. Catch a Pokemon because they’re cute, run a gimmick team based around fart puns, and play a fire sorcerer with an explosion build - not because it’s efficient - but because it’s incredible! I would love to see communities, and myself, return to the playground roots to remind ourselves why we fell in love with gaming in the first place. Revitalize the joy of making a mistake and having to try again. Remember, we love games… we’re supposed to be enjoying this!