Friday, February 8, 2019

How Video Changed Games

Book excerpt:
I grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, during the golden age of “cheating” in video games. I first had an Atari 2600, then an 8-bit Nintendo, and eventually I moved on to (from today’s perspective) hilariously bad PC games. I’m not much of a gamer anymore, but I can appreciate how far video games have come. In some sense, I’m lucky that I grew up in the days when they were sophisticated enough to where I could play something that looked like baseball (or football or a spaceship that for some reason needed to shoot a bunch of other spaceships) on the screen, but primitive enough that I could figure out all of the game’s weaknesses and exploit them. I didn’t even have to go to the arcade and spend all my quarters. Everything was right there on my television. I don’t think people truly appreciate the impact that bad video games had on baseball or the world in general.

Maybe the most important cultural legacy of the video game is the idea of one-player mode. Most real-world games are multi-player. They pit two (or more) people against each other within some rule structure and the players compete until there’s a winner. While you’re playing the game—assuming that your friends actually want to win—there is no space to stop the game, back up, and try something a little different to see if you can get an edge that way. Before one-player mode, most games were social experiences. There was etiquette to consider. You didn’t take every last advantage and run up the score, even if you could, especially if you still wanted to be friends with the person after the game was over.

When video games came along, though, there was no other person (in one-player mode, anyway) whose feelings you had to worry about. Suddenly, the opposing pitcher or the Russian army or the pathway to Willamette Valley was controlled by a computer. When I was growing up, it was a rather stupid computer. If I messed up, I could try again, either through the magic of the “save” button, or through hundreds of repetitions. The computer didn’t care if I bent the rules, nor did it really change its strategy to compensate once I figured it out its weaknesses. On top of that, the games were all standardized and that meant that there was an army of other people who were trying to beat the same artificial intelligence that I was. The social aspect of game playing was turned on its ear. Now two people could play a game against “the computer” and instead of being adversaries, they could collaborate to find ways to win.

One-player mode ushered in an era of the game itself as the opponent. Games were now puzzles to be solved. Etiquette could be replaced by ruthless efficiency. There had always been a small group of people who studied different games to try to find an edge, but now that sort of game-breaking was something that could be done for fun by 10-year-olds.

There was always a point in those limited early video games where beating the computer in a straight-up match wasn’t even a question anymore, but with a going rate of $30 to $40 for a new 8-bit Nintendo cartridge, sometimes I had to make do with the ones I already had. So, I ran little experiments. Maybe it was taking on a ridiculous handicap or maybe challenging myself to run up an even higher score. Sometimes it involved just trying something new to see if it could be done. If my experiment didn’t work, I could hit “reset” and try again.

There are probably a lot of people reading this book who are products of that shift. We lived through an era in which breaking a game (rather than playing a game) became not only possible, but socially acceptable. It’s not that big a leap to start applying those same principles to all games, even games where there was an opponent. Some of us just happened to be baseball fans.
Carleton, Russell A. (2018-03-31T23:58:59). The Shift: The Next Evolution in Baseball Thinking. Triumph Books. Kindle Edition.

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