puzzles or poison?

by ibull


candy-crushWhen I first played Candy Crush at GDC 2013 in San Francisco, I was offended by the condescending circus cartoons that seem to mock your progress (or lack thereof) at every turn. I quit playing after one game thinking, Pokemon Puzzle League is so much better than this.

Fast-forward 3 months and I’m sitting on the subway in London. My partner is sitting next to me crushing candies, and I am bored. He eventually waves me away; Get your own game, he says.

I’ve crushed candies most everyday since; but I think my friends believe that the game has been playing me instead.

These are the reasons most people attribute to [my] enjoyment of the game, (including Tommy Palm):

  • It Makes You Wait”
  • Positive Reinforcement
  • Ability to play with one hand
  • Seemingly infinite levels
  • “Easy”//Accessible to any audience
  • “It’s pretty”
  • “It’s social”
  • Escapism
  • Habit-forming (source)

But those people are wrong.

I play games because they give me a sense of discovery.

Multiplayer games reveal something about the people I am playing with, and single-player games tell me something about the designers. Puzzle games allow me to believe that I’ve discovered some secret key to unlock what I’m working on. I am especially drawn to play games when I am experiencing some kind of anxiety in the real world (writers block, boredom, socializing with a new person, etc.); when a game reminds me that I am capable of figuring something out, I’m similarly encouraged in the real world. In this way, I perceive no difference between Eve: Online and Candy Crush, Pokemon Puzzle League and League of Legends

The sense of discovery is what separates puzzle games from games of chance. Games of chance simulate or feign a sense of discovery. They imitate puzzle games, they deceptively lead you to believe your chances of winning are predicated on some kind of achievable skill. Even @ibogost‘s  Cow Clicker is exempt from this vile game type—yes, you click a cow, but you know what you’re going to get when you click the damn cow. Even Zynga’s Farmville is exempt—while superficial*, the game’s ideological core was built upon the anticipation or sense of discovery mythologized in the colonization and domestication of land (virtual or otherwise). Jonathan Blow, eat your heart out.

It would be overly-reductive to say that Candy Crush is a game of chance. If you play the game long enough, it presents you with different variables, maps, and win conditions. You have to identify different play strategies that are advantageous in particular scenarios. Yes, there are times when you as a player feel like you’ve been given an un-winnable board, but every first play-through feels that way. You gotta lose to experience the joy in winning.

*Yes, I’m a generous person.