Usually it’s a tennis ball: Sometimes (not often), still recognizable as such. She digs it out from among the tall weeds and brings it to me, and I throw it, and she runs out and grabs it and brings it back, and so forth, over and over again, and for some reason this is basically the only thing in the world she seems to care about at all. Her name is Willow, my mom’s dog: I take her out to the park twice a week because otherwise she would explode like a poorly maintained nuclear reactor. She’s a black lab border collie mix, so I guess fetching is just in her genes.
Why do we like to do the things we like to do?
You know, in the endless debate between nature and nurture I’ve really always been more of a nurture kind of guy, but dogs make that kind of hard sometimes don’t they? Each breed so incredibly distinctly different physically and mentally, both in terms of what they can do and what they want to to do – the latter being, I think, the more interesting. What does it say about us humans when what dogs find compelling is so clearly written into their genetic material? We want to believe that our desires are the results of our beliefs, our thought processes, our understanding of the world, but can we justify that outlook when our canine companions are so obviously controlled by something written into the very foundation of their existence?
This is not fatalism. I do not believe in fate. This is determinism. This is acknowledging that, even on the rare occasions in which we are in control, we are still controlled by our history in ways which are inscrutable to us.
Of course, talking about genealogical background controlling humans the same way it controls dogs is pretty tricky territory – and for good reason, as similar arguments have been used to justify some heinous shit in the past. But, as fun as it is to talk about how our personal histories affect our tastes, at some point it must also be acknowledged that our deeper history, our family history, our genetic heritage, also plays a role.
On the plus side, this definitely takes some of the pressure off of justifying our personal taste.
On the other hand, for me, who is trying to consistently say things which are interesting about why and how we come to gaming, this is kind of a distressing insight. When you’re trying to craft a critique of a game, how can you evaluate aspects of it as being clever approaches or a foolish missteps when they may simply be, perhaps, decisions targeted to appeal to such a deep and obscured part of the developer/audience that it would require computational assistance to express? It’s not that I accept the premise that in art everything is taste, that there are no mistakes: Rather, that I am worried anew that an ability to discern what are mistakes, versus what are cognizant approaches to an aesthetic that I simply don’t understand, may be difficult or impossible to acquire.
Okay, maybe I’m being a bit reductionist here. Humans enjoy engaging in a wide range of activities, several of which are more complex than fetching a tennis ball. And, because we have more activities to enjoy, we can enjoy progressively more intricate and complex amalgamations of those pastimes. And, because we can enjoy those amalgamations, it certainly makes sense to critique how seamlessly they are integrated, how they clash or complement with each other, and how that final experience comes through to us, the audience.
Perhaps that is the fundamental difference in the way humans engage with our pastimes as opposed to the way dogs do: Dogs pick one activity which is compelling to them and stick with it, like a single worker on an assembly-line. Conversely, humans like to entertain themselves with an amalgamation of smaller sub-tasks, like an artisan crafting a piece of… well, art. Thus, while we can’t really objectively analyze how appealing those sub-tasks are to one person or another, we can evaluate, in a cogent way, how well the sub-tasks interact with each other and work together to form a cohesive whole!
If this is the case, then that suggests that each game can be broken down into a series of elemental tasks which are fundamentally enjoyable – to some people. It’s a matter of tastes differing when different people either enjoy or dislike those basic tasks which comprise the game, but an objective flaw when those tasks get in each others’ way and make engaging with them more difficult (though figuring out how to resolve conflicting tasks like that could, perhaps, be a compelling task unto itself).
This all might also sound reductionist, but I don’t think it is: What I am saying here is not to devalue the overall structure of a game, or to say that creating an entertaining or fulfilling game is any less of an art, but merely to suggest that there are some atomic ‘entertainment components’ that tend to determine whether the audience finds the activity fundamentally enjoyable or not. The relationships between those components, in terms of proportion and shape, in terms of order and arrangement – that is the domain of the designer, of the artist.
Well: I’d like to believe that there’s more going on than just gamers running back and forth, grabbing an old worn out ball and bringing it back, over and over, back and forth, forever. I’d like to believe that analyzing a game and its impact and its style and methodology is a worthwhile thing to do, and not just picking through the guts of a mouse your cat left on your doorstep for reasons nebulous and cat. I’d like to believe that we are more than the sum of our ancestors. And, for today, I can convince myself that it’s true, that I am my own master, and that every aspect of what I like hasn’t been written in a book the day I was born.
Man, though: That dog sure does like to fetch.