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On Video Game Mastery

I doubt I could really pass myself off as a true master of any game -- at least not according to Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 Hour Rule," which states that nobody can achieve expertise in any area without logging at least 10,000 hours of practice.

Although I haven't played them in several years, Doom and its sequels have the distinction of taking up more of my lifetime minutes than any other game. Doom encourages repeat playing and pushes players to pursue mastery in several ways:
  1. Each of its five different difficulty settings has a cooler-sounding name. Beginners were practically heckled with the two easiest settings, "I'm Too Young To Die" and "Hey, Not Too Rough." More advanced players could settle for beating the game on "Hurt Me Plenty," or strive to do it on "Ultra-Violence." Of course, "Nightmare" was completely impossible for any but the most dedicated doomer.

  2. The end-level tally screen. Upon the completion of each level, players saw their total time, percentage of enemies killed, percentage of items collected and percentage of secret areas discovered. These metrics give the curious and the motivated multiple reasons to repeat levels and perhaps specialize in a particular area (like getting 100% kills, 100% secrets, etc.). The tally screen also challenged players with a "par time" for the level, which was, of course, ludicrously brief.

  3. When exiting the game, Doom cajoles and taunts the player for "giving up." Not necessarily a foolproof method for deterring players from their decision to go do something else, but I'm sure this must have had at least some subconscious effect.

  4. Perhaps the most important motivators toward mastery in Doom are the demo videos that run in the background before the player even begins a game. The demos are extensive and showcase all of the skills/techniques a player could work at -- speed, accuracy, thoroughness, map knowledge, etc. The demos prove that mastery of the game is indeed possible and achievable by a human being. Also, as a historical note, when Doom first came out, there was no YouTube, and being able to watch and study a master at work was, as such, almost completely unprecedented.
Although Doom did have a multiplayer mode, the motivation for working toward mastery wasn't (at least, to my understanding) focused so much on building one's abilities as an online warrior as it was on hearkening back to the arcade days, when excellence was its own reward. (And having a high score you could brag about to girls, I guess.)

Perhaps the nature of the arcade-style format compelled designers to do a better job of motivating players to pursue mastery than modern console games, since even a moderate level of dedication on the player's (or players') part meant more total quarters being pumped into a machine. Of course, once a player gets over the "death hurdle," and is skilled enough to stay alive indefinitely, an arcade game suddenly becomes extremely unprofitable throughout the duration of that expert player's game.

One of the few games besides Doom I might claim to have have mastered was the NES port of the arcade classic Jackal.

Jackal was unique in that it offered a cooperative campaign mode, making practice sessions social events, and allowing two players to channel their shared desire to beat the game toward mutual motivation. We also seemed to be aware that Jackal had a definite ending, unlike other arcade games, which for all intents and purposes continue indefinitely, and for which "kill screens" my only be achieved by the most psychotic individuals.

Game developers seem to take it as axiomatic that a well-designed game will engage players indefinitely and at any skill level. Who wouldn't want to be part of a team that produces a timeless, popular, beloved, community-spawning game? A game for which true skill is not only possible, but so desirable and sought-after that playing and competing become an art form and the game is elevated into the pop culture canon as a de facto sport?

But is such a goal realistic? Is it profitable? Does it make a game more accessible? Is asking for that kind of dedication really fair to the player? There are plenty of great films, symphonies, novels, etc. without a fanatical fanbase; and, conversely, just because a work of art reaches cult status isn't necessarily an indication of its artistic merit.

Not to disparage the ideal, but I think the point I'm trying to make is that, while it may be a virtue for games to successfully allow for and encourage the pursuit of mastery, this should by no means be the only criterion by which games are judged. Off to hone my Halo $killZ...