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From Issue #22 August 1, 2013

Head Games

A new species has emerged in the living room; what can we learn from him?

By Carren Jao Twitter icon 

In the dim light of the living room, he stalks his multiple prey. He reclines against the sofa, and his eyebrows furrow slightly as he levels his gaze at the 72-inch television screen. His too-long hair curls slightly at the neck and around his eyes, making him look like a kid lost in serious thought. Sandwiched between his hands is a bulbous, Batarang-shaped object: a controller.

He waits just a few beats, as his virtual enemies slink onto the screen. Then, he furiously unleashes a complex choreography of finger flicks aimed precisely at the array of buttons within his grasp. Bumpers and triggers are pressed; left stick and right stick swirl under his thumbs in a graceful dance. As soon as neurons fire in his brain, his phalanges tap-dance into action.

An on-screen avatar moves on command, darting this way and that. His digital self dances back and forth, at times running away from combatants, and at others charging ferociously once his weapon reloads. Somehow, he survives the onslaught.

For my husband, playing every relevant video game release for the year is research. Ask and you’ll soon discover that this year’s lineup includes Metal Gear Solid, Saint’s Row, Grand Theft Auto, Batman, and another Call of Duty. Every other night, I find him in bed with an iPad, searching for new games to download, including titles like Cut the Rope, Temple Run, and Robot Unicorn Attack 2.

Once, I found him playing Walking Dead for PC and for the iPad — which were developed by different companies and employ different mechanics — on top of watching the television series.

My husband’s job description is one that often leaves boys and men around the world salivating. I should know. I’m often beside him as he answers the perennial question “So, what do you do?”

“I make video games.”

Level up

It has been five years since I struck up a relationship with Ludus architectus, a name I concocted from a combination of the Latin words for “diversion” and “builder.” A Homo sapiens sub-species more commonly known as “game designer,” Ludus architectus blends seamlessly with the general populace. Like many of us, he enjoys blockbuster superhero movies and makes polite small talk.

Except for his overly detailed knowledge of video games past and present and the preponderance of t-shirts emblazoned with game logos in his wardrobe — invariably snagged from big industry events like the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco or the E3 Expo in Los Angeles — nothing seems amiss. It is only upon prolonged exposure that one notices small deviations that reveal his true identity.

For Ludus architectus, creating something fun is the measure of success — not realism, not use of advanced technology, not even aesthetics. Unlike those of us who just kick back and relax, the game designer actively intellectualizes entertainment and excitement in search of that seed of an idea that could perhaps go into a game level.

Ludus architectus tells me that fun — despite the monosyllabic construction of the word — is abominably complex and requires dogged pursuit similar to that required to find happiness. A game designer is forever in search of this confounding balance between frustratingly difficult and laughably easy. Too hard, and players turn off the game. Too easy, and the tasks become monotonous. His quest is to set the fulcrum’s location with extreme care.

And aside from professional satisfaction, his never-ending task offers me unexpected personal perks.

Playing to win

Long before his CV said game designer, my husband played games with his then-long-distance girlfriend: me. Though we met in high school in the Philippines, it was only after years of seeing each other’s adolescent awkwardness subside that we finally made a go of it — right about the time he left the archipelago for graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

Separated by the Pacific Ocean, he in Pittsburgh and me in Manila, he wooed me with a dozen roses delivered for no good reason at all. The blooms always came with a cryptic handwritten message: “I win.”

What did he win? I don’t know. What game was he playing exactly? A cosmic one, I suppose. All I knew was that a semi-regular flower delivery seemed to indicate that I was winning, too.

Games helped strengthen our still-long-distance relationship two years after the bouquets stopped coming. Deprived of date nights, we would bond over bandwidth. We played mini-games online, especially those made by now-shuttered OMGPOP, makers of that Pictionary-like game Draw Something. Who knew that brightly colored blocks, cutesy characters, and squiggly line drawings that would shame a grade-schooler would become our relationship’s lifeline? Ludus architectus probably did.

Despite all our technological advances, long-distance lovers know a cold computer can never compare with real-time romance. Still, in no small way, those games and the feelings they inspired brought us closer together, one triumphant holler at a time.

Years later, I asked him why he sent flowers with those mysterious little cards. He simply said, “So you wouldn’t forget me.”

I never did.

Blame game

Marriage to Ludus architectus gives me ringside seats to the video-game development circus. In turn, it gives him access to the n00biest n00b he knows. You see, I’m a culture buff. I prefer museums to multiplayers. I’d take actual ruins over CG ones. The only quests I would be engrossed in are those in J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales. I had never really gotten into games of any kind, unless you count solitaire. Until we married and it was required, I had never finished playing a single-player video game from start to finish.

The games we engage in continue to grease the wheels of our happy, healthy relationship, but by now, it plays out differently. Given my relative lack of gaming experience, I am the perfect guinea pig. Rather than compartmentalizing his relationship with his work, he opens his world to me by asking me to take part in it.

I play through his prototype levels; based on my feedback, he tweaks his design. By doing so, he turns my stumbles into strengths and gives me license to voice my own thoughts. When he asks me what I think of a level, he isn’t searching for a single right answer. He’s seeking an honest one.

In between my muffled curses and hundreds of attempts to clear a level, I learn that player proficiency (or lack of it) can’t always explain a bad game experience. Designers take on much of the burden. They can be dinged for anything that makes players stop and go, “Huh?”

Don’t know where to go after fighting off alien attacks in an abandoned military base? Tired after pressing the same series of buttons a hundred times to perform a once-amazing kick combo? Bored with excessive narration in between levels? In every instance, most players are justified in blaming the designer.

Playing god

Ludus architectus is a god in a virtual world, an invisible force that nudges players this way or that. If video games were movies, his work would be that of a director. He sets up scenes, directs characters, and helps the action unfold, sometimes to a thrilling conclusion. But video games are not movies.

No matter how bizarre the plot twist, Quentin Tarantino never worries that his actors will suddenly go rogue. But a game designer’s actors are also his audience. Rather than retaining full control, Ludus architectus defines the parameters and then cedes decision-making to his players — akin to God giving humankind free will.

Along the way, Ludus architectus has acquired a vocabulary he uses to communicate with others of his kind that is superficially similar to that employed by Homo sapiens. “Geo” is not geography, but “geometry,” a collection of circles, rectangles, and shapes that together form on-screen environments. “Script” isn’t calligraphy; it’s the set of instructions you give a computer. “Crunch” isn’t a chocolate bar with rice crisps, nor is it an abdominal exercise; it’s really code for 12- to 16-hour workdays and spoiled weekend plans.

When he talks about “engines,” he means the part of the video game software that dictates how objects are drawn or sounds are played, not what’s under the hood. “Play dates” aren’t for children we have yet to conceive; they are for him and his friends to go online at the same time to play cooperatively.

When he asks, “Did you beat it?” I know that he means, “Have you played through a game from start to finish?”

When not crunching, our weekends and weekdays are filled with him trying to beat games. When he turns on our desktop computer, which he has hooked up to the television and a speaker system so he can play on a larger screen in surround sound, I know the time has come to break out my reading material.

By now, I recognize the silly grin that comes from conquering a particularly difficult level. He’s having fun — the kind he tries to build into every game he works on. It’s the same delight he shares with me when I’m in the mood to play as well.

Winning

Some of my fondest memories of Ludus architectus involve cooperative games that allow two or more players to work together toward a common goal. While playing World of Goo, a physics-based puzzle game where players transform bits of black tar into makeshift machines that funnel errant tar balls in a desired direction, he and I would while away hours overcoming the obstacles of each level in the game.

As I held a crucial bit of goo aloft on-screen, he would frantically rush around gathering his own goo into the proper formation until his shaky Rube Goldberg-like machine connected with my piece. As balls of goo emitted rapturous shouts of glee as they were sucked into a vacuum container (the goo’s end goal), we celebrated each goo that we had “saved.” While we were facing digital challenges together — and winning, I might add — I felt as if we were also doing our relationship a favor.

Modern marriages may not be in danger of amorphous evil beings or madmen bent on world domination, but my experience with Ludus architectus leads me to conclude that challenges (both real and imagined) faced and overcome together can only bear good fruit — or, at the very least, higher leader board rankings.

It is customary for couples to inscribe a meaningful passage inside their wedding bands. When we married, we chose two words: We win. Because indeed, we both do.

Photo by Eric Holsinger used under Creative Commons license.

Carren Jao writes about art, architecture and design for the Los Angeles Times, Architectural Record, and KCET, among others. She's fascinated with connections, hidden histories, and how the ordinary becomes remarkable thanks to someone who took time to notice.

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