Thursday, 30 September 2010

Sam & Max and my research

Again, it's been a while. I have the excuse of spending the last few months running my main data collection study, though I have also been playing games throughout. Maybe I've been quite busy, but maybe I also haven't felt like I've had a lot to say. Recently though, I've been thinking more and more about one particular series I've been playing and how I got back into it after being convinced to give it another go as a result of one of my data collection sessions.

Over the past few months, I've been asking participants to keep a set of gaming diaries and to come into the lab we've set up in the department to play games. They had to keep the diary for three weeks and come in on three seperate occassions so I could hook them up to various physiological equipment (to measure changes in muscle tension, galvanic skin response and heart rate) and observe them playing games. The sessions lasted about 2-3hours so all in all it was quite an investement from them. Even when all I could offer was a Amazon voucher just to say thanks, 9 people actually agreed to take part and for that I am very grateful :-)

Anyway, during the first two sessions I would ask people to bring in a game of their choice, preferably something they'd been playing. But for the final session I would pick a game for them. For my first participant - who is also a friend of mine but for the purposes of anonymity, let's call him Matt - I chose Sam and Max: Save the World . It's a point and click type adventure, with lots of puzzle solving where you play Sam and Max who Wikipedia describes as "self-styled vigilante private investigators, the former an anthropomorphic dog and the latter a 'hyperkinetic rabbity thing'" as they set about uncovering a hypnotism conspiracy.

I picked the game up ages ago for the Wii and though I played for a bit, I got stuck at one point early on and just never went back to it. I'm going to be honest here, while I wanted to choose something Matt hadn't played before (and that contrasted in pace to his own choices - survival horror/FPS), I also chose it because I thought he would find it boring. And I wanted to see whether all that physiological data I've been collecting would reflect that. I'm still working on the data so I'm going to have to save the in depth analyses for later on (and hopefully publication...) but he didn't find it boring. He liked it. That didn't mean he wasn't frustrated by some aspects of it, but he seemed to enjoy it. What really surprised me was that him liking it made me want to try it again. So I did, and I finished it this time. And then I bought the next series, Beyond Time and Space on Steam (because it wasn't on the Wii) and finished that. And then I played the latest series The Devil's Playhouse, and had to wait for Telltale to complete the last two episodes so I could finish that too.

So what happened? Why did I write the game off only so soon? What made me go back to it? How many other games do I have that I never really gave a fair shot? Looking back, I remember wanting to like Save the World but getting a little annoyed by all the dialogue and getting impatient with some of the puzzles. Even though I did think it was funny, I guess I didn't think it was funny enough to keep playing. So when I got stuck, maybe it didn't feel like there was enough incentive to go back. It was a good couple of years ago now when I got the game so I can't say for sure, but I also imagine that I got distracted by other games that I had at the time. So I forgot about it, until I started my study and had to come up with games for other people to play. That's already going to put it back on my radar, but then Matt seemed to enjoy it and we talked about it afterwards, and it made me want to give it another go. I think the fact that we are also friends who talk about games has something to do with it too. Though I don't think he's played the game since, him playing it in the session made me feel more like a shared experience, and when I refer to the series he knows what I'm talking about. Could that alone have increased my involvement with the game? I think it might have. And I'm glad it did.

I'm not saying it's a perfect series. Like most point and click adventures, the puzzles are less about creative problem solving and more about trying to figure out how the designer wants you to solve it. The dialogue is funny, but there is a lot of it and the story doesn't always really make a whole lot of sense... It was ok playing it with the Wii controls but the later games weren only out on Steam so I had to switch. I think the second game, Beyond Time and Space was the weakest of the three I played - it felt rushed, shorter than the others, with puzzles that made even less sense than normal. But the more I played, the better I got at it (and yes I did sometimes resort to walkthroughs or increased the in-game hint level, but I noticed as time went on this happened less too). Maybe I learnt how to think like the designers, but the puzzles didn't feel as frustrating. So even if the narrative was a little out there, I kept progressing, and I still wanted to know what was going to happen next. But I needed a reason to get past the initital hurdle I came across and that seemed to come from sharing the experience with someone else. Without them even being in the same room! And now it's got me wondering what other games I would have enjoyed? Also, I'm wondering what I would have given up on if I hadn't had others to share the experience with?!

All of this ties in with my reseach because I'm not just interested in what happens when we play but why we choose to play anything in the first place. Like I said, the analysis is at a pretty early stage but if I can uncover at least part of that, and explain how it all might relate to learning, then I might just have something decent to put in my thesis ;-) Plus, it's something I need to consider when I am doing my analysis - if my participants had an impact on my game-playing, then how did I impact theirs?