Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How we Precede Procedure

In an earlier post I mentioned that metaplay – or, the playing of game on several levels – doesn’t necessarily correspond to other avenues of play. And nowhere do I find that happens more than with Pokémon. There’s something about playing a game you’ve played over and over, a familiarity that gets in under your skin. When I say that there isn’t one metagame, but several, things can be divided up in different ways. Today I'll be going over the first of a couple.

The Metaprocedural: processing how we process.

One of our earliest mental skill sets is metacongnition, or “thinking about thinking.” This little gem of an abstract thought, long thought to be the sole prize of homo sapiens, is actually widespread – recently it’s been confirmed in rats.

Not like this. But close.

Following from an understanding of the process of thoughts comes an understanding sequence and causality, known as metaprocedure.

Like it or lump it, most play consists of repetition – its part of its reflexive charm, and speaks to us at our most compulsive. In this fashion, the ‘language’ of gaming is something we can absorb through play. Some of it is kinesthetic, and some is memorization, but every game contains some sum of internalization.

A game like Pokémon, then, is a smorgasbord of data. Underpinning the tried-and-true JRPG play schematic is a Swiss-army-knife of weaknesses, strengths and immunities. With seventeen elemental types to choose from and mix, the game shakes out as a hyperkinetic paper-rock-scissors. This of course sometimes leads to inanity: For example, “dragon” is a type. And it’s weak to… “dragon.” Huh.

Oh Jormundgandr, baby child, that’s your tail.

But with a few tweaks, this has been the model since time immemorial. So it isn’t just that you may enter these games with an understanding of the basic procedure of RPGs – the very cipher of combat may come pre-cracked. There is something meditative about playing a game where you have to learn absolutely nothing. Of course, peering deeps into the mechanical guts of such models does have its drawbacks. Yes, all the points of data make a beautiful line – but, taken to its conclusion, it draws you away into something purely mechanical.

From this point of view, each Pokémon is just a bundle of stats. Played as a numbers game, every variable can be controlled through methodical process – but in so doing, story disappears, and the game begins to take on an entirely different character. Yes, you could catch one Pokémon, name it, and let it be your very best friend. Or you could catch 20, release the ones with low stats, take the top few, breed them, release the ones with low stats, grind up numbers to learn certain move sets, breed those guys, release the ones with low stats, trade that final guy from one game to another to double its experience rate…

There is something satisfying about this approach, but push too deep, and suddenly it feels.. somehow unsavory. Narrative disappears, until it isn’t so much a game as it is math.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily something lamentable. Because, as everyone knows:

You're absolutely right, terrible clipart girl. Math IS fun.

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