Satisfaction in (Alternate Reality) Games

(Originally published Nov 29, 2016 on alternaterealitygames.wordpress.com)

I’ve been thinking about the metric of “satisfaction” since we were assigned to Fulbright’s Gone Home for homework.  It was a common point of criticism: that the game wasn’t satisfying, that it somehow missed a mark.  I don’t necessarily agree or disagree, but I am interested in locating the impulse that drives us to be satisfied by game experiences.  In the video game industry, of course, satisfaction—customer satisfaction, more specifically—is the core measure that determines a game’s success.  But I noticed that, amongst all the critical and constructive feedback our groups exchanged during the module discussion, satisfaction was notably absent.  We noted moments of desire and pleasure, but never a failure to meet expectations.

In general, satisfaction might underscore a core difference between ARGs and non-ARG games.  Non-ARGs* more often have a kind of expectation surrounding them, an impression of what the experience could be like, or might be like.  So we naturally measure the experience up against those preconceptions when we actually play the game.  Video games are a good example because they also have marketing surrounding them, building up a stylized impression that informs players’ incoming mindsets; but this is true of board games and card games too.

Maybe it’s because they have (or purport to have) a compartmentalized form that exists outside the game space: i.e. we can say that a video game “exists” when you aren’t playing it, as do board games and folk games and sports.  These games can be treated like objects, with all the cultural baggage associated with any object.  We come to these types of games with preconceptions and expectations.  The same can’t necessarily be said of ARGs.

This feels like an almost definitional difference.  Until ARGs are finished, they don’t have a “form” to speak of.  They aren’t an object, they can’t be analyzed or critiqued until they’ve happened.  Maybe the GDD, but not what we would call the game.  And even once the game ends, all we have is an archive, like Speculat1on, a collection of accounts and records that could never reproduce the whole.

*  we really need a word for this — or do we?

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