Frank Lantz, the head of game design at New York GameLab, demonstrated Arcadia at the Game Developers Conference a few years back. Astonishingly, Lantz played four basic Atari-style games on the screen at the same time. In one window, he was arranging puzzle pieces. In another, he was making a funny little man run through a scrolling maze. In another, he was defending the Earth against alien invaders. And in a fourth, he was moving his paddle to deflect a Pong ball. His mouse circled between windows, always seeming to be in the right place at the right place at the right time to avert disaster or grab an enticing power-up. Each game created a different spatial orientation-in and out, up and down, right and left. To anyone who respects skilled game play, Lantz gave a virtuoso performance.As Lantz played, Eric Zimmerman, GameLab’s cofounder and resident game theorist, offered explanations for what we were seeing, demonstrating the fusion of insightful and innovative design that has been the group’s hallmark. The folks at GameLab create games that make you think about the nature of the medium. I want to use their provocation to explore some key questions at the intersection of games, attention, and learning.
I am old enough to have played Pong and to have spent whole evenings mastering some of those Atari games when they first appeared. Those games used to be hard. Now, gamers like Lantz can handle four of them at a time and not break a sweat. What happened?
When I spoke to him by telephone, Zimmerman reassured me that there was a trick-the games had been simplified and slowed down from the originals. As soon as any one game got interesting enough that you wanted to play it on it on its own, it was probably too complicated for Arcadia. Yet, when I tried to play Arcadia, even on its easiest setting, I found myself constantly losing lives, frantically racing from place to place, and always, always, always arriving too late. To use a technical term, I sucked. Arcadia is set to launch at Shockwave.com in early August, so you can see how you stack up.
GameLab works outside the mainstream industry, designing games for the Web, not for the PC or the various game machines. Zimmerman, who recently finished a book, Rules of Play, with Katie Salen, sees each game as an experiment in interactive engineering. Much as punk rockers tried to strip rock music down to its core, GameLab embraces a minimalist retro aesthetic, shedding fancy graphics to focus on the mechanics of game play. In one of its games, Loop, there aren’t even mouse clicks: you simply encircle butterflies by moving your mouse across the screen. Another GameLab title, Sissyfight 2000, was a staging of Prisoner Dilemma as a multiplayer game set in a schoolyard. All of the emphasis is on social interactions-the choice to tattle, tease, bond with or abuse your classmates.
Arcadia began as a game about minigames-small, simple games that are increasingly embedded within larger and more complicated games. It evolved into a game about multitasking, one that links the management of game resources with the management of one’s own attention. That’s actually a core issue for many of us right now-how to manage our perceptual and cognitive resources in what digital community builder Linda Stone characterizes as an age of continuous partial attention.
Stone argues that there is a growing tendency for people to move through life, scanning their environments for signals, and shifting their attention from one problem to another. This process has definite downsides-we never give ourselves over fully to any one interaction. It is like being at a cocktail party and constantly looking over the shoulders of the person you are talking with to see if anyone more interesting has arrived. Yet, it is also adaptive to the demands of the new information environment, allowing us to accomplish more, to sort through competing demands, and to interact with a much larger array of people.
For my generation, this process feels highly stressful and socially disruptive. But for my son’s cohort, young men and women in their late teens or early twenties, it has become second nature. I am amazed watching my son doing his homework, chatting online with multiple friends, each in their own chat room window, downloading stuff off the Web, listening to MP3s, and keeping an eye on the Red Sox score. My parents couldn’t understand how I could do homework and watch television. My students sit in class discussions, take detailed notes, and look up relevant Web sites on their wireless laptops.