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How Screens Ruin Games

A recent blog post on yours truly’s website dove into the development of the Thotcon 0x9 badges and, amongst other things, touched on the use of the screen with our year 2018 platforms. Screens, I think, really handicapped this year’s badges because they implied a certain kind of interaction. Screens have baggage; people have used them for long enough with video games that they’ve been trained on how they should work, and therefore, believe that anything with a screen on it should work that way, too. Screens are not just a collection of affordances, but of habits: like the habits we develop interacting with the feedback of a vehicle console, or a mobile phone user interface. My conclusion is that screens ruin games.

Or rather, that screens are often overused and have driven the direction of games for long enough. We can do better than screens, but they’re so dominant, that they influence nearly every game that we touch today. So, it’s important to remember some of the problems that they introduce. Here are a few:

1. Screens Demand Attention

Screens demand a tremendous amount of cognitive attention. We might think this is advantageous at first, since the alternative is a distracted game player who’s not focusing on the work, therefore marking the game as a failure. And yet, what would happen with games if we rejected the notion that they should demand our utmost attention? What would happen if games melded with our lives in ways that were meaningful, and yet, unobtrusive.

Good design — and good game design at that — should focus on the experience. Not necessarily the manufactured experience, but the holistic experience of the individual. Design should fade into the background, because it’s not something most people care about. People do not care about the design of objects, nor should they. Just as a designer shouldn’t be expected to care about everything outside of their own professional field.

2. Screens are a Crutch

When you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. The screen is a tool, and unfortunately, it’s an overused tool that influences the vast majority of art that our medium puts out. If you’re going to make a computer game, how frequently is that done outside of a rectangle? Not very often. This limitation influences how we think about our speech and what kinds of stories we decide to tell because, of course, the medium is the message, and the screen is the medium.

But what if developers were given other options for communicating information (and here we’re talking about those outside of simple controller haptics, for instance)? What if, as mentioned above, game developers weren’t able to rely solely on the screen for conveying data? And what if we then chose to take advantage of those alternative forms of speech in order to communicate stories differently? This would be an excellent shift for game design.

3. Screens have Baggage

Baggage means the history of the object, and how that history influences how we expect the object to behave. Screen-based games have functioned very similarly since the inception of their most basic elements from games like Defender. Points of view (isomorphic? 2D?), movement (platformer?), and object orientation and movement have all remained relatively the same for the last three or more decades.

The medium has simply been around long enough to make it more difficult for designers to conceive of alternative uses, and screen users to easily accept alternative means of interaction with screens. Where a game that focuses on non-traditional forms of feedback are not bound by the semiotics of previous interactions people have had with that feedback, screens are bound by over a century of symbols.

Conclusion

This is not to say that screens are irrelevant, but that they’re overused and problematically implemented in many cases for games. What does a future of games look like where we not only use screens, but perhaps other forms of feedback that obviate a screen altogether? Perhaps, then, then screens will find their appropriate space as a tool in a toolbox of communication, rather than the only way forward.