This is what the PokeWalker reminds me of

When I was quite small, I was obsessed with Pokemon. I couldn’t actually play Pokemon, since I didn’t have a Gameboy and the party line in my household was that Gameboys would rot your brains. But I was obsessed nevertheless. I was obsessed because it was a thing I couldn’t have.

So I watched the show religiously. I had a bajillion cards organized in two three-inch D-ring binders. I also had a Pokemon Pikachu II, the silvery-glittery Pokemon pedometer meant to connect with the Gold and Silver games. I didn’t have the games, but the pedometer worked kind of like a Pikachu-themed Tamagotchi even without the games, so it wasn’t a huge problem. By accumulating steps, you’d earn Watts, and these watts could then be used in a betting game to accumulate more watts. If you had the Gameboy game, they could be sent there; where, I assumed, they served some perplexing and unknowable brain-rotting service. Alternately, you could give them to the Pikachu. The Pikachu would be so pleased by the gift that he/she/it would perform some wild trick. The more Watts, the crazier the trick. If you were a cheapass, the Pikachu would just stick its face real close to the screen and make a happy face. There was another trick, I think, where it would give you an acorn or some other shitty seed you certainly weren’t ever going to need, in the same way a cat offers its owners dead mice. And then there was the top trick—Pikachu would leap into the air and fireworks would explode around it. I don’t know whether the fireworks were incidental or the Pikachu was supposed to be a licensed pyrotechnican, but that’s what would happen.

I adored my Pikachu. I first received it just before a summer trip to Yellowstone National Park, as a way to entertain me in the car, I think. It worked. See, I had an epiphany in the first few moments after unwrapping it and turning it on: sitting in my mother’s minivan, I lifted the Pikachu up to the cabin light to get a better look at the screen, heard the clicking and rattling of its internal components, and realized that I could shake it with my hands to accumulate Watts.

This, of course, immediately became the main objective of my waking life. I would get up in the morning and run around the house while shaking it in my hand, because I reasoned that this combination of violent movements would cause the footstep meter to rise the fastest. I quit playing computer games entirely during that summer. Any time spent seated was wasted time. I set myself ludicrous benchmarks: 10,000 steps before lunch was the normal one, and one, in fact, that I regularly met. I developed an idiosyncratic way of shaking the device; I’d hold my upper arm out rigidly, angled up above my shoulder, and shake the Pikachu up and down as fast as possible at cheek height. I could do more reps more quickly that way, I learned.

At the swimming pool my sister and I swam at, we were suddenly the cool kids. However, this lasted for only about half a week before my devotion to the Pikachu began to bore my friends. My good friend Elizabeth particularly hated it. It kept me from swimming with her.

“I need to get to ten thousand,” I’d tell her. “Uh, you just get in the pool, and I’ll jump in when I get there.” I’d stand and shake it on the side of the pool, staring off crosseyed into the distance, while she did flips in the deep end and gave me resentful glances. I actually got tennis elbow from shaking the Pikachu that summer—a huge knot of muscles gathered at the base of my forearm, just above my elbow. It ached whenever I pressed it.

The Pikachu was an infinite well of mysteries. I don’t think I ever found all of Pikachu’s tricks; the first time I discovered the fireworks one was on the Fourth of July, and I was so baffled by it that I assumed it was some kind of holiday event. Because I had no Gameboy game to worry about, I could use the Watts for whatever I pleased; chiefly, I used them to play the card game with Pikachu. Though it was only a guessing game, I developed the belief that I was an expert at it. I played constantly. Waiting in line for a seat at Applebees; at the doctor’s office; in the car; I even once played it in an airplane during takeoff, chancing (I thought) a bloody death for the entire crew. Such was my adoration for Pikachu: capricious, unwise, in defiance of sense and safety. Pikachu and I were closer than Ash and his Pikachu. We were business partners. My obsession was clinical and calculating; my methods were tested, double-checked, analyzed, and finally, rigorously scheduled. We were in the business of collecting footsteps. We were in the business of collecting Watts. We maxed out the Watts once, my Pikachu and I. I gave it 999 Watts in celebration, and the Pikachu adored me for it. It had max happiness. I had max happiness.


That was a good summer. During the following school year, because Tamagotchis and Tamagotchi-likes had been banned the previous fall, I carried the Pikachu secretly in my pocket. I would jiggle my leg and tap my toes on the floor to keep the footstep meter running. But we had lean times, Pikachu and I; without the ability to shake for benchmarks, the store of Watts was slowly depleted. I stopped giving it gifts. I had to play the card game in the bathroom, in secret. Life was tough. When the next summer began, I had almost kept my Pikachu running for an entire year. The hoary old thing was scratched, half-broken, and weak on battery power, but I kept it clipped to my waistband anyway. The clip had been bent, though, and it gripped my clothes with less surety now.

This is key to my story.

See, I would frequently go kayaking or canoeing with my sister and my father on a lake near our house. We’d bring our own canoe, or rent the kayaks they had there for a dollar an hour. I forgot to take the Pikachu off one day while kayaking, and when we got home, I realized it was gone. It was hard not to cry. I assumed that the little thing was dead at the middle of the lake, Pikachu’s ghost drifting sadly among the catfish. We called the lake office; they said they couldn’t find it anywhere on the beach. We drove back to the lake. When we arrived, however, they’d already discovered it exactly where I’d bent to pull the kayak back up onto the beach, knocked off by the edge of my life-vest and drowned under a foot of water. The lifeguard gave it back to me I pretended to be very thankful.

“I had it for almost a whole year,” I told my mother in the car on the way home. “That’s a long time for one of those toys to last,” she said. Unhelpfully. That the Pikachu had been such a magnificent survivor only made its death worse. I felt emptied. I felt as if a real creature had died.

Wielding a glasses repair kit, I disassembled its corpse on a sheet of Kleenex on the floor of my room. I soaked the water up off the tiny green chip with a stack of q-tips. I rolled a slice of keenex into a tiny rope and threaded it down around the screen area, soaking up hidden drops. I let both halves of the toy dry in a sunny spot for two weeks.

When I turned it back on, the memory had been wiped. All the footsteps and watts and max happiness meters were gone.

I totally lost the drive to play with Pikachu after that. He/she/it was dead.

So: my new PokeWalker is a sorrowful, sorrowful thing. I can hardly use it. It feels false and deadening. Also, they figured out a way to make it immune to most kinds of shaking. There’s no point to it anymore.

If it can’t be like the old times, I don’t want it at all. Which, of course, says a lot about me. And about gamers. We want what we want, of course, because we can’t have it.


I have just played my best game of Nethack. My best game of all time. I got to level ten and did almost all of the Gnomish Mines but, while backing up to find the Sobokan, I got trapped between a wolf, a cockatrice, and a giant housecat and was ripped to shreds by them all before I could figure out a way to escape.

Now that I reflect on it, I realize that I had ways to survive. I could have used my pickaxe to dig a hole in the wall and hide inside it, thus limiting the attacks to a single front. Or I could have started zapping all my unidentified wands. Or I could have quaffed that one golden potion I’d found—there’s a chance it might have been a healing potion or a teleport potion. I could have thrown it at an enemy. It might have exploded and killed them (and me?) or paralyzed or confused them. I could have done a number of things. I was so close, really—eminently ‘ascendable’, as NetHack players say. My female dwarven cavewomen could have eventually won the game if I hadn’t screwed up there. A real Nethack expert would have known what to do.

I’m always telling myself that real Nethack experts exist. I honestly believe that there are actual people living in this world—in secrecy, of course, hidden among us under disguise—who have a godly understanding of Nethack and who can actually play it without feeling like a bumbling idiot. I have no evidence for this, but somebody had to write the Nethack Wiki. Those people have to be the geniuses I’m talking about. I mean, they’ve probably actually beaten the game.

You beat the game by ‘ascending’ the character: by travelling to the lowest level of the dungeon and taking the Amulet of Yendor from the High Priest of Moloch. You must then travel to the Astral Plane and offer it to your god, who will grant you immortality, ‘ascending’ you to demigodhood. In order to do this, however, you have to play the game for practically an entire lifetime, learn all the tricks and gambits, master a class and a playstyle, figure out the cost/benefit ratios of practically every risk you could take in the entire game (basically, of every action, since doing almost anything in Nethack could potentially get you killed).

In a way, it reminds me of The Arhkam Horror, a fantastic board-game based on HP Lovecraft’s writings: newbies at Arkham Horror will do everything, and they’ll have a blast. Experienced players will turn almost every risk down—even the ones likely to result in a benefit. They know something us new players don’t. They’re jaded. When they play, it looks like they’re not having any fun, because they’re practically not playing the game. But then they win it, so we all nod sagely and wonder aloud how they got so good.

It also reminds me of people who are really, really good at Civilization IV. They play absurd societies—societies where half the entire culture track gets invented before bronzeworking, societies which leap absurdly from power to power, which manipulate wonders and resources until they’re scarcely similar to real-world civilizations at all. Everything narrows down to the exactness of turns and production-times. The illusion of the game falls apart, and we’re dealing with mister Sid Meyer’s architecture. And it’s fun: that’s what the game is for. You’re supposed to get right on in there with the math and the loopholes and the broken mechanics. It’s satisfying to have that kind of expertise.

There isn’t a way to be an expert at something without surrendering a bit of wonder—without leaving the game-world behind. Not all of it, of course, mind you—just a bit. Enough so that we can peel back the story and get our hands on the numbers that make the game work the way it does. For Pokemon, there’s EV training; for Oblivion, there’s strategic leveling; for other games, like Halo, there’s the ethic behind the whole e-sports scene—three shots to the body, one to the head. Do people really die that way? Of course not, but there has to be some kind of death-math in order for us to master death in Halo, right? For Nethack, it’s the encyclopedic understanding of all game systems: people who can ascend probably know the exact probability that sipping from a fountain will release a water demon, and if they defeat the demon and it grants them a wish, they know they should ask for silver or grey blessed greased +2 dragon scale mail. They know that you can guess the identity of an unknown potion by dropping it in a store to see what the shopkeeper offers them—because they’ve memorized the prices of everything already, and they know what they’re looking for.

I don’t know if this is the way we played games for expertise back in the day, before everything had its own online fan community and its own wiki, complete with number-crunched tables. But it’s kind of the way we play now: collaborating across the internet to rip the clothes off the game and get a look at its inner framework. It’s not bad; it’s just the way expertise works, I think. Being ‘good’ at a game means, most of the time, being an expert at the numbers, not being an expert at ‘enjoying the atmosphere,’ or ‘liking the plot.’ But it’s not like we’re killing the magic: we’re just swapping one kind for another. There’s something incredibly special about the x-ray vision we develop once we begin to look past the outer surface of a game and focus on its inner mathematics. When we learn to do that, we begin to feel powerful and wise. We enter into a kind of secret compact with the developers: we know the neurotically complex work that went into their game—particularly one as complex as Nethack—and we begin to understand it. We understand the game in a new mental language, almost. At any rate, it’s special.

It’s a kind of specialness I rarely feel, though. I’m not the kind of person who gets really really good at games—any games. I think the only one I’ve done this to is Dwarf Fortress, really. I find the process intimidating, and I’m always unwilling to take that mental step out of the gameworld and into the world of the game’s math. Perhaps this is why I run with such an awfully-balanced Dragon Age team, why it took me a whole week to figure out how to beat the Elite Four for the first time, and why the numbers-game focus of raid-level WoW often strikes me as heartless, even though I know that such players regard it as the point of the game. Expertise is the one kind of game-magic I haven’t yet learned to properly appreciate.

Here’s hoping I may, in time. Or I’m never getting anywhere with Nethack.

A bit of argument-killing on my own part, though: this binary is pretty much only the way I see things. People like the Magnasanti guy clearly can see both sides of the coin at once.

Distilled to a purer substance

Have you ever played a game where the minigames or secondary goals were more exciting and compelling than the rest of the entire game?

It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. Through extensive research (asking my friends), I’ve found that this varies in a highly personal way. I had a friend in high school who could never get enough of KOTOR’s Pazaak, which I hated. Whenever I played that minigame I was just dicking around with extra credits, but he had a real strategy and everything! Gosh! And while I absolutely adored the underground mining game in Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, I know a number of people who thought it was incredibly stupid. Kent loves scanning planets in Mass Effect 2; I’ve only done it for maybe twenty minutes, and I find it dull. On the other hand, I found hunting for arrowheads in Psychonauts to be pretty entertaining—I mean, I spent as long a time amassing a grossly enormous fortune in that game as I spent trying to beat the Meat Circus level. And Meat Circus is a crazy.

Why do we do this? I suppose if the satisfaction we get from doing ‘trivial’ and secondary tasks in games is high enough, and if the effort it would take to ‘play the game properly’ is too excessive, we’ll all just sit around and do the trivial stuff instead.  Which sounds a bit cold and mathematical, but there you go. It’s not too much of a mystery why these things happen. I could wax philosophical about the nature of these appealing little secondary games, but they’re not really so mysterious either: they’ve got highly appealing sunk effort/returned reward ratios. And all that jazz.

I think the real question is: why don’t we have games for these trivial things, if we enjoy them so much? Why do they need to be secondary? I mean, narrative, pretty pictures, and man-shooting are clearly no longer the hallowed characteristics of ‘real successful games.’ What if we could take these big-name games and reduce them down to their secondary objectives– what if my friend could have a game of just Pazaak? What if I could take all the games where I’ve ever been distracted by a crazy secondary objective and imagine new, ridiculous games out of them?

Er, I can imagine that. Here they go.

Oblivion becomes: Herbalist Adventure

The most compelling thing about Oblivion is the alchemy.

Yes. I actually believe this. Out of the nearly 100 hours I have spent playing Oblivion in the past year, about 50 of those must have been spent entirely on collecting and combining plants, herbs, fruits, and bits of dead foes into potions. I don’t think I’ve ever gone past the bit in the story where you’re on the snowy mountain where the Blades are at. I did that part only once. All the rest of my characters are soft, pasty fellows with ridiculously good alchemy levels and backpacks full to bursting with every possible kind of plant. I once camped out in the basement of a townhouse, hidden in the shadows while the occupants ate dinner mere inches from my face, waiting for them to leave so I could steal their potatoes and make potions of shield out of them. It was my most epic heist ever, even beyond the Thieves’ guild!

Furthermore, I don’t even use the potions I make: I just carry them around. There’s a character from a famous Jack London short story who hoards insane quantities of food: he basically sleeps on a mattress of biscuits. See, I imagine my Oblivion characters sleeping in glass nests made up of glimmering bottles. The moonlight on the bottles, the strange cordials and elixirs sloshing about with the tiny movements of sleep, and all that. I mean, he’s got to protect them somehow. And it’s picturesque, no?

Herbalist Adventure would be my favorite game of all time. You’d be practically helpless: a weakling lost in a VAST world (let’s make it much bigger than Oblivion; make this a Just Cause-sized world, a huge thing with a million different kinds of plants). Your only skill: the ability to turn flowers into juices. All combat—what little of it there’d actually be—would be enabled by the crazy cocktail of stimulants and steroids you’d chug before every encounter. See a kobold? DRINK THAT POTION OF STRENGTH! DRINK TWELVE! While you’re at it, drink fifteen potions of shield, a potion of accuracy, a potion of Learn to Swordfight, and a Potion That Gives You a Magic Sword. Boom. All ready to go. You’d spend most of the time just skulking around in the bushes, gathering plants, admiring the scenery, researching and cooking up batches of Magical Buff Stew whenever you find a safe place. You’d cook amazing potions—potions that let you fly or run at a million miles per hour or clone yourself or breathe in lava or eat whole trees or tame bears or summon Panzer tanks or talking whales. But mostly it would be beautiful and calming—mostly it would be zen, my friends. It would be gorgeous.

Pokemon Diamond and Pearl become: Magic Dwarf Crystal Garden Tales

I already mentioned that I adore that mining minigame. I also adore Dwarf Fortress. I also adore Minecraft. It all makes sense: I must secretly want to play a game where you adventure in tunnels and grow crystal gardens. Yes. But not like those silly crystal gardens we used to have in the nineties: those are shit. I mean: great caverns of dagger-sharp gems! You’d have to travel around and water them with magic chemicals or whatever and harvest them later. Like Farmville with its guaranteed success, I suppose—but I wouldn’t have any of that schedule-your-life-to-the-game nonsense.

No, I’d have giant cave spiders or sand worms or goblins instead. So: the Pokemon mining game mixed with survival horror. Occasionally, you’d have to craft weapons out of the gems and protect your farms from the invaders with cunning traps and desperate barricades. Multiplayer play could be a Garden Siege Mode, or something: people would try to invade each other’s magic underground wonderlands with some kind of stealth mechanic.

Yes. Just take the whole Pokemon overworld away. I want my gem gardens and I want my secret bases and I want my capture-the-flag games. I want my silly underground time-wastey tomfoolery, please, but more awesome. Can that happen?

Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 become: My Alien Girlfriend 1 and 2

Okay, I don’t actually want to play this game. But I know people who would! I remember when ME2 came out, all sorts of people were twittering things like “JUST NAILED ALL THESE ALIEN LADIES, WOOO” and I kept thinking things like “Oh my god, Bioware are such a horrible bunch of dicks! They’ve destroyed love! With a video game!”

But it’s not true. They haven’t. The universe continues to be not such a terrible place after all. What it needs, though, is a game where this absurd repressed sexual tension can be truly exploited.

What we need is a game where the whole point is for Man-Shepherd to have sex with alien chicks. Apparently, for maximum success, it must actually be Man-Shepherd in the title role. Not a new IP! Either that, or we need a spinoff of Fable 2 where the whole point is to marry people and then have sex with them. Admit it: you have a lady/man/both in every town in that game, don’t you? I’m under the impression that most people do. Is it too tempting? Is that what the deal is? Anyway, clearly we need a western game specifically for this kind of stuff. The Japanese have already got this shit figured out, guys.

Team Fortress 2 becomes: My Hometown Haberdasher

Hats. Whole game is: receiving hats. You run around in a big room with every other online player and trade hats with each other. You can hang out with guys who have the same hats as you. Or maybe you can do a fashion show while wearing a neat hat, or design your own hat? I don’t know. Just hats.

Hats. Whole game is wearing silly hats.

Alternately, we could be talking about a game I suggested in the comments to my last post: a game where you simply customize characters. Like the Spore Creature Creator, the whole point would be to give you extensive control over the appearance of some in-game avatar. People love messing around with that stuff: I hear stories from friends who take forever to design the perfect Sim, or the perfect Fallout character, and so on. Clearly, we need more games which make this obsession with avatar appearance more central– games which transform it from petty fiddling into an actual game mechanic. I remember that a young friend of my family’s used to be hugely into Gaia online, and from what I saw of it, that game seemed to tap into this customization desire pretty well: the whole point was to get points to buy clothes with, I think. So: games like that, but not totally stupid. A MMO character creator crossed with Spore? Can it happen? I think so.

The mechanics of this imaginary game would revolve around this appearance: you’d have to manipulate it to defeat your enemies. The game I suggested in the post comments was a professional wrestling game where the point was to design a stage presence that would resonate with fans. Best resonance would make your agent cast you as the winner in the staged fight: the better you fine-tuned your look and style to your target demographic, the more often you’d be the winner. Look terrible, and you’d be the heel. You’d spend hours in the editor before every match, fiddling with hair and clothes and catch-phrases and things like that. There could be epic campaign modes, people.

Or could we have something like that with just hats, though? Please?

Pokemon is a sport game

Earlier this week, while speaking to a group of game-savvy people, I declared rather incoherently that Pokemon was a sports game.

Everyone laughed at me. There were some games-studies people in there, and they all said “Arrr, noooo, me hearty, games can only be sports games if they’re about simulating real-world sports, and if they address the problem of physical embodiment in a digital space, arrr.” Which is pretty much true, yeah, if you think about all the games that get sold as sports games, and also if you are a crusty old academic.

Some of them thought that Pokemon couldn’t be a sports game because it uses RPG mechanics and involves travel across an overworld. I dismissed this, too. “I’m talking about general categories of games, not about actual commercial genres or genres of mechanics,” I said. “Pokemon is about sports in the same way that a game about fox-hunting, cockfighting, or bearbaiting would be about sports.” Actually, I didn’t say that. I was being incoherent and frustrated and didn’t bother to explain myself properly. But I’m writing this now, so I’m editing my stupidity out of the conversation.

Anyway, here is why Pokemon is a sports game. And, at the end, I propose a redefinition of the concept of ‘sports games.’ Wooooo!

It’s about a competition.

Aren’t a lot of games about competition? Well, yeah. Lots are, and many of those have nothing to do with ‘sports.’ Simply including competition doesn’t make a game be ‘about sports.’ But Pokemon, like many conventional sports games, is about structured, rulebound competition. A specific kind of competition. It’s a game which contains a game, and the game is Pokemon Battling. Pokemon Battling exists separately from Pokemon the Nintendo game in the same way that American Football exists separately from Madden 2010. It’s not real, but we know its rules and can imagine it on its own, in television shows, card games, and in video games developed for other platforms.

Within the world of Pokemon, Pokemon Battling is a sport.

It has regulations, leagues, tournaments, rulebooks, referees, ladders, matches, arenas, qualification tournies, and all the other superficial surface-elements we associate with real-world sports. We’d be forced to consider it a sport if it existed on this side of the screen. Much of the story energy that goes into Pokemon is directed at convincing us that we’re taking part in an exciting, new kind of sport.

Mechanics do not a sports game make.

Madden’s mechanics, where you control the actual players on a team and execute actions contained within the game of American Football, are not “the” sports-game mechanics. Plenty of games which are widely accepted as sports games do not contain that kind of control system or play style, and many contain lots of mechanics in addition to these ones. Football Manager games are a great example of sports games which aren’t solely about playing the actual sport itself. And remember Cycling Manager? Steam insists that it’s a sports game, and I think you’d be unable to find people who disagree who aren’t already crazy people. Furthermore, sports games have been including RPG-ish mechanics—where the players get better the more they play, and can upgrade different abilities—for years. These days, as everyone says, there’s a bit of RPG in everything. Anyway, in Pokemon, plenty of things occur that aren’t about actually playing the actual sport, but many of those things are presented as directly effecting sport performance. We travel the overworld to seek new team members and to test ourselves against opponents; even the underground digging game in Diamond and Pearl could produce items useful to the sport. Just because alternate mechanics and goals were there doesn’t mean that the game itself wasn’t ‘about the sport.’

Related news: it has story

Some suggested to me that having a story rules Pokemon out of the ‘sports’ category. Well, true: commercial sports games, as a rule, don’t have scripted stories. But this doesn’t mean that they should or could never have one. I’m being creative here, people. I’m suggesting that the ‘sport-ness’ of sports games is totally independent of story. In fact, I’m challenging someone to make a soccer game where you fight evil soccer mafias and save the world from an evil soccer manager intent on destroying the universe with a mutant soccer player named BeckhamTwo. Do it.

I know that it’s not commercially useful to think of Pokemon as a sports game. I’m suggesting that there are commonalities between Pokemon and traditional sports games which are useful when it comes to analyzing them. I think that there’s something about the structure of traditional sports games– the reward structure, the illusion of progression and growth, of competitive achievement, of being the best and winning vetted awards from imaginary masters and experts– which has much in common with some aspects of Pokemon’s structure. I’m sure that part of the reason why Pokemon and, say Madden are so successful is that they’ve mastered this elusive element. Pokemon isn’t all about collecting them all– it’s also about defeating your friends, defeating the Elite Four three times in a row, being tougher and smarter than everyone else, knowing your strategy, being so good at your game that your game stands for goodness and purity and can actually defeat evil— it’s about Sport, ‘sport’ in the ancient meaning of the word, in the sense that includes grit and stiff jaws and firm handshakes in the arena. “Sport” in the nineteenth-century sense.

At any rate, I think that I could convince those nutty academic types to accept my comparison by merely changing the name of the ‘genre’ slightly. If I’d said “Sport Games” instead of “Sports Games”—‘sport’ in the ancient sense that would include cockfighting and all the rest of those bloodsports I mentioned at the top of this post—I would have been more persuasive. The problem with proposing weird ideas is that the associative power of our language can confuse your audience if you don’t manipulate it properly, particularly if your audience is ultra-semantics-sensitive. Pokemon is “sport.” In the traditional sense, it isn’t “SPORTS,” it isn’t Gatorade and sweaty dudes and drooling self-insertion in Superstar Mode, but it’s ‘sport.’

I rest my case.