I had a curious revelation the other day: I enjoy repetition.
I understood this, but I didn’t have quite the understanding to put this into words. After all, most great video games inspire a moment of repetitious pleasures only possible in this medium. You can’t read the same passage in a book and expect the same level of wonder, nor watch the same portion of a film, but video games always nail a necessary level of interconnected systems and rules that just repeat the same actions. What makes them so fun? What makes them so enjoyable?
Allow me to begin with a rather tortured, and long, metaphor. Much of this will involve a lot of narcissistic personal information (subsequent to this part, anyway), but I imagine this is something you see very little of on this site, so you might find yourself intrigued. Prepare for re-entry!
The first video games delighted in the wonders of repetition. Whether you want to call it Tennis (basically Pong, but it required a giant room-wide computer to run) or SpaceWar!, both operated on a simple set of rules and systems brought to bear on a simple concept. Getting a goal or blowing your opponent up literally amounted to the same thing, and the lack of any sufficient AI meant you needed a friend…who also had a mainframe-sized computer to enjoy. In the same room. Disregarding the inconvenience of said situations, repetition remains an important part of video games.
When it looks more blatant and insincere than usual, we slap it with the label “grind”, and if it isn’t, we often call it “fun”. Even so, there’s a simple joy in repeating a simple task well, and video games tend to nail this in their more simplistic forms more often than not. Of course, there’s a horrible mess of failures out there somewhere, just begging to take your precious time on earth and leave you holding a brown bag full of unknown substances, but I have found them relatively few and far between. Games that are fun, or even just games with an unbelievably polished sheen that replicates what humans call “fun” (think more AAA games and their endless open-world padding) end up in the marketplace.
Without a critical eye, I imagine each and every game presents its own internal and external (self-imposed challenges, speedruns, etc) which will entertain some portion of the audience. Even so, a ten hour game rarely escapes your grasp without some form of a repetitive game element somewhere or other. Whether fetch quests or the simple act of pointing and shooting, game developers jam a lot of intentional nuance into each seemingly simple action.
Bayonetta, my usual example, brims with simple controls and unrivaled complexities which adds more depth through a meta-overlay of scoring information. Technically, Bayonetta would work fine as a simple “beat things up” simulator, as the core game loop of hitting things, no matter how simple it actually is, works regardless. Whether we owe that to the aesthetics or the ambiguous notion of “gamefeel” remains up for debate. I wager the best games revel in a self-aware repetition, and not even just to give you “more for your money”!
And yet, how many reviewers, journalists, or otherwise complain about the central conceit of, well, most video games? I imagine they mean that the repetition is obvious and unenjoyable, not that the repetition itself turns them off. I think we can make that distinction clear enough. But what makes that repetition engaging to the point where most people don’t even know that’s happening? That’s the question I am interested in asking. In fact, I think I can take this a little further: are repetitive tasks good for you?
I am sure that you’re familiar with the so-called “10,000 Hour Rule”, in that the time it takes to master any technique or anything in general amounts to approximately 10,000 hours of your life. In its own way, this means that people can foster the skills they already had while developing new ones if you meet some arbitrary time requirement. I realize that this consists of a gross generalization of Malcolm Gladwell’s rule, but the key point isn’t whether or not you need that much time. Rather, it’s how much time you put in, smartly and correctly, that determines your relative skill. A quote from Gladwell’s book Outliers should help sort this out:
For almost a generation, psychologists around the world have been engaged in a spirited debate over a question that most of us would consider to have been settled years ago. The question is this: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes. Not every hockey player born in January ends up playing at the professional level. Only some do – the innately talented ones. Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger role preparation seems to play.”
Preparation and time make a big difference. Training makes a big different. Spending time doing the things you do well efficiently and correctly eventual will lead to mastery…providing your mind and will-power hold forth with the effort. The success isn’t instant or magical, but it consists in hard work and effort. That does explain the appeal of video games, for sure: good video games reward hard work and effort in a tangible way. You must do the same thing over and over again, with minor variations, to understand all of the nuances. Some require less time, and some task aren’t worth ANY time, but making that judgment will take lots of time anyway (how many times can I say time in a sentence?).
Does this hold true for real life as well? Does Christianity require some notion of repetition? I would say yes, and not in the boring way. Let me provide some practical examples.