Happiness is a Warm Mod
If game developers have a brain fart, take it upon yourself to clear the air!
Since in the distant future they’ve lost the technology necessary to manufacture duct tape, if you have ever played Doom 3 without a mod you know you spend a lot of your time bumping into things in the dark. But spend five minutes downloading a free program and BOOM, flashlight duct-taped to your weapons!
Mods for PC games have been popular for some time. A quick definition of a mod would be any program which when run alters one or more aspects of gameplay. It’s no surprise then to know that mods are freely available for download and use online. The surprise would be in that there is now in excess of one million mods in existence.
Why are there so many? The means of learning that are complicated but the answer is simple.
Mods contribute to happiness.
Happiness is a Warm Mod
You’d probably be amazed to know that there is such a field of study as happiness engineering. There are such people as positive psychologists, whose job is to understand the chemical and physiological bases of happy and figure out how to integrate them into daily life. There are even people with really long-ass names who’ve been studying the work of games for more than forty years now. (Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi performed the seminal study of games back in 1973, if you must know.)
And detailing it all would probably bore the living hell out of you, but to sum up it’s been established that experiencing happiness is functionally no different than experiencing unpleasant events such as dealing with school or heading to a dead-end job every day. They are both an expenditure of energy in overcoming obstacles and achieving (or at least trying to achieve) goals. Negative expenditures of energy are referred to as stress. Positive expenditures of energy are called eustress. The biological and neurochemical reactions which ensue when experiencing either stress or eustress are identical.
It’s the psychological component that matters.
The affective psychological difference between wage slave purgatory and pwning noobs is that stressing work such as maintaining gainful employment is an involuntary act (if you like eating) that presents problems which are often too easy or too hard and must be solved through direct, unimaginative means. Mario whipping out a Colt 1911, capping King Koopa, and then pistol-whipping the first mushroom servant you find in Level 1 until he gets off his lazy toadstool and brings you the princess would be the direct route to beating Super Mario Brothers. Funny maybe, but too easy to make us think or force us to brush up on our skills. Gaming, on the other hand, is a voluntary activity that challenges us to solve problems through roundabout means. This makes it a strong eustress experience.
That’s what gaming boils down to: unnecessary work.
The happiness of gaming comes in two parts: cognitive flow and fiero.
When was the last time you picked up one of the Gran Turismo series, or maybe enjoyed the parkour elements of Assassin’s Creed? Pretty soon you’re shooting along like a scalded cat, pelting hell for leather, feeling as if you’re reacting almost quicker than the game can throw obstacles in your path. You’re lighter than air. And when you look up, hours have shot by like minutes. That’s cognitive flow: when a task has modulated its difficulty level and provided a sufficiently streamlined goal that you are constantly skating the bleeding edge between fail and win. This phenomenon induces a state in which you cease to become self-conscious and your instinctive actions have melded seamlessly with your thoughts. In other words, with all your being occupied by the game, you have attained a state not unlike nirvana. Now if only someone could rig Buddhist temples with Wi-Fi and HD flatscreens we would have the new champions of Call of Duty.
You ever see a football player score? On the field, I mean. They go freaking berserk, right? That’s fiero manifesting itself, pouring a potent cocktail of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and serotonin right into the player’s brain. The word itself is borrowed from Italian since the English language has no term for the powerful sense of pride and happiness one can feel.
If you think about it, that football player was working his butt off since he was old enough to walk to get where he is now. The fiero he feels when scoring is immense. But, since to the human brain all achievements are subjective, you could feel the same thing by landing the top gun achievement in World of Tanks or making Dark Souls your bitch. And it will take you much less prep time than it would to become a professional athlete.
With cognitive flow building to the climax of fiero, a combination of sensations is presented which is not readily available elsewhere in reality. That’s the allure of games and the reason they are rapidly becoming a part of mainstream society.
The problem which arises from this is that, when game developers succeed in producing this mix in the player (every player has different likes, dislikes, and ability levels, so it’s always tricky), the game is completed much too quickly.
This is an ongoing issue for game developers, as they want people to keep playing titles but simultaneously cannot maintain cognitive flow if the game is filled with side-quests and other distractions (Witcher 2, Mass Effect series, don’t think you’re exempt). Ironically, the solution to this problem may have been found more than a decade ago.
Half-Life, produced by Valve Corporation and released in North America on November 19, 1998, holds the distinction as the seventh best-selling PC video game on the planet. Among those which outstrip it in terms of sales and ongoing popularity are its sequel Half-Life 2 and several versions of the Sims franchise. Ostensibly, the Sims is a life simulation series while the Half-Life franchise is a first-person shooter with physics puzzles and platforming elements. Why they should sell so well doesn’t become clear until one looks at websites and organizations devoted to aftermarket modifications of these games.
Mods run a gamut of complexity, from traditional add-ons such as what you used in World of Warcraft before they began incorporating them into the actual user interfaces to complete game restructuring. Experienced modders are those members of the gaming community who are not content to wait and be given their next fix. Much like with the pen and paper gamers who came before and are still going strong, a mod’s production is a collaborative process by the players and for the players in which almost everything but the game’s physics engine is stripped away and retooled so as to present a game which looks nothing like the original yet still relies on the same cognitive flow. The completed mod might be likened to a pen and paper gamemaster’s story outline, through which players can log onto dedicated servers and continue the adventures they began when they first bought the game.
Imagine having a Lego set that is used to make a medieval castle. With modding, you use the same pieces of the set to make something entirely different.
Modding does different things for different people. For game developers, it drastically increases the longevity of their game franchises by giving people the building blocks they need to keep going without further interaction from the gaming industry itself. For average gamers, it allows them to enjoy continued cognitive flow and fiero by playing new adventures that are somehow comfortably familiar. For modders, they get to enjoy having created something which the general public can enjoy. And in some cases it even leads to finding work developing games professionally.
Think about it. Half-Life, a single title produced in excess of a decade ago, is currently owned and played by roughly eleven percent of the American public. For the developers, that constitutes a profit in terms of gaming hours versus developing hours of several hundred thousand percent. And all they had to do to take a well-made game to one that is evergreen was to give the public the means of carrying on a gaming experience that they never wanted to end.
That’s a source of ongoing happiness, folks. And it’s just as much thanks to the public as the developers who got the ball rolling.
1. Bateman, Chris. “Top Ten Videogame Emotions.” Only a Game, April 9, 2008.
2. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: The Experience of Play in Work and Games (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1975)
3. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991)
4. “Essential Facts About the game Industry: 2010 Sales, Demographic and Usage Data.” Entertainment Software Association, June 16, 2010.
5. Gregory, Erik M. “Understanding Video Gaming’s Engagement: Flow and Its Application to Interactive Media.” Media Psychology Review, Issue 1, 2008.
6. Nelson, Debra L., and Bret L. Simmons. “Eustress: An Elusive Construct, and Engaging Pursuit.” Research in Occupational Stress and Well-being, 2003.