R is for Replay

In video game reviews, the critic looks at many different elements: story line, graphics and design, background music and sound effects, ease of controls, balance of cut-scenes versus game-play. The myriad of factors used to determine a favorable or unfavorable review is far greater and more subjective to those used in critiquing movies or music albums. There is one word that you will find in video game reviews that is rarely used anywhere else.


Is this a game that has reply value? Is this the kind of game that gamers will play over and over again? Game developers understand this concept. They know that most people will only play through a game once and and if there is a repeat play-through, it is done at a greater difficulty. For years they have experimented in hopes to release that fan favorite that people are still playing years after the game is initially released.

Thirty years ago, the NES launched. Two games that were released at the same time as the console were so ubiquitous that odds favored them being a part of the game collection of anyone who owned an NES: Super Mario Bros and Excitebike. While my family could never afford a gaming console, I still played and enjoyed these games vicariously through friends and neighbors. However, if I was given the option, I favored Excitebike for one big reason.


In Excitebike, you could customize your own track. Every time you played it, it was a different game. You were in control of how much you enjoyed the game.

Alternately, Mario was the same game every time (excluding the glitch where one player could pause the game while the other player was playing and cause that other player to fall into a pit). Super Mario Bros followed a pattern - one that is predictable to the point of rote memorization. There are people that are able to play the entire game blindfolded; they do so successfully because there's no chance that the game will do something different than every other time it is played.

I find that level of predictability boring. Does anyone ever find repetitive activity - doing the same task the same way over and over again to be fun? According to the oft heard adage, that is the definition of insanity. Repeating the same action with the same method and expecting different results. That isn't fun. It borders on dysfunction.

When Christian was younger, he had a habit of frequently repeating jokes he found funny. These ranged from the typical kindergarten level knock-knock jokes, to hiding around a corner and shouting "boo" when someone walked near him. Then he would cackle like a master villain whose plan to take over the world was succeeding. The redundant prevalence of his routine (joke, maniacal laugh, repeat) quickly lost it's appeal.

Neurotypical kids will learn through trial and error that this kind of behavior is socially unacceptable. For Christian, having Aspergers complicated this learning process; he could not figure it out like most other kids his age. To help him, we developed a verbal queue to help him understand this social rule. After several iterations of the same joke, we would tell him, "First time, it's funny. Second time, not so funny. Third time, it's annoying." It took a long time to catch but he did learn the lesson. Jokes have a replay value. Repeat them and they cease to be funny.

But people delude themselves. They convince themselves in the existence of pleasure in insane reiterations. Sometimes, when repeating destructive or disruptive behaviors, people will use the excuse "I'm just having fun."

I don't buy it. I can't. Because I understand the concept of replayability from a consumer's point of view. In economics, it is called the law of diminishing marginal utility. It is the concept that the most utility or the most satisfaction of a product or a service happens with the first use. You might have a favorite wine, but if you drank the same variety from the same winery every single day it losses it's appeal. After a week, a month, a year, a glass of your favorite wine won't taste as good as the first glass you ever drank. The same concept applies with anything we consume. The first time you watch a movie. The first time you mix cake batter in a new KitchenAid. The first time you wear a brand new pair of shoes. The first time you drive a car. There's an allure to the first time that cannot be easily recreated.

Imagine if every football game you watched had the same result regardless of the teams playing. If, at every level from little leagues through the NFL, every game followed the same turn of events. The home team always score first but the visiting team immediately answers with points of their own and ties the game. At the end of the first quarter, the visiting team kicks a field goal to gain a three point lead. Through the second and third quarter, neither team scores. Even through most of the fourth quarter, the away team maintains their three point lead. Then in the final play of the game, the home team runs in a touchdown and wins the game. And the next game you watch transpires with the same series of plays and ends with the same score. Same thing with the next game you watch. And the game after that. And the game after that. How long would it take before you would stop watching football games?

Variety adds value. Unpredictability grants excitement. Differing experiences lead to greater satisfaction.

That is replayability.

Video game developers know this and they have come up with creative ways to exploit this over the years. They have created an array of multiplayer opportunities, both cooperative and competitive; the addition of another human changes what happens in the game and adds replayability. They have improved artificial intelligence in non-playable characters - randomizing it so that the game is never the same no matter how many times you play it. Some games have multiple endings depending on choices you make while playing. There is downloadable content that expands the gaming experience. There are trophies, achievements, and hidden collectibles scattered through out many games, some of which are not available the first time you play through it (the Lego series are notorious for this feature). The people who earn their living creating video games are finding new ways to capture and maintain the interest of gamers beyond the first play-through.

But what about life? Does your life have any replay value? What can you do differently tomorrow and the next day to create more excitement? How can you make your life more enjoyable? How can you avoid the law of diminishing marginal utility in your daily existence?

Disclaimer: my job is filled with repetitive tasks. I have deliverable reports that must be done the same way on a daily and weekly basis. If I tried to shake things up to create some measure of greater enjoyment, it would not end well. In fact, it would turn out drastically and horribly wrong.

However, I know that your life is more than your job. You are more than a title. If you are in a position where your employer appreciates creative spontaneity, then enjoy it. If not, please realize that life still happens before you walk through the office doors and it continues after you leave. It is during the hours where you are not earning a paycheck that you have the greatest opportunity to give your life replayability.

Do it. It is worth the effort.

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