Games, Research, and Hidden Evidence

This week I had the pleasure of finishing Syphon Filter:  Logan’s Shadow on my PSP.  I’ve had the game about a month, and with off-and-on play times, I was able to finish it relatively quickly.  It generally takes me forever to finish games, but the game had a pretty good story that I wanted to see through to the end.   A couple of days after the fact, I’m very pleased to have finished the game, and am longing for the next chapter of the game.  This is my second Syphon Filter game that I’ve completed on the PSP.  I’m already looking forward to the gameplay of the next Syphon Filter game, but I also want to see where the story goes next.   While ultimately fulfilled with the game and its challenges, I longed for a deeper understanding of the characters, their histories, and their futures.

My buddy Paul Waelchli writes extensively about the game’s narrative and how he was initially looking for more in the game’s story.   He and I agreed that there was a lot lacking in the story compared to previous Syphon Filter titles.  However, after investigating the game further, as any good gamer should, he discovered that much more of the game’s story was revealed in the hidden evidence files that he collected throughout the game.   Ultimately, after reading the hidden files, he’s come away from the game completely satisfied with the game’s resolution.  After reading his post, I’m looking forward to going home tonight and reading the hidden files myself so I, too, can dig a bit deeper into the story.

After some reflection, I’ve wondered why the game designers didn’t just put the entire narrative out there so that everyone could see it.  The answer to this relies in one of the core fundamentals of gameplay.  Playing games is all about choice. While Syphon Filter is a fairly linear game, the player can choose to play the game however he wants to.  He can fly through the levels, blasting everyone in his path and causing a huge ruckus, or he can try to sneak around and use stealth to complete a mission. The player can take time to explore every nook and cranny in the game to uncover hidden evidence files and other secrets, or he can simply stick to the well-defined path.  The player can choose which weapons to use and how to use them.  There are even incentives built into the game that encourage the player to play the game in different ways.  For example, as a player I get medals (which unlock more guns and other goodies) for using my knife more, for using the environment more, for using my sniper rifle more, and for simply surviving a level.  Basically the game rewards players for playing how they are most comfortable, while offering incentives to play the game in an entirely different way.  By offering the hidden evidence (which unlocks more story elements) and the medals (which unlocks more guns and additional game content), the game designers are encouraging gamers to not only play how they are comfortable, but to test themselves with new ways of play.   The player is rewarded for trying something new, for stepping outside of his comfort zone.

What’s important here is that the game didn’t force any of this down our throats.  As players in the game, Paul and I could choose how we wanted to play. We both finished the game within a day of each other, and we both really enjoyed our experiences.  However, we both likely played the game in very different ways.  He may have opted to use his knife more, I might have chosen to use my tazer gun more.  Nevertheless, after finishing the game, we both reached the same conclusion.  Also, since the game encourages replay with all of the unlockable content, we’re both very likely to return to the game in the future and try to play the game in differnt way (harder difficulties, with different weapons, more exploration, etc) in order to unlock more content.  We were rewarded for our mastery of the game,  the game will continue to reward us when we master the game at a new level.

So how can I take what I have learned about this game and about myself and apply it to my daily life as a librarian?  Here are a few initial thoughts:

1.  Recognize that research is a game.  The goal may be a dissertation, an address of a long-lost-friend, or a statistic for a speech.  Trial and error helps the researcher unlock the information that they need, and each researcher may approach the process differently.

2.  Recognize the need of the patron.  Like the game, we need to realize that not every single researcher wants spend enormous time to unlock every single nugget of content.  Sometimes they just want three articles.  And that’s it.

3.  Wait for users to drive the research process.  If after showing the patron how to find three articles, and he asks “how do I know which one is good?”, then you can show him how to evaluate the resources.  We should not expect that all users will want to master research in the same way.  Just like the example from Syphon Filter, if they are left wanting more, they’ll let you know if they need more hidden evidence.

4. Understand that it takes time to hold the controller correctly.  When I first picked up a PlayStation controller, it took me forever to figure out where all the buttons were.  For each game, the buttons are assigned to different purposes.  However, gamers eventually figure out which buttons do what.  Likewise, we need to understand that each interface (Google, OPAC, Ebsco, etc) are likely to have the same buttons, but perhaps slightly different functions.

5.  Encourage mastery.  This may be as simple as saying, “If you need more help or get stuck, come back and see me.”  As librarians, we hold the key to unlockable content that can help complete the researcher’s story.  It’s our job to let them know we are available to be their guide.