Last week while doing my review work for The Elder Scrolls Online, I came across a term I’d never heard before but I really liked: low-energy gaming. If you google search for the term you get absolutely nothing like what we’re talking about so it looks like we’ve got a fairly new concept to explore. To attribute credit properly, we should cite John Walker from Rock Paper Shotgun who defines low-energy gaming as:
…traditional MMOs are – before you reach the point of massive parties in raids or elaborate PvP battles – a vacuous experience. I like them for that. I’ve no interest in the raids or the PvP; when done well I enjoy the bit where you charge about, picking up strings of quests, killing ten of this or gathering five of those, and then trundling back. If the setting is interesting, and the action engaging, then I will merrily while away afternoons doing this low-energy gaming.
I rather like this description of low-energy gaming, though I don’t necessarily agree with his assessment of MMO’s and the vacuousness of their experiences. There are lots of activities besides the above that could be considered low-energy gaming. Checkers, chess, or even board games can qualify as low-energy gaming, depending on the game.
Electronically, we have things like Angry Birds, Candy Crush and their like that all fall under the description. Tetris not so much. Tetris starts as low-energy but then insidiously ramps up it’s pace until you’re madly dashing to place blocks and stacks until you make one mistake and suddenly it’s all over. This slow build up of tension over time is awesome but not really low-energy.
Solo-questing in MMO’s falls under the title for sure. There’s something very satisfying about just whiling about, running quests on your own, going against the very design of an MMO and being anti-social, squeezing what small bit of entertainment you can out of the game, all by yourself. This is key because low-energy gaming can be unrewarding from a gaming standpoint, but it can’t be un-entertaining. Grinding isn’t really low-energy because most grinding is, by definition, un-fun. Nobody wants to grind out stuff for rewards.
I think game developers don’t necessarily start out intending to create a low-energy gaming experience but often many of them do so without realizing it. And please note, there’s nothing intrinsically bad about creating a low-energy gaming experience. For some games, it’s an essential part of the game-play. After all, it’s hard to enjoy the highs when there are no lows to help you recover. Low-energy gaming provides a break from the constant tension and struggle and can just be a great way to blow off steam.
If there’s a problem with low-energy gaming it’s that sometimes players can become so desensitized to anything other then low-energy activities, that it becomes difficult to take on some of the tougher challenges in a game. I, for example, have been known to play games and enjoy them until they get hard, and then quit. Because at the point that a game becomes work I don’t want to play it anymore. This is not to say that I don’t like a game challenge, or a difficult quest, or puzzle, to resolve. But finding the right balancing act between leading your players through a low-energy experience and then suddenly jarring them out of it, can be difficult and painful. How do you get it “just right?”
Ultimately if a game has room for casual and hardcore play, than it probably has some element of low-energy gaming in it. And that’s not a bad thing. One of the things I always liked about the Zelda series was how much easier it was to play the game after I beat it one time already. Once the challenge was done, going back and collecting all the stuff usually was just as much fun, because now the game wasn’t quite so intense. Some games are low-energy on the replay side, some ramp up the difficulty on replay. I think low-energy gaming is a necessary component of game-playing in general, and while not all games seem to have it, all good games do. Just some food for thought today.