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August 23, 2009

Why aren’t old games fun?

My nephew Joel Weinberger wonders why computer games we loved when they were new, ten or so years later aren’t as much fun to play. If Doom was a great game in 1993, why isn’t it still a great game? (To refresh your memory, you can play the first level of Doom online here.)

It seems to me that it’s particularly games that simulate the spatial world that suffer from this sort of aging. I find it remarkable and a little embarrassing that Doom had me crouching in my chair in fear, and got startle reactions out of me. Now my body hardly responds to it at all, although it’s still pretty much fun to play through. It seems that when Doom came out, it was so much better than the preceding run-and-gun games that my body treated it as if it were one step away from real. Contemporary games (say, the latest F.E.A.R., or Bioshock, or Dead Space) are orders of magnitude more photorealistic, but they don’t get me crouching any lower or startling any higher. It’s as if the brain has a Constant of Realism that invests the current highest-end simulation with the same maximal amount of attachment.

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