What are power-ups?

Power-ups are fundamental to games. This topic is so ubiquitous that I’m not going to do anything crazy like go into the history of power-ups like I might with other topics, luck you. But I do want to talk about why they’re so important. What are they, what do they do, why is that important in a gaming world and of course, how that relates to us as people and the real world.


At the most basic level, a power-up is THE THING, that one element that makes the gaming world differ from the real-world. Pick any game and there’s AT LEAST one thing. That’s why maybe the term “power-up” isn’t the best for describing what I’m trying to talk about, but I’ll stick with it for the purposes of the discussion. Even games where you’re expected to “simulate” real life, there is something in the game, inside the framework of the program, that makes it fundamentally different from the real-world, otherwise it wouldn’t be fun. It goes to the root of why we play games in the first place, to do something different from our day to day lives. This speaks to all genres of game and even format, table-top, pen and paper, electronic/computer, and so forth.


So, whether we’re talking about flight simulators, adventure games, RPG’S, puzzle games it still comes back to at least one thing, but really in almost every game there’s usually a plethora of things. Using those previously listed examples, in flight sims you’re operating craft that you’d never realistically get close to, you’re going places and wielding objects that you’d never see or use in your normal life, RPG’s grant you otherworldly powers and even puzzle games have their own rules that would defy normal real-world rules if you tried to do it with real candy, or blocks or birds or whatever.


Well, interestingly enough, that is why there is continuous debate on the psychological effects games have on their users. That’s the entire premise of this show, the ways that videogames have affected me and Jason and our listeners in our lives. More and more often in recent times we hear stories of people developing all sorts of problems that are the direct result of his or her game playing. People who stop eating, or bathing or much, MUCH worse. Sadly the lives of those gamers’ family and friends are deeply affected.


I can tell you that on more than one occasion I have heard videogames more accurately compared to a drug than entertainment. Especially if you consider the psychological results that most people derive from their game playing. Successful people, that is people who are successful at other things in life besides just videogames (but even them too), can and probably will tell you that the rush you get from succeeding at a videogame you can also receive by succeeding at just about any other activity. Supposed experts on human psychology will tell you that videogames are dangerous because they give you the feeling of success with only the most minimal effort. To the wrong kind of person this can be a bad thing. I’m sure if we were to look deeper here, we might learn more about gamers who end up committing random acts of horrific violence but I’m no (quote) expert (unquote). Nothing exists in a vacuum however and simply feeling good from succeeding in a videogame is not going to push anyone into some kind of psychosis, there have to be other factors in play, factors, obviously unknown to, or ignored by, those who decry games as a danger to the youth of the world. Look at the outcry over pen and paper RPG’s back in the 70’s if you don’t believe me. Statistically you’re more likely to link a random act of violence to a chemical imbalance brought on by prescription pharmaceuticals or illicit drugs.


Huh, drugs. There’s that word again? There’s a reason it keeps coming up here and I may end up pissing some people off here but here goes. What is a power-up? Well, if we want to use the definition from the world of videogames you would likely say it is “an object or device that alters fundamental gameplay.” What is a videogame? For tha matter what is a game? We might say that gamers are “programs or constructs with their own fundamental rules that offers a departure from the every day norm.” Now, if you can’t already tell where I’m going with this, here’s my final question:  what is a drug? A drug is a substance, be it natural or synthetic in composition, that alters the fundamental operation of the users body chemically. All drugs affect the chemical make-up of the human body, but in different ways; some stimulate certain parts of the body, others block the body’s ability to detect or function, and so forth. The danger that comes from drugs is by messing with the chemical make-up of our bodies to alter their dedicated functions is that there can be side-effects.


Side-effects, the dirty little step-child of the drug world, are that thing nobody likes to talk about, but no one can deny is real. Not a single drug commercial on tv has less than 5 seconds of dialogue devoted strictly to the side-effects. Not a single doctor will prescribe for you a drug without making sure you understand them. When they might be a problem, we like to downplay them. When they’re a benefit, the drug companies find other reasons to sell them.  Famous examples are the herpes medication Valtrex which was originally developed as a shingles medicine. Viagra and Cialis were both developed to treat heart problems. Pharmacology devoted to the study of the human brain is constantly learning of beneficial side effects to the chemical compounds they administer. A common ADHD medication was actually developed to be an anti-depressant but upon administering it to depressed patients, was found to have no effect. The commonly accepted explanation for ADHD is that a part of the brain is not functioning properly, therefore a chemical that most people have which helps them remain calm and focused is deficient in ADHD patients. So, despite what was known about the human brain, the chemical compound that was predicted to help people be less depressed didn’t change their depression at all, but people with issues focusing found it easier to do so. Most ADHD medications function in a similar way.


Sorry about the science lesson here, I’m almost done. Sadly, what happens over time with ADHD meds, as with most medication, is that the body begins to develop a relationship with the medication, usually in the form of dependence but just as often in the form of an immunity. People who take medicine for ADHD find themselves increasing the dosage of the medication until the levels become unhealthy. Quitting some meds cold-turkey can have serious withdrawal effects. Many pharmaceuticals actually function in the same way.


So, while power-ups could be described as “drugs” in the reality of the individual games, it’s interesting to note that games themselves actually can have very similar side-effects. Devoted gamers find it difficult to hear, but studies have shown that exposure to videogames at too early of an age can have a lasting effect on the person, both negative and positive. Additionally, for as long as games have existed, educational games have also persisted. We have a fundamental trust that games can teach us things, but what we may not be aware of is that whether we’re trying to learn from them or not, we’re certainly learning SOMETHING while we play them.


I argue that more complex RPG’s could easily teach useful life skills and a more recent study has shown that playing Portal 2 actually yielded an increase in IQ test scores among testees. But what are we taking away from games that we aren’t noticing. Pay to win games might be causing the player’s brain to begin associating success with paying money. Perhaps the ubiquitousness of games thanks to our phones has taught us that our brains constantly have to be active, always solving problems of some kind, so maybe the desire to play games between projects at work or classes at school is less a desire and more a compulsion? How much quiet reflection are we engaging in any more, as individuals or as a society?


A common modern trend is to “disconnect” and get away from technology for a while. Many scoff at the idea. “I could never be without my phone for any length of time,” they say. I’ve described on this show several times how just a couple of years ago my gaming “habit” was so severe that I couldn’t get rid of a game that I hadn’t completed and I was so compelled to play games whenever possible because my backlog continued to grow. My free time is still devoted to games but now only for the purposes of having fun, unless you count the occasional FTL-Faster Than Light session that lasts all day. Which in itself could very well be a “side-effect.” Modern games like the aforementioned pay to win games, but even the more complex MMORPG’s, have taken psychology into account on the development side:  knowing exactly what the human threshold for patience with any given activity before require some kind of impetus to continue is how leveling, difficulty and rewards systems are written. So you’ve reached the level cap and you’re not a PvP fan and you’re not going to buy anymore DLC in DC Universe Online so you decide it’s time to quit forever, you give it one more go and find out that there’s almost 100 more skill points left to earn to raise all of your stats so that you can access all of that other content you had all but given up on playing. That is by design. You may not get a point now every time you play for an hour, but you might be able to buy just one more item of armor to raise your combat rating, you might get one more piece of material to use for creating new items, you will get something just enticing enough for your brain to tell you, “One more hour won’t hurt.”


But why is this the case? Why are we so obsessed with our experiences? As I have mentioned before, our life is the culmination of our experiences so it is only natural for us to want to fill our lives with as many amazing ones as we can. Entire works of fiction have been devoted to this ideal! Most science fiction of the last 70 years would probably fit the bill. This particular genre is filled with fictional examples of amazing chemicals that grant the users an interesting and entertaining altered view of his or her world. The complete works of Philip K. Dick is devoted to the pursuit of experience and what makes us human and how we perceive our reality, often through the lens of drug use. Many dystopian futures are depicted as overrun with synthetic drugs that give the masses an escape from their daily horrors, famous examples would be RoboCop 2’s “Nuke”, Dredd’s “Slo-Mo” or Substance D from “A Scanner Darkly.” In each case, the dark underbelly of the side-effects is also explored however, so it’s not as though we’re ignorant of the dangers of anything potentially addictive. And yet, we’re continually fighting that battle, individually and societally. The debate continues to rage in this country whether marijuana is harmful and should it be legalized at the federal level even as states have individually legalized it and benefitted from it in multiple ways. On one hand we have the medical and military industrial complexes pushing the benefits of synthetic chemicals while natural substances continue to be labelled illegal. Alcohol has been documented to cause permanent damage in many ways, not the least of which is death, smoking tobacco too, while naturally occurring and in some cases even synthetic compounds are prohibited despite their provable and repeatable benefits.


This goes back to my previous episode about cheating. What is right, what is wrong? What is a power-up and what is a “poison mushroom”? It depends on the eye of the beholder and like as before, ultimately the outcome will be decided by the group with the most influence. At least in the mean time we know that power-ups will continue to be in games forever. And there’s always cheat codes.


This has been Jesse, babies to babies, still looks like Billy.




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