Last Friday, I gave a presentation with my friend and collaborator Shawn LameBull to the English department on the significance and complexity of videogames as media. (Here’s an audio recording of the presentation, and here’s a link to the Prezi “slideshow” that accompanied it.) Afterward, Dr. Kirk McAuley, a professor in the department, ruminated on some of our claims on Facebook, and his ruminations generated quite a lengthy discussion that involved several of the department’s professors. Here’s my response to this thread, which has grown so large that it’d be unwieldy over on Facebook.
First of all, I’m flattered that my colloquium has occasioned this discussion. Trying to figure out the “connections / disconnections between videogame and print culture” has been the biggest challenge of the last four years for me, as I’ve gone from studying literature to videogames. It’s also been the biggest challenge of the game studies field, which is full of English majors but also a lot of folks from other disciplines. Ultimately, establishing what videogames have taken from older media and what new things they offer is beneficial for both books and games, because it gives us an appreciation for the capabilities of each medium. And for its scholars too.
Well, what are the differences between novels and videogames? Patty’s right: we need definitions. So here are a few that have helped me make the distinction.
Story: Any account of actions in a time sequence; any narrative of events in a sequential arrangement. (William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 7th ed.)
Game: a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable (Jesper Juul, Half-Real).
The first definition is clear enough, but the second might need some unpacking. Juul does this himself, though I fill in where he’s vague (in italics):
Rules: Games are rule-based. Game rules govern actions players can and can’t take in the context of playing the game.
Variable, quantifiable outcome: Games have variable, quantifiable outcomes. Games can end differently; the player can win or lose.
Valorization of outcome: The different potential outcomes of the game are assigned different values, some positive and some negative.
Player effort: The player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome. [This is ] another way of stating that games are challenging, or that games contain a conflict.
Player attached to outcome: The player is emotionally attached to the outcome of the game in the sense that a player will be winner and “happy” in case of a positive outcome, but a loser and “unhappy” in the case of a negative outcome.
Negotiable consequences: The same game (set of rules) can be played with or without real-life consequences.
Defining story and game is essential because while a novel contains only stories, a videogame contains both stories and games (or many do – the ones I study, at least). When you’re moving your avatar across the map, solving puzzles and killing Nazis and so forth, you’re playing a game: you’re trying to achieve an objective, and you’re overcoming conflicts to get there. But when your character appears in a cutscene, or when you read about your character’s backstory, you’re receiving a narrative.
Where videogames get especially tricky is in the ways they combine their stories and games. Videogames convey their stories just like other storytelling media: they contain written stories that we read, movies we watch, radio plays we listen to. But they often intersperse stories with games, and in a variety of ways. Some games parcel out story parts in between periods of gameplay: get to the end of the level, and hear the story of the princess you’ve saved. The player embodies a character in these stories (usually the protagonist), so he has the formally odd but experientially immersive experience of hearing stories about actions he’s just completed. Some videogames will recount a story while the player is playing a game – usually an audio story, like a radio play – thus confusing the story/game distinction even further. And some videogames – the ones I’m most interested in – will change their stories’ plots because of actions the player takes. Imagine a “Choose your own adventure” story, but far more complicated.
Now, the reader/player/audience agency issue. Agency is a loaded word for us academics, what with all its different definitions; but I’m going to leave it alone here, both for space and for my sense of what we’re really talking about here: interactivity. We often say videogames (and all digital media) are unique because they’re interactive, but as Kirk points out, readers interact with novels too. I’ve found this taxonomy of types of interactivity very useful:
Mode 1: Cognitive Interactivity; or Interpretive Participation with a Text
This is the psychological, emotional, hermeneutic, semiotic, reader-response, Rashomon-effect-ish, etc. kind of interactions that a participant can have with the so-called ‘content’ of a text. Example: you reread a book after several years have passed and you find it’s completely different than the book you remember.
Mode 2: Functional Interactivity; or Utilitarian Participation with a Text. Included here: functional, structural interactions with the material textual apparatus. That book you reread: did it have a table of contents? An index? What was the graphic design of the pages? How thick was the paper stock? How large was the book? How heavy? All of these characteristics are part of the total experience of reading interaction.
Mode 3: Explicit Interactivity; or Participation with Designed Choices and Procedures in a Text
This is ‘interaction’ in the obvious sense of the word: overt participation such as clicking the nonlinear links of a hypertext novel, following the rules of a Surrealist language game, rearranging the clothing on a set of paper dolls. Included here: choices, random events, dynamic simulations, and other procedures programmed into the interactive experience.
Mode 4: Meta-interactivity; or Cultural Participation with a Text
This is interaction outside the experience of a single text. The clearest examples come from fan culture, in which readers appropriate, deconstruct, and reconstruct linear media, participating in and propagating massive communal narrative worlds. (Eric Zimmerman, “Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four Naughty Concepts in Need of Discipline.”)
Given these classifications, it’s obvious that both novels and videogames engender types 1, 2, and 4. Explicit interactivity is where videogames innovate and shine – players have to make active choices and enact specific procedures in order to get to the end of a videogame. To win it.
For me and Shawn, the key part of Zimmerman’s definition of explicit interactivity is the phrase “designed choices and procedures,” because it gets at the most important question that we ask of a videogame we’re analyzing: what are the procedures the authors want us to enact? What can’t we enact? Furthermore, as Kirk and Patty discuss around the middle of the thread, how much can players subvert the procedures that the authors design for them? (You’re right, Patty: cheat codes and mods are a couple of ways players do this. Maybe this is where player agency really exists, if we define agency as the ability to alter a text to our own ends.)
Interpreted in the context of a videogame’s stories and story parts (setting, characters, dialogue, etc.), as well as the gameplay goals, the procedures a game allows and prohibits are symbolic and value-laden. A lot of the time, they represent procedures in the material world. Combine those procedural rhetorics with all of the visual, aural, spatial, and linguistic rhetorics of a given game, and read those in the larger contexts of representations in other videogames and films and novels and so forth, and you have some understanding of a videogame’s meaning as a text.
So are videogames shallow? Am I shallow for studying them? The answer’s obvious to me, and you can imagine my personal reaction to Aaron’s comment. However, we’re speaking at slightly cross purposes: Aaron is (I’m presuming) referring to the content of videogames, and I’ve been talking about their form. I’ll freely admit that no videogame I’ve seen has conveyed the intellectual or psychological depth of Proust. Maybe they never will – every medium has its strengths and weaknesses. Videogames’ main strength thus far is in modeling complex systems, as well as actions and consequences within them. I think there’s deep rhetorical potential there. As for the depth of their stories, give them time: they’re only about a generation old, you know.
Oh, and Todd: we’re working on it.