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Ridiculously long essay on the medium.
Note to the reader: the prevailing attitude of this essay changes drastically about half way through. It is necessary to bring this to your’ attention to prevent you from putting it down in disgust some of the way through, and leaving with a false idea of my view. I also feel I need to note that while I consider this work to be of some value, it was inevitable that I would now feel some contempt towards it; this is because it doesn’t deal enough with specifics. But it had to be written to form the basic picture of the medium with which I can now (hopefully) use to delve into more detail both in writing about particular games, and on more specific workings of the medium (and eventually to create my own games). Once again, I am writing this out of the insecurity that my current position might be miss-presented.
An essay in dialogue form: what is the videogame medium?
Z – A one who inquires into the art of videogames
X – A one who points out all of the holes in Z’s analysis but to whom understanding of Z’s ideas does not necessarily come easily.
X and Z are enjoying a competitive multiplayer game of Halo – combat evolved, on the traditional blood gulch map.
X – Well this is very fun indeed, the sci-fi graphics are very cool, and the guns are richly diverse but all very satisfying to use. I also appreciate the different options and game types available; we could play on a different map, with different vehicles, weapons or power-ups enabled, we could play capture the flag, oddball, race...
Z – Well this is all very true, but you fail to get to the essence of what makes this such a compelling experience. You see, every time we encounter each other and fight, and indeed during the whole time of play (but most pronounced during these encounters), we are faced with a goal and a set of rules with which we must engage in order to achieve this goal. I propose that it is in thinking about these rules, making decisions and observing the outcomes; that we derive the pleasure that we now experience.
X – But are we to ignore or downsize the importance of the graphics, guns and vehicles and such?
Z – I should hope not, for I to delight in the simplistic visual style and alien architecture, weapons and vehicles. And the formal voice which announces ‘slayer’ at the beginning of the match, the crickets and sound of footsteps which create such a wonderfully calming atmosphere, giving the combat both space and character. Then there’s the individual sounds of all of the weapons and vehicles, all of which so recognizable in relation to their respective objects. Of course none of this would count for much were they not attached to the rules which govern them in the game, but this is not a fundamental property of videogames as a medium at large. Rather it is down both to the focus of this game on communication through rules, and in fact the lack of interesting context , that is the sounds and visuals that we just described, along with any symbolism and narrative, which are of little interest relative to, say, a good film such as Star Wars for instance, in which the subject matter consists entirely of these contextual elements.
X – So your saying that film consists only of contextual elements while videogames consist of rules with more or less interesting contextual elements to back up the rules?
Z – Well not exactly, a ‘videogame’ could very conceivably consist of a landscape, city or the like, in which, unlike with a painting or film, you could move around and view from different angles. There would be rules, such as, ‘certain objects are solid, so you cannot move through them’, perhaps the position and direction of your view could represent a person and would thus obey the laws of gravity, or perhaps you would just control a floating camera-like object which could move to any position. But either way, the rules would not be very interesting or entertaining in themselves; and so the artistic value of the work would live and die with the visual ‘context’ (though the use of the word context does not seem so appropriate here, since it is the main subject matter as opposed to the context for the rules).
X – But this isn’t much of a game, it just a 3d graphic design. A videogame must have a purpose, a goal.
Z – Quite right, it does not seem like much of a game. We need to define what properties contribute to make a videogame as opposed to a work of any other medium. Perhaps a game must reach a certain threshold of interest through rules, though I think it is dangerous to say that a game must have a goal. A game could conceivably consist of a set of rules which are interesting simply to play around with, with no aim in mind. Perhaps The Sims is a good example of this; some may indeed play with the object of getting rich or making a nice looking home, or perhaps a more subtle aim to create aggression between two housemates or something, but one might also enjoy simply observing the outcomes of certain actions which are modeled on those that might occur in real life. Of course even in a game like halo which appears to have a clear aim, ‘to kill your opponent 25 times before he does so to you’, the enjoyment comes (hopefully) not from winning as much as from observing the rules and trying things out. In this way, the ‘aim’ of winning could be seen more as a form used by a lot of games, which forces the player to engage with the rules in a certain way.
X – But when I play halo, I play to win. I enjoy winning in Halo, or perhaps more accurately, I enjoy all of the achievements I make, such as getting one of those 25 kills, or maybe even just the satisfaction of a particularly skilful grenade throw. I don’t see how I could enjoy the rules just by virtue of their existence.
Z - To re assert/elaborate then, because it is a crucial point, a game consists of events and actions; that is rules which determine the outcomes (actions), of certain events. The developer (hopefully) chooses interesting or entertaining rules and presents them in an illuminating order in space and time. Rules may involve actions which change the outcomes of future events, or they may simply trigger a non impactful contextual action or both. A rule in a hypothetical game about the shenanigans in a family home may state, ‘when the player makes the child not brush his teeth before bed, the mother’s love for the child will decrease by one gradation (where the mother’s love determines how likely she is to cook dinner for the child)’, to state a silly, melodramatic example, which fits nicely into the first rule type. Another rule may state that when you water the plants, they grow, which has no effect on the rest of the game. Now in chess, there is a rule that says, ‘when a players king is taken, the game ends and the opposing player wins’, the game ending, naturally has an effect on the rest of the game at large, while the opposing player winning has no effect on future rules, it is simply a stand-alone action which expresses the game makers idea of the world, or rather whatever he wanted to express at that point in time; in this case, something along the lines of, ‘when someone eliminates another persons important component, they win’. Or, ‘when one civilization defeats another’s king, they win’. Or, perhaps most accurately, ‘when one person displays the skills required to take the opponents king piece in chess, they win’ (where in all cases winning is a rather peculiar human concept which means what it means to each individual player). One type of rule is not necessarily better then the other (that is those which effect the actions of future events and those that don’t); the point I’m trying to make is that both are simply messages communicated by the game maker. Hopefully they are interesting messages, but they are essentially there to be appreciated. Winning is simply a rule like any other; an event and action if you will, ‘when this happens, this happens’, just like, ‘if you water the plant, it grows’, in the case of this rule, the game designer communicates something of his idea about ‘winning’ in real life, arguably a slightly dated or generally boring one. Except in the case of winning chess, the conditions are more complex and if viewed as an aim, may require a great deal of skill to achieve them. But you shouldn’t necessarily try to achieve the conditions for this action and more then another.
X – So winning this game of halo is just a couple of actions, that of the game ending, and that of the screen saying, ‘player 2 wins’, which are triggered by the events of me shooting you x number of times, and these actions are comparable to (arguably) less important ones, such as the one governing the mothers love for the child, both are modeled on the game creators ideas of the real world, and should be interesting in their very existence, but the actions should not necessarily be strived for.
Well that’s all fine, but the point is that there are some rules, such the one about winning in Halo, which we do try to make happen, and that’s why I’m playing; because I want to make certain things happen, because I enjoy it when they do. I don’t want to just mill about appreciating what the game designer said would happen if x happens, besides, if I don’t have an aim, how will I know what to try out and appreciate the outcome of?
Z – Right. Now as far as having an aim in general is concerned, be it winning, or decreasing the mothers love for you, this needn’t be a fundamental to any game; the game simply presents a load of rules to you which are either interesting and entertaining or not, and with which you can do as you please. Sure a game may require you to kill x many enemies before you can progress to the next level, but this is just another rule, ‘one must kill 20 aliens before the allied spaceship coincidentally turns up to find you’, of course this is a positively ludicrous rule, but a rule nonetheless which should express an idea of the creator.
X – But you’re just repeating yourself. The fact is that most games aren’t like that, they actually tell you that you DO have an aim or at least heavily imply it, as is the case with the rule you just mentioned.
Z – Indeed, and as I said (and was just getting to again, if you would stop interrupting), this can be used to force the player to engage with certain other rules and in a certain way (the way which you are enjoying now as we play Halo with the aim of winning), but it is certainly clear now that such aims are not fundamental to the medium at large.
X – No it isn’t, maybe I only play Halo because there is an aim, and maybe I wouldn’t play your hypothetical family home game because there is no aim (and for other reasons mind you!).
Z – Well this brings up the important issue of how the player is expected to engage with the system. There are rules which we are persuaded to use, or rather actions that we are meant to trigger, which are common to most games of a certain genre, or even to all games of a larger category type. The aim of winning, which is usually triggered by eliminating the enemy, or a crucial part of the enemy, is used in so many different sorts of games that it may be seen not so much as an interesting rule, as it may as a form, similar to a musical form which provides a sort of structure in which subject matter can be presented, many games use this method to help shape the manner in which the rules are presented to the player and the way in which the player will approach them. Perhaps you think that it is indeed this type of interaction with a set of rules (requiring the players skill in order to trigger a certain action which is seen as the aim), which defines a videogame. This would mean that my theoretical family home game would in fact not be a game by your definition unless the player decided they would make it their aim to trigger a certain action, in which case, this action should require a degree of skill in order it be a good game.
X – Right…
Z – So case closed
X – Erm…
Z – Until next time, when we will further our discussion on the matter of, ‘what is the videogame medium’
X – Right. Good. Well I’ll see you then then.
Z beat X on that particular game of halo by 25 kills to 17.
Z - Needless to say, I would like to incorporate my family home game into the videogame medium. It is of course necessary to look up ‘game’ in the oxford dictionary of modern English at this point, since; the definition will decide whether or not we can even think about arguing the inclusion of my game under the term.
Z leaves the room to look at the dictionary before returning 3 minutes later
Z – Ok well that does it, every definition which relates to the area to which we refer, implies aim, achievement and competition. And so my family home thingy bob certainly is not a videogame, and neither, perhaps is ‘The Sims’, that is unless we give the vote to popularly held opinion. I imagine that most people would at first define a videogame along the lines of aims, competition and achievement, but they would not likely refuse ‘The Sims’ or my game the title. That is, they wouldn’t instinctively, but naturally, on closer inspection, they would have no choice but to refuse them the title.
I am not happy however with the distinction between a videogame like Halo and a thingy bob like my family home game. As I mentioned earlier, a thingy bob like ‘The Sims’ could easily be turned into a videogame simply by making up an aim. And similarly, Halo…
X – No, no, no. Halo would not be fun without the aim. Are you telling me that you would enjoy going, “hmm, I wonder what would happen if I shot the other player x many times…low and behold, he dies, how very interesting.”, no, it’s not interesting. You might reply to that by saying, “Right, so it’s not a very interesting game”, but it is, we both enjoy playing it. It becomes interesting when you play with an aim. The rules are boring, but when you pit your ability to use them against someone else’s then a certain outside element has entered. This is what makes a game.
Z – Hmm, well I have to admit that my confidence is rather wavering, but I shall attempt to salvage my point nonetheless. I think we need to take our study of the interest of a game or ‘thingybob’s’ rules to another level. While some events and actions may be interesting in themselves (this is often the case with rules governing social dynamics and also with rules governing physics, the later you are probably familiar with), rules like, ‘if you get shot x many times, you die’, are not interesting, they are just obvious. But as you said, treated in a certain way, these ‘boring’ rules can become interesting. So perhaps we can look at what the rules imply, where this can be the subject of interest.
X – I’m listening…
Z - Perhaps rules plus goals can imply methods of approach. They can imply ways of life and bla bla. The argument has not fallen flat. It is not that the aim is now the sole purpose of the game. As I said before, enjoyment of halo comes not from winning but from experimenting with rules with an aim in mind.
X – Yea, but then again, as you said before, a game can be fun without any goal at all. ‘The Sims’ may be interesting just seeing how the creator presents rules. Of course in this case, perhaps the rules might just as well be written down on a piece of paper.
Z – Well I see what you mean (naturally; since I am you), but this is sort of made redundant when you look at specifics. Sure this would be so if there where just a few simple rules like, ‘when you don’t take out the rubbish; flies start flying around it’, then they would be of no more interest than they are as written here. But the point is that the rules are far more complex than that; they are ordered in such a way in space and time; that the most economical way for them to be presented is in a program with a sensual interface. Actually I suppose it’s not so much that they are ‘ordered’ in space and time, as space and time are fundamental components of the rules with which the player is presented. It’s not that they are absolutely essential, a written list of rules would still belong to the thingybob medium, after all it would simply involve a different choice of which rules are presented from the creator’s experience. But I’ll bet that any object which you would normally call a videogame has space and time, certainly at least one of them.
X – Yes, and I see that a picture of the medium is starting to emerge . But you still have not explained the crucial problem concerning the player’s interaction with the game, and in what way the rules can be interesting in a game like halo.
Z – Ok. So maybe a goal is actually a crucial part of a games communication. After all, in real life and when humans are involved, which most games attempt to represent in more or less abstract ways, there are always goals hovering about in the air. If someone wants to use the rule medium (thought I’d just slip in the new term there) to express an idea about human activity; be it war or casual socializing, the aims of the humans in question is likely to be an integral part of the creator’s idea. In this way the setting of the goal is sort of a part of the medium; one of the mediums for expression which contributes to make the whole videogame medium. Or rather it is one of the potential ones. Naturally we would not refuse a film without sound the title film just as we should not, and in most cases would not, refuse a videogame without a goal the title videogame. A videogame might well not have a set goal, as is the case with ‘The Sims’. A set goal will inevitably shape the players relationship with the rules as he strives to bring into being the conditions (event) for a certain action to occur. The creator may equally think it more appropriate to simply present the player with a set of rules and let them come up with their own goal as the human being they are. Or not; perhaps the rules are best experienced without a goal.
Obviously these are quite different uses of the medium, but they both use rules as their primary means of expression. For this reason, and the fact that chess is not called a videogame, I would like to propose a new title: ‘the rule medium’. This encompasses all art which communicates through rules, whether or not it also communicates through goals and whatever senses the interface relates to. After all one would hardly like to differentiate chess from Halo on such a fundamental level. Also, it is assumed at this point that you understand that we cannot call it the game medium because a game is in fact a subcategory of the rule medium which encompasses those with goals.
As you may be aware, most of what I have considered progress in this discussion has involved the reduction of components of ‘videogames’ which were previously considered fundamental and unquestionable, to mere variables which a game creator may or may not consider appropriate for the expression of his ideas. But now what of this subcategory I have identified? For starters I think we may have to further sub-categorize, because while games like chess and halo…
X – Ok let me stop you right there! Here is the definitive problem with your idea: you are trying to explain how games can communicate by presenting rules (i.e. if this happens then this happens), and just now you identified another means of expression by setting goals, but I don’t see anything exclusive to the videogame medium about these means. If we consider a play, say, by Shakespeare, he will present the same sorts of rules and goals that you have discussed. Shakespeare will have a character say something or perform an action which affects another character, and the reaction of the other character will be interesting. The whole play is made up of events and actions which are determined by Shakespeare’s ideas of the rules which govern these areas of life. Similarly in an action movie, events and actions based on human actions and physics etc will be presented, again shaped by the director’s ideas about the rules which operate in this sphere of reality. The games you have discussed, you have described as a bundle of rules and possibly ‘goals’, which are either presented immediately to the player, such as, ‘if you are an object in this area you will obey the laws of gravity’, and those whose ‘actions’ must be triggered by the player. You have implied that the player’s interaction with these games will involve him doing something and observing the result. ‘Hopefully’, you say, ‘the rules in themselves are interesting, so we play for the sake of observing them as opposed to playing for the sake of winning’, and, ‘goals such as winning, or less major ones like decreasing your mother’s love for you, both express the creator’s ideas about goals, and control the manner in which rules are presented to the player. As is quite clear now I would imagine, such a game amounts to something comparable to one of those children’s toys where you press a button with a picture on it of, say, a saw cutting a log of wood (event), and you get to hear the sound (action). Obviously it might be a pretty complex one of these things, with different and more interesting events and actions. Perhaps the actions of some events will alter the actions of other events (or more accurately they will change the events themselves if you know what I mean. And it doesn’t really matter if you don’t), but you can see it’s the same type of thing. It could be quite interesting indeed, maybe you would take all the events and actions that exist in a play by Shakespeare, and let the ‘player’ press all of the buttons at his own leisurely pace and observe the outcomes. This is your description of the videogame medium so far, and it is not the correct one.