How You Got Videogames Wrong: It’s All Interactive
Pissing you off in installments, the monthly series “How You Got Videogames Wrong” delves beyond appearances into the slimy interior of The God’s Truth (about videogames). This month we’ll be looking at a common misconception: that videogames—and nothing else—are interactive.
I heard once that people like freebies, so here ya go—a game, programmed by yours truly:
Wouldja look at that: One line of code; eighteen syllables; twelve critical interactions; two possible outcomes…and all DRM-free!
N’importe quoi! you scoff. This eez not a game. This eez a sen-tunnz! Ah but consider the “play” that goes into this sen-tunnz: You’ll need, for instance, your leet vocab skillz…From where else might the meanings of each word come if not the reader? And that’s just the denotative meanings…What are the connotations of Saturday, and how is it different from Monday? Sunday? Labor Day? And is there not a difference between Saturday night and afternoon? sunset? morning? early morning? Hell, we haven’t even gotten to the multiple endings yet: For many of us, our favorite city isn’t the same city we were born in. I might have said Boston, but I wasn’t born there. I could change Boston to fit my city of birth, but then I’d be a liar—Macon, you see, isn’t my favorite city. And I could just change my second answer, change Macon to Boston, but then ain’t I just crafting a fictional character at that point? Our decision thus straddles a fine line, has consequence: Am I a liar, or just fiction?
Or how about that famous game from Ernest Hemingway…
For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.
…what playing have we just done here? Long before any narrative choice we might make (“the baby died” vs. “duplicate baby-shower gifts”) we have already chosen a play-style…Per the highly-recognizable format of the statement “For Sale”—a Classified—we adhere intuitively to a structure, one that is identifiably different than a Declaration of War, a Personals ad, and a Victorian-era Novel. Thus before we can even get to “the good part” our expectations have been already shaped to the system of the genre. And before we read another syllable, we’ve got a set of tools at the ready—tools that are geared towards the consumption of goods, the identification of deals, the teasing out of ambiguities and truths regarding amateur marketing.
Games are systems, and a language game is a system of did and did-nots…is and is-nots. Though games do have a standout feature, interactivity is not it. We will return to this point soon(-ish). Before that, however, I want you to begin imagining these systems as they actually are—as a series of tumblers in a lock, complete with the tiny imperfections that allow the key and lock-pick alike to enter. Like a lock we cannot see inside, only blindly feel around within the system, listening for the tell-tale click!
It is commonly known that all mediums provide a condensed version of our reality, a representation. That’s how we can look at a painting of a tree and imagine a tree at all—we recognize that the shape before us is most probably a representation of a tree. Seldom will we imagine that the tree is Batman, or outer space. This is because our minds treat representations as simulated realities—and like a real reality we can imagine ourselves standing in them, noting the hundred-hue leaves (which don’t actually exist), the feel of the cool, November air drifting in over the brook (which doesn’t actually exist), and our outside-picture selves looking in (ditto?)
Quality of Life
The average game has literally tens of thousands of “interactions”…shall Mario run, or walk? jump or slide? shall he land upon the block from the left or the right? will he backtrack or progress? and in what order will these things occur?…all this by the time of the first flag. But it’s not as if these interactions occur within a vacuum—they occur within the system of Mario Bros., a system that disallows as much as it allows. While you might do something that no one’s ever done before in a game, you won’t ever do anything that the game-system wasn’t prepared for—that it didn’t already have a response to. Even glitches are traceable. This, you see, is what’s called a potentiality space…Things you can potentially do; things you caint. This gets me thinking: If every interaction we might make within a game is stored as a potentiality way down in the binary-soup of its guts…are all interactions equal?
For instance, if I deliberately direct Mario into a pit that’s no doubt of a different quality of interactivity than wiggling him at the top of a stalk, right? And what about accidentally falling into a pit instead of landing safely on the other side—one lessens a Lives counter…the other progresses the game. Or what if I chose to hop back and forth over the pit…? The previous quality of “crossing safely” has just changed again, hasn’t it? So it’s my thinking that if we’re out to find some key difference between videogames and other mediums, then we’re first gonna have to broach the subject of interactive quality; to develop guidelines for classifying interactions that matter…and to what degree their mattering matters.
(It’s at this point that I must note the methodology of hypothetical play here…Are we playing to simply progress? or are we playing to get every coin? are we speedrunning? or just goofing around? Though I believe the system below covers all styles, I will say now that we’ll just keep it simple: we’re just playing a game, no particular interpretation of the potentiality space in mind…Just, like, normal.)
So without further ado let’s get to categorizing. In the following you will find every sort of interaction we might hope to make:
- Incidental Interactions: unconscious, inconsequential tinkering within the system, such as the twitching of a thumb during a non-critical jump. We might call them “accidents.” Though truly no action is without consequence—as the system is built to recognize even those—the game’s reaction to them is without significant value relative to the system. Imagine where you sit now, absentmindedly shifting your weight from butt-cheek to butt-cheek…Unarguably there is a difference in weight distribution…unseen molecules react. But relative to the system (in this case, the Real World), the action is insignificant.
- Experimental Interactions: Perhaps best thought of as “goofing around,” these interactions are deliberate attempts to amplify or modify game-mood beyond the expected response capabilities of the system in question. Classic examples: targeting an NPC’s man-pickle (or counterpart), or using SNES Link’s grab ability to hump a bookshelf (“I gotcha link right here!”) Despite our goofing around, however, these interactions do not significantly (see “Incidental”) alter the game-space.
- Meaningful Interactions: …Should they alter the game-space, however…should the NPC react (as RE4’s Ashley does), be the interaction deliberate or accidental, then that interaction is/becomes Meaningful. These are “true” interactions—actions which modify not only game-mood but game-space as well. Though for the purposes of classification there is a second requisite, for reasons discussed in the final type: Meaningful interactions are not necessary for the system itself to progress. Examples include RE4-Ashley’s aforementioned reaction; a shattered but non-important computer terminal; and (in many but not all cases) shooting enemies or snagging gold coins.
- Critical Interactions: The final category consists of those interactions that the system depends upon to progress. Though these interactions can certainly be “meaningful,” the system itself is reacting not to their meaning but to their necessity in regards to progress. Examples include: dying; progress-critical options/choices; and “end points.” To further drive home the point that critical interactions can be mutually exclusive from the player’s sense of meaning, consider that game-wide critical interaction that is nearly ubiquitous in a videogame system: the very ground you walk upon.
…It’s something, ain’t it? But make no mistake: the classification of interactivity isn’t as cut and dry as how-the-game-reacts…Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one type ends and the other begins. No, the varieties above are how the system recognizes that it’s being interacted with; in other words, how the system categories us.
Games without Games
Well now that we have a system of classification in place, we are able to create a visual map our interaction (interpretation) within a potentiality space. Here’s one in action:
Check that out: a rough estimate of Mario Bros. 1-1. While there are numerous ways this visualization could be improved upon, it is no less sufficient for our purposes here. In it we can see several interesting features of play, the first being the overwhelming presence of Incidental interaction…And that’s kindly true: One of the allures of videogames is the tremendous quantity of “wiggle-room” we are afforded—of space in which our interactions are “insignificant.” As a matter of fact, the only “medium” with a higher number of “dead space” than a videogame would be, well, the Real World. And let’s keep in mind that, like the real world, the Incidental is always accompanied by a potential for the Experimental…Where we can goof up without punishment, we can simply goof around, too. But be sure not to get that mixed up: the Experimental is a side-effect of the Incidental…not the other way around. Though not all videogames provide such ample wiggle-room (see N+, which allows for exactly zero), the generalization of games as such does fall in line with that knee-jerk reaction we have to someone asking why we play videogames: cuz they’re just fun…
This “funness,” however, is only in-part derived from the sheer potential for Incidental interaction…Our world, for instance, has plenty of Incidental interactions…too much, one might argue. But as philosophers have noted over the centuries, the Real World lacks a recognizable system of meaning, something that videogames, as the graphic above shows, happily offer.
However, our question isn’t if games share an interactive similarity with the real world, but if they share the same similarity with other mediums. So now that we’ve applied our categories of interaction to a videogame-space, the question remains: can the same done with something else? Let’s have a look-see:
Like I did with Mario Bros., I have created here a rough estimate of our interaction with the Mona Lisa, and immediately we notice a glaring difference in the overall quality of our interactions—the Incidental is nearly non-existent. See it there, mapped along the borders of the painting? The reason for this should be evident: paintings, at least in the case of the Mona Lisa, work our eyes away from the border, not unlike the “free roam” videogame that turns our character back main-land the moment we wander too far. And before you say that this is an unfair comparison of interactivities, keep in mind that this bouncing-back of the eyes is not exclusively a feature of the painting itself, nor is it something you do just cuz…Our eyes must wander in order to be bounced-back at all. Which is to say that it is another proof of interactivity within a medium outside of games: had we not roaming eyes, the system of the Mona Lisa wouldn’t need to lead us at all. But we do roam, and she does lead.
As for the other interactions that occur within the Mona Lisa, my placement can be broken down by the following methods: Critical interactions are focused exclusively around the standout features of the Mona Lisa, which in my own experience are (1) her crossed hands and (2) her eyes, mouth, and nose. I call these Critical because it seems to me that if we were to imagine the painting sinking into a fog of unseeingness, that it would be these features that distinguish her final moments. In terms of the system of the painting, all other aspects are merely tangential to these. But, as is the case with mediums outside of videogames (as we will get to shortly), the quality of our interactions are somewhat subjective…I do, however, believe that the general consensus will compare favorably to what I have here.
Meaningful interactions I have centered in two places: (1) high-contrast areas and areas of depth perception; those aspects that force us to reckon distinct parts…Mona Lisa’s bare chest from her clothing…her hair from her skin tone; as well as Mona Lisa’s standing before a landscape as opposed to being a physical feature of it; and (2) areas surrounding Critical interactions, due to our attributing meaning to them. It’s for this reason that you’ll find Meaningful interactions around her facial features, as well as surrounding the intersection of her hands.
And floating between the Meaningful and Incidental you’ll find our Experimental interactions…those that neither meaningfully impact the system nor attempt to—though they do “color” the experience, providing the reader-player with aspects to “goof” around with. You’ll find these interactions placed safely within the boundaries of distinct parts (Meaningful interactions), such as the dark areas of Mona Lisa’s clothing, as well as parts of the background.
Comparing these two examples we begin to see similarities of interactability between visual art and videogame art, yet we also find one major dissimilarity: Predominantly, videogames exist as a fusing of the Incidental, Experimental, and Meaningful interaction…Whereas a painting will often have clearly-defined zones of interaction, in a videogame the three planes collapse into one another. And so it makes sense that videogames have had such a hard time being seen as an artform—the vast majority of our interactions within them exist just beneath a membrane of “goofing off,” and just beneath that, insignificance.
Let’s think about this for a moment: Can it be that the more deeply interwoven the Incidental, Experimental, and Meaningful interactions become, that the harder it is for the average person to separate them again? Sure. Our world is filled with just that. Yet let me offer another reason: videogames also feature the steepest ratio of Incidental-to-Critical interactions…Look at the Mario Bros. example above, noting how much of the space is dedicated to the Incidental, and how few elements are Critical or even Meaningful…Now expand that thought across the level, across every level of the game. See how small the critical becomes in the face of all that excess space?
Then consider the “opposite” of videogames: Language…As far as “systems” go, language can create some of the steepest ratios of Critical-to-Incidental possible, reducing the entire experience almost exclusively to a Critical system…with hardly any room whatsoever for goofing off.
Take for example the “game” that kicked this whole thing off:
Thus we come to the crucial question: What makes games different?
…The standard answer to this question has done damage to videogames: interactivity, erroneously simplifying their capabilities. But greater yet is the damage that this statement has done to other mediums, mediums that are just as interactive. And this is a point we must be clear on before proceeding: comprehension, even the attempt to do so, is interaction. Take the scenario of two characters engaged in dialogue: the first accuses the second of a transgression, and the second consistently changes the subject in response. How else are we able to figure that the second character is hiding something, that he is evading interrogation, than by recognizing the social gap and filling it in with our understanding of our social world, of being accused, of escaping accusations? We pretend ourselves into a represented world, and when we do we bring our tools, having known no other worlds from which to pull tools from.
A similar “gap” appears in videogames—a physical gap in the landscape that we must cross in order to progress, a standard in videogames. Recognizing this physical gap, we interpret it with our understanding of the physical world, of gravity and momentum. How often do we critique a game for having controls that don’t feel right…Do we truly think that this not-feeling-right is merely in our thumbs that physically “feel” the controls? Or is it the kind of something doesn’t feel right that we feel when we step off an elevator onto the wrong floor of an apartment building? Surely we don’t mean that the hallway feels physically different…the floor beneath us is no doubt the same material, created by the same tools and measurements as the “correct” one. So how do we mean feeling in this case?
What we mean is that the nearly-imperceptible identifiers of our hallway are no longer present…the dimming bulb over 3E…the new ashtray near the hall window…the creaky floorboard halfway to it. This is the kind of doesn’t-feel-right that occurs to us upon playing a game with poor controls: that the world before me is too removed from my world…this hallway too unlike my own. In the real world this difference cannot be reconciled without leaving the hallway—I can’t just make this other floor my floor, too…there are rules. But games, as virtual worlds, allow us to do just that…to internalize both the rules of the gameworld and our world…to live on both floors. That’s how, in terms of the game with weird controls, we can eventually speak of “getting used to it”…We’ve adapted ourselves to both worlds.
But it isn’t even this living-on-both-floors that makes videogames unique…that’s simply what makes videogames and other mediums the same. What makes videogames unique is their capacity for what I call active criticism…the ability to provide real-time, authoritative feedback on interactions. In my Mona Lisa example above, I noted the difficulty of giving an empirical analysis of its interactivity. Well that isn’t because we don’t interact with the painting…it’s because the author isn’t right beside us, critiquing our interpretation. We could create such a scenario—perhaps not with the Mona Lisa but with another painting, another more-alive author. Imagine that you are presented with a painting but only in “phases” defined by the author…say a glimpse of a hand…or a selection of the color palette. After each phase the author would ask you to interpret what you just saw, and based on your answers, he or she would either allow you to go on to the next phase, or require you to interpret the previous phases again.
Because this, in essence, is what videogames do—what they actually do—they embody system and author alike, intertwining the two into one…critiquing our interpretations, rewarding and condemning them. When we speak of videogames, we are speaking of the only medium that offers active criticism. I say the only medium, but perhaps we might include the Real World…its active critic goes by many names: Fate; God; thermodynamics. And though, as we have just seen, prose, music, and visual art can be actively criticized, no other medium but videogames has an active critic built into it. Our above scenario regarding the painting can be derailed by the simple action of telling the author to go stuff himself and running off with his painting (and interpretation alike). That’s because outside of videogames a critic, no matter how snugly he may cling to his work, is not the work itself. Videogames collapse this distinction.
Which brings up an even more pressing point about the unique medium of videogames: what is an author, and is the one lurking inside a videogame more “author” than the person who created the game? Do videogames turn their authors into imposters? Consider this example: Pac-Man was, as we all know, “authored” by multiple people…a programmer, a designer, a composer…all adding up to a super-author we usually just call Tōru Iwatani. Fine. In that statement alone we can already see the lurkings of our dilemma, but let’s not rush ourselves. Consider, instead, one of the most infamous features of Pac-Man—the kill screen, a feature that I have written about extensively in my novel, Kickaround Nixon. This kill screen, as we now know, was the product of a programming bug—upon reaching the two hundred and fifty-sixth screen, the onscreen data becomes garbled nearly beyond recognition. In authoring Pac-Man, Tōru Iwatani had no intentions of creating a bug that stops the game at this screen…in fact, the original conception was that the game would go on indefinitely. Yet the game itself had other plans in store. Let me rephrase that: the system itself had other plans in store. The system, despite its “authors” intentions, actively criticizes in a way that its creators never planned. But if the standout feature of videogames is their ability to embody both system and author into one, how is this possible? Who, exactly, is the real author?
This is a question that comes up a lot in literature. The gist of it is this: When we discuss a story…let’s say it’s by Ernest Hemingway…and we make statements like, “Ernest Hemingway argues X, Y, and Z,” well, we’re not necessarily speaking of the physical entity known as Ernest Hemingway…the now-dead Hemingway. No, we’re speaking of the conceptual author…given the name “Ernest Hemingway” out of a necessity to have some name to refer to it by. The conceptual Hemingway can argue X, Y, and Z…the dead Hemingway cannot. Because he’s dead. This means that the story itself argues X, Y, or Z…that there is something inherent to its being that particular story that makes an argument. And what is it that is inherent to that story? A system…an incredibly complex web of is and is-nots, of did and did-nots that yes and no our various interpretations, that shape our analysis. That’s why it’s going to be hard to argue that a Hemingway story is about Batman…The system doesn’t allow for Batman…unless of course it does.
All of which is to say (and by all of which I mean this entire document) that a videogame’s standout feature, a feature that is possessed by no other medium, is that it gives the conceptual author an analyzable presence…The author is systematized, sometimes by the creators (Pac-Man), and sometimes by the system itself (the kill screen). That embedded author “who” we have such difficulty describing, such trouble pinning down, is in videogames preserved in ones and zeroes; “he” is parsable. Want to see such a thing in action? Well, check out Ben Fry’s work, in which he has taken the code from various Atari games and created a visual map of how each event “moves” to the next.
Or just pop in a videogame and don’t worry about it.
Think I’m wrong? Great! Deliberate below and I’ll post the most cogent and/or most “liked” counterarguments…along with my own counter-counterarguments! And come back next month, when I’ll be discussing just what videogames—if not an interactive medium—are.