Where is a Video Game? Part 1

We all play video games. As a generation starting life at the turn of the millennium, our experiences with electronic entertainment has varied from mundane phone apps to powerful gaming rigs. Yet for all the attention we give video games as playthings or subjects of distraction, we often pass over the question of space; the body of relationships between man, machine, and the ‘where’ of a game. In asking this, we aren’t simply looking for some real-world location where you may decide to pull out your DS and play for a few hours. Rather, we want to draw attention to some more subtle points. For example: what does it really mean to be firmly planted in a recliner in your room, yet to occupy an actualised space in the world of some MMORPG?

Perhaps the most interesting of a series of revelations during my own time researching video game storytelling has been the realization that game-stories are never ‘shown’ so much as ‘lived’. This, to a degree, is to be expected. In many ways, video games bend the conventions associated with more traditional forms of narrative. For example, games require the player’s consent to progress; they tell stories which necessarily motivate both the protagonist in the diegetic (game) world, and their real-world counterpart. Nevertheless, the relationship between the lived experiences of player and protagonist may be more nuanced than any initial impression. Sure, games may tell stories. More than this, however, is the fact that games shift the very meaning of both real and virtual spaces.

According to the theories of postmodern thinker Jean Baudrillard, video games can be seen as representing a sort of hypertext. That is, an intertextual, self-referencing body of knowledge that we navigate in a nonlinear fashion. This is another way of saying that the way we progress through games is not as straightforward as other forms of media, such as books. In video games, users must make non-trivial, or ergodic, movements to traverse a network of knowledge; for example, moving a mouse cursor or rotating a joystick. This technical implication of the medium brings into question the shapes that storytelling can take in games. 

Examples of the mechanical implements we use to access the game-world

While perhaps not initially congruent with  the question of ‘space’, this idea addresses a central concept that distinguishes a video game from more traditional media. Games as hypertexts are navigable, implying a movement physically made through the text by an agent, whereas traditional stories are experienced passively. Players must navigate through, instead of being told, game-stories. While this point is certainly pertinent to the notion of diegetic (in-game) space, it is equally important to note the mechanism by which this hypertextuality is even possible; this is interactivity.

When thinking about the concept of interactivity and space, perhaps a better way of examining video games is to acknowledge that they are actually computer games. The reason for this distinction ties into the relationship that players hold with the gaming apparatus. Notably, by using the word ‘computer’, we recognise that the process of playing a game is not just centred around a video screen, but also an artificial intelligence that is in constant communication with us through that screen. 

The act of playing a computer game can be seen as an interactive process. Interactivity, according to media scholar Lori Landay, is “an action that occurs as two or more participants exchange information that has a reciprocal effect on the other”. Perhaps game developer Steve Swink’s model of the computer-player nexus belays the best example of this definition. In his player-game apparatus, users perceive icons from the game through their sensory organs, process and ‘solve’ these prompts via their brains, and respond through actions inputted into their controller. On the reciprocal end, the game console receives these actions through the control scheme, interprets them through the processor, and outputs visual and auditory information back to the user. 

Steve Swink’s model

The analogy of a lecture versus a conversation suits this idea well. While a conversation requires participants to enter into a ‘contract’, which respects their relative equality as bilateral speakers, a lecture is unidirectional in nature and favours a dominant speaker to a passive listener. Likewise, players must be constantly working with the computer game if they are to make progress, as opposed to a film, which demands relative passivity from its audience. As a multi-modal medium, computer games require both physical and psychological engagement. With this in mind, interactivity is of interest to the question of storytelling spaces simply because of its structural outcomes. On one hand, a conversation requires participants to be close, equal, and in constant interaction with one another. Conversely, a lecture is centralized with a diffuse pattern of communication. Games theorist Mark Wolf suggests this in one of his early essays, noting that while cinema is associated with a ‘reverent’ viewing position in the theatre, games and game spaces are ‘irreverent’. 

To this point, games are often played individually at home instead of experienced collectively in the cinema, as interactivity implies a personalization of the story experience. Consequently, computer games do not only differentiate themselves by their active engagement of the player, but more importantly shift the structural focus of storytelling from an audience to an individual. Interactivity therefore offers a central argument to our study. When engaging with computer games, players as individuals are spatially attached to the objects containing the virtual text; they are locked into the feedback loop.

This conclusion, while interesting as a conversation starter, may not seem to be much more than academic filibuster. Why does it matter that we are so closely connected to the media we consume, and what does this have to do with space? For starters, by virtue of being so dependent on this human-computer interface, narrative games require near-total attention from their audiences, and in a single, static space. In other words, games require their players to live purely in the moment. Over the course of most storytelling media, the objective of the craft has been to draw the audience outside of both their past and future predilections and into the diegetic world for an hour or two. Such is the case with theatre, or cinema, attempting to produce an experience similar to the philosophical notion of the sublime proposed by Burke. Yet, for their efforts, most traditional media are terrible at fully engaging their audiences. Consider the times you’ve witnessed a couple making out at the back of a movie, or the stereotype of a man falling asleep mid-play.

Video game stories solve this problem precisely because of their spatial features. They are, by contrast, a lived experience. Games necessarily include the player’s physical and psychological movement into their design, unable to progress without a player who is willing to obliterate the reality around them and take control. While a movie continues to play in the background, the video game comes to an abrupt halt when the player leaves the game-space. Consequently, in a video game, we are almost never simply watching the story’s protagonist. Rather, we are often busy being the protagonist; by locking ourselves into a singular real space, we allow ourselves to roam free in the virtual. This is perhaps the greatest advantage that video games offer over their more conventional counterparts.

By sitting alone in the dark of our room, we can access worlds as foriegn as Hyrule

Of course, one temptation that we often see in the media is that games ensnare us, drawing players away from reality. Given the hyper-connectivity implied by interactivity, this idea may seem theoretically palatable. To this point, Baudrillard argues that the consequence of interactive hypertexts is a ‘hyperreality’ akin to a permanent state of simulated reality, like in The Matrix. Computer scientist Lev Manovich also notes that the role of screens has historically been to obliterate the reality around the audience; the interactivity of video games might be seen as an evolution of this trend. 

Nevertheless, this point may not be as robust in the gaming context. Literary theorist Barry Atkins notes that, while a game may be immersive, it is still a game at heart. When consuming texts, we are always situated in a real environment, and we rarely, if ever, lose touch of that reality by interfacing with games. For example, even in the most advanced VR simulations, we still have an acute awareness that we are accessing the game through certain tools, like the headset and controllers. Ultimately, the feedback loop is still artificial; while interactivity may redefine the position and structure of a storytelling ritual, it does not necessarily detract from the ‘experience’ of reading a story. As such, we can argue that games should be seen as mechanisms for developing narratives, and not necessarily for transplanting realities.

(This concludes Part 1 of “Where is a Video Game?”—to be continued in Part 2.)

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