Mark, Rachel, Abi, Alex, Henry and Sanya…..
When is a videogame not a videogame?
Forgive me for starting with a definition, but I’d like to point you to the first one Miriam-Webster.com has for ‘game’ – an ‘activity engaged in for diversion or amusement’. This is welcomely and necessarily vague, for the array of activities we deem to be games, or indeed videogames, are so varied that any other common ground is a struggle to find. We might say that plot, rules and goals are important, but there are always examples which disregard those enough that we cannot call them essential elements of a game. The only necessary element is the player (‘engaged’ is a key word in that definition), who must be diverted or amused.
This broad definition brings us into the arms of our old postmodern friend: breaking down the boundaries. With this vague definition we can explore how other forms of media – be they plays, films or literature – might also be games.
We can begin with an obvious example. The theatre company You Me Bum Bum Train has achieved critical and popular acclaim by creating interactive plays for an audience of one. The audience member is lead through a set where they find themselves in the middle of various amazing situations. In a past performance, they were put on the spot to answer questions on a TV panel show one minute, then bungling through translating a Swahili ambassador’s speech the next. The actors around them respond to their actions, and the experience is undeniably similar to a videogame.
To a lesser extent, watching any play is a game – the audience are also players in that they engage with the on-stage action, either directly (heckling etc) or indirectly through the act of viewing and interpreting. The latter is a bit of a leap, but as we’re in the business of breaking boundaries we may as well make it – reading a text (in the broad sense) is always a kind of game. A book’s a game, a hypertext’s a game, a film’s a (video)game.
The experimental videogame Dear Esther makes this clear. The player/reader navigates around a map, triggering a narrative voiceover, sometimes randomly, sometimes depending on where they go. Interaction other than exploration is minimal, and the only goal is to uncover the mysterious story.
The development studio, thechineseroom, are currently working on another exciting project called Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, which will explore a similar literary style but with a greater level of player interaction and involvement in the narrative. These games are so close to hypertext fiction (also possible in physical book form remember) that to draw a distinction between them would be silly.
If we want to get all Media-Specific Analysis then we can rejig our definition like so:
The necessary elements of a videogame are: a player who must be diverted or amused; the game itself ie the digital content s/he engages with, and the digital mediation and video interface which forms the ‘connective tissue – joining the physical and metal, the artifact and the user’ (Hayles, Print is Flat, Code is Deep).
And so huge swathes of the internet become videogames, as do films, DVD menus, e-books and e-hypertext stories. The ‘social games’, derided by the elite artistic gaming community and satires such as Cow Clicker, are part of the larger game of social networking. However, there comes a point where we can question whether the players are diverted or amused – when gaming becomes a job, when it impacts and eclipses real life, when it’s a fully integrated part of everyday life (as Facebook and Twitter are seemingly becoming). Obviously the open-armed ‘everything’s a game’ attitude I’ve been adopting must stop somewhere. I think it has to be when it stops being fun.
Social Media Gaming and the Unexpected Success of Cow Clicker
Cow Clicker originated as an afterthought of Ian Bogost (game developer and academic) to satirise and mock the shallowness and commercially exploitative nature of social media games such as FarmVille. These were games that relied on little more than clicking on various images at set intervals in the day, and Cow Clicker took this logic to its extreme, merely providing a cartoon cow for players to click on every few hours.
Bogost believes that video games can and should be used as tools to open people’s minds and to “disrupt and change fundamental attitudes and beliefs about the world”. It was therefore something of a shock even to him when his joke game Cow Clicker became an internet hit, and brought him out of the indie gaming periphery to become an industry celebrity. What started off as a derisive snipe at social media gaming turned into a year and a half long project that took increasing amounts of Bogost’s time and energy to manage.
The catalyst for his creation was the 2010 Game Developers Conference, which saw a tense meeting between the straggling traditional console gaming industry, and the newer (and extremely lucrative) social media gaming upstarts. The most notable of this new wave of game developers was Zynga, the company behind FarmVille and many other games of a similar ilk that encouraged players to spam their newsfeeds with updates, endure frustrating periods of waiting before being able to continue play, and charged fees for new items and reduced waiting times. With 110 million players it easily won Best Social/Online Game, but Zynga’s VP Bill Mooney (note that ‘mooney’ is the currency in Cow Clicker) was booed off stage when he collected the award. In order to better demonstrate to people the problem with games like Zynga’s, Bogost created Cow Clicker, an utterly mundane and pointless FarmVille parody.
However, within just a few months the game had attracted 50,000 players, many of whom were not even playing ironically. He had to upgrade his server to handle the phenomenal influx of players, and started to add new items and manipulative incentives to hook people to the game. Hardcore players claimed that there was a serious element of strategy to the game, and an advice manual has been published by a fan on how to get the best results. Bogost got attached to the positive feedback and the mass audience he had attracted, and had somewhat unwittingly created something that many people genuinely enjoyed and were committed to.
This experiment is intriguing, because it goes beyond the question ‘Are videogames art?’ to ask, ‘Should videogames make their primary goal to become art?’ It seems clear that Bogost sees that videogames have the potential to be art and to create a challenging and engaging experience, as they can encode deep meaning as well as requiring a huge amount of effort and skill to create in the first place. An example of his admiration for the potential of videogames appears in his book, ‘How to Do Things With Video Games’, where he defends the use of Manchester Cathedral in Resistance: The Fall of Men, pointing out that its inclusion had much deeper significance than at first glance. He points out that the Cathedral is used as a field hospital, providing care and safety to those injured by the invading Chimera, even in the face of extreme danger; and that the fact that it is now deserted highlights the savage disregard of this alien race for human life and human culture. The Cathedral is beautifully rendered in the game, and the player is given the opportunity to explore it and admire it, in what is otherwise a fast paced and violent game. Furthermore, the Cathedral survives the battle that takes place in it, just as it survived battles and terrorist attacks in the real world, providing once again a place of “reprieve for the weary and steadfastness in the face of devastation.” The use of the Cathedral was not gratuitous, real thought and care went into its inclusion, and as such the same thought and care should be given to analysing its purpose in the game.
This is in contrast to games like FarmVille and Cow Clicker, which require relatively little thought and effort from their creators (Cow Clicker was made in just three days), and yet ask for such commitment from their players to carry out banal tasks according to a set timer in order to ‘progress’ in the game. They offer no real challenges or opportunities for creativity and yet people play these games in their millions, spending real money and time on something that apparently gives no real reward, just gimmicks and transparently pointless prizes. And they are in a rapidly growing section of the population – a survey by Kabam in 2011 revealed that 41% of internet users (around 98 million people) in the USA play social media games. It also suggests that ‘hardcore’ social gamers will become one of the most lucrative sections of the gaming market because they play more games, and more often than the general population.
Bogost, presumably feeling regret for his project, now wears a cow ring on his middle finger, explaining that “I like to think that having it on my body, especially on one of my typing fingers, will make me think twice about all these activities…I’ve made all these people click on cows. I’ve wasted my own time and my family’s time.” This seems to be a very pessimistic reaction to creating something that genuinely brought people together over social media and provided countless hours of entertainment to players all over the world. Of course, one could hardly claim that these games are masterpieces or that they change the world, or broaden your outlook on life, but why should they aim to do so? Is it really so bad to enjoy some mindless entertainment now and then? These games on social media show by their popularity that they serve a purpose and have filled a gap in the market, so who is Bogost, or anyone, to tell people what they should and should not like or spend their money on? Video games may well be an art form, but they are also an industry which relies on commercial success. In the words of Gabe Zichermann, a gamification expert and critic of Bogost’s, is he just being “an elitist fuck”? Maybe a bit harsh…
Gaming – a novel experience?
Within Unit Operations, Ian Bogost’s examination of the commercialisation of ‘Game Engines’ – “common software components and tools used to make other games” – allows for an interesting comparison to be drawn between gaming’s generic properties and those formal aspects that make up both print and film text genres.
Whilst a buddy cop movie might fit the genre through its “driving, gun handling [and] foot chases”, or a romantic comedy “would require chance encounters, urban near misses… and touching resolution”, there are further, less physical features of said films that are required to fully conform to genre, often relying on a specific reaction from their audience through attempts at humour, for instance.
However, Game Engines work by “abstract[ing] such material requirements as their primary…formal constituent”, focussing on “rendering, [which] has nothing to do with actual game play”. Game designers using the Unreal Engine are “materially bound to the common logical structure” of that initial coding as it “manage[s] physics routines to keep objects from falling out of the world and… dictate[s] their interaction”. If the designer had set out to produce a First-Person Shooter (FPS), therefore, they would use the Engine to focus exclusively on the physical properties of the game – player holds a gun, gun fires bullets, bullets kill other player – all with seemingly life-like representations of physics and bloodshed that reflect the initial coding developed by the team at Unreal. Outside of these properties, the designer can build their own code to reflect the “emotional and interpersonal experience” that they desire, be that an alien invasion or an MI6 reconnaissance mission, whilst remaining within the genre of an FPS.
The question, therefore, is how far does this structure of game design differ from the emergence of text-based genres, such as the Novel.
Ian Watt suggests in The Rise of the Novel that Realism is seen as the defining characteristic that differentiated the emergence of novels from previous literature, going on to suggest that “the novel’s realism does not reside in the kind of life it presents, but in the way it presents it” – a strikingly similar sentiment to that of the Video Game Engine. Just as Defoe spent much of his novels meticulously spelling out the physicality and economic worth of everything his protagonists interacted with, so to do Game Engineers work to represent their own worlds, and indeed the worlds of each subsequent designer, in such great detail that Realism is arguably an equally defining characteristic, even if that reality is one of the super-natural. As Bogost suggests in How to do things with videogames, designers “have a unique power to simulate the experience [of reality] thanks to their propensity for world building”.
I would like to argue, therefore, that Game Engines function within Genre much like any other language, providing designers with the appropriate tools through which they can describe (or ‘render’) their own worlds with the same degree of Realism that even the earliest of novelists attempted to do with English.
Plot Vs Gameplay
- Gameplay is what separates video games from being films. It is your interaction with the game that helps the game reach its complete form (in the sense that you have an active and intrinsic role in it). However, how important is the narrative to the gamer? Some may be put off a game that has a boring/incoherent plot, others may wage through just because the graphic ways you can kill people is enough for them.
David Gaider, lead writer of the Dragon Age series – narrative gives the player a reason to care about what they’re fighting for.
Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment, developers of Fallout: New Vegas – is the narrative’s role is to create backdrops, letting the systems and the player’s interactions with them create the story?
Ken Levine of Irrational Games, who is releasing BioShock Infinite, believes that story gives context for player experience, but the value of narrative in video games is rather marginal. Levine thinks his job is primarily to present an environment for the player.
- The narrative or plot of a game can be as good, or better, than the actual level of gameplay. For example, Metal Gear Solid has an intricate and sizeable plot where you can sit and watch the cinematic clips for hours. In fact, googling “metal gear solid plot” bring up more plot summaries and analysis than you can shake a stick at. It’s even inspired spin off comics and novels. Also, it’s important to bear in mind that with video games the narrative isn’t just the actual plot, it’s also the visual details. For example, in Zelda Majora’s Mask the sky changes to depict the time of day, other games may have visual clues such as a trashed camp to show that danger is near by.
- But can the plot detract from game play? Plots can potentially place restrictions upon the gamer, e.g. you have to follow a set course. But, games such as Fallout can be navigated through many paths depending on the verbal replies your character gives.
- If plot is so important, why do coders build in cheats and Easter Eggs that you might not find? Especially with games such as Grand Theft Auto where there are loads of cheats, but if you use them you can’t finish the game.
Fun little article on it…. http://www.cracked.com/article/190_5-plot-devices-that-make-good-video-games-suck/