Videogames: Mimesis, videogames as performance art and the rhetoric of the material

PART I: Mimesis and videogames as performance art

GENRE AND FORM

At a basic level, it could argued that video games are indeed similar to genre based pieces of film, literature and plays. Videogames, as Bogost comments via Aarseth, “creat[e] a new version [which] is mainly a matter of editing and then recompiling a program file”. There can be a “common substructure [in]… modern game engines” which operates in a similar way to narrative forms and genre expectations e.g. thriller, romance… Modern games don’t even require ‘recompilation’ or working through the original code; they can be assembled from “software objects and frameworks accessible through developer friendly APIs” which means that ‘nonprogrammers’ can assemble their own software building from game components. Nonetheless, there is the issue that this may only operate in a commercial sense.

Perhaps one of the key reasons for this is how video games emerge as a medium in the ‘industrial art’[s] with a “market economy” in mind. Likewise, intellectual property laws play into this market economy, in that game engines and software are formats that can be licensed, in a way that cliches, genres and forms cannot. So a Hollywood director can use as many stock narrative structures as he pleases, but he has no intellectual property over it. Films are subject to content based copyright laws, not formal structure copyright. There is also a distance between the creator of the game and the product: “this material form exists entirely independently of its creator; there is little precedent for such a total alignment between the intellectual proprietary, material, functional, and discursive modes of authorship”.

As Bogost also argues, “[g]ame engines move far beyond literary devices and genres”. He indicates that game engines prescribe and reduce software compilation to assemblages of ludological ‘game components’. 

This reduction of the game to ludological ‘game components’  raises a number of heated issues in critical thought on video games. Firstly, it would seem that the choice in the necessary structure of gameplay will actually restrict the ‘choice’ in “artistic, cultural or narrative expression”. In effect, it seems to be a matter of restriction to either narrative or ludological structures in game studies, thus posing the major ludological vs. narrative debate:

“This disagreement has been called the ludology vs. narratology debates. The narratological view is that games should be understood as novel forms of narrative and can thus be studied using theories of narrative (Murray, 1997; Atkins, 2003). The ludological position is that games should be understood on their own terms. Ludologists have proposed that the study of games should concern the analysis of the abstract and formal systems they describe. In other words, the focus of game studies should be on the rules of a game, not on the representational elements which are only incidental (Aarseth, 2001; Eskelinen, 2001; Eskelinen, 2004)”  

NARRATIVE PREHISTORY

On the other hand, critical thinkers such as Jesper Juul have problematised the debate by asking whether or not works of art always have to tell stories; can the implication of a narrative prehistory be sufficient? Juul argues that in this way, games do tell stories and they accomplish this through the use of embedded backstories. Games and narratives share common properties in engaging these backstories in order to make sense of an experience; in effect, we are motivated to play a game because of its narrative prehistory. An alien invasion in Space Invaders, for example. Otherwise, Juul comments, why would we play the game? Juul’s thinking perhaps even taps into the user’s own imagination and I would query how far (and under what conditions) the user will superimpose and elaborate their own stories from the gameplay provided. Is it this capacity and potential for user imagination which makes games successful? 

However, other thinkers have opposed Juul’s thinking in that  “games disturb the relation between reader and story that narratives require”. In this, narratives are still implicit within games as an embedded backstory motivating gameplay, but there is a crucial ontological difference in that players of games inhabit the position of “empirical subject outside the game” whilst also undertaking “a role inside the game”. Their role is two fold; narratives in traditional mediums only allow a “cognitive identification” with characters which is typically human or anthropomorphic. Games like Tetris allow for no “cognitive identification”, hence there is no human/anthropomorphic figure against which to define yourself as a reader.

REPRESENTATION AND MIMESIS

Bogost writes that “[t]he discursive carriage of the FPS will change further as game engines, tools and libraries move beyond killing, racing and visual effects to emotional conflict, jealousy and development.” In contrast to developers such as Mateas and Stern, who have been working on an engine more adequately suited to host these “more subtle human acts” – to emotional and interpersonal experience – earlier forms of game engines based around violence did, nonetheless, focus on a “visual and physical experience” of gaming.

The development resonate with a very critical and current debate around the violence of video games and whether they desensitise users to the reality of violence – if game engines can be modelled around the softer aspects of human emotions, what will this do to the landscape of game use and human behaviour? e.g. ‘Facade’ is a game which “integrates A Behaviour Language (ABL), a compilable “reactive planning language” based on Hap, a previous computational system for goal-directed activity…” (64) The capabilities of game engines have been limited to date to visual and physical experience- not emotional and interpersonal experience. So, when ‘Half-Life 2’ came out in 2003, the focus was on the improved visual and physical features of the game – “bump mapping, particle effects, fresnel effects, and volumetric effects” – but why is the focus on appearance not interaction? “social representation is weak in games”?

Games such as Half-Life 2 are videogames that represent and imitate reality, perhaps to the extent that developers aspired to create something that was more fine tuned and ‘real’ than reality itself. The process seems almost mimetic. 

Mimesis is a form of realism based on imitation and mimicry, which shows rather than tells, in contrast to Classical diegesis. Auerbach marshalled the shifting forms of mimesis throughout the time and literature in the publication ‘Mimesis: ’ . He cites examples from the twice removed reality of Homer’s Odyssey to Virginia Woolf’s modernist techniques. The mode becomes a historicist approach to reading, in claiming that each historical era has its own techniques and methods of representing reality. Videogames fit into this mode.

Interestingly, it was Adorno who claimed mimesis as a philosophical term which characterised works of art as embodying a form of reason which was non-repressive and non-violent. This seems rather a contradiction in terms when we apply this to video games; Can you be an active player without these violent strategies? Is it non-violence which makes a user passive?

Following from these points, could it be argued that video games demand a theatrical time and space? Could they be considered a form of performance art?

As opposed to the optic visuality and conventional object-subject divide between staged spectacle and spectator, video games operate in a similar way to late modern performance art. In various forms of performance art (especially body art and immersive theatre), this object-subject divide is replaced by an ‘intersubjectivity’ which requires meaning and response to be formed somewhere between the objet d’art and the viewer. This ‘intersubjectivity’ requires the audience to actively participate in the performance, whether this be through strategy and selection, or in a ‘haptic visuality’ in which acts of seeing are experienced in process throughout the whole body. ‘Intersubjectivity’, significantly, also renders user/viewer violence and de-individuation more possible. Take, for instance, the example of the Czech performance artist Marina Abramovic in the 1974 piece ‘Rhythm 0’, which presents nothing to the audience but a room in which is stationed the nude, dehumanised body of the artist and a table of implements ranging from feathers to the menace of knives and rope:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/71952791″>Marina Abramovic on Rhythm 0 (1974)</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user14778569″>Marina Abramovic Institute</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

PART II:  The material, the intangible and rhetoric in video games

It is my understanding that videogames differ from film, literature, and theatre, in that all videogames are what I am pleased to call ‘twice written’ – or, in other words, games are always read in translation: the translation from code to user-interface (whether that be analog-stick gamepad, arcade machine, or touchscreen). Videogames share this character with hypertext. The significance of this difference is that as students of the English and Film department we are all able to understand the forms from which a poem arises and the techniques by which a film is produced to some extent whereas the richness of programming language and code is a thoroughly alien domain.
-As a side note, theatre can also be called ‘twice written’ in that it exists both on paper and on stage, both in the record of its performance (whether that be video, print, or audio recording) and in the performance itself. However, it is not in the same class as videogame and hypertext because we still have access to both ‘texts’ of theatre or rather, we are literate in studying both the print text and the performed text of theatre.

The effect of this difference is that we, as students with an interest in critical analysis and reading, are incapable of reading beyond the ‘second text’ of the videogame or hypertext: ie. we only possess the literacy necessary to read the game or hypertext as it appears to us via the screen, speaker, controller and keyboard. This is equivalent to performing a reading of, for example Shakespeare’s sonnets without an understanding of the sonnet form or any other conventions of poetry. This absent knowledge does not reduce one’s ability to appreciate the beauty or artistry of the poetry. In fact it is perfectly possible that in reading multiple sonnets in this manner, the critical eye may conclude that there is a common form between the poems which consists of a certain rhyme scheme and line structure which is usurped in example X to effect Y. In the same way, playing two or three videogames within the same genre may lead one to understand that the games share certain commonalities in, for example their physics engine and therefore the same coding for certain actions. In both of the examples above, the reader may come to the conclusion that there is a commonality between poems in the sonnet form, and the code of videogames in the same genre. However, without prior knowledge of the existence of the form called “sonnet”, or a prior understanding of and access to the code of the videogame itself, these finding remain simply interpretations in the same way that I can observe a monkey has a similar shape to a human and interpret that we have a common ancestor, but without a genome map and method for reading DNA cannot call my hypothesis completely legitimate or proven.

The difference between videogames and literature, film, and theatre, thus becomes a matter of depth of reading. Where forms, tropes, and genres in film, literature, and theatre are relatively well understood by-and-large, code remains inscrutable expert knowledge to most of us and thus our readings can only ever engage with the practice of reading videogames and hypertexts. What I mean by this is that a reading of poetry can deal just as much with the practice of writing the poetry as much as the practice of reading it; can analyse its provenance just as well as its end effect as text on reader, and can deal with the interplay between the two readings. For a videogame, we may praise the precision and beauty of its textures and visual presentation or the ease-of-play engendered by an innovative control-scheme and the ‘tight feel’ of motion and physics in the game, but without an understanding of code, we can never critically study the practice of writing such a text, only interpret how we, as consumers read the text. The same, I feel, goes for the hypertext form. I will here posit the hypothesis that this deficit can and probably will be eroded by the passage of time. Given that it is almost inconceivable to go through a day without using a digital interface of some sort, I suggest that it will become increasingly imperative for future generations to become literate in the languages of programming. It is my guess that those born into a world where daily life is inseparable from the digital will naturally and progressively develop greater and deeper interests in programming through the simple necessity of becoming effectively illiterate otherwise. As one of the last generations that can remember a time where life was entirely analogue, it may be the case that by the time my generation is all dead, those illiterate in programming will have died with us.

However, I have so far only answered half of the question. Given that I have established above my interpretation of the difference between ‘analogue forms’ (film [though film will likely become increasingly less analogue], literature, theatre), and ‘digital forms’ (hypertext and videogame), what is left to distinguish videogame amongst all other digital forms?

What Ian Bogost suggests is “procedural rhetoric” as mode which is unique to the videogame and distinguishes is from the broader category of hypertext.

For Bogost, the “procedure” (which is not to be confused with the more specific use of the term in computing or programming) is a single law or rule written into the code of a ‘game world’. For instance; “blocks fall at rate 1 distance unit per second” to describe the falling of blocks in Tetris, or “objects react to impacts according to equation Ft = m(v-u) [Impulse = Change in Momentum]” to describe the collisions between objects in physics engines.

Combinations of procedures produce a “unit operation”, a coherent ruleset for a certain function in the game. For example the combination of the procedures; “ball moves at constant velocity one distance unit per second” + “objects react to impacts according to Ft = m(v-u)” + “Momentum is conserved” + “Friction is zero” could govern the movement of the ball in rudimentary tennis simulation Pong and could also form the basic laws of physics for any object in motion in this particular game. Furthermore, Bogost illustrates that such ‘unit operations’ are “fungible”, or infinitely substitutable into and out of other game worlds. Indeed, the same laws of physics could be used in any other simple tennis-based game imaginable. With alterations to the values of “friction” and an addition of a procedure for “acceleration” or “spin” for example, a much more complex physics engine could be produced based upon the same original unit operation.

In turn, combinations of unit operations form an “operation logic”, or a complete set of coherent rules which comprise the logic and function of the videogame. In a game such as Pong, that can be as simple as the unit operation to govern the movement and physics of the ball, the unit operation to govern the player’s control of their paddle, and the unit operation to govern the AI opponent’s paddle. In more advanced videogames such as “Battlefield”, for example, the complete operational logics of the game have to combine unit operations such as the effect of gravity on a bullet’s flight path, the fragmentation of environment when that ‘bullet’ strikes a destructible surface, the visual and auditory effects of that impact, the visual and auditory feedback from firing the shot itself, the effect of the bullet on an opponent’s ‘Health’ rating etc etc. The complete operation logic of a game engine is what the current iteration of the Battlefield series might call “the Frostbite Engine” or “Frostbite 3”. In accordance with Bogost the engine is fully fungible, and the laws of the Frostbite 3 govern the physics and visual and auditory representations of a number of videogames.

So much for procedures, what of rhetoric? Rhetoric in the classical period is the art of presenting an argument or a set of logics, in short, persuasion. In the more Poststructural sense, rhetoric comprises the logical construction of lexis within an unstable linguistic space of interpretation. Taken together, I understand and interpret rhetoric as the understanding of the logic of lexical/grammatical units, or the construction of logic itself from the otherwise disparate loci of syntax.

Therefore, it is my understanding that Bogost’s “procedural rhetoric” is the understanding of the logical unity within the procedures and operational logics of a game engine and furthermore, an interpretation and presentation of an argument within the possibility space of that game engine.

It is Bogost’s argument that only videogames have the persuasive power of procedural rhetoric, that is, through presenting the player with a series of choices with given sets of consequences within the logical framework of the game engine, the ability to properly engage the player in a fully persuasive argument from start to finish. Of course, not all games have a persuasive or didactic purpose. The only action-consequence mechanic of the videogame Pong is that consistently striking the ball leads to victory and consistently failing to do so leads to defeat. However, Bogost’s suggestion is that all videogames have the potential for engaging a completely persuasive argument, not that all of them do. Indeed, to use Pong again as an example, in some senses it has performed a completely persuasive argument through exposing the player to the logics of its procedures. If Pong’s overall ‘argument’ is that “to miss the ball is to lose”, it cannot but succeed to persuade the player of this truth; Pong’s rhetoric leaves no other alternative.

Any attempt to defy Pong’s argument is to lose the game and while it may be considered a valid game-experience to sit and allow the ball to ricochet around the screen without moving your paddle, one can hardly be said to be playing the game. Even to intentionally move the paddle in order to avoid the ball is not, in my consideration ‘playing the game’. Even though it is an action permitted within the game’s possibility space, that practice forwards no counter-rhetoric to the game’s argument. The end result is still defeat. What is more interesting to me (and, I think, to Bogost) are games wherein the possibility space of the engine allows what the Poststructuralists such as Derrida and Barthes might call Jouissance or Jouissant play. I interpret Jouissant play to mean practice within the confines of the game engine which defies its argument, which produces counter arguments, which is transgressive. If the ultimate argument of the Frostbite Engine in Battlefield 3, for example, is that “to kill enemies indiscriminately is to win”, can I complete the game without ever firing an indiscriminate shot? If the typical dating sim game’s rhetoric suggests that “you must make choice X to please your prospective other half” is there another rhetorical path where I may make choice Y and still succeed? What the highest power of videogames’ procedural rhetoric here is, is to subject the player to its logics; the player cannot play the game without being subordinate to the logic of the game engine. If within that engine, the game can create a possibility space for true free play, for deviation, transgression, for argumentation, for dispute, and for rebuttal, then the player is cannot fail to understand, through the procedural rhetoric of the game, the counter arguments the game puts to itself. In this sense there is no more powerful rhetorical tool than the videogame and no more rhetorically powerful text than the videogame. As to whether all the arguments forwarded by videogames are worth paying heed to, is another discussion entirely.

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