Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fun & Games, Pt. 1

There have been quite a few spats of late over what is or is not a "video game", or "game". As video games and the software engines governing their behavior have grown ever more complex, the diversity of creations that have sought shelter under the "game" banner has ballooned, arguably to some kind of critical mass. Attempts have been made by many a theorist to detangle this mess and bring about some kind of descriptive classification, but strangely their efforts have been met with a fair amount of resistance.

Some choose to take exception to the choice of words given to specific concepts, becoming hung up on the baggage of some terms' more colloquial usages. Others refuse to listen to any critique in the fear that a critical or analytical approach might destroy a game's "fun" like tugging on the ends of a slipknot. What follows is an extremely basic and simplified illustration of a particular model of hierarchy, cobbled together from the ideas of more respected theorists.

Juul's Rules - For Your Health - Check It Out!
Let's begin with three fairly simple definitions, phrased as unambiguously as possible:
  • A "video game" is a work of entertainment that contains various elements of form that can be used to create an overall experience.
  • A "game" is a set of rules with an objective, and is one of the elements that video games often use.
  • A "toy" is something that has rules which govern its use, but does not have an end goal in using it.
A strong example of a game with a structured system and a definite goal is chess. Pieces are moved on a board in an organized fashion, in an effort to capture enemy pieces and eventually checkmate the opponent. A tub of LEGO bricks with no building instructions is primarily a toy. Their use is largely governed by their shape and the capabilities of pieces interlocking, but play is targeted around the investigation of possibilities, rather than a fixed external ruleset.

Is your mind being utterly blown right now?
There's no value judgment between any of these terms; a toy is no better or worse than a game at anything other than providing an objective.  Each has its strengths and its utility; one fosters logic and foresight, the other creativity and exploration. Neither term is in any way an absolute; video games often use elements of both "gameplay" and "toyplay" to entertain the player.

Take any of the sandbox-era Grand Theft Auto games, or the Saint's Row series: both use game elements when you're on a mission with a goal you can either achieve or not achieve, and toy elements when you're having fun knocking down pedestrians or skydiving from the world ceiling. Both coexist in the same world modeled by the physics engine and take input from the player, obeying rules of "possible" or "impossible" in-game actions.

Of course those systems can be abused...

Single video games can contain multiple "games" within them as well inside the same modeled world. The coding in World of Warcraft, for example, never changes, so all those games inside it have something in common, but the rules and objectives do change. Some pit you against another player, some pit you against a giant boss with a bunch of friends, some put you in a vehicle with different controls altogether, some involve collecting a certain amount of material, some involve defeating a certain number of enemies.

There just isn't any single definitive "game" that encompasses the whole video game experience that World of Warcraft is. And this is without going into the use of the game's world as a social construct, or a space for exploration, or any other number of uses players have found. Of course, MMOGs where any number of players can concurrently interact in a cooperative and/or social way are a source of many other phenomena beyond this talk of toys and games, but this still remains a relatively clear example of how the three primary terms relate. 

Well, I mean, it was a good run while it lasted, right?
Video games, at their core, are rigid systems; they are what computers can model while they receive input from a user. Either as a game or a toy, the systems which are coded by programmers are essence of any video game, and arguably the root of what makes them compelling. While other elements of video game design like story-writing and sound design and visual aesthetic can (and should) greatly enhance the experience of playing that video game, they are decorative details, and not the strength of the medium.

Video games which deny or poorly express themselves as games or toys are "weak" in the sense that there is likely a better medium for the experience the makers had in mind. A video game like the original Tetris is a marvel of the power of gameplay regardless of visual presentation, whereas a video game like Christine Love's Analog: A Hate Story, whatever one makes of its emotional power, is stiflingly limited in its user input, being more akin to the long-standing traditions of "visual novels" and interactive fiction.

This is what the vanguard of "art games" looks like. Yep.
What then defines a "good game" is that the experience or message the game is meant to convey is accomplished and informed by the use of the rules and systems governing the game. The actions a player takes and the objectives they aim to achieve should relate to whatever the game wishes to impart. Similarly prized is the ability of a player to determine their outcome based on their skill, as opposed to prescribed events or chance. This is considered the "agency" of a player, and carries a direct relationship with that player's investment in the core game.

Many who oppose this viewpoint would have you believe this is an assault on narrative, and that anything more complex in setting or story than, say, Q*Bert is an abomination that must be destroyed. Others would have you believe that those who want to clarify meaning and analyze games on a functional basis are unfeeling automatons hellbent on unraveling and destroying all the "fun" of video games. If either of these characterizations were true, then of course I would deserve nothing less than a sacrificial ritual murder in an abandoned FuncoLand. Thankfully, all I'm doing is providing a somewhat scientific perspective on things.

Anoint him with the blood-red dew of the mount. Fun for the Fun God!
What this perspective allows us to do, however, is get to the root of the problem with many modern design elements. Over-reliance on cutscenes and quick-time events that reduce the player's power to a single button-press or nothing at all. Games that would suggest it's perfectly acceptable to do nothing but work through dialogue trees. Games that promise agency over narrative but then make all those choices functionally insignificant. Games that use their setting and decoration to undermine or even stop the act of playing them. Games that deny their main premise via their gameplay.

All these and more are going to get their fair drubbing… in Part 2!

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