If I throw a ball at you I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories.
—Marku Eskelinen “The Gaming Situation” Game Studies 1(1) 2001.
That’s true, but it begs the question: is a videogame like a ball?
If we intend to interpret videogames entirely in terms of rules and mechanics then obviously we ought to model our study off the long tradition of analog games. In correspondence on the subject of videogame criticism published by Paste Magazine, Simon Ferrari explicitly framed his discussion with Tom Bissell in this way, pointing the long history of studies of traditional games and asking, “Do you think that videogames are substantially formally different from analog games?” Bissell doesn’t directly answer, but I think something can be said on this point. A salient difference, one that speaks to Eskelinen’s ball, is that videogames are representational.
Now if I say “videogame” and you think of an FPS or RPG, this will sound like an utterly trivial thing to say, but I intend to encompass more than games where you slay virtual people with mouse clicks or button presses. Videogames use their audiovisual context to imbue abstract acts with meaning, even when those games include nothing like a “digital actor”.
To illustrate my point, let’s imagine that I have invited Tom and Simon to come to my school to play a game of chess against an AI intended to mimic the skill of a normal human player. Alas, I am an inveterate liar. When Tom arrives, I seat him in front of a computer displaying a typical chess interface. When Simon arrives, I take him to a different room with a normal chess board and pull out my netbook. As Tom moves, I reproduce his actions on the physical chessboard, and as Simon moves I type his actions into my netbook so that they are reproduced on the chessboard that Tom is seeing. So, Simon and Tom are playing the same game, but what they’re actually doing is quite different.
Suppose that Simon takes Tom’s knight with his queen. This involves making a particular set of motions with a group of physical objects in accordance with some set of rules. It’s intellectually complicated, but it doesn’t require Simon to interpret the objects he senses as anything other than they are. He can, if he wishes, imagine that the pieces represent the courtly or military entities their names suggest, or even go further afield and pretend that they represent famous chefs, so that the action represents Julia Child’s triumph over Wylie Dufresne at a contest of pommes dauphine. However, nothing about the game or the situation obliges him to contextualize his actions in this manner.
In Tom’s next move, he takes Simon’s queen using his own bishop. This involves making a gesture with a mouse, one that correlates with the positions of certain colored pixels on a screen. For Tom, there are no pieces, there is no board, and there is no such thing as moving his pieces on the board. Rather, there is an abstract action represented in this way.
Trivially, the image on the computer screen represents a real, physical board somewhere else, but Tom’s experience would be representational even if he and Simon were playing a normal game of computerized chess over the internet, in which case there would be no physical board to represent at all. It is not merely the interpolation of the screen that matters: representationalism results from the fact that the objects that define the state of a videogame are the states of memory components and processor outputs. Human beings have no ability whatsoever to interpret the real objects they are dealing with, so every game experience taking place on a computer must be mediated by representations.
Even though chess is not representational, videogame chess is, because the player never actually moves a piece on a board. Rather, he makes a mouse gesture (for instance) that represents moving a representation of a chess piece that is in a relationship representing “on-ness” to a representation of a chess board. Simon’s game of chess is something he is doing, and Tom’s game of chess is a story he is telling himself about what he is doing, even though they are the same game of chess.
Playing a videogame is a hybrid experience, in which what we say about what are doing or have done is both true, in that the game-state changed in particular ways, and fictional, in that the objects and actions we perceive differ from the objects and actions actually involved. This is most evident in games that have obvious fictional trappings (e.g. “[I] [jumped] [over] the [goomba]”), but is also true of games that appear to have no associated fiction at all (“I [moved] the [pawn] [to] [E4]”). In playing a videogame, the player participates in the creation of a fictional narrative about what he is doing. Playing a videogame is not like playing with a ball; it is like pretending that you are playing with a ball, and that implies a story. So, videogame stories matter because videogames are always stories.
When I say “story” in this connection, however, I am not using it in a sense that would apply in discussing the plot of a film or a book. The story of a videogame is the story of the player’s interaction with its systems and content. In this sense, Eskelinen’s statement is apt. The ball does not tell a story; the player creates a story with the [ball].