Sep 072011

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.

A classic Staunton Chess SetNow 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.

Simon imagines his game as a crusade against narratology.

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.

A screenshot of pychess.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].

  One Response to “A Tale of Two Chesses”

  1. Wow, amazing. I never thought of this! I guess I don’t really edit videos in premiere or paint pictures in photoshop, I just tell myself a story that I do! I don’t really do my taxes or type up essays on my computer, it’s just a representation of real taxes or real essays on paper!

    Video games aren’t substantially formally different than analog games. Software is substantially formally different than physical objects. Chess is a game that uses pieces to represent game states, which is equally true for the physical object and the digital equivalent. Both are just means of representation. The rules of chess don’t change if you play with a physical chess board, an electronic chessboard, or a list of moves and positions written out on paper. There are legal moves, there are illegal moves, and whatever you use for the game of chess is ultimately a representation of the game state, regardless of the medium.

    A game of soccer and a hypothetical perfect holodeck recreation of soccer or mental uplink version of soccer are the exact same game, representation or nonrepresentation of the tools used to play it are not a factor. There is no fictionalized narrative about what you do in the game. If you move the ball object into the goal, you move the ball object into the goal, there is no fiction there. If I draw a line in photoshop, I draw a line in photoshop. That is not a fiction. If I transfer my money from one bank account to another online, I have in fact transferred money from one bank account to another. If I click on a link on a website to go to youtube then watch a video there, I have done exactly as mentioned. It is actually a video, and that link which takes me from one site to another is actually a link. It’s not a representation of a “real” video or a representation of a “real” link (whatever one might interpret that to be).

    Games using terminology like, “[I] [jumped] [over] the [goomba]“ isn’t participation in a fiction. It is using the appropriate verbs and nouns with regards to the situation at hand. It’s no more fiction than saying, “[I] [swerved] [around] the [bend]” unless you’re telling me I’m just telling myself a story that my car skidded on the concrete in a tight turn with regards to the bend in the road, I didn’t actually swerve, much like a video game player, I just manipulated the car’s controller, the steering wheel and pedals to produce an outcome. Or to pull another digital analogy, that “[I] [messaged] [my] [friend] [through] [skype]” or “[talked] to” is another story I’m telling myself. I’m pretty clearly moving my game piece, mario, over the object labeled as a goomba, as clearly as I move my piece along in the game candyland.

    The only way I can see you even coming to an absurd conclusion like this “digital games have their players telling themselves a story of what they did” type of thing is if you believe gamers are deluding themselves into thinking they’re actually moving an italian plumber over a mushroom monster, which is patently ridiculous. I don’t think anyone accepts that fiction regardless of how immersive a game is, we still know that objects in a game are programmed objects with programmed functions, as much as we know a scissor is a manufactured object with manufactured functions. Beyond that actually moving an italian plumber over a mushroom monster, under the assumption that the two did exist in our world and there was a game where you literally become an italian plumber, would be a vastly different game than super mario brothers, because the two do not actually share the same rules, which is why digital soccer is a different game than real soccer, but digital chess is the same game as real chess, and I had to go to the lengths of describing a holodeck soccer.

    If we want to take from your netbook example, then when I play my friends in fighting games I’m not actually doing the same thing they are, because I happen to use a standard PS3 controller where they use fightsticks. This is obviously absurd, a difference of input method doesn’t mean both players are suddenly playing different games or that there is some fundamental difference between the two. Tom in your example isn’t telling himself a story that he’s playing chess, nor is simon. Chess isn’t moving pieces, it is the set of rules that comprise legal moves and the consequences of them. Soccer is the set of rules that comprise legal moves and the consequences of them, and that includes the effects of the laws of physics on the ball and yourself, as much as the laws of physics in a video game are the rules of the game. To bother drawing a distinction here is pointless, it is much easier to simply say that there are games more easily created using one medium or the other. Street Fighter is an invention of digital technology exclusively, and could not exist as a game in the state it is otherwise. The sport of Boxing is similar using analog means. Chess just happens to be a game that can be represented in analog or digital, largely in part due to the lack of a timing component.

    Just because there are different physical actions involved in one task versus another doesn’t make one a representation and the other the actual thing. Both are things you actually do. Playing [video] games doesn’t mean playing pretend.

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