The Oxford English Dictionary defines a video game as “a game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a television screen or other display screen.” This definition, while technically correct, lacks a more thorough definition of the video game as a medium rather than simply a form of interaction. Games themselves, video or not, are about the interaction and experience with “the subject as a system of rules” (Anthropy, 3), much as a painting or a photograph is about experiencing the subject as an image rather than as a corporeal thing or scene.
Marshall McLuhan writes, “Games are popular art, collective, social reactions to the main drive or action of any culture” (McLuhan, 235). Video games are the same, although they often manifest in higher narrative form and immersion than board games or sporting events. In his famous aphorism “the medium is the message,” McLuhan reinforces the idea that the actions and effects of media rather than the content of these media are what affect cultures the most. In doing so, however, he ignores that the contents of media are what the creators want to convey. The video game in particular is fraught with artist decisions, from the controls and inputs to the genre of game. Any narrative fantasy, action, slice-of-life, etc) told is also integrated with the gameplay itself, conveying a story or message to the reader similarly to forms of narrative in other media, while games with a lack of narrative such as Tetris are “abstract” and the experience is “limited to the experience of the system itself” (Bogost, 15).
The video game is a relatively new genre. The first known game on an electronic platform was a computerized version of “Tic-Tac-Toe named Noughts and Crosses” (Egenfeldt-Nessen, 50), though this was limited to the computer it had been built on. In 1962, Spacewar was programmed, and was the first known video game to “adhere to programming standards” (Egenfeldt-Nesse, 51), so it could be played on computers other than the unique machine it had been built on.
In 1970, Atari released Computer Space, inspired by Spacewar. This was one of the world’s first arcade games, though it was unsuccessful, as “the game’s controls were hard to master, creating a learning curve too steep for new players” (Egenfeldt-Nessen, 54). The Magnavox Odyssey (1972) was one of the first commercial home consoles to be sold, focusing on using a light-sensitive system. The Odyssey required the player to physically overlay a plastic sheet over the TV to simulate its graphics, although all that the player controlled was a small block of light that they could shift across the screen. The games on the Odyssey included sports simulations, safari “shooting” games, and geography quizzes, all games that focused on the actions of the player for no reason other than to win. The following year, Atari released Pong, originally meant to be a warm-up exercise for the programmer. Pong was a more complex version of the ping-pong game released on the Magnavox Odyssey, and was sold as an arcade game before it was released on a home console as Home Pong.
Early video games were short and based on goal-oriented, real-time action, focusing on the inputs of the player in a controlled, tactile environment. The 1970’s also brought forth procedural text-based adventure games. The player would input text commands with a keyboard while navigating through a semi-linear story with branching paths—essentially, a choose-your-own-adventure game, sans the need for turning pages. Rather than using eye-catching graphics like the arcade games before them, these games were entirely text: input text, output text. Games like Adventure (1976) used more natural inputs, such as “examine building”, which would then return some text about a nearby building.
As technology improved, games that crossed genres became more and more common. Games like Donkey Kong and Mario Bros had both action and narrative, while Pacman was one of the first video games with an identifiable main character. With the creation of 3D gaming platforms, the player could have more aesthetically realistic experiences. Today, many video games “focus on realistically stimulating experiences” (Bogost, 17). The realistic design and stimulation reflects not only changing technologies, but changing experiences as well. Large, high-budget video game titles have evolved to reflect the high-definition output of television, music, and interactive technologies.
The video game itself is a mishmash of video, art, and sound multimedia—and much like cinema, conveys to its reader or viewer its fullness in stimulation. They are hot media in their completeness, but cool in the added requirement of interaction. Without the player, the video game has nowhere to go. It sits, stagnant, without progress toward the final goal that games often possess. Mario cannot save the princess if the player does not control his movements; the screen of Tetris will not stack itself accordingly if the player does not manipulate the blocks; the Origami Killer will not be apprehended if the player passively sits through the quicktime events. Despite the need for games to have a player, the player is also not often brought into the world of the game as the “player”. They are immersed in the world of the game as an avatar with limited knowledge and limited capabilities, while “the gamer [is] an invisible, purposefully compromised presence in the game world” (Bissell 19). The game as a system of rules also prevents the player from breaking out of this position. In Resident Evil, for example, the player is forced into certain perspectives as they enter different rooms. These perspectives often hide enemies so that the only warning the player has before they run into them are shuffling moans and groans.
In essence, the video game is millions of lines of code wrapped in aesthetics, sound, and action that set rules for the player. These rules are indisputable. They cannot be tweaked for the player without changing settings (which they then must be given the option of) or breaking into the code of the video game and altering these rules directly. This alteration cannot be done arbitrarily and still create a functioning video game; a knowledge of the coding language is also necessary.
Video games are about tactility and rules rather than simply being an interactive mixture of various media. The most physically influential part of the video game lies in its hardware. The player usually manipulates something physical, such as a joystick or a series of buttons or keys, in order to interact with the images on the screen. This externality is evident in its necessity—video games are often inherently tactile, a visceral interaction with a piece of hardware that conveys its message to the software. In this way, the video game is an extension of the body as McLuhan suggested, lending itself a physical understanding of the world inside the video game. Although games that require other interaction in lieu of touch (such as voice-commands) exist, they are few and far between; physical interaction is the standard.
Some game systems utilize this tactility to the maximum. The Nintendo Wii, for example, requires the player to manipulate not only buttons on the remote, but also to swing and shake their arms in order to control the character or complete actions within the game. These actions usually correspond to actions the actual character must do. In games such as The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, the player swings the Wii-mote to make the main character swing his sword. In Cooking Mama, the player wiggles the Wii-mote to stir or brings it slowly down to peel a carrot, simulating real movement.
Other games minimize their controls, dissecting parts of reality in separate buttons and keystrokes while still maintaining a necessity for precision in these movements. In QWOP, the player uses the Q and W keys on the keyboard to move the runner’s thighs, while the O and P keys correspond to the calves. While running with the corporeal, flesh-and-bone body, the runner does not think to move calf and thigh separately; the leg is its own extension of the body, moving as a whole part to take a step or run forward. QWOP forces the player to confront them as independent areas to be moved. Similarly, Surgeon Simulator relegates each finger on the left hand to an independent keystroke on the keyboard: A for the pinky, F for the index finger, and the spacebar for the thumb. These controls are more natural, but the right hand must simultaneously control the movement of the very left hand, another alienation of the correspondence of body to control. The result is a clunky, awkward movement of this supposed extension of the body.
The way to beat these games, then, is to leave behind the notion of simulating reality. If one ignores the O and P keys in QWOP and controls the runner by simply tapping Q and W alternatively in order to drag the runner forward in small increments, QWOP becomes beatable without requiring a particular understanding of how to quickly move the runner forward in a mimicry of running. In Surgeon Simulator, disregarding the saw for the hammer not only quickly breaks the ribs to access the heart, but also minimizes blood loss and is more forgiving toward the player’s movements.
Seemingly realistic or predictable games call for the player to challenge the constraints and rules of the game world. Video games call for the player to “temporarily interrupt and set aside ordinary life” (Bogost, 117), whether for a realistic game or a more abstract one. Games that do not break apart the player’s bodily actions offer the player a break from reality, often taking them to fantasy worlds such as that in the Elder Scrolls series, or captivating narratives like that of Gone Home. Video games like this are fantasies in their separation of the real world from the virtual; they can be seen as an interactive escape from reality. Consequently, games like QWOP and Surgeon Simulator that force the player to confront their physical bodies through awkward simulation interrupt the fluidity of the body through technology. These games are frequently frustrating interventions of the medium’s hardware and software limitations that remind the player that they are, in fact, playing a video game rather than a simulation of ordinary reality.
In video games, if the game itself should suddenly adhere to different rules, the controls generally are not altered throughout the game. Rather, it is only that new mechanics are introduced. In Braid, a puzzle platformer, the main function is the player’s ability to rewind time. At first, the player is only introduced to this mechanic as a way to redo an otherwise fatal jump or action rather than start over from the beginning of the level. Later, the game introduces items that are not affected by the rewinding of time, a ring that slows only the time around it, and a shadow self that appears and interacts with the world identically to the player in the last iteration of play before their rewinding. In games such as Final Fantasy X, the characters do not have increasingly difficult maneuvers for their actions, but rather more skills that come at the cost of more magic points.
Rather, the system—the rules of the game—is what the player truly interacts with. In games like QWOP, the system is the keys, or rather the individual thighs calves that each key corresponds to. The game does not respond to other keys; pressing G or M does nothing. Likewise, in Persona 3, a game of over 70 hours of trawling the same dungeons and speaking to the same classmates, you never gain the ability to jump or run faster than you are able to at the start. The rules are hard-coded, inherent, and only circumventable if there are glitches in the code or the code is changed entirely. The game becomes more difficult because it begins to require more skill—“[interaction] with rich and complex systems with grace and finesse” (Anthropy, 54). The necessity of skill asks the player to not only play the game, but practice at it, whether it is becoming good at timing jumps, being able to make flawless headshots so as not to waste precious ammunition, making fewer missteps, or juggling the increasing load of tasks the game gives them as they advance.
But like any media, players are at liberty to change these games. Multiple hacks of games like Super Mario Brothers exist online, all different iterations of the same games in which items are replaced, controls are altered, or everything is taken away entirely. Speedrunners can play the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, usually a 30 hour game, in under 20 minutes by exploiting what they call “sequence breaks”—the normally linear gameplay is altered to skip chunks entirely due to the way the software is structured. Now the narrative is not the focus; the goal, the game, is about altering the system of rules.
— Rosaley Gai
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