Mark Wolf and Bernard Perron: The Video Game Theory Reader

[Readings] (02.04.09, 8:30 pm)

Originally published in 2003, the Video Game Theory Reader chiefly aims to examine games as a medium. The chapters each contain the work of scholars examining games in the light of criticism, looking at what games have the potential to do, and how they can be understood as artistic works. The book opens with Warren Robinett describing his role in the creation of Atari’s game Adventure. To set the tone for the rest of the reader, Robinett compares the practice of creating games to other artistic practices, and goes on to describe the difficulty with which he managed to write his name in the game. Though it is not a major feature of his introduction, the idea of authorship is central to the understanding of games as artifacts. In the Atari days, games were consumer products, and the actual creators of the games were not given credit as a matter of policy. Their names were not in the credits, on the box, in the manual, anywhere. One of Robinett’s proud achievements was the sneaking of his signature into a secret room in the game.

There have been many turning points in the development of games, but this marks one of the early ones, where the game is considered an authored work. This is a long way off from being an artistic work, but it is the first of many steps to that direction. I do not want to stress the role of authorship as the end-all of artistry. The idea of the single hand of the artist shaping a work is markedly false, especially as pertains to film, television, and games, which are the result of so much creation and collaborative energy. However, in considering authorship, whether it is in a decision regarding a whole work or a small piece of it, the hand of any author implies intention, which is the first step in artistic expression of any kind.

Walter Holland, Henry Jenkins, and Kurt Squire: Theory by Design

The opening questions in this chapter are: What is theory for video games? What should it do? Who conducts theory? Theory and practice feed into one another and form a braid whereby each is improved by the other’s influence. The authors explain that theory is inescapable regarding any given practice, that no matter what activity is practiced, theory can be built around it. An argument to this effect necessarily demands some questions of what theory is and what it does. The authors borrow from Thomas McLaughlin and explain that theory is a sense of the premises and ideals that go into any given practice.

To examine the ideals and premises of games, the authors apply their discussion to the “Games-to-Teach Project” at MIT. This is pedagogically oriented and is intended to occur at an intersection of games, education, as well as the subjects being taught, namely math, science, and engineering. The role of games in education is well supported. Students learn by manipulating things with rules: playing, rather than being explicitly instructed. The process of designing these games is explained as a way of looking at and approaching theory. Design considers conceptual questions but addresses them through concrete solutions. The process of design is thus an approach that exists in between theory and practice.

Mark J. P. Wolf: Abstraction in the Video Game

This chapter explores the role of games between the conflict of abstraction and representation. Abstraction is the opposite of representation. The goal of abstraction is to simplify rather than reproduce. Traditional artistic media (for instance, painting and photography) aim to reproduce in detail their subjects, representing them. Early games have tended to do the opposite, simplifying instead of reproducing. The early games generally described come from the Atari era, where abstraction was a necessity and a constraint of the medium. Later games, bolstered by technology, have worked toward reproduction more and more, gradually moving in the direction of photorealism. This movement is sometimes justified as necessary to build credence of games as artistic artifacts, because they are capable of producing aesthetic images.

Wolf’s essay focuses on the visual elements in games, but abstraction has heavy value within the space of interaction, especially in simulation. Abstraction focues on action and enables interaction, providing clear means for grappling with the material. A player’s engagement with a game is abstracted, necessarily, but the channels and limitations of whatever device is used (joystick, controller, mouse and keyboard, etc), which restrict the range of the player’s interactive choices. This is a severe form of abstraction, as compared to normal human engagement with objects, where we can make use of many senses, all embodied. Abstraction and representation are key words to consider in terms of simulations, because a simulation can be intended to be highly representative and numerically accurate (such as in scientific simulations) where thousands of variables are under consideration, or it can be a severe abstraction where only a few variables are considered.

History has shown that neither photorealism nor a complex simulation make a game better on their own (though realistic games do often, but not invariably, enjoy financial success). Instead, a reasonable takeaway from this is that abstraction and representation are tools to be used to create meaning in the development of games.

Gonzalo Frasca: Simulation versus Narrative: an Introduction to Ludology

In this provocatively titled essay, Gonzalo Frasca aims to compare two ways of looking at games. The first way is the “traditional” approach, which is the usual straw man, is embodied in Brenda Laurel and Janet Murray, who are said to consider games as extensions of drama and narrative. The alternative is the ludological perspective, which is a formalist approach to looking at games, focusing on the structure and elements of games, specifically their rules. Often, this approach comes across as combative, primarily oriented towards dethroning the narrativist occupation of game studies, but Frasca considers this to be missing the point.

Simulation is posed as an alternative to representation (which is embodied by film and narrative). Frasca gives a definition for simulation from Videogames of the Oppressed: “to simulate is to model a (source) system through a different system which maintains (for somebody) some of the behaviors of the original system.” (p. 223) The emphasis of this definition is meant to be on behavior, but I find myself focusing on the parenthetical “for somebody”, which asserts that the simulation means something to someone. Frasca argues that traditional media is representational, which depicts and reproduces something. The example he gives is “A photograph of a plane will tell us information about its shape and color, but it will not fly or crash when manipulated.” (p. 223) I find this to be problematic. This suggests that representations dwell only on surface information, such as color, maybe sound or movement (on film), but nothing more. However, the process of interpretation involves much more in terms of the reader understanding cause and effect, and reading patterns, motivations, and many other configurative elements. An image may be static, but narratives necessarily convey worlds as systems, beyond depictions. Frasca’s examples of the affordances of simulation dwell on manipulation and interactivity, which is a feature obviously missing from traditional media. However, there is nothing in Frasca’s definition that suggests that a simulation must be interactive. Indeed, scientific simulations are usually noninteractive. Simulations may be configured, by giving them initial conditions which affects their outcomes, but this markedly weakens the argument that Frasca is making.

I do not mean to claim that games and narrative are the same things, of course, but I want to emphasize that both games and traditional media are are not distinguished by clear cut differences along the lines of simulation and representation. Games may be highly representative and have very little simulation, or the simulated elements of a game may have little to do with the represented elements. Texts (usually of the modern variety) may be labyrinthine, unconventionally posed and, while static, the meaning derived from them will be different depending on the point at which the reader entered the text. What all of these share is a systemic dimension, where the artifact abides by certain rules, and the audience/reader/player has certain codes for understanding the way in which those rules are used. Systemic does not imply simulation, but neither does the word game.

The challenge posed by simulation to narrative (in the traditional sense), is volatility. In writing, fate and outcome must be fixed. Simulation threatens the authorial role of fate. Introducing elements of simulation into a work increases the freedom of the player or audience, while limiting the range of control of the author. The author still has the final say, but must necessarily give up some control. The example given is Emile Zola’s Germinal, which is about striking workers in Northern France. This work is about the conditions of labor, and is meant to communicate something about social justice, among other things. The narrative rhetoric relies on using the ending to help convey the message of the work. In writing, though, Zola was faced with two options. The workers must either win or lose. In trying to convey the delicate balance at stake, an author could write several different stories which play out differently and contain different endings. Frasca’s alternative is to develop a simulation where the ending is dependent on the player’s actions. This can be contested on the grounds that maybe the ending is not supposed to be different, but this option is still supported by Frasca’s idea. A simulation could allow the player a variety of choices, but the ultimate conclusion despite those choices may be the same. Such a game would still be powerful and meaningful, indicative of social problems and suggesting that the only way to change the outcome would be to change the rules, a powerful and perfectly worthwhile rhetorical message.

Frasca compares Aristotelian drama with Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. Simulation takes away the narrative power of causality. Frasca claims that narrative authors must train their stories so that they will “perform in an almost predictable way”. Whereas simulations follow rules and may operate flexibly outside of the rigid path to which narrative is constrained. I find this argument difficult, because of two reasons: interpretations are unpredictable (though they are outside of the domain of the author, like other forms of interaction), but also because games and some simulations may be totally predictable. This does not challenge explicitly Frasca’s argument, but reveals that authorship of a simulation is a skill and meaning does not come for free.

Finally, Frasca gives four levels for thinking about the ideology of games and simulation. These derive from the way that rules are used and what kind of play is enabled. The types of play are given as Paidia and Ludus (from Callois), where the former represents unstructured play, and the latter represents play with explicit goals. The four levels are useful for considering the way of thinking about the meaning and values of simulation.

  1. Representation. This is given as a kind of concession, because games and simulations must necessarily represent something, referencing something in order for the the simulated world to be meaningful in its context.
  2. Manipulation. This is how the player affects and manipulates the simulation, which may express what the kinds of possibilities there are in the simulation, or the shape of its state space.
  3. Goals. This is particular to games, and not simulations. Goals are a means for the author to explicitly embed an objective for the player, who may manipulate and play so much as he or she chooses, but will not “win” until the goals are met. It is important to remember that the author of a simulation may encode different, contradictory goals, ironic goals, or simply no goals whatsoever.
  4. Meta-rules. This is the means by which the simulation can be extended or modified. This encodes not only what is possible to do within the game, but allows users to modify the rules of the game or simulation itself, such as by publishing source code or APIs. This is bound by rules in the sense that only certain parts may be “opened up”, while others would remain closed.

This last list of elements is extremely helpful for thinking about authorial values within simulations.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorWolf, Mark and Perron, Bernard
TitleGame Theory Reader
Tagssimulation, games, narrative, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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