Global gaming networks are heterogenous collectives of localized practices, not unified commercial products. Shifting the analysis of digital games to local specificities that build and perform the global and general, Gaming Rhythms employs ethnographic work conducted in Venezuela and Australia to account for the material experiences of actual game players.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Interactivity and 'Game Studies'

work in progress

What is at stake in identifying and describing this unique form of interactivity allowed by the computer game is the existence of Game Studies as a unique discipline. Establishing the uniqueness of the computer game cybertext has a vital role in marking the break between computer games and other media texts. This consequently highlights the importance of taking a calculatedly different approach to the study and analysis of computer games. This new discipline of Game Studies seeks to analyse and critique computer games on their own terms. In the canonical text of Game Studies Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature Aarseth maintains that computer games need to be understood as games, not as narratives [1]. This approach which focuses on the interactive production of the text defies many of the more orthodox theories of narrative, leading Andrew Darley in Visual Digital Culture: Surface Play and Spectacle in New Digital Genres to argue that the two categories had a reverse reciprocal relationship [2]. In The Medium of the Video Game Mark J. P. Wolf disputes this position, arguing that interactivity rather opens new potentials and possibilities for the notion of narrative [3]. What is certain is that in the study of computer games narrative can no longer be seen as the most important formal element. This issue of interactivity thus becomes not only the core feature of the fledgling discipline, but an iconoclastic challenge to the relevance of narrative theory (‘narrativology’) as a tool for the analysis of ‘New Media’.

In 2001 Espen Aarseth launched the first academic journal devoted to Game Studies with an editorial titles “Game Studies Year One”, in which he proclaimed 2001 to be the first year of Game Studies. However, in year four of game studies still much of the academic research on computer games is done outside of the game studies paradigm. The focus was on computer games aesthetic and narrative qualities rather than on their unique ergodic qualities. Major works that analyse games in terms of theatre [4], literature [5], cinema [3] and semiotics [6] pose a challenge to a purely games based approach by subordinating the interactive function of games to their story-telling potential. This practice places computer games in a procrustean continuum with other new media. It fails to acknowledge that computer games are one of the only forms of computer-based media that does not have substantial links to pre-digital media. In Remediation: Understanding New Media Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin describe all new media as being remediated, a new technological articulation of past media forms [7]. They regard computer games as remediated cinema (largely due to their reliance on Myst and Doom for their analysis). Thus in their logic computer games are not a significant break, rather a continuation of a past aesthetic using new technological means. However, I disagree with their conclusion. While to a certain extent some computer games are remediating the aesthetics of film, I would add that computer games also remediate sports, card and board games, and role-playing games. Furthermore, I suggest that it is this incorporation of a social milieu that is not traditionally associated with media that makes computer games exceptional.[1] However the key to appreciating the radical break from past forms of mediation that computer games represent is an examination of the issues that stem from the notion of interactivity.

Interactivity and the Ergodic Cybertext
The notion of interactivity is used as an all-purpose catch phrase to describe digital technologies. Aarseth describes the situation as: “The word interactive operates textually rather than analytically, as it connotes various vague ideas of computer screens, user freedom, and personalized media, while denoting nothing” [1]. Through hyperbolic overuse, concatenating interactivity with ‘new’ media in general, the concept has become conflated with that of simple useability. Interactivity evokes a myth of new media of similar proportions to that of Bazin’s myth of total cinema. This myth performs the ideological function of associating a fantasy of freedom and control with computer-based media, and further implies an attitude of technological determinalism.

The mythic nature of interactivity poses a problem in developing critical tools for the analysis of computer games. These texts can only be distinguished from other forms of media by their particular mode of interactivity. Aarseth proposes two alternative terms, which avoid the empty denotations of interactivity; cybertext and ergodic. The cybertext is a text that is created in a cybernetic feedback loop between the reader and the text [1]. Ergodic refers to the process of ‘reading’ a cybertext [1]. Thus the cybertext is a product of an ergodic process or reading.[2] This makes a useful distinction between the process of interaction (ergodic) and the product of the interactive process (cybertext).

In order to understand the ergodic process it is necessary to devise a formal framework that offers objective measures of interactivity. I suggest that the kinds of interactions demanded by computer games during the ergodic process vary widely between games, and even within the same game according to the preferences of the individual player. Thus, I maintain that any attempt to objectively measure the formal attributes of interactivity must be matched by a similar investigation into the subjective experiences of the players’ ergodic journey. In Computers as Theatre Brenda Laurel argues that definitions of interactivity based on objective rules, ignore that the experience of interactivity arise from the users relation to the computer rather than from any external factors [4]. I suggest that one line of enquiry examines the ergodic structure of the cybertext, creating a detailed map of movements, objects, actions and events, while the other approach investigates the individual experience of the ergodic journey. These two approaches dovetail to reveal the dynamic imbrication of the interactivity between the formal programmed structure of the interactive text and the subjective experience of the game player.

Encoding/Decoding as a Model of Cybertextual Production
Causing additional confusion regarding interactivity, this particular term has been used to refer to another phenomena within the context of Literature and Media Studies. The term becomes further obfuscated due to the fact that the critical tools for analysing computer games are drawn largely from that same discipline. In audience based studies interactivity has been used to describe the process of the individual creating their own meaning from a mass media broadcast. This notion is articulated by Stuart Hall in “Encoding/Decoding”, in which he argues against the idea of a text having a dominant meaning Hall????777Hall, Stuart????Encoding/decoding'">[8]. Maintaining rather that all texts are given meaning by a process of decoding that allowed the individual to potentially make a negotiated or oppositional interpretation of the text. Thus the sender did not determine meaning. Rather, the audience interpreted meaning through ‘interaction’ with the text in the process of decoding. Hall’s model has its shortcomings, but for the purpose of analysing cybertexts it is useful as it makes a crucial distinction between two phases in the process of ergodic reading where actions (that could be described as interactions) are required. I suggest that the encoding/decoding dyad can be equated with the distinction between the ergodic journey and the players’ interpretation of that journey.

The ergodic journey, a series of responses to events initiated by the computer that require action from the player is an invitation to participate (albeit in a limited manner) in the encoding of the cybertext.[3] Encoding describes actions such as making Lara jump in Tomb Raider, building a city in Civilization, or shooting a Nazi in Castle Wolfenstein. While not an act of encoding in the same sense as writing a novel or newspaper article, I suggest that these action are the opportunity to enter a variable into the text at the level of encoding, which will affect the subsequent form of the cybertext.

Decoding describes the process of ‘reading’ the produced cybertext. It is at this point where the player interprets the cybertext developing before them. Such decisions as whether to colonize Africa in Europa Universalis II, in this case a hegemonic reading might regard the incorporation of the slave trade as a realistic depiction of history, while a subversive reading might regard the logic of the game connecting the slave trade to mercantilism as an implicit critique of the capitalist system. These two categories of player inputs are imbricated, often players will make decisions in the ergodic process based on a preferred outcome or reading that they wish to make of the cybertext. For example a player of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri may make decisions from the very beginning of the game based on a desire to achieve certain short-term (the building of certain wonders) or long-term outcomes (obtaining victory through unusual and difficult conditions, like the economic or diplomatic victory). However, players may also make readings of the cybertext based on the ergodic choices that they have available to them. In a game like Dead Or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball, the player is given a choice between different bikinis in which to dress the characters. This kind of choice, I suggest, implicitly encourages the female characters of the game to be interpreted as sexual objects. Thus the encoding/decoding paradigm outlined by Hall is useful in conceptualizing the cybertext produced through the ergodic functions of the player and the game within the broader milieu of contemporary culture.

Interactivity and the Active Audience
The encoding/decoding paradigm of communication also brings an important concept to the discipline of Game Studies that audiences are active constructors of textual meaning. The active audience consciously interacts with the text to produce meanings that may defy the official authorial meaning of the text.[4] This notion that the text may be strategically decoded in myriad ways allows a conception of the cybertext that may take on multiple and heterogeneous meanings to the diverse communities and subcultures that make up its audience. What is at stake in the notion of the active audience is critically important to computer games, that the meaning of mass media texts may be constructed in such a way that negotiates or opposes the intended message. This practice allows otherwise marginalized communities to form or flourish through the practice of cultural production, by re-using and re-interpreting the cultural productions of the dominant or hegemonic groups. Henry Jenkins’ in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture argues that the importance of the phenomena is not simply the way in which the practice of the active audiences allows the culture (or subculture) to resist the dominance of the hegemonic group, but the challenge that this practice poses to their continued hegemony. Jenkins’ argues that the tactic of ‘textual poaching’ (a term he borrows from Michel de Certeau) challenges corporate ownership of the textual media of their media products, citing George Lucas’s attempts to prevent or stifle some of the fan productions based on Star Wars [9].[5] This issue remains significant to the study of cybertexts as the computer game industry is characterised by a conflict between producers and consumers that stems from the practices of the gaming subculture threatening the viability of the computer game as a product.

Types of Interactions
While all computer games are ergodic to a degree the kinds of interactions allowed differ greatly from game to game. In order to appreciate the ergodic process further, I suggest that a distinction be made between different types of interactions. In the introduction to On A Silver Platter: CD-ROMs and the Promises of a New Technology Greg M. Smith outlines two types of interactivity that computer games may provide. First, the player should be able to manipulate objects within the text [10].. This means that the text present is divided into objects that can be acted upon independently of the text as a whole. For example, the player (or their avatar[6]) is able to pick up objects (Doom), look at them more closely (Myst) or act upon them, for example by pulling a level or opening a door (Tomb Raider). This enables the player to make changes to the texts physical appearance, and the actions carried out upon the objects should have some connection to the second aspect of interactivity identified by Smith, the players’ input into the narrative of the game.

Second, an ergodic text should present the player with choices which affect the narrative flow and outcome of the game [10]. This aspect is often over-emphasized, and the future possibilities of interactive narrative are discussed with more vigour that the state of the contemporary. More often than not these narrative choices are not really choices at all, but rather a performance of the text that requires the player to flow the linear plot of the computer game. To move away from the narrative progression dictated by the game results in an untimely death, and the game is rebooted at a point backward on the narrative trajectory, allowing the player another chance to perform the correct actions to allow the narrative to proceed. So the ability to affect the narrative outcome is closer to the ability to choose whether the mission fails or succeeds, which is not necessarily based on preference for a certain result, but rather on the players’ skill and mastery of the game. Games do exist that do have more open possibilities, games such as Dues Ex and Civilization III allow the players to choose variable goals and tactics in order to win the game, and thus they allow the game to be played again and again in order to achieve the more difficult and obscure victory conditions. For example, Civilization III allows the player to win the game through military, scientific or diplomatic means. The first and the second methods of winning are relatively unsubtle, and are easily completed on the lower levels of difficulty in the game, the diplomatic victory is more elusive and achieving it is considered by the Civilization online community to be the sign of a truly skilled player.

In addition to Smith’s two types of interaction, I suggest a third type of interaction exists; that of interaction with the rules of the interaction themselves. This type of interaction is radically different, as it allows the player to change the cybertext by altering its ergodic structure, rather than by making choices within that structure. The practice of altering the cybertext in this manner is known as ‘moding’. This practice is actively encouraged in some games, like Civilization III, where the game includes and editing function that allows the players to alter almost any variable in the game. Other games like Doom or Call to Power have open source codes, which means that the information to alter and reprogram the game is in the public domain. Some companies keep their source codes confidential and also take a hardline approach to the ‘moding’ of games they have produced; most prominent in this category is the Tomb Raider series. These three types of interactions within the ergodic process are a starting point for more thorough formal and theoretical distinctions. The critical reason for drawing these distinctions is to show that the ergodic process of forming a cybertext is a complex interplay of several types of ergodic action, that may not necessarily be motivated from inside the game-player feedback loop, but by the larger socio-political milieu in which the relationship takes place.

Cybertext: A Circuit of Multiple Inputs
The computer game cybertext is not a closed circuit. As the cybertext is formed from a complex interaction of the interactions permitted by the game, the player’s own ergodic choices and the decoded meaning that the player gives to those choices. The decoded meaning may be informed by any number of different intertextual materials (films, literature, television programmes, card games, general genre fiction, sports, popular culture and current events). Furthermore, the interpretation of the game will be profoundly effected by the players contact with the community of gaming, which may be accessed through specialist magazines (about 12 are commonly available in Melbourne newsagents, of which 3 are Australian based), or websites (notice boards are most common). As gaming becomes more oriented towards online play with the success of online PC gaming and the introduction of online console gaming in 2003 (X-Box LIVE), a new community forum is ascending in importance, the online games themselves (many of which have albeit limited chat functions), and associated chat forums. Finally, gaming takes place within the broader social context of contemporary society. Computer games are informed by contemporary events, reflecting current political struggles. Contemporary gaming deals with such issues as terrorism (Counterstrike), covert operations (Superpower), and military coups (Revolution). Thus, I suggest that an account of computer games as meaning producing texts requires a framework that incorporates the flow of meaning from the game into the cultural milieu and vice versa.

The analysis of computer games must therefore extend beyond that of their narrative (or their potential for narrative). I agree with the approach outlined by Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter in Digital Play: the Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing. They argue that a critical approach to computer games needs to recognise “the interplay of technologies, culture, and economics” [11]. Therefore, any discussion of interactivity or the kinds of interactivity allowed within a computer game should be understood in the context of the technical, cultural and marketing forces which shape the industry [11]. This sentiment is also expressed my Sue Morris in “First Person Shooters – A Game Apparatus”, she argues that computer games are not simply textual, but also extend into the realms of the technical, the social, and the psychological. However, Morris’ approach is more oriented towards a focus on the audience of the text. I suggest that a middle ground be struck between a primarily industry based, and primarily audience based approach, instead focusing on the particular actions and inputs which each contribute to the production of the cybertext. Morris suggests that in order to unravel the imbricated flows of meaning that the apparatus theory of Jean-Louis Baudry be adopted for Game Studies [12]. Ted Friedman in “Civilisation and Its Discontents” also with little conviction hints at this type of holistic approach, suggesting the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour may help to theorise the role that the computer game plays in the construction of the game [13].[7] I suggest that the cybertext be understood as an interactive circuit at a nexus of many inputs. While the cybertext is primarily based on the ergodic actions of the player, these actions are affected not only by the players’ predilections but also by the social world of gaming, and the wider local and global influences. Furthermore, the text is constructed in a way that reflects the influence of hegemonic society values and paradigms.[8] The actions taken but the player and also the actions available to take are influenced by many factors, thus the feedback loop model must be expanded to include other influential factors.

New Issues Affecting Interactivity
The schema I have outlined here applies most pertinently to the older model of computer game, where the player plays against a computer opponent. This is increasingly giving way to multiplayer gaming, both on and off-line. The play may either be agonistic or co-operative, but requires a new stance on interactivity. This is because in some cases the player is no longer interacting with the computer but through it, and the ergodic nature of the game is affected more by the agency and decisions taken by other players than by the structure of the game. Online play suits certain types of games, and as Morris notes, the games that are played online often become transformed in order to cater for multiplayer and online play [12]. The narrative becomes minimal and the game is transformed social environment, geared around co-operative agonistic competition [12]. I agree with Morris’ argument that ergodic interaction in online gaming is profoundly affected by the social environment of the game-players [12]. This suggests that online gaming creates an even more open and flexible ergodic feedback loop than traditional games, as it is constantly open to the shared influences of the subcultural group.

Game Studies

The fledgling discipline of Games Studies suffers from similar problems to those that have faced other emergent disciplines in the past. While excellent scholarship on computer games is conducted in a variety of disciplines, until Games Studies is acknowledged as an area of interdisciplinary scholarship these various disciplines are in danger of not productively engaging with one another. This consequently slows the pace of productive, groundbreaking research as each discipline struggles to cover the same ground. For example, in the current state of the discipline, it is possible to publish a book on computer games without making reference to any other specific research on the topic.[9] I am not suggesting that work be assessed by the contents of it bibliography, simply that the quality of research could be enhanced by engaging with the current state of the discipline. My intention is not to establish some kind of orthodox hierarchy of citations, but rather to encourage academics working in the same or similar fields to work with and use research conducted by others. As a new discipline, Games Studies is also faced with difficulties concerning the newness of its medium. Many academic libraries do not have computer games, and those that do force librarians to learn new skill sets that are not easily defined, or readily available outside of direct experience. Problems include issues such as copyright, access to memory, incoherent classification, and difficulty in purchasing games themselves.

The immediate problem that faces Game Studies is the lack of a set of consciously determined categorical tools. As I have mentioned above a substantial amount of the discipline’s terminology has been imported from literary and media studies. While this is not universally to the new disciplines detriment, if applied uncritically there is the danger that certain key attributes of computer games will be overlooked. In addition, much of the terminology used to describe computer games is industry and gamer derived. It is not my intention to ignore the kinds of knowledge(s) and insights that gamers (or designers) have of the ergodic game-texts, but rather I believe that a scholarly analysis requires a different degree of precision, and a more questioning and reflexive attitude towards these ‘essential’ or fundamental categories. Take, for example, the basic notion of distinguishing one type of game from another and then assigning them into groups based on shared characteristics. This process appears to be simple, and has been remarkably unquestioned in Game Studies. Indeed it appears almost universally that the notion of ‘genre’ is used to distinguish types of games from one another. However, I believe that questioning the categories that game studies has inherited is fruitful as there is a great deal at stake in this process.

Genre: An Equivocal Term
The orthodox position on game classification follows a basic classification that has been established between the industry and the consumers of games in order to identify the types of interactions that will take place in the game. In The Medium of the Video Game Mark J. P. Wolf notes that in addition to this interactive genre, many games also borrow from a set of iconography of an established fictional genre [3]. Examples exist of action (Duke Nuke’em), fantasy (Everquest), science fiction (Dune II), Horror (Silent Hill), and teen-exploitation (Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball). This iconography acts as an intertextual marker to locate the play of the game within a pre-existing cultural narrative [2, 14]. But these gestures to the outside world do little to alter the interactions that are allowed within the game, although superficially they may alter the narrative. The fact that the player is shooting at oncoming targets in a three dimensional environment is more useful in describing the ergodic process of play. Games that share common environmental design, in terms of the kinds of spaces explored, and interfaces in terms of the visual arrangement of information and actions allowed within the environment create a similar player experience despite any differences in the iconography. No matter if the virtual foes are demons, Nazis, terrorists or aliens, the types of (inter)-action permitted within the game makes the games remarkably similar. The typical ‘genres’ in this system are action, further divided into first person shooters (Quake, Doom) and third person shooters (Tomb Raider), strategy, also divided into real time strategy games (Warcraft III) and turn based strategy games (Civilization III), simulations (Need for Speed, SimCity 4), role-playing or adventure games (Baldur’s Gate). Somewhat difficult to classify in this system are puzzle games (Tetris) and what are described now as ‘classic’ games (Defender, Space Invaders). When applied in this context the notion of ‘genre’ has a degree of similarity with the notion of genre as used in film and literary studies. The genre imposes an important structuring principle on the game, but to the inputs of the player, the ergodic process, rather than the final output, the cybertext. However, genre in this case is largely an ergodic structuring principle that does not necessarily determine the narrative element of the game.

The conflation of visual and ergodic styles under the aegis of genre in the classification of computer games has deep implications for Game Studies. As each genre develops its own visual style they are often conflated with other representational technologies that share a similar aesthetic. Singled out in particular has been the aesthetic of the action genre of computer game, especially the first-person shooter. The convergent aesthetics of films and games has been well documented [2, 15, 16]. But even among the exponents of new media are theorist who reductively conceive computer games as ‘interactive’ films [7]. In the bizarre mythology of the technological over-determinalistic future the destiny of both computer games and cinema are to merge into mass participatory, fully immersive, interactive, virtual worlds al a David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. The myth of total interactivity aside, the aesthetic convergence between films and games tells us more about the contemporary dominant visual aesthetic than about computer games. My claim is not that film theory has no place in the study of games, rather that film theory can only usefully aid our understanding of the games visual features and has to be substantially revised in order to cope with the ergodic mode of engagement. This revision is, I believe, more useful to the discipline of Film Studies than it is to Game Studies as the usurpation of narrative by interactivity echoes cinemas loss of privilege in the media hierarchy as the dominant mode of media marketing, production and consumption becomes dominanted by transmedia intertextuality making cinema one of the multiple linkages to the new media commodity.

While the visual remains important in computer games, I wish to emphasize that the visual component of the game, the interface should not be privileged over ergodic interaction between the player and the game. It is this ergodic process that delineates the difference between computer games and other entertainment media. Thus the direct important from film studies to game studies of critical terminology requires careful consideration. Take for example the distinction within the action genre between first and third person computer games. This is based on the players’ perspective. The first person game take place ‘as if’ the action taking place on the screen was the players’ own vision, while third person games use an avatar, a digital proxy that the game-player simultaneously watches and manipulates. First person in film is uncommon, and is used as a technique to create identification. Third person is more common, in fact it is pervasive in contemporary cinema, many films being shot entirely in this style. The third person film is characterised by the viewer watching the action unfold through the camera narrator rather than through the eyes of a particular character.

This visual distinction collapses within the computer game medium for two reasons. First, players must be able to identify with their avatar in third person games. The avatar is a virtual prosthetic that acts as the connecting point between the player and the virtual environment. Acting rather like a cursor does in a more conventional computer mediated environment (Microsoft word or explorer), to link the function of the hand and the eye. The player is able to identify with the avatar, even through they are viewed in the third person, through the intervention of the ergodic relationship. Second, all first person games utilize some technique that creates a static object that function as an avatar to link the hand and they eye within the virtual world, in the form of a gun, snowboard, or arm that extends out from the bottom of the screen into the virtual world or a gun-site superimposed onto the centre of the screen. This shows that crucially in order to experience the virtual world of the game, the player and game must be linked by a static physical locator that acts as an indexical axis indicating the players’ relation to the virtual spaces of the game.

The division of these two sub-genres obfuscates these two related issues. I suggest that the division they impose are not as apparent as is commonly perceived under the current nomenclature. There is not a clear division in style of identification or narrative experience as the use of first person and third person would suggest, rather there is a more subtle difference in how the player is visually located within the virtual space. Both subgenres seek to engage our phenomenological experience in order to overcome the disjunction between the body in front of the screen and the virtual game world. In this sense they engage the two phenomenological modes described by Marcel Merlau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception, immanence and transcendence. Immanence is the experience of perceiving something, while transcendence is lacking any perception of an object but knowing it is there [17]. While I type this the keyboard is immanent, my bookshelf is transcendent and my body is the play of both. By using graphic that simultaneously hide the body (because the player sees out from it rather than looks at it) while showing us a part of the body (or its cybernetic prosthetic), he first person game utilizes a play of immanence and transcendence in order to locate the player in the world, making it similar phenomenologically to the experience of the body. However, in the ‘third person’ game we are able to see and manipulate the avatar, making it an immanent object. I suggest that by applying this phenomenological analysis to the game interface it is possible to engage with games on a more experiential manner.

The experience of play is the experience of acting inside a virtual space. The interface that locates us within that space should be defined in relation to the way that the interface sutures our bodies into a phenomenological continuum with the virtual space. The importing of the terms third and first person into computer gaming technology may work fine on a simple descriptive level. But on the analytic level they become indistinct. Both forms rely on a form of cyborg identification, described by Scott Bukatman as terminal identity [18]. Furthermore the ergodic process requires identification to complete the cybertext, it is always produced by the actions of an individual, thus the events that unfold within the game can always be linked to a causal ‘I’. Furthermore as I will now illustrate this phenomenological approach to game classification earmarks space and spatial relationships to be the key categories for understanding the experience of play and thus should be the key qualitative features by which categories of games should be organized.

The Polemics of Play
Scholarly inquiry into computer games at this point in time is divided into two major schools ‘narratology’ and ‘ludology’. Gonzalo Frasca, ludology’s most passionate advocate describes ludology as a disciplinary approach to games that argues that narrative is not the central structuring principle of video games [1, 19]. In addition to representation video games operate “on an alternative semiotical structure know as simulation” [19]. Narratology, however, regards computer and video games as merely a new medium of narrative potential. However, this approach is dominated by the dual politics of what Aarseth identifies as “apologetics and trivialization” [1]. The apologists believe that games have the potential to become great, just the right people aren’t making them, while trivialists believe that computer games cannot be taken seriously by literary studies [1]. While I believe it is safe to merely dismiss the trivialists at this point, the apologists require further discussion. Apologetics in this case is inherently imbricated with technological determinalism, and the myth of total immersion. It is work that is concerned with what video games may become rather than understanding them as they are. They are assuming that the computer game is destined to become another form of narrative. Which, of course, they are, but within a narrative system where narrative is no longer the predominant structuring principle.

However, I believe that strict adherence to the school of ludology is not constructive beyond the point made above. Even the most orthodox ludologist must acknowledge that games do try to tell stories, or at least to give the players’ the raw materials to construct the story themselves. Aarseth acknowledges this by dividing narrative into two levels: description and narration. Computer games are rich in description, they show us visually & aurally the material the player requires in order to construct a story, while they are poor at providing a narrative voice. While games are often narrated in is outside the specific context of the game that the narration is made [1]. The point is that within the game a different set of concerns is operating. Frasca describes games as operating within the rules of a simulation rather than a narration [19]. The simulation or cybertext is distinct in that it has both inputs and outputs from the player, while narrative is solely output. In this sense I agree with the ludologists, the emphasis of computer game analysis must not focus on the produced cybertext but on the dynamic interactions between human(s) and computer(s).

These interactions take place within a space defined by the rules of the game. Different games provide vastly different qualities of space, but I maintain that it is the freedom that can be found within these latitudes that defines a game over any other factor. While Grand Turismo, Midtown Madness and Grand Theft Auto III are all ostensibly from the same genre: simulations, and more specifically the same subgenre, as they are all driving sims, they have large differences in their ergodic processes. Grand Turismo takes place on a racetrack, the movement is linear and although many tracks are available they are only more complex in the challenges they provide the player in the linear ergodic process. Midtown Madness is more open allowing the player to drive in the traffic and streets of a busy city. Grand Theft Auto III is even more open, the player can get out of the car, run around get into another car drive anywhere in the virtual city, crashing into cars and hitting pedestrians. While they all involve simulations of driving, some games have a greater degree, or margin, of flexibility. Roger Caillois in Man Play and Games argues that each practice of play is defined within a dual system that describes the practice’s relationship to strict rules. The games most subordinate to rules are described as ludic while those characterized by spontaneity and creativity are classified as paidia [20].Importantly, these categories are not exclusive as the two styles of play are allied and always present. While all the games have ludic qualities, Grand Tourismo is clearly the most ludic of the three games while Grand Theft Auto III has the most piadia. This characterisation of the game space in terms of the latitude of movement provided by piadia within the games ludic structure suggests that the spatial framework for understanding games devised by Henry Jenkins and his collaborators over the past decade has a great degree of credence. By conceiving games spatially we can free them from the aforementioned difficulties that come from analysing games in categories like visual genre, furthermore, it allows games of radically different technological levels to be assessed in a continuum [21].

The Question of Pleasure
Beyond the ludology/narratology polemic is a collection of related issues that all stem from the activities engaged in during the ergodic process by the player. Aarseth states: “The ergodic work of art is one that in a material sense includes the rules for its own use, a work that has certain requirements built in it that automatically distinguishes between successful and unsuccessful users” [1]. What are the characteristics of the successful reader? Grahame Weibren argues in ‘Mastery (Sonic C’est Moi)’ that the successful reader is one that masters the virtual environment [22]. Torben Grodal elaborates this point in ‘Video Games and the Pleasures of Control’ arguing that it is from the experience of mastery that game-players derive pleasure in computer games [23]. Darley assents also to Grodal argument, suggesting that it is this pleasure that replaces the pleasure of experiencing the narrative found in most other media [2]. Kinder argues that a crucial part of a child’s enjoyment of computer games comes from their ability to control the presence and absence of the characters on screen [24]. While I would hesitate to conceptualize computer games as a virtual games of fort/da, the unique pleasures that can be found in computer games that derive from the players ability to control (to a certain extent) their environment is crucial in understanding the conceptual differences that separate computer games from other media.

Technological Genres
Further complicating matters it has been the practice of some authors to refer to computer games themselves as a ‘genre’ of new media. Using the term so flexibly endangers its utility. However, this does not mean that matters of technology should not be incorporated into our understanding of genre. The question of genre in gaming is focused on the kinds of inputs allowed and the technology used to play affects the style of inputs. Computer games can be played in many ways, each technology coming with its own unique set of issues and concerns. The most distinctive difference within gaming technology is that between the PC Games played on a computer and the home console games played using a television for the game monitor (Playstation, X-box, Ninetendo, Sega). In addition there are also hand held consoles with their own screens (Gameboy), and Arcade games. Gaming technology is also integrated into cell phones, calculators and watches… anything with a digital display. While the difference in the consumption of these technologies can hardly be called an issue of genre, this issue is of crucial importance. Notably they lack a hierarchy of importance, like the theatre to DVD to television flow of cinema that gives any one medium an artistic or cultural authenticity.[10] However, that spaces and practices of consumption vary greatly, on-line gaming for example was the sole domain of the PC until the 2003 release of the X-box Live, making PC and console gaming quite distinct.

Further complicating matter are the variations within the games themselves. As Morris notes, computer games are often transformed by the switch from single to multiplayer [25]. The differences between single-player, multi-player, on-line and LAN gaming within the individual game text itself have a crucial impact on the players understanding of the text and furthermore place conceptual pressure on most conventional audience reception models as the text shifts from a ergodic interaction between a human and computer actor to a computer mediated interaction between human players. For example the style of play in a game like Civilization III, switches from a turn based strategy when played in single player, but includes a real time version for use when playing against other players online.

1. Aarseth, E.J., Cybertext : Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. 1997, Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press. 203 p.
2. Darley, A., Visual Digital Culture : Surface Play and Spectacle in New Media Genres. Sussex studies in culture and communication. 2000, London ; New York: Routledge. x, 225 p.
3. Wolf, M.J.P., The Medium of the Video Game. 1st ed. 2002, Austin: University of Texas Press. xvi, 203 p.
4. Laurel, B., Computers as Theatre. 1991, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. xxv, 211 p.
5. Murray, J.H., Hamlet on the Holodeck : the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. 1998, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. xii, 324 p.
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7. Bolter, J.D. and R.A. Grusin, Remediation : Understanding New Media. 1999, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. xi, 295 p.
8. Hall, S., Encoding/decoding. ????
9. Jenkins, H., Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. 1992, New York: Routledge.
10. Smith, G.M., Introduction: A Few Words about Interactivity, in On A Silver Platter: CD-ROMSs and the Promises of a New Technology, G.M. Smith, Editor. 1999, New York University Press: New York
London. p. 1-34.
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13. Friedman, T., Civilization and Its Discontents: Simulation, Subjectivity, and Space., in On A Silver Patter: CD-ROMs and the Promises of a Newq Technology, G.M. Smith, Editor. 1999, New York University Press: New York
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15. Elsaesser, T. and W. Buckland, Studying contemporary American film : a guide to movie analysis. 2002, London: Arnold.
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17. Merleau-Ponty, M., Phenomenology of Perception. 1962, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
18. Bukatman, S., Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. 1993, Durham: Duke University Press.
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20. Caillios, R., Man Play and Games. 1962, London: Thames and Hudson.
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24. Kinder, M., Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games : from Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. 1991, Berkeley ; London: University of California Press. xi, 266 p.
25. Morris, S., Co-Creative Media: Online Multiplayer Computer Game Culture. Scan: Journal of Media Arts and Culture, 2004. 1(1).

[1] A notable exception to this is Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man.
[2] Aarseth uses the term ‘traverse’ to describe the process of ergodic ‘reading’.
[3] This manner is limited only by the level to which the player is prepared to interact. If they chose to interact on the ‘metalevel’ of interaction then a much higher degree of control over the encoding process is available.
[4] The question of the relationship between the author of the game and the players’ interventions could not really be considered one of co-authorship. The players authoring role is limited and usually subordinated to the choices available by the corporate authors of the game.
[5] Literary experts on Science Fiction such as Brian Aldiss in turn accuse George Lucas’ work of being a fan production of the universe created by E. E. Smith in the 1930’s pulp magazine serial ‘Lensmen’.
[6] This term is used to describe the characters on-screen proxy in ‘third person’ perspective games.
[7] This theory is outlined in Aramis, Or, The Love of Technology (1996).
[8] Crogan, Herz and Kline etal. All note the influence of the Cold War on gaming technology.
[9] See Barry Akins (2003). More Than a Game.
[10] This is true of contemporary games… classics belong in the medium of the original. Thus Galaxian is only ‘authentic’ when played on an arcade machine. (note emulators).

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About Me

This blog started as a PhD blog, for my project 'Global Rhythms: Video games and the Transformation of Play'. It finally become a book. This is a "historic" record of the trials a tribulations.