Saturday, 17 November 2012

Why 'Videogames'?

The other day I had a conversation on Twitter with Adam Williamson about why I use the term ‘videogames’. You, the reader, have probably noticed that every so often someone suggests that we should use another word. The idea is that the word fails to adequately reflect a changing medium and needs to be replaced by one that can handle the job. Academics frequently use ‘digital games’’; Williamson has half-jokingly coined the term ‘digic’; I once preferred ‘computer game’ because it sounded more mature. Others have adopted ‘ractive’ from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, to the clear detriment of humanity (or at least the English-speaking parts). But I use 'videogames', and here's why.

For a start, maybe no neologism is necessary. We have not stopped calling novels ‘novels’ because they are no longer new. It’s implausible, I think, to suggest that the substance of the term ‘causes’ any problems in the sense of distorting our view of the object, simply because it is so well-worn a word as to be divorced from its origin. The novel by any other name would be as dead, if you like. All ‘novel’ does as opposed to ‘longread’ or ‘printory’ is give middlebrow critics in national newspapers something to noodle about when they need to play for wordcount. I’m sure that French and German papers have no shortage of articles that muse: “of course, the word ‘roman’ originally comes from ‘romance’…” In short, while the word ‘novel’ contains a treasure trove of history, that treasure is buried, concealed, and generally ignored; it only re-emerges when we ask for it.

But for me to argue this would be somewhat dishonest, because there are concrete reasons why I like the term ‘videogame’ beyond it merely being the one we’re lumped with for better or worse. Unlike the year-old teabag of ‘novel’, it’s still fresh enough to have flavour when you sniff it. Most clearly, it reeks of juvenility.

Good. Accepting ‘videogame’ with our whole hearts precludes being ashamed of our medium. It is populist and demotic, familiar to everyone. It accepts – neither defends nor apologises for but accepts – the history of the medium so far. It sounds like a word by 8-year-olds for 8-year-olds. And as critics we must banish the idea that only those po-faced seriousness are worth our time. We should make a virtue of trashiness, embrace the garish, valorise the vulgar, fuck the haters. Clearly, videogames are about instructing computers to hallucinate vast mazes of desire which channel the human will to knowledge through strange and beautiful paths where Princess Petit a will always have another crystalline castle to get lost in – but, equally clearly, they are also about travelling through time and capturing monkeys in a big net.

Moreover, ‘videogame’ reminds us that videogames are distinct from sports or board games – and that the ‘video’ part is crucial. As trendy and analytically useful as it is to place videogames in context of other games throughout history, there are three big reasons to stress their differences.

  • Firstly, videogames are automated. A computer moves the pieces, a computer rolls the dice, and a computer enforces  the rules, which makes a huge psychological and epistemological difference. Put simply, a videogame is an Other whose computer-generated rules assume an autonomous reality independent of the player. Indeed, videogames (correct me if I’m wrong) are unique in that they do not allow the player access to their actual rules. In other game rules are explicitly known by players, articulated in a common language, and provided by rule book as a condition of play. Videogame rules are articulated in conlangs designed for machine interpretation and hidden to everyone except specialists. As in spacetime, their existence must be induced by observation.
  • Secondly, videogames are complicated. The automation described above allows them to enact far more complicated than any other kind of game (bar perhaps the physics which are built into physical sports). There is a limit to the complexity of rules that a book, board or P&P system can incorporate, but computer power raises this limit by orders of magnitude, giving rise to entirely different kinds of game: minute simulations of physical processes, emergent playgrounds, autonomous AI characters. Arguably, in comparison to board games, this has actually led to lazy design. But the difference remains – a quantitative one big enough to actually become qualitative.
  • Thirdly, videogames are visual (except when they’re not). As I said, most of their rules are accessed through representational media, and at the moment that’s mostly the same equipment and the same methods as film and TV. This means that art direction, animation, camerawork, colour, acting and so on are all at least relevant to the player’s experience (and condition her experience of the rules).  Videogames are thus a hybrid form, and the relationship of videogames to traditional games is very broadly analogous to that of cinema or theatre: the former subsumes the methods of the latter while excluding some of its other parts.

Those who compare videogames with Chess and Go are right to do so, but – just as a matter of correlation – tend to ignore how many videogames, and how few games of any other kind, are single player. Chess isn’t much different when it’s on a computer, but Braid and Half-Life would be very different if they weren’t.

The question does arise of what we would call a game for the blind or a power plant simulator which was ‘played’ with a full-scale fake control room. The same machinery of simulation and process are involved in these examples, but the screen is absent. That is to say that points 1 and 2 still apply, but that point 3 only sort of does, in that the medium of access conditions the experience of play. To be clear, I really don’t care about establishing a precise definition of videogame and sorting every object in the universe into one box or another. My concern is that advocating the term ‘videogame’ is exclusionary if there are a bunch of games which the term doesn’t fit. As it is, non-visual videogames produced specifically for consumption for the blind are remarkable mainly for their rarity. If they get common enough to establish their own genre (and I hope they do), I doubt anyone would object to ‘audiogames’.

So that’s the video part sorted. But I should pause at least briefly to justify the component of ‘game’. Earlier this year, Raph Koster wrote about the then-latest evolution of the great neo-ludology vs space-narratology debate: ‘x is not a game’. There are a good number of critics – Keith Burgun, for instance, or Tadhg Kelly (see also here) – who argue that ‘game’ has a specific definition not fulfilled by some things we call ‘videogames’. Their definitions very much resembles what critic Jesper Juul, in his book Half-Real, calls the classic game model. Juul goes through various definitions, from Johan Huizinga to Chris Crawford, and tries to synthesise a definition which retains everything they have in common.

But, he says, “the classic game model is no longer all there is to games”; it’s “a snapshot of a specific way of creating 'games', a model that can be traced historically for thousands of years.” Identifying this model as existing within the wider category of things called 'games' is far less presumptuous than trying to take possession of everything signified by that word. In vernacular speech, ‘game’ is used promiscuously to describe everything from Tetris to children’s’ make-believe, and even metaphorically to make distinctions of importance (“it’s all just a game to you!”). Other people aren't necessary either; we call it a game when only step on certain paving stones or play keepie-ups or Solitaire. So unless we really are talking about the classic game model, a definition based on Wittgenstein’s famous family resemblance is more appropriate. If you want to describe a stringent and careful and specific category, use a stringent and careful and specific term. ‘Game’ is not that term.

One thing is left to clear up. The actual topic of my conversation with Williamson was on the issue of whether to use ‘videogame’ or ‘video game’. While this is a seemingly unimportant matter of style, I think the answer is clear. Videogame is faster. It’s cooler. It pops, pops, POPS. It’s also more futuristic, in a deeply kitsch way; if you were writing an 80s sci-fi novel and had the choice to write either ‘cyber thing’ or ‘cyberthing’, which would you choose? I rest my case.

Actually, I don’t, because the difference of a space may actually be quite important. In academia, it makes sense to say ‘digital games’ when you need to clarify exactly what you mean and what you don’t. It’s a term intended to be as neutral as possible – or rather, as deliberate, in the sense that it tries to exclude any accidental or irrelevant connotations. Digital games are ‘games’ which are ‘digital’, and as long as you can define those component parts you can define a digital game. This all makes sense.  Academia depends on a process of distinguishing, dividing, sifting, clarifying; its whole method is based on divorcing yourself from reality and common sense because it recognises that both of those terms are deceptive. It requires a kind of strategic Platonism whereby you employ abstract categories ‘above’ the conventional ones we see and touch because they better explain an unconventional truth.

(In fact, the the term seems plenty problematic: is a sports game creatively adapted to computer more ‘digital’ than a board game merely implemented on computer (the distinction is again Juul’s), and if so, which is digital enough for the definition? Does the definition really ‘mean’ to include games like Bop It, which mediates computer power through trad object play? It’s very possible these ambiguities have been resolved and I don’t know about it)

‘Videogame’, by contrast, does not even try to be neutral. And while I’ve already indicated that I like what it connotes, there’s something important about its very failure. It’s messy. It sticks two words clumsily together to reflect a hybrid, amalgamated, sticky field. It represents the form in all the different ways it has to: a cultural artefact as well as a commercial category, a type of memory as well as a type of software. That is to say it indicates an object with substance and specific characteristics, but ones which, because it fails, tetragrammatonically are what they are, and which, as long as it gestures towards an evolving field, will be as hard to control as language itself. It is a word whose paradoxical specificity opens possibilities.

What are those contradictory characteristics? They are of childish and childlike things which had in them the seed of all maturity and which mean old things to older people. They are of trashy, vulgar and profound truths, idle diversions of the highest importance, of recreation that isn’t fun, of contests you can’t win and losses which are really victories (not to mention of having your cake and eating it). They are of futures which have existed and futures which might exist and futures which will never exist, and of a futuristic medium named after a dead movie tape format whose jarring anachronism inexorably madeleines to mind the galaxy of lurid colours and the Conwayesque dance of memory and code remembered and forgotten by Rob Beschizza’s Nomen Ludi – which is, of course, a pun on the title of an Umberto Eco novel about language in history, and Latin, of course, for ‘the name of the game(s)’.

So there.


  1. As usual, dear brother, you've utterly failed to win me over. I'm off to resume my ELECTRODIVERSIONS

  2. I was reading Grant Morrison's Supergods the other day, and he used the word 'VDU', sending me spinning into a hole of forgotten 80s terminal-ology.

    I might go for VDUgames.

    And you're wrong that they're visual. They've just been captured by artists over time, demanding primacy because they're 'video' games. So we get more and more game-worlds that demand appreciation of their tiny, non-interactive, irrelevant details and fixed geometry; Videogame design courses are branched from art departments; Tools like Flash & Unity, that are basically graphics editors with some small, grudging concession to interaction.

    Or something.

  3. Which VDUgames are not visual? Are we talking about Pac-Man here? Or Bard's Tale? Or what? Was the INCREDIBLE visual Doom evidence of 'artist capture'?

    Obviously, videogame's aren't purely or primarily visual, but I'm trying to work out what games looked like before they were "captured by artists". Perhaps you're saying that in a previous, visually unsophisticated era, game visuals were 'only' there to represent the rules and did nothing of their own that affected the experience. While there are games in which the visuals are more or less important, I don't think that was ever true.

    The significant exception I can think of is interactive fiction. But this form, which has its own name, culture, canon and community slightly separated from (though overlapping with) that of 'videogames', only strengthens my argument. Engaging with IF requires skills of traditional literacy and critiquing it requires trad stylistic prose analysis (as opposed to visual literacy), because it is a form which mixes ludic sets with literature (as opposed to the moving image).

    I don't personally have much interest in analysing the visuals of videogames. I have none whatsoever in analysing them as divorced from rules. But it would ludicrous to propose they don't condition the player's experience and the meaning of the 'text'. Likewise to imagine good aesthetics and good mechanics are mutually exclusive.

  4. Well, I'm not saying that they're invisible.

    For me, videogames are bright colours, chunky squares, clean vector lines, but the emphasis on graphics has over time taken more and more of development budget, influence and attention.

    Adventure games would be a prime example of artist-capture (possibly from writer-capture) where the emphasis shifted from narrative to graphics. Now adventure games are fully 3D rendered (eg. LA Noire).

    Games development is more and more about the graphics. Unity for example invites you to create a beautifully detailed, hand-crafted but largely static model baked into place for the player to run around. But it's just the background, it's not important to the game.

    Guitar Hero & Dance Dance Dance Dance Dance Dance all have whizzy special effects and virtual stadia going on that you can't even see when you're playing - your attention is all on the notes coming down the track. Same with Quicktime events - who cares what's happening in the background? I have to concentrate on which arbitrary button sequence is coming up.

    Modern projects have 2-3x as many artists as programmers or designers (10-20x the number of writers) and mostly providing marginal player benefit.

    Good aesthetics and good mechanics do go together, but the balance has been skewing in terms of the aesthetics for years.

    videogames aren't inherently a visual medium*, they're an interactive medium that happen to have visuals.

    That's why there's a version of Doom with no graphics that still works.

    *Any more than sports or board games. They both have visuals, but they are not about the visuals.


  5. Well, an answer I was typing has just magically disappeared, for which I have Safari to thank. Still...

    The difference is precisely of necessity. The rules of a sport or a board game exist in natural language and are communicated to players as a precondition of play. The players are responsible for enforcing them; they have help from a ref but by and large they self-limit, ie by not just picking up the ball and running with it in football. In videogames, however, players have NO direct access to the rules, which MUST be mediated through some form of representation.

    That representation doesn’t have to be visual – hypothetically, it could be audio or even haptic – and, of course, in videogames it usually is these things in addition to video – but in the medium we are talking about the primary form of mediation is usually the moving image. It is the difference between visuals as a component of the rules (eg team colours, coloured tokens) and visuals as the means of accessing rules which exist in a black box.

    I’m not saying that all visual changes make any kind of difference. Or that superfluous and pointless visuals aren’t possible. Or that AAA games AREN’T becoming way too focused on that side of things. I just don’t think noting that mediation is a fundamental component of automated games (ie ‘video_games’) in a way that isn't true for sport or board games necessarily functions as taking the other ‘side’ in that conflict. Especially in the context of what I write here - you'll notice I don't spend a huge amount of time waxing lyrical about art direction. If an unjust degree of "attention" is being sucked towards graphics, mine is not among it.

    Here's another example from Jesper Juul. We're going to play a game where each of us picks a number between 1 and 9 until one of us has three numbers that can add up to 15. Each number can only be picked once. So:

    1) You pick 5.
    2) I pick 9.
    3) You pick 2.
    4) I'm forced to pick 8 (otherwise you could get 8+2+5)
    5) You pick 7, thereby threatening to win by picking 3 (3+7+5) or 6 (2+6+7)
    6) I lose because my first pick was a mistake.

    Actually, this game is formally equivalent to tic-tac-toe. If you take numbers 1-9 and arrange them on a 3x3 grid so that each three-number straight line adds up to 15, you can play both games at the same time. But while the games are ludically identical they are clearly experienced quite differently, and indeed we might actually say the player verbs are different, because the skills and cognitive strategies required certainly are. This is ‘different experiences’ not as a waffly canard but as actually reflecting different characters of play.

    This also means that designers control access to the rules. They can choose what the player knows about how the game works and chose to deliberately obscure or highlight different parts of it using visuals. In the first chapter of Braid’s World 4, there are two identical-looking locks, walling in a puzzle pieces. One opens as expected but the other will break your key and actually force you to quit and restart. They are very different rule entities, so the confusion only exists in a purely aesthetic realm – but it serves to disrupt the player’s capacity to decide.

    1. Ran across this rather belatedly from some tweets...

      I agree with much of this, but I'm not 100% convinced of the hard distinction between rules in videogames vs. sports. I think there are external-to-the-player "rules" in sport, so to speak, or at least there are external material facts and procedures and dynamics that influence gameplay, as they do with computers. In a videogame, the "material" is programmed: the player doesn't necessarily know how SimCity buildings spring up, and the general dynamics of the world, and the player also doesn't enact those dynamics consciously through agreed-on rules. But in sports, there is some of that as well: the player does not necessarily have direct access to the material properties of a turf, how cleats and balls will interact with it, etc. Those are also external to the player and not consciously enforced by him/her as agreed-on rules. You could agree to change them, sure: decide to play on a clay surface instead of a grass one tennis. But that seems more like modding a computer game: in both cases you're swapping out a different set of materials with their own dynamics, rather than making changes to a socially / player-maintained ruleset.

    2. This is a very good point and it does rather queer the divide I drew. That said, I would note that human beings tend to have a certain amount of 'intuitive' knowledge about the physics of the sporting world. Excepting possible evolutionary adaptations (I'm no expert), this may just be another way of saying that they've had a lot longer to learn. Jonathan Blow talks about how games can be intuitive and natural to players by replicating mathematical truths found in the universe. Then again, the same is true when you come to a game with knowledge of its generic conventions or experience of the engine/middleware...

      My brother Jimmy Brindle has a radical potential solution to this question, which is to say that 'games' are only made up of rules and those rules are played out on a substrate. So in fact The Videogame, Quake, is an engine which suggests, affords, valences certain forms of voluntary activity. Which is a bit of a mindfuck, I think.

  6. TOO...MANY...WORDS...

    I’m not aware of this graphic-less version of Doom, but I’d be surprised if it actually has NO graphics. I’m guessing it has shit ones, or just uses the automap. In the latter case, that would make for a rather different game. But if it literally has a grey screen, with no variation, and no sound, and no feedback of any kind, it's not more playable than a brick, is it? (And if it's primarily done through sound, then sure it isn't a visual game, but that doesn't really change my argument - it just switches the medium with which interaction has been mixed)

    You might well say: “these are just aesthetic differences that affect functionality. They merely affirm the primacy of rules.” This is true. However, it’s also to suppose that the rules of a videogame can ever exist pure and uncontaminated, free of representation. They cannot. For the player, ludic and aesthetic content are experienced simultaneously, neither prior to the other. It might be possible – with a pen, paper, and code literacy – to look through the source code of Red Dead Redemption, understand it all, and make a track of decisions which eventually completes the ‘game’. I would propose, however, that this is no longer playing a videogame.

    And it avoids a larger question of whether visuals can have more subtle and various effects. Whether, for example, the vast landscapes of RDR – not possible in the era before artist capture – have any effect whatsoever in how the game is played or what it’s like to play it or what it means as a text. As it happens I think there are a few games where aesthetics are primarily responsible for the player appeal; Robot Unicorn Attack is as good example (one of the earliest things I wrote on this blog, and from which I have cadged some content). And there remains the question of meaning and context. A mod for Left 4 Dead which replaces all the zombies with snarling black people (or, for a little contemporary resonance, the protagonists with IDF soldiers and the zombies with Palestinians) DOES become racist, even though the rules are the same.

    P.S. by the way, I think adventure games are a really odd example to use for a CURRENT trend of artist capture. Adventure games have been ‘captured’ by artists at least since Myst came out in 1993. Critics praised the cartoons of Broken Sword and Day of the Tentacle and panned Cryo’s pre-rendered schlock but both testified to the importance of visuals in that genre.

    P.P.S. I've always been confused about Guitar Hero's whizzy stuff for precisely the reason you cite. But I wonder now if it actually exists for the benefit of spectators. It's very much a game fit for playing in the same room as a bunch of other people, taking turns and cheering each other on.

  7. Unfortunately, I agree entirely with you that a defining feature of games is not explicitly seeing the rules, and with Koster that there's fun in discovering them.

    It's why inconsistency is often held up for criticism, and why consistent systems are so pleasing. Nothing more satisfying in Eternal Darkness than getting a zombie to trigger a pressure trap for you, or getting the Doom monsters to fight amongst themselves.

    Not knowing the rules is crucial to games with some of the most effective AI absolutely relying on you not knowing the actually simple rules going on underneath. As we see faces in clouds, we see intelligence in what we don't understand, but seems complex.

    I just found the focus on graphics a distraction from the central argument - it's a supplementary point and, despite its use in the word, not core to videogames any more than sound effects, music or controllers. A tool to be used, yes, but not vital.

    I'm coming from a slightly different perspective though, as I'm literally working on the dictionary definition, and have been thinking about Johan Sebastian Joust etc.

    I'm also a programmer, and who did artists capture games from?

  8. Stopped reading because you broke the fourth wall.

    "You, the reader,..."

    Don't do it, ever.

    1. On behalf of my family, indeed, on behalf of all Americans, I sincerely apologi...

      Wait, what fourth wall? This isn't a novel. You're reading a blog on the internet!