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Computer Game Aesthetics and Media Studies

Paper presented at the 15th Nordic Conference on Media and Communication Research. Reykjavik, Iceland, 11-13 August 2001.

 

Rune Klevjer
Department of Media Studies
University of Bergen

Rune.Klevjer@intermedia.uib.no


This paper, being a point of departure for my doctorate project, will discuss some of the challenges raised by computer game aesthetics as a new field of inquiry in Media Studies.

 

Playing with the representational machine

A computer game is a game. People play together, competing with each other and with themselves. Media Studies have never paid much attention to chess, Monopoly or solitaire. On the other hand, a computer game is also a computer. Tetris (1996) or the early arcade classic Space Invaders (1978) can not be imagined as games outside the computer. They are ways of playing with the digital computer - the paradigmatic technology of our age. This means that computer games is an area of study within the more general field of technology and culture.

Janet Murray, who investigates the narrative potential of computers and computer networks, claims that 'digital environments' has four essential properties: They are procedural, participatory, spatial and encyclopaedic (Murray 1997:71). For my purpose, the 'encyclopaedic' nature of a computer is a subject that can be left out for now. I will borrow the first three categories, with some modifications: 'Procedural' must also imply 'performatory', because the computer executes procedures. And I prefer 'responsive' instead of the more ideological 'participatory' - which is a term more suited for Murray's normative project of the 'new narrative'. When the computer translates and re-interprets the human activity of play and gaming, it can do so because it is a perfomatory and responsive machine, a machine that we can play with. It receives input from us, and then it can do things. While executing its procedures, it demands more input, making us a part of a real-time, ongoing flow of action.

Although central to what the computers' abilities as a gaming machine is about, 'spatial' is to narrow as an 'essential property'. The spatial is rather a dimension of a more general property: the computer's representational powers. The computer is not just a procedural machine anymore. It has screen and speakers, and has become a representational machine, much like the television or the radio, only more playable. This representation is - as implied by Murray - a specifically spatial representation. This is a unique property of the computer. It enables and structures movements and actions. Therefore, space in computer games can not only be subdued under the narrative dimension, as we do when we analyse spatial relationships in a novel or a film.

Among the first phenomena to be represented on a (analogue) computer screen was a game of tennis, Tennis for Two, set up at a research exhibit for the public in 1958 (Hunter 1998-2000) . In 1972, the first commercially successful arcade-game in history, Pong, was built on the same concept: a very simple tennis (or Ping-Pong) representation, with the uncomplicated instruction: "Avoid missing ball for high score" (Winter 1996-1999).



"Avoid missing ball for high score"

 

What was represented in Pong was not a game - only its conditions (or rules) and its basic objects. The game itself had to be played, there and then, in front of the cabinet. The players were playing against each other and the machine through the representation as a mediator. This representation was an interface, making it possible to interact intuitively with the computer's responsive procedures.

At the same time, the interface of Pong or any other computer game is so much more than an interface. It gives meaning to our interaction with the machine, but not as a 'semiotic helper' or a by-product. Unlike other software, the 'interface' of a computer game is the meaningful end of the action. As much as we play with a machine, we also play with the world, because a computer game offers some kind of representation of the world.

 

Computer games - a new medium?

My working definition of a medium is a rhetorical one. If you have nothing to say, you do not need a medium. As far as the game Pong is representing a computer's procedural actions and is making these accessible and playable, I would not call it a medium - only a mediator, an interface to the computer. This computer does not express anything, it brings me no information about the world, only abstract and empty rules. Without a message, there is no medium. The computer is a meaningless, empty machine. Playable, but speechless. The interface lets me operate it.

On the other hand - being a representation of the meaningful act of playing Ping-Pong or tennis, I would call the game a medium. The programmers have provided a meaningful set-up for play. This set-up includes a meaningful idea of the act of playing tennis, and the corresponding necessary conditions. The players find ways of realising this idea (in this particular case, their choice of action is very limited), thereby also realising potential ideological implications in the set-up that they are given.

The computer game is an action machine as well as a representational medium. Other electronic media are also machines, but operating them as such is normally a pure instrumental action (turning the television-set on, adjusting the volume, rewinding the video cassette etc). Idle play with the remote control (like switching the channels every second) is not the standard modus of the television. Including computer games in Media Studies means that this activity of playing the machine moves into the centre of attention, being the essential modus of the medium. This is a theoretical paradox: a medium shaped by the non-rhetoric of play. This paradox is made possible by the technology of the procedural and representational machine.

Historically, the fast-growing representational power of computer games has made them more interesting as an area within Media Studies. Since the days of the first arcade games we have seen a continuos medialization of computer games. Games are no less playable machines today than they used to be 25 years ago, but the rhetorical potential of their representations has become more complex and powerful. This is why watching someone play Tomb Raider (1996) is - after all - more fun than watching her play Space Invaders.

This development is also reflected by the fact that the games industry has stronger relations to the movie industry today than what was the case only 10 years ago. Movies' being made into games has of course been a central feature in the gaming industry since its beginning. There has also been a number of video game adaptions in film, like Super Mario Bros. (1993) or Mortal Kombat (1995), none of them very successful. This year, however, we see for the first time games turned into big-budget blockbuster movies likeTomb Raider (2001) and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). Today aesthetic and thematic influence goes not only from film to games, but also the other way - noticeable in the movie The Matrix (1999). This cross-medialization of game-worlds is another reason why computer games aesthetics needs more attention from media scholars.

 

Narrative and procedural representation

A computer game represents the world in two ways: the narrative and the procedural. Even though these in many ways are conflicting principles of representation, most games combine them for a more immersive gaming experience.

The narrative representations of computer games are mainly constructed around well-known elements from genre-driven popular literature and film. Being crucial cultural frames, they bring established meanings into the game, relatively independent of what the playing is about. Two games of the same genre - say a FPS (First Person Shooter) can be very different in their choice of narrative setting and still very similar in all other respects. This does not mean, of course, that the narrative elements in a game (characters, landscapes, historical setting, plot etc) work the same way as in a film. The narrative appeal is not so much about unfolding events (although it does that too, most often not very successfully), as about giving meaning and sensation to the actions when they are performed by the computer and the player. Through narrative representation, procedures and actions become simulated events. I do not shoot 'objects' in the FPS-game Perfect Dark (2000), I shoot enemies. And when I aim and hit, I do not hit them in 'zone 5' (out of maybe 11) in order to trigger a specific animation. I shoot them in the head, and they sink to the floor with blood on the white wall behind them. This basic textuality in which the action takes place is not a complete narrative, in the sense that an integrated chain of events is conveyed. As Jørgen Kirksæther notes, the textual world of a computer game is rather a fictional framework (Kirksæther 1998). Crucial narrative elements are used to frame the action of the game within a story-world. In many games - like Space Invaders - the construction of such a story-world is heavily dependent on inter-textual reference, the computer game representation itself only providing basic 'pointers' to familiar models of story-worlds within popular culture. Without this narrative frame, the play would loose a lot of its meaning.

Not all games have narrative frames. Computer game representation is either abstract or mimetic. An abstract game, like Tetris, does not offer any narrative elements, no pointers to a story-world. It represents shapes, movements and sounds, but these do not need to bear any resemblance to objects and actions in the real world for us to recognise and play with them. Mimetic games, on the other hand, have what Peirce calls an 'iconic' relation to their referents, although this may be a very simplistic one, like in Pong. The history of computer games has seen a development towards ever more complex and film-like mimetic representations, made possible by the rapid development of computer technology.

As a consequence, most modern retail games offer complete narratives in great detail. One way to look at it, is that a complex narrative frame has many layers, the inner layers being more central to the meaning of the action than the outer layers. When I play Perfect Dark, it is important for me that the objects I 'shoot', are 'bad guys' with 'guns' who 'fight' back, and who can be 'killed'. It is of less importance that I am 'Joanna Dark' on a mission in Siberia, but this definitely adds more meaning (and pleasure) to the play. This is the second layer of narrativity, providing characters, locations, objects and basic conflict situations (in this case it tells me that the enemies are not just bad guys, but more specifically corporate-hired terrorists). It gives me some kind of motivation for performing the specific actions that the game requires, and it gives me a reason for - among other things - why I have so many advanced weapons and smart gadgets at my disposal. As a third layer, then, there is in Perfect Dark also a complete, narrative chain of events framing the gameplay (a very intricate espionage plot involving aliens co-operating with the terrorists). This is undeniably less important than the second layer, but it gives me an additional motivation for making progress in the game. The story is reasonably interesting, and I want to move forward to see how the story unfolds.

The central role of any narrative in a computer game is to provide a pre-written, meaningful set-up for action. This is storytelling with a new purpose, a pragmatic narrative, committed to provide a compelling gameplay, within the limits of the technology.

Procedural representation is a relation of resemblance to (selected) rules in the world, i.e. how the world works when we act in it. Abstract games are games that discard the narrative in favour of the procedural. Two rectangles in Tetris can not occupy the same space, because elements of solid mass cannot do that in the world as we know it. This unique form of representation is a representation of possible actions, a rule-based and spatial representation. It is a kind of 'interpretation' of the world - through which we can come to know it better. It is neither narrative, argumentative nor poetic discourse, but a simulation. Espen Aarseth calls it a 'virtual hermeneutic' and claims that what we see here is nothing less than a new discursive mode, an alternative to the established story-mode of understanding the world. The simulation is a whole new 'interface' to the world (Aarseth 2000).

I think Aarseth is right in this claim, but in computer games there is also a relation of dependency between these to modes of discourse. A playable simulation invites a pragmatic narrative so that it can be more meaningful. An absolute distinction between narrative and simulation can be a problematic one also for another reason: Procedural representations not only simulates physical laws (as in a driving game), but also simulates 'laws' of human relations and human interaction. This is what simulation games like SimCity (1999) and The Sims (2000) are about. Complex, non-quantifiable patterns of cultural, economical, social and psychological processes are 'translated' and reduced into simple rule-based generative systems. The responses generated by these systems are not the result of narration, yet they are 'events'. The story-world in which these events take place is established by a pragmatic narrative, but the exact configuration of a given event is not. If playing the simulation creates significant variations within the narrated frame, procedural representation becomes, paradoxically, an essential part of a new type of man-machine-constructed narration.

 

Agency

Games are more than simulations. A simulation that offers no challenge, no goals to achieve, is not a game. Different games require different competencies, and conceptualising these variations must be a central part of any genre analysis of games. This is what Torben Kragh Grodal is doing, mainly in the tradition of cognitive theory and phenomenology. Comparing games to film, he points out that the gaming experience, even though the 'passive' competencies required by film are also involved, characteristically is an aesthetics of control, or a 'power-based subject-object-structure' (Grodal 1998: 249, my translation). Computer games offer the pleasure of mastery, both visual-motoric and intellectual.

At the same time, the fascinations of computer games go byond the pleasures of acquiring skills and reaching goals. As Janet Murray points out, there is a specifically computer-based aesthetic of agency. To Media Studies this dimension of the game aesthetic is important, because it is the kind of aesthetic that is most intimately related to the computer as a media technology. It is an aesthetic that you will not find in a table game or in a football match. A stand-alone simulation offers agency, but not necessarily challenge and competition, the way a game does.

However, any computer game draws on the pleasure of acting in a responsive digital environment. It is much like driving a car; the fascination comes from the machine's amplification of input when you press the gas pedal. A computer simulation offers you an illusion of this amplification of input. You press a button, and you blow the tank up with a rocket, or destroy the death star. You can change the destiny of your little Sim family with a single god-like decision. In most games, agency and power can at times be enjoyed more or less in its pure form, as the game invites (or at least allows) actions presenting no challenge whatsoever to the player. Who has not spent considerable time in a FPS shooting unarmed civilians, just for the morbid fun of it?

Agency is a more general term than mastery. The procedural machine's intellectual and perceptual responses enable exploratory power as well as controlling power. Executing power as an explorer is to playfully give input to the machine (pull the trigger, walk behind the house, attack with all units etc) in order to see what happens. One of the fascinations of playing with the performatory computer is that the machine gives responses that the player can not predict.

The perfomatory computer can also offer a distinct mode of what Roger Cailloais has named the 'vertigo'-dimension of play (Caillois 1961). This is the pleasure of giving up control, of submitting the senses to spectacular responses, safely within a controlled situation. Unlike other vertigos of play, the procedural alternative always bears with it the possibility of totally controlling the spectacular responses. Giving up control in a computer game is therefore an anomaly, an exception that gives the player the opportunity to disclose the games' underlying appeal of vertigo.

Offering compelling illusions of vertigo and amplification of input, the computer game is, more than any, a medium of attraction - borrowing Tom Gunning's term describing the early, pre-narrative cinema (Gunning 1990). In this respect it has its predecessors and contemporary relatives, not only the cinema, but also the fairground attractions and joyrides. The challenge to Media Studies is to understand how these various attractions are bound to specific narrative representations, and in what way the different forms of such joint-production of meaning is culturally significant.

 

Simulation and ideology

Games are ideological in a very traditional sense, as far as they - being popular and genre-driven narrative representations - tell stories and establish worldviews. One could even argue that the ideological implications of a story in a computer game is more profound, because we participate in it trough our actions. But on the other hand: a computer game is only a game. If nobody cares about the dubious ideology of chess or Monopoly, why should we care about the ideology of a Rambo-like and gory-realistic shooter game as Soldier of Fortune (2000)? This is a crucial question not only to politicians, parents and others concerned with the pedagogical implications of children's play, but also to scholars who are concerned with the cultural and political implications of the object under study. Theoretically, the difficulty lies in the ideological status of a simulation. Does it have any ideological function at all?

If we learn in detail the pragmatic narrative that is set up for a specific game, we would have a complete ideological artefact ready for analysis, just like we would with any novel or film. The playing of the game as a procedural representation would in most cases not add any ideological meaning to the game, because the player is merely acting out the predetermined events of the narrative, realising its potential, just like the reading of a novel would. Therefore, an ideological analysis of the game GoldenEye 007 (1997) would not necessarily be very different from an ideological analysis of the James Bond-movie GoldenEye (1995), which the game is based on.

On the other hand, a James Bond movie contains a near perfect narrative for a game. It is simple, formulaic and follows an action-based subject-mission-logic. Therefore, a simulation is well suited for acting out the basics of this narrative. Making a playable simulation within the narrative of, say, Apocalypse Now (1979) would be a very different thing. Here the simulation would obviously not be able to 'act out' the essential issues in the filmic narrative. A game-version would be a dramatic reduction of the original narrative, leaving most elements out - and consequently end up as a completely different story, probably an action-adventure of some sort. Of course, there is always the possibility of conveying the story through traditional cut-scenes, but the point is that the simulation itself - which constitutes the actual playing in the game - would not be able to realise this kind of narrative as an ideological expression.

The strength of a procedural representation is that it can actually represent how the physical world works, instead of just telling it. This means that you can actually learn how to fly an Eurofighter by practising within a simulation. But a simulation can not represent the processes of human thoughts and feelings, only actions. These actions are represented in a very reductionistic, simplistic and schematic way. It can also represent communication between people as a rule-based system, but this would be an even greater reduction (and a lot of fun, of course). This means that the rhetorical and ideological strategies available to a simulation are very limited, compared to a traditional narrative. It is very hard to convey new insights about human relations through a procedural representation. A simulation can only 'tell' you what you can do, within the limits of the technology and your own physical and intellectual competence.

So the ideological function of the simulation is double-sided: the reductionistic simplicity is not just a basic condition of gameplay, it is also defining the pragmatic narrative that frames it, because the narrative is always (or at least should be) based on the premises of the gameplay, not the other way around. This is why computer games don't even try to be serious. The narrative is there to support gameplay, and through this provide fun, exciting challenges - not to tell you something about the world that you may want to reflect on. It is very hard to use a computer game as an intellectual stimulation, providing tools for understanding your life and society in new ways.

However, the fact that the ideological potential of a computer game is radically restricted by the reductionistic logic of a simulation, does not imply that a procedural representation is ideologically uninteresting. It is true that, in most games, the procedural representation, however compelling, does little else than reproducing - maybe accentuating and strengthening - the meanings inherent in the pragmatic narrative. On the other hand, a simulator like The Sims is an exception, because the game tryes to simulate human relations within conditions of ordinary life. Such a 'relational' or 'social' simulator can realise more of the ideological potential of procedural gameplay. Here, narrative elements are not just a pragmatic set-up for play, but are also involved as integrated parts of the processes that are simulated. The rules of the procedural system - what Gonzalo Frasca calls 'level 2' of the computer game representation (the narrative setting being level 1) - have very significant ideological implications. For instance, acquiring more material goods to your household generates more friends for your cute little Sims. I addition, Frasca shows in his brief analysis of The Sims that also 'level 3', meaning the game-defining rules of winning and loosing (what he and others refer to as the 'ludus' aspect of games) plays an important part in defining the games ideological universe, because "it states what is the goal of the ludus and defines a winning, and therefore a desirable, condition." (Frasca 2001:49).

Although the simulation of The Sims is packed with ideological values and patterns (basically, the game simulates American suburban consumerist life), it is so as a modelled system, and as a ludus prescribing desirable and not desirable responses from this system. Most of the ideology can therefore be analysed by reading the instruction manual or other more detailed description of the rules - easily picked up from the Internet. The actual playing of the game provides no significant ideological choices, and gives no room for what could have been a 'simulational', action-based reflection. One could say that even if the gameplay has an ideology, the actual playing of the game has none.

Still, theoretically, it must be possible to design a gameplay for actions that make the player reflect on conditions of life. This is hardly done yet in commercial games, basically because this is not what we seek when we sit down with a computer game. It could be done, though. Frasca's solution is to propose a new type of games, games that are not reversible (meaning you can not go back and play a stage over again after you 'die', as is the standard routine in most any computer game) and therefore are able to provide a different game experience, with a different narrative, each time you play them through (Frasca 2001).

Frasca's 'video games of the oppressed' is a very radical and exciting idea that speculates on the ideological potential of simulations, but it does not tell us anything about the ideological functions of procedural representations as we know them today. To a certain extent, a principle of relative narrative freedom has been implied in some existing games, like the hybrid RPG/FPS Deus Ex (2000) or the simulator Black & White (2001), although these are fully reversible in a standard fashion. In these games, the procedural gameplay is flexible enough to allow different realisations of a common, more general pragmatic narrative frame. The simulation creates an open field of meaning within the structure of the general narrative, allowing for significant ideological variations depending on the players' actions. More study is needed to assess just how significant these variations are within the fixed and pre-constructed meanings of the pragmatic narrative. This limited 'free space' within the story-world of a game is central to the computer game as a creative and communicative medium, a medium for self-expression and construction of identity.

Finally, there is a way in which a computer game is not conveying any ideological configuration of the world at all. In semiotic terms we are then talking about the simulation as an object, not as a representation, a sign.Ted Friedman, in his study of SimCity, claims that the central relation of the gaming experience is between the player and the game's logic (Friedman undated). The logic of the procedural system is the player's opponent, with which he identifies. In other words: playing SimCity is playing the machine, as an procedural object - a tool for play, a toy, telling us nothing about the world. The simulation genre thus highlights a general feature of all computer games. Mastery and power is directed at the machine as an object and as a meaningful end. It is the players' fascination with this basic man-machine relation that makes all ambitions about re-defining the computer game into a more serious rhetorical medium seem a little irrelevant. Maybe if 'serious' games could offer us intuitive and engaging ideological agency, giving us the chance to actually play with a world of conflicting values and ideas, things would be different.

 

Conclusion

Computer game aesthetics is a paradigmatic expression of the digital computer as a representational and procedural technology. A computer game offers both an interface to the world and an interface to a specific procedural logic, and is therefore both a representational medium and an action machine. The digital computer is the first media technology in history to integrate both these dimensions as its standard operating mode. The growing medializaton of the computer game, as its ability to represent the world becomes more powerful and more complex, calls for a stronger attention from media researchers, while at the same time forcing us to rethink our established concepts of representation, interpretation and ideology.

To indicate a possible direction for further research, I propose the concepts procedural representation and pragmatic narrative, being the computer games' standard modes of 'interpreting' the world so that we can play with it. There is an uneven relation of dependency between the two, but through various forms of co-operation - depending on the genre - characteristic 'interfaces' to the world and to the machine is established.

The procedural technology of the computer is also a responsive technology. Therefore, a computer game is by definition a medium that offers the player the pleasures of agency and power. It gives us an illusion of acting with amplified powers in a living environment, the pleasure of having control, of manipulating a fictional world instead of just being seduced by it. To media scholars this is a relatively new phenomenon within popular culture, based on the principle of procedural representation, or simulation. Clearly, the different manifestations of such a 'manipulative hermeneutic' have ideological implications. Not only does a playable simulation set the premises for any pragmatic narrative that frames it, but it can also act as a 'procedural narrative' itself, through modelling processes of human relations into a rule-based system. We need more studies of how simulations - both the traditional ones and the 'social' ones - work ideologically in different games, and how they interact with the ideological meanings constructed by pragmatic narrative representation.

The social, cultural and psychological mechanisms of competition and play as a human activity in general should not be of central concern to Media Studies. Our field of interest must be the different dimensions of mediation - including new concepts of simulation and agency, as well as the established ones of representation, meaning, narrativity, interpretation, rhetoric and ideology. However, as the digital computer is becoming the dominant media technology of our time, the aesthetics of a medium also as a technological object is getting more visible - being the ever-present twin brother of mediation. The fact that a procedural representation is not only an interface to the world, but also an interface to a responsive action machine, is an unavoidable dimension of computer game aesthetics. The mastery and power that is offered is directed at the technology itself, as well as at the world represented by this technology. Consequently, with computer games we all do the same as the marginal (and academically uninteresting) group of radio amateurs has always done - mixing and integrating the pleasures of the medium with the pleasures of the machine. Part of the motivation for playing a game will always be: what can the machine do this time?


Bibliography

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Films

Apocalypse Now (1979), Directed by: Coppola, F.F. (USA).
GoldenEye (1995), Directed by: Campbell, M. (UK/USA).
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), Directed by: Sakaguchi, H. (USA/Japan).
Mortal Kombat (1995), Directed by: Anderson, P. (USA).
The Matrix (1999), Directed by: Wachowski, L. and Wachowski, A. (USA).
Tomb Raider (2001), Directed by: West, S. (USA).
Super Mario Bros (1993), Directed by: Jankel, A. and Morton, R. (USA).

Games

Black & White (2001), Electronic Arts/Lionhead Studios (USA) [PC CD-ROM].
Deus Ex (2000), Ion Storm/Eidos Interactive (UK) [PC CD-ROM].
GoldenEye 007 (1997), Nintendo/Rare Ltd. (UK) [N64].
Perfect Dark (2000), Nintendo/Rare ltd. (UK) [N64).
Pong (1972), Atari,(USA) [arcade].
SimCity 3000 (1999), Electronic Art/Maxis (USA) [PC CD-ROM].
Soldier of Fortune (2000), Raven Software/Activision (USA) [PC CD-ROM].
Space Invaders (1978), Taito (Japan) [Arcade].
Tetris (1996), Blue Planet Software (USA) [Windows, PC].
The Sims (2000), Electronic Art/Maxis (USA) [PC CD-ROM].
Tomb Raider (1996), Eidos Interactive/Core Design (UK) [PC CD-ROM].

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