Video games, since their introduction in the mid 1900’s, have come a long way in breadth and scope. When they were first introduced, processing ability was measured in the thousands of operations per second. A game consisted of a blip on the screen representing a person or a ball. Today, with processing ability measured in the tens of millions of operations per second, games are visual spectacles rivaling the clarity and scope of real life. The often-made comparison is that video games are ‘interactive movies’ (Rutgena). I argue that video games act as a medium for communication where storytellers can build an epic world and players can channel a bit of their own personalities into their game avatars.
Ian Bogost states “videogames are a medium that lets us play a role within the constraints of a model world” (Bogost 4). The model is constructed by teams of engineers and artists to encompass the scenarios of play – complex rules that govern the virtual world and what is allowed. This world is a medium through which the writers can express a story, and through which we can express ourselves in the form of an avatar. The avatar is a representation in the game where we can act on its virtual surroundings. Through the avatar, we have an impact on the virtual world, and our decisions produce tangible impacts in the virtual world. Consider the video game ‘Skyrim.’ The player is allowed in the beginning of the game to create his or her own avatar. The player can chose from a number of races and hundreds of different options to customize the character to his or her liking. As a result, a personal connection is made. The medium allows for the player to transfer a bit of his or herself into the game and invest in the character. As an open world game, the player is free to journey wherever he or she wants and follow any storyline they choose. There is no pressure in the game to follow the main storyline, and no pressure to play in a particular manner. Players can choose to be magicians, or warriors, or archers or any combination of skill sets. As a result, they build their own story around the character as they level up, gain skills and make a name for themselves in the world. Players feel loss when their companions die or excitement when a new piece of armor looks really cool on their avatar. In the process of playing, a real connection is made to a virtual character. As a medium, the game has succeeded in creating a connection. Many people get addicted to progression – to keep going back and conquering monsters in dungeons to get that new sword or level up one more time.
It is natural to ask why this should be true – that a connection to the player is made in a game like ‘Skyrim.’ Games are a very powerful medium. Like movies can tell powerful stories through images and media, games too can deliver similar experiences. The difference comes through the interactivity. The ability to control characters and put hours of time into a scenario creates a connection that most mediums are unable to capture. The idea of choice comes into play – that games succeed because they allow players to choose what they want to do and how they want to do it.
Wark proposes in his book “Gamer Theory” that “The gamespace of everyday life may be more complex and variegated, but it seems much less consistent, coherent and fair” (Gamer Theory 32). His suggestion is that games work perhaps because they operate so differently from our world. They must work, as a computer game, on a set of rules defined by the world. As a result, it seems more inherently fair and precise.
Consider another example – the game series ‘Sim City.’ In this video game, there is no story. The player is the mayor of a virtual city with a budget. There are no goals or directions. The mayor is able to place plots and roads and nurture a virtual city and watch it grow. The irritations and mundane realities of being a real mayor are forgone for the satisfaction of placing lots and watching homes rise spontaneously. By playing to the rules of the simulation, a bustling city can be built in no time at all to the satisfaction of the user. What is inherently separated from reality plays to fantasy – the idea of building something through nothing by sheer virtual power. Like Wark says, Sim City removes much of the reality from the game. By dropping more realistic roadblocks in city building and making the player essentially a God in the world, the game world is fair to the user’s demands – to build and destroy.
It follows from the above examples that games are an effective medium for communication between the player and the game and vice versa. Consider a more nontraditional game such as “Flow,” for example. “Flow” has no epic story like big blockbuster games, but it too has an impact on the player. As the game starts, the player is an organism in an underwater world. There are no directions and no indications of where to go. It’s easily observed that moving the mouse causes the organism to move, and that by approaching smaller creatures the organism can eat and grow. With a little bit more experimentation, it can be observed that eating an organism with a red dot moves the player to a deeper level, while eating an organism with a blue dot moves the player to a higher level. The game plants you starting as a lowly creature and you slowly build up until you defeat the final boss. Then you start all over again with a new creature, which you previously encountered as an enemy. The game chooses to start off with no directions or indications for symbolic reason perhaps. The player is a weak organism that has to eat and find it’s way in the world. You find out you can eat others to grow stronger and that others can eat you if you’re not careful. As you grow you learn the way the world works and you can outsmart and defeat your enemies. As a survivor, you were naturally selected to continue your lineage, and at the very end of your journey your organism lays an egg, which hatches back at the beginning. The game tells a story about life and slow progression and is oddly addicting. There’s an anxiousness that is built in the player to see what’s next – to try to get that next stage of evolution or see just how big the organism can get. “Flow” is a game that’s intended to be artistic – to make the player think and interact with a piece of art designed to be beautiful in visuals, audio, and interactivity.
Video games have come a long way since their inception to become artistic masterpieces. They build on established forms like movies, and through the option of choice they allow a new level of involvement for players. They are unique in this manner as there are few mediums that are able to demand so much involvement and evoke so much emotion.
Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011. Print.
Wark, McKenzie. “Agony.” Gamer Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007. N. pag. Print.