Are video games a medium, at least one deserving scholarly criticism? If we define a medium as “an agency by which something is accomplished, conveyed, or transferred”, it is clear that games are technically media just by showing the player the state of their character throughout the game. But the scholarly importance of video games is muddled by the fact that they are, in fact, games. They have rules and objectives. You can win. There’s no way to “beat” a film or a painting. Even a game with an excellent plot may still be bogged down by gameplay which does nothing to enhance the story.
But while the goal/choice oriented nature of games may detract from areas where other media excel, the ability for the player to make choices and participate in a game’s virtual world introduce a whole new realm of creative possibilities unique to the medium. In “How To Do Things With Video Games,” Ian Bogost attests that “we can understand the relevance of a medium by looking at the variety of things it does.” (Bogost 3) Games can, of course, tell stories in all the ways that books and movies can, conveying information through text and video, but they also include the ability for the player to affect the game through their actions, thus giving them an additional sense of investment and responsibility within the world of the game. It is one thing for a movie to depict the execution of a civilian by a soldier; it is another for a game to have the player take the shot.
This draws to light one of the great limitations of video games – they are pre-rendered, every possible outcome anticipated in lines of code. “When we play games, we operate those models, our actions constrained by their rules: the urban dynamics of SimCity; the feudal stealth strategy of Ninja Gaiden; the racing tactics of Gran Turismo.” (Bogost 4) If this is the case, then it appears to defy intuition that a player can have any true choice. Whatever semblance of freedom the player may have, they are ultimately confined to the options that the games developers had the foresight to account for. This may give players the illusion of choice, but wouldn’t it also deny them true agency? A game’s world is certainly confined to its specifically laid out rules, but is the “real world” much different? No one truly has the freedom to do anything. Individuals are confined by the laws of physics, their resources and their abilities. If we accept that individuals can possess agency in a reality without absolute freedom, why is a video game arbitrarily too confined to allow for a genuine choice? Many games can accommodate every choice a player is reasonably likely to make, meaning a player may never even notice that they lack a truly free choice.
This can be a powerful tool, as in Shadow of the Colossus, where the protagonist is told to hunt down and kill 16 colossi. There is little to do except kill these creatures, but most players never even question whether killing the colossi is morally right. It’s a video game, and you’re the guy with a magic sword! Of course you should kill them. They’re presumably evil. It isn’t until the player has slain many of these colossi that the game begins to explore the implications of killing these creatures. Several colossi will not attack unless provoked. Several appear to fear the player, and fight only for survival. One colossus does not even fight back as it is being slain. The lengthy journeys between colossi, featuring minimal soundtrack and no living creatures but the protagonist and his horse, give the player ample time to ruminate on the implications are of killing what appear to be the last vestiges of life in a barren wasteland. The only real way for the player to avoid killing the colossi is to stop playing the game, but the ethical questions that the game raises hit much harder when the player is first allowed to act without considering them. “Was I rash to assume these creatures were monsters? What do I actually know about them? In another life, what else might I have done without question?” The game may only present the illusion of choice, but the illusion is potent enough.Of course, even if a player appears to be given some choices, they are rarely, if ever, given every choice. Most games are inherently interpassive. Laeititia Wilson of the University of Western Australia defines interpassivity as “a mode of relating that involves the consensual transferal of activity or emotion onto another being or object – who consequently ‘acts’ in one’s place.” (Wilson 2) This mostly manifests in games through pre-rendered actions or scenes. Players project an identity onto their avatar within a game. When this avatar acts without the player’s direct control, players must forgo their agency and accept these new actions as part of the identity they project onto the avatar. In directly plot-driven games, players should identify with the playable character and take the character’s responses to situations as a cue for how they themselves should feel as observers and implicit participants. The line between the audience’s identity and the character’s is slightly less defined in a game than in a movie, but the ability for characters and stories to impact the audience remains consistent across these media. If a character acts in gross contrast to how a player would react to a given situation, it may threaten the player’s immersion within the game, but even without immersion a game’s cutscene is as compelling as a scene from a book or movie.
Besides choice, games offer the potential for players to become immersed in their worlds in ways that no other media can offer. For instance, Braid puts the player in the perspective of Tim, a scientist who uses time travel to return to his past and fix a great mistake. Its gameplay forces the player to view the world as Tim does, with time as a variable to be manipulated. For both Tim and the player, every mistake is impermanent, a minor inconvenience that can be erased with the push of a button. This shows the player how Tim views the world differently from others on a fundamental level. At the end of the game, the ability to reverse time is used to demonstrate how deluded Tim has become about his past and his role in the life of “the Princess.” As the player traverses the final level, the princess appears to flee a large, hulking figure as she removes the obstacles that hinder Tim’s progress. However, everything around Tim is moving in reverse, implying that this is not the true sequence of events. When the player reaches the Princess’s tower, time finally begins to move forward. This time, the Princess is fleeing Tim, laying traps for him along the way. Clearly, though Tim can’t see it, he is the monster of the story. Moreover, he is blinded to his role in the story because he no longer perceives time and consequence like a normal human being.
Braid’s epilogue reinforces this notion that Tim’s reliance on scientific tools has distorted his vision of reality. Several events are presented to the player as Tim, or someone like him, experienced them. However, if the player obscures Tim from view, the event is described from the Princess’s perspective. For instance, consider how this scene:
“He worked his ruler and his compass. He inferred. He deduced. He scrutinized the fall of an apple, the twisting of metal orbs hanging from a thread. He was searching for the Princess, and he would not stop until he found her, for he was hungry. He cut rats into pieces to examine their brains, implanted tungsten posts into the skulls of water-starved monkeys.”
is replaced with one in which the Princess laments Tim’s inability to recognize her:
“Ghostly, she stood in front of him and looked into his eyes. “I am here,” she said. “I am here. I want to touch you.” She pleaded: “Look at me!” But he would not see her; he only knew how to look at the outsides of things.”
Tim’s pursuit of scientific knowledge has again blinded him to the full scope of reality, and directly impedes his ability to be an impartial observer. Braid explores this theme with the interpassivity unique to video games. The player can only see the alternate perspective when Tim is removed from the screen – that is, when the player is no longer viewing the text as Tim.
Video games are still a fledgling medium with numerous uses yet to be discovered. However, they have already demonstrated themselves to be potent tools for creative expression and personal introspection. The ability of a gamer to choose, to explore, to interact with and inhabit the virtual worlds in front of them, ensures that the greatest games will be personal in a way that no other medium can boast.
Braid – http://braid-game.com/
Shadow of the Colossus – http://teamico.wikia.com/wiki/Shadow_of_the_Colossus
Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011. Print.
Wilson, Laetitia. “Interactivity or Interpassivity: A Question of Agency in Digital Play.”Fine Art Forum 17.8 (2009)