This page deals with questions about computer games. My work concentrates on how to further the understanding of interactive experiences. For this reason, I focus on narrative and textual properties to analyze computer games.
Readers of this page should understand that ...
- the computer game is an independent medium with its own artistic language.
- a computer game is a whole world with its own but also reality-dependent laws.
- computer games use computer game mechanics as words for their ability to say something in their own artistic language. The rules of a computer game can be derived from mechanics through interpretation, but they are not directly accessible because the world of the computer game is mediated through a computer processor which builds a representation of the mechanics.
- the computer game medium is expressive and conveys messages implicitly and explicitly. In this regard the computer game can be analyzed with different methods.
- a computer game is the result of an artistic development process.
- computer games help to understand actions.
Games and narratives
Games are activities which are mostly defined by set boundaries. These boundaries influence the actions of the game, but not any other ones. (source)
The difference between a work and a play activity is determined by the type of boundaries which are set either by the world around (work, nearly no boundaries apart from the laws of nature) or the individuals themselves (play).
A game is canceled, if you openly do not limit your actions to the boundaries. On the other hand, if you only pretend to submit to the boundaries of a game and get an advantage in any goal through your actions, it is considered cheating.
There is also the concept of free play as a form of play without any boundaries. But in regard to free play, I would argue that it is not totally free of boundaries but it uses them to concentrate on freely chosen tasks which have no urgent goals.
Computer games use boundaries to create a seperate world that is pre-interpreted by the hardware of the computer. But the broad definition of a game cannot really help at understanding these worlds because it only says that computer games define boundaries. On the other hand, other definitions are mostly too specific to be applicable to the medium (for example if you consider different definitions of games described in ancient literature or game theory in modern literature). Therefore a game definition is not completely useful for the definition of a computer game. But it is still useful to understand that a computer game sets boundaries. But this is a really broad statement.
Narratives are instructed perceptions of specific changes. (source)
Games instruct you to perceive specific changes by showing you different situations and limiting your possible actions to the presented ones. However the presented messages are only part of the experience of playing a game (especially for yourself). Of course, you could say that the emotions are only the consequences of the narrative but this would disregard the accomplishment of mastering the required skills for reaching the intended situations.
With this definition, a game always tells a story because games always allow certain actions that change one state into another which can be considered an instructed perception of change which ultimately can be called a story.
This argumentation leads to a definition of a computer game which cannot fully rely on being a game or a narrative. However a computer game always sets boundaries for player actions and always instructs some perceptions of change. But this is only the first part of the definition of a computer game. In this case it differentiates itself from other media in terms of intended interactivity.
Interactivity in computer games is the reciprocal exchange of reactions between the player and the game. The player reacts to the current state of the game and the game reacts to the input of the player. In this regard interactivity is the ability to change the content of the experience. This interactivity is intended by the designers of a game. Therefore a player can change the experience of a game to a certain extent and have multiple outcomes.
Computer game medium
In terms of communication a medium could be the channel which is used by the sender to transmit a channel-specific encoded message to the receiver, who has to decode the message to understand it. The computer game as a medium could be understood as the channel on which the specific intended experiences of the designers are encoded as mechanics and transmitted to the players, who have to interact with them. The player has to interpret the game to decipher these mechanics and get to the specific meanings or the intended experiences of the message. In this context, playing the game would be the specific decoding process to reach the intended meanings and experiences of the designers.
In another interpretation a medium could be understood as an art form, a group of similar activities that produce artifacts that are intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power. The Computer game as a medium would be the possibility to produce specific works in the category of computer games which are intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.
Both definitions of the medium concept are avenues for understanding the possibilities of working with computer games. The first tries to emphasize the communication part, the second one the artistic part. Additionally there are many more definitions for the concept of a medium. However, I try to focus on the first definition because I also want to see how a compute game can be understood as a text of a specific language which ultimately can be viewed as a tool of communication.
Computer game mechanics and genres
Genres are categories of a medium that include groups of characteristics and exclude others. (source)
Computer game genres encompass groups of mechanics, which can be understood as motifs. (source)
A mechanic is an understandable description of the interactive possibilities of a computer game which are written in the code. It is therefore a fundamental building block of a computer game, next to game bits which are the used audio-visual assets.
The code of a game is the part of the program that describes and controls all the other parts of the game. If something is not written in the code, it is not possible in the game.
A motif or a trope is a smaller more concrete narrative element that has a certain consistency over different texts. In contrast a theme is a more abstract narrative element like a feeling or a specific aesthetic. And a subject matter or the Stoff of a work is a bigger narrative element and is the base for different works with a similar plot.
Textuality of computer games
Textuality is the property of an object to be a text. If an object has all characteristics defined by a specific textuality, it is considered a text. (source) It can be used to check the status of a specific research object.
The textuality of computer games has to be resolved to explain the usage of narratological (plots, events, characters) and textual (intertextuality, language) methods for the analysis of computer games. Maybe both can be generalized through a broader definition of text as a medium (similar to the usage in film studies), but ultimately these methods were developed for natural language texts. Therefore computer games should be theoretically linked to a definition of text which can explain the structural properties of every language and not only the specifics of a natural language.
I consider computer games texts because textuality can be fundamentally connected to the hierarchical relationship of a text to its different languages, specifically Lotman's understanding of different artistic languages. (explanation, source)
An artistic language is a language based on top of a physical medium that uses the medium to convey something through its specific selection of symbols. Every genre or literary period has its own artistic language with its own symbols that convey not only the content of one specific text but also information about the medium, other entries of the category and also possible emotions. An artistic language develops further through the structure of similar but not identical artistic texts. The main question of the analysis of an artistic language is to clarify how an artistic text is able to convey a thought inside the language.
Subsequently I try to focus on how computer games can convey thoughts and if there is a specific artistic language that is only available for them. Such an artistic language could be available by considering computer game mechanics as symbols and also as narrative devices (because they always describe changes).
Textology of computer games
Textology is a method of looking at the characteristics of a specific text as the representation of more general concepts. This in itself shapes the understanding of the concrete text, and therefore the personal understanding of rhetorical devices, the genre and the medium as a whole. You do not use a fixed tool kit of concepts to work on a specific text. Instead your given concepts are heuristics and should be critically revised by analyzing text after text. For example, what a metaphor is can only be defined by analyzing it in context of a specific text. Similarly, what a text artistically can be can only be defined in terms of analyzing specific texts. (source)
A textology of computer games would be interested in the questions that define a specific computer game as a computer game and how those qualities shape our understanding of this specific game, the genre and the medium as a whole.
1. How was it published? What does this publishing say about the development process? How is the development process visible in the game? (Endres/Pichler/Zittel 2017, p. 3)
2. Different versions of mechanics and games, the development over an early access phase where significant changes in the inner workings of the game are possible and
Game elements, game mechanics and game bits
A game element is any unspecified but seperated object inside of a computer game. It is a broad term, but you can use it, if you do not want to specify which part of the game you want to talk about.
The code of a computer game describes the game in its entirety because the code controls all the parts of the game. Mechanics are a human-understandable abstraction of the code and describe the possibilities of the game. Game mechanics can also describe the arrangement and possibilities of game bits such as sound and visuals concerning their spatial and temporal conditions.
However in many circumstances the game bits are seperated from the mechanics because this helps designers to have a specific word just for the art assets that were or look like they were produced independently from the code. Anyway game bits could also be produced by the code (for example in pixel or sound manipulation games), but in many situations they are not.
Pixels are small areas arranged in a grid which can be individually colored. They are responsible for everything you can see on a display.
Game mechanics as narrative devices
1. If mechanics are responsible for all the possible experiences inside a computer game, they also have to contribute to the narrative and the story line possibilities.
2. The experience of a story is connected to the perception of change. If something changes and we do perceive at least a part of this change, we can describe this as a story. In this regard you could assume that you were instructed by the medium to perceive the change.
3. Mechanics are narrative devices because they describe possibilities of change in the player experience.
4. The mechanics of a computer game are also perceivable and can get cultural significance, in which case you can convey something by using specific mechanics.
5. These forms of intertextuality go beyond the narrative devices of a rather story-driven game because mechanics encompass all actions.
Popularity as a factor to describe short term and long term consistency of computer game mechanics
- Popularity is an integral part in economic decisions because you want to maximize your target group. If something is popular it reaches per definition a big audience.
- mechanics are narrative devices and can be understood as specific narrative elements, as motifs
- Consistency is the major characteristic of motifs because it describes that a phenomenon has happened repeatedly
- In the case of motifs consistency depends on the usage of the narrative element over different texts, which encompasses different times
- short term consistency means that a motif is only used in a short time period, long term consistency is the opposite
- popularity is a major influence on short term consistency because as long as something is popular you have a greater incentive to use it - incentives could be money, bigger audience, easier to implement, better understanding for the player because the motif is known and doesn't need to be reintroduced
- something can get so popular that it gets implemented in the long term consistency of motifs
- this means that something gets picked up, because it fulfills some basic needs like the possibility of a single player game.
The medium problem; and the problem of completing the development of a game while playing it
- Is there a difference between a game that is played through the medium of a computer (such as a game that only uses words in a chat and not any computational interpretation abilities) and a computer game?
- There are two aspects to this probem. Firstly, it is not clear, if the digitality of the definition of a computer game is refering to the usage of a processor to simply play an arbitrary game or the usage of a processor to build a narrative world. Secondly, it is not clear, if the game is finished in its development after the interpretation of the code in the hardware or if the game is only finished, when a player's interpretation specifies the understanding of the rules of the game.
- 1. The digitality refers to the ability of a processor to create a narrative world. If the game mechanics are not interpreted by the processor, it is not a computer game because the computer is not needed to play the game.
- There are other possible answers. For example, you could view the computer as a necessary part to play this specific form of the analogue game. Therefore the hardware is necessary to play exactly this game. In this case, the game can be considered a computer game. But in most cases the hardware is irrelevant.
- 2. The game is artistically completed by playing it because for playing a computer game, you do not need to play it properly, you just need to start it and try to engage in some of its mechanics. Therefore the game changes fundamentally with your play style. However this is very tricky in artistic products because you can use a product in different ways. For that reason designers have to rely on a cultural understanding of actions, which lead to games fundamentally be considered products of a designer who has to consider a spectrum of play styles as possible variations. This is not applicable to this scenario because the rules are not implemented as mechanics which again are not interpreted by the computer. The rules of the specific game are only available as direct interpretations of the participating players.
- In my opinion, a game played with a computer is not considered a computer game, if 1. the computer is not necessary to play the game and 2. the mechanics of the game are not interpreted by the computer hardware.