Last time we dove into the labeling of the word “Game”, briefly going over how the experience of games are defying any static definition, and began exploring the system of input and change that creates the experience in which we play. We looked at when a title is “broken” with bugs, bringing to light the importance of the system existing as both clear and responsive. Even when we look at games that, apparently, pride themselves on breaking this boundary, CalvinBall; where the goal of the game is to continually make up new rules, the system of CalvinBall is still clearly contained within that rule of making up new rules. Therefore the game is not “broken” but working within its own system. In the comic, Calvin initiates the game and Hobbes follows suit. Were Hobbes to not pick up on the system or play underlining Calvin’s actions, the changing of the rules would subsequently exist outside of play; the game and play suddenly being something external to the moment redefining what the game is. But in understanding the arbitrary changing of the game’s rules as an aspect encompassed within play and the game itself, the system that is CalvinBall remains clear. Changing the rules is encompassed within the rules and the game remains a cohesive experience. By both Calvin and Hobbes giving and returning equally elaborate responses to each other, each player shows the other’s actions to be meaningful to their own progression within the game. The same way that in the game Chess, the movement of each piece has some direct meaning to the opponent’s following movements; the game, the system, must show itself to be responsive. If a button on a controller doesn’t do anything then the game does not exist within that input. Looking back at digital games, if the game glitches where the avatar is simply falling through the game forever, the regular inputs suddenly have lost their meaning in the digital space, the game ceases to be responsive to the player and as a system the game doesn’t exist. It’s here, despite all of our discussion of the objective existence of system that is game, we hone in on the subjective element of relevance. The player’s understanding of the system, as responsive, is inevitably limited to that player’s recognition of what counts as still relevant within the system of play. That is to say if a game cannot argue one of its function’s or mechanic’s relevance to the overall game in any meaningful way, it is not viewed as a part of the game. Imagine a game of Chess, but one where there is dice included; the player is allowed to roll the dice at any point in time during the game, the dice does nothing visible to the outcome of the game. There isn’t any question of the dice being of any importance or a part of the game at all, because as far as the player can tell it serves no purpose.
To cite and explore an example of the fragility of this prose we’re going to refer to sketch comedians Key and Peele’s bit, Fronthand Backhand.
In Fronthand Backhand, Lawrence proposes a game with Tyrel. Lawrence informes Tyrel that in order to play the game he simply has to say Fronthand or Backhand. Tyrel chooses Fronthand and Lawrence slaps him across the face with the palm side of his hand. At this point to the audience it’s clear Lawrence’s “game” was a ruse, simply putting Tyrel in a position to ask to be slapped. That Tyrel was not expecting to be slapped and that the “game” put him in a position to “ask for it” is the punchline of the practical joke. Unexpected to Lawrence, Tyrel continues with the ruse, choosing Backhand this time. Lawrence hesitates, but eventually slaps Tyrel. Convinced Tyrel now understands the joke, that both options have been played out, Lawrence expects this is the end to his ruse and apologizes. Tyrel wishes to continue despite this. Out of the frustration of trying to explain that Fronthand Backhand is not a game but just a trick, Lawrence ends up slapping Tyrel again. Still reading this as the game Tyrel wishes to continue. As Lawrence gives up and goes to walk away, Tyrel claims he’s victorious, and this only starts another “round” of slaps.
While this seems like a complicated explanation of the joke, this introduction will help explore what nuance of the input-interaction system in play creates a game. To Lawrence, Fronthand Backhand does operate within play but it is very specifically not a game. Yet for Tyrel, Fronthand Backhand is definitively a game, specifically, one in which he has an equal opportunity of winning or losing. What’s happening is that Tyrel is interpreting the game to have an extra element. To Lawrence, Fronthand Backhand is only the ruse which leads up to the target being tricked into inadvertently asking to be slapped. Lawrence is “playing” his target and from his perspective the Fronthand Backhand ruse has no input interaction. There is only the premise, in which he sets up the ruse, and the delivery of the punchline, a joke. The target’s input is inconsequential because it leads to the same outcome, meaning to Lawrence there is no meaningful interaction. After Tyrel is hit and continues the ruse, Lawrence might have believed Tyrel to see the game in making a trick choice. Lawrence obliges figuring Tyrel would realize his input is faux, and that both “choices” lead to the same outcome. But Tyrel is persist; to Tyrel the game is not about avoiding getting slapped but in some other strategic outcome. Possibly the game is about being able to outlast your opponent, similar to a version of the game Bloody Knuckles, it’s inconsequential. Tyrel perceives his input to be a meaningful interaction within the system, in that he simultaneously perceives and asserts the system within play to be a game. Where with Lawrence, Fronthand Backhand is a passive experience to the consumer, comparable to communication theorist Marshal McLuhan’s distinction of a “hot” medium, the consumer of the medium’s participation is primarily passive, the medium asking of the consumer to engage only so much as to witness what is being presented. To Lawrence Fronthand Backhand, while encompassed within play simply cannot be a game because it is not asking the consumer to be a part of what is being presented, but simply to witness it. To Tyrel, the prose of Lawrence’s joke introduced an interaction and Tyrel’s participation as meaningful to creating the game. The same way that Chess must be played by both sides, Lawrence and the other’s participation in slapping Tyrel while Tyrel perceived the slapping to be a game, created a definite game. Lawrence and the other’s participation, while mostly unintentionally, established a system of play for Tyrel to interact with. Tyrel reading this participation to be a system and one that his actions had meaningful input to, solidified the “game” aspect of that system. This skit shows for a game to exist, there needs to be a system of play that is clear and responsive and at least one individual interacting within that system.
But how does this apply to digital games?
Imagine if in the last instance of Fronthand Backhand, Tyrel was an arcade machine and that Lawrence’s crew just watched Lawrence walk away, frustrated, from a machine and a rubber dummy that calls for a challenger. After watching Lawrence “lose”, the crew understands that somewhere in this machine there is a system, some means of achieving win or lose states. After a single try at the machine, some players might assume that the game wasn’t really a game and just a gimmick to steal quarters, but many would either toss in another quarter or jump in on the abandoned machine before the last player’s quarter ran out and try to play it. This would be as true for the arcade Fronthand Backhand machine as it would any other new arcade game. The inherent aspect of play within digital games is an exploration of the game as a system, that first play figuring out all the buttons and functions is just as much you playing the game as the last when it’s been mastered. As opposed to in analog games where if you leave out an aspect of play at best you’re not playing it right, often you’re not really playing it at all but inventing something new. For an example in the game Chess, where the pawns don’t return fallen pieces when they reach the end of the board, this is not a traditional game of Chess; but going through Resident Evil 4 without completing 100% of the content or only using the knife, is still playing Resident Evil 4. Video games have the benefit of containing themselves behind the scenes, where players cannot help but interact within and as the system dictates. For an analog game, simply not knowing of the game prevents the game from existing, in the digital game the player often starts not fully knowing the game but in exploring the system still plays it.
The nature of this system leads to the distinct problem of video games having trouble arguing their classification of being a game. As video games maintain their input-interaction system through the program and it showing itself through design the interaction is not always clear. The system’s responses to player input can seem arbitrary and this leaves the players interactions to seem meaningless, leaving the player player wondering where the system is and doubting if there is truly a system at all.
Like CalvinBall there have been video games that make the appearance of the system changing or the mystery of this system, a main element of the game’s narrative, for example in games such as Don’t Move or the popular Stanley Parable, this challenging of the conventional system is always a decided part of the system. And there have been games that operate on the most minimalist of systems where some ask if there is a level of simplicity in system where it is not enough, games part of the newly dubbed “walking simulator” or narrative exploring genre like Gone Home, Proteus, or Dear Esther. Reviewing what we’ve already discussed with the experience of games and the systems at play beneath them, it wouldn’t be fully correct to argue if a system is too simple to be a game, it would only be fit to argue that the system is incomplete. In the past year, there have been a number of titles and instances that have merited the attention of this argument. Titles that have presented the conventional prose of some type of game, but did not present a fully interactive system; that being a system that allows input but does not show a meaningful response to that input. A clear example would be, the now infamous early access Steam title, Grass Simulator, which allows functions but without a response it does not depict these functions as anything meaningful. Being able to move around is only made meaningful by having someplace to go. The title limits the player to a small map where there is no significant value of being in one spot or the other. The title has guns, but bullets have no effect on the world. The map has power ups scattered about; but these power ups, as is the theme with any input the game allows, serve no purpose. This is the equivalent of providing a checker board and checker pieces, were jumping over the opponent’s pieces do not remove them from the board, and there is no way to end the game.
It’s important to note that the distinction of what makes something truly a game is anything but a simple one, it’s only in the individual instances that we come across where the nuanced distinction can appear to be easy to make. And as games are both in their infancy and a lively growing medium, there will be creators that challenge that distinction and build on what games can become, just as the fringe painters and sculptors did for their fine arts.
Regardless of the complexity behind the question or whatever future conventions of play and interaction have in store, when posed the question “what are you doing?” if the answer, “playing” just comes natural; there’s no contest that thing you’re experiencing is a game. Until next time, this has been DeconstructionCraft, I’m Steve Bullin, have fun gaming everyone.