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The Incomplete Language of Gaming

Much of the basis for my thinking about the language of gaming from this article by Matthew Sakey.  There is, in particular, one portion of that text I want to focus on.  He writes:

As [Steven] Poole noted, much of film’s critical language can be transplanted without alteration into the world of gaming. Concepts of narrative style, perspective, shot construction, and mechanics should be able to switch parties without too much confusion. But just as film couldn’t use theatre’s language as its own, the inherently more complicated medium that is gaming will need to find its own language for a significant portion – say, more than fifty percent – of its own academic vocabulary. The process will be an evolutionary one.

Sakey does a good job at filling in the history of film theory and how its history matches and diverges from the history of game theory.  I want to look at a different aspect of game theory however.

Perhaps we could best do that by examining two games: Half Life 2 and Mass Effect 2.  HL2, and its sequels episodes 1 and 2, allows the gamer to fill the shoes of scientist turned freedom fighter Gordon Freeman.  HL2 has been hailed as one of the best shooters in recent years.  I played it.  I loved it.  I finished it.  However HL2 is linear in nature. The player moves from one point to the next, overcoming enemy soldiers, aliens, and aircraft all the while.  To developer Valve’s credit, HL2 features some memorable characters, not the least of which is Freeeman’s companion Alyx Vance.

The NPC Vance, based on actress Jamil Mullen’s face, is voice phenomenally by Merle Dandridge. Vance comes across as quite believable and the player finds himself/herself concerned when she is injured.  HL2 contains several other quality NPCs and one could say that the beauty of this game is that as you move though blasting enemies, you also find that you have become immersed in the world of Half Life thanks to the memorable characters you meet.

Many games are structured just like that.  You move from place to place in order to find someone or blow up something or some other goal.  Sometimes there are large set-piece battles and other times there are cut scenes where you receive your next assignment.  Find problem.  Solve problem.  Find new problem.  Now if all games were like that, then it would certainly make more sense to use the language of film to describe video games, at least for content, since the beginning, the middle, and end are always the same.  However games have that one feature that will forever separate them from film: interactivity.

To use the term “interactive” is to use a word that is dynamic in nature.  The meaning differs from game to game.  In HL2 is means changing the environment slightly by moving objects, opening doors, or killing enemies.  As long as you overcome and progress, you will eventually reach the end.  That end never changes.  If the programmers decided that an NPC is going to die, you cannot change that.

As we have seen, Mass Effect 2 is different in that by the end of the game you have decided, by your actions, which NPCs live at the end of the game. You can even lose Commander Shepard and will not be able to import him/her into Mass Effect 3 if you make enough bad choices.  Likewise the ending will change somewhat in response to your actions. Yes, the bad guys will still lose, but there are several choices you must make that will play a significant role in ME3. Also, characters that die are sill dead for the final game in the trilogy.  It is this different that truly separates games from film. The language must accurately express how the player can now alter his/her experience every time he/she plays.  If you look at gaming in that light, then yes, the language of gaming is, as Sakey expresses, incomplete.

So how do academic researchers begin to create this language?  The first thing we have to do recognize where gaming does and does not intersect with other media.  One of my first papers as a doctoral student was to apply cultivation theory to video games.  This theory, first made popular by George Gerbner, was one of the first we learned in communication theory; I used it because most of video game theory has its roots in other media, especially television and film. (If I were to write it today, I might very well ask if playing video games helps to combat the mean world syndrome instead..oh well.)  The quote I pulled from Sakey reminds us that some conventions of gaming and film are the same and that’s okay.  But we think of video games as little interactive movies, we do both media a disservice.

The second thing we must do is play more games.  Or at least make sure our studies involve participants playing more games.  How many studies have you read where participants only played for a few minutes? This may work if the researcher seeks information of aggression levels after a session.  However if we want to know how players feel after completing tough objectives or how difficult it was to make a moral choice or even how they feel about the outcome of a game after playing for 20+ hours then we must be willing to play or watch other plays for extended periods and use our instruments accordingly. I believe these extended sessions will help us see how player input changes not only the outcome of the game and the virtual environment, but also the player himself/herself.  And that will allow us to add to the language of gaming.

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