October 6, 2012 by jesseal
The question of authorial intent has come up in several of our class discussions, and the responses have been mixed. In the worlds of literature and film, questions of intentionality are generally treated with skepticism –there is a sense that once a work of art has left the artist’s hands, it’s open to whatever interpretation it may lend itself to. That being said, a certain portion of our conversations have been muddled by a conflagration of terms, something that Galloway tries to address, but ultimately fails. One possible summary/critique of Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture could be “Video games have nothing to do with films; now I’m going to write over 100 pages using film terminology.” Despite these difficulties, Galloway’s insights can be useful in approaching the question of authorship in video games. As such, I think it would be pertinent to go back and examine the quote that set off one of our authorial debates in relation to difficulty levels in games.
“A lot of games have been ruined by easy modes. If you have a cover shooter and you switch it to easy and you don’t have to use cover, you kind of broke your game.” – Alex Hutchinson, lead designer on Assassin’s Creed III
As we discussed in class, it’s important to immediately draw a difference between interpreting a text and playing a game. Video game studies involves both of these actions, and we have been very conscious of which we are performing at any given time, but the secondary questions that are driven by these assumptions have sometimes lost sight of this difference. In Galloway’s conceptualization of video games, he “embraces the claim, rooted in cybernetics and information technology, that an active medium is one whose very materiality moves and restructures itself” (3). In many ways, it’s fair to say that his work involves providing a somewhat unique answer to the question, “What exactly do video games mediate?” A scholar coming from literature or film studies will most likely answer this question by saying that video games mediate the world around us. Literature represents events of this world as plot, concepts about this world as themes, and feelings within this world as style. These have analogous actions within film as mise-en-scène, editing, and the image. Video games most certainly do this, most obviously at the level of narrative, but also at the level of the game; this is a perspective concerned with broadly-defined aesthetics. However, a scholar taking Galloway’s approach is more likely to answer this question by saying that video games mediate the specific relationship between two active parties, the operator and the machine. In this light, the creator of a game is not only authoring a text, but encoding an experience, at a completely literal level.
I myself may not be entirely convinced of the difference between static and active media; literature and film generally are considered as amenable to conceptualization as interactive in some sense, and I don’t know that Galloway really “dodges the bullet” by speaking instead of action-based media – as Marshall McLuhan states on the back cover of The Medium is the Massage, “all media work us over completely.” But this at least speaks more truthfully to what Hutchinson is trying to say. By coding the relationship between operator and machine, the creator of a game constructs a network of interaction that has no intentionality as such, until this network becomes an economy. This network contains the rules of the game, but to use this terminology seems overly prescriptive, both in the positive and the negative – after all, rules are always meant to be broken.
By instead thinking about an economy, we can see that a game designer asserts their intentions by incentivizing certain actions. These incentives take many different forms: in order to participate in the game, the operator must use the controls provided; in order to move through the game, they must follow the laws of physics; in order to progress, they must avoid certain obstacles; and in order to win, they must accumulate game currency (points, health, etc.). Thus an economy of action presents itself to the operator in the form of a “path of least resistance” through the game. That isn’t to say that the way to best explore the game is to blindly follow this path; often the most gratifying path through a game is to push up against this resistance, to perform actions that aren’t obviously incentivized and see how this affects the outcome. However, if the very act of creating a video game is fundamentally tied to structuring this relational economy, if a game designer has already spent large amounts of time and effort carefully incentivizing both operator and machine to act in a specific way, to then castrate this economy by making these incentives irrelevant would seem to be fundamentally ungamic. In this sense, Hutchinson’s statement, “a lot of games have been ruined by easy modes,” is a truism; the statement only rings false when applied to video games as heterogeneous, transmedial, cultural objects, rather than video games as games. A more nuanced vocabulary would hopefully avoid such misunderstanding, though this also begs the question; is it even worthwhile to view video games as games, or is their heterogeneity just as fundamental as their networks and economies?