Two years ago, during the height of the British General Election, I helped with phone canvassing for the Labour party campaign. Phone canvassing, for those who don’t know, is when political parties engage with likely voters over the phone. Asking whom they’re voting for, whether they usually vote etc. During my time canvassing, I got to use Labours “virtual phone bank” and it struck me how much like a videogame the interface was. Phone Canvassing goes off a script, with the caller asking questions and looking for the voters response to tell him what to say next according to the script. Labours interface only has the current question that you’re asking and various buttons (green for more likely, red for likely but undesirable and grey for unlikely) to enter the response. The conversation can quickly branch into what would be a deep conversation down a script without the caller having to search for anything.
Fast forward to now, the 2012 US Presidential elections and I got to take a look at the system that the Barack Obama campaign uses for their telephone canvassing (I didn’t make any calls, too expensive) and it’s shocking how different and less intuitive it is. Callers literally just have the script of all possible conversations infront of them and must do their best to pick the right path through it.
So this got me thinking about the interactivity of Labours system, and how just one small step towards videogame made the system so much more intuitive and easy to use. And while I have no doubt that its designers were not at all thinking about making it fun when they designed it, aiming instead for ease of use and not letting the callers die of boredom it goes a long way to show how interactivity can make an activity so much more engaging.
Onto question two!
What is Gameplay?
Gameplay is the interactions between the player, the internal processes and the display of a game.
Gameplay is (but is not always recognized as) the single most defining aspect of a game. Like the words of an author or the brush strokes of a painter, it holds any and all thematic meaning a game has, and transcends visual art or story. Unfortunately, the as-yet undiscovered and seemingly subjective qualities of “good gameplay”, coupled with the relative immediacy of a games visuals or sound mean that most of the game play we receive lacks any deeper goal than providing a fun experience.
While perusing the university library last week I came across a book, Difficult Questions About Videogames. Its back-cover tell me that it is:
“…a unique and vital document of the state of contemporary thinking and opinion on this mos pervasive, important and misunderstood of popular cultural forms.”
So, marketing aside, what is it actually? Well, the authors invited 71 people to answer thirteen different questions about videogames, from defining what they are, to what they should become. As a bonus, the contributors were names I actually recognised, like Ian Bogost, Warren Spector or Chris Hecker. The people who are actually important in this industry is a constantly changing list, so it was nice to see some people who I could take seriously. It appears that the publishers of this book intended it to be part of a massive series that would prompt gamers to think about the games that they are playing, 8 years after its publication however I can’t find evidence of it on the web. The web address they give goes to this very garish clothing website: http://www.publicbeta.eu/
Anyway. Why am I bothering to talk about this book? Well, I though I would have a go at answering the questions as a way of collating my thoughts and to avoid staring at someone glassy-eyed when one these questions eventually comes up somewhere or other. So, without further ado:
What is a videogame?
A game played on a computer, usually using a monitor or a digital display as an interface between the two. That’s the easy part of the definition. The hard part comes when you try to define what a game is.
A definition of a game would go something like; a system of rules designed to test skill in a particular area (mental, physical etc.) There must be at least one human player, and the system is usually somehow scored in order to determine whether someone (or whom) won.
But even this definition doesn’t go very far to describe what a videogame can achieve or what makes them unique, it’s just too clinical. The most obvious standout part of a videogame is the fact that it is interactive. Continued iterative computation of the rules/laws coded into videogames coupled with the constantly changing inputs from the player produces complexity never seen before in any gaming medium. The seemingly emergent behaviour this causes is what makes videogames as addictive and immersive as they are. Eventually, videogames are going to be one of the expressive mediums, an art. Videogames will be propaganda, manifestos, poetry and treatises. But not yet, more study is needed into the aesthetics and cultural aspects of games before we can really claim to be on the same level as literature or music.
It’s important to note that I don’t really like the name ‘game’ to describe what we do or make. Not because of any semblance of childishness it may invoke, but rather the idea that what we make must be in some way competitive or possess goals. Insisting upon calling these things games unfairly excludes important pieces of work, such as The Sims, whose lack of goals mean it is much more apt to describe it as a toy. While this may seem just like an argument over semantics, if we seek to branch out into different methods of interaction or to explore different and new themes we will not be put off by petulant pedantics, imediatly disregarding what we have made because it is “not a game”, this happened with ‘Dear Esther’ and will only happen more as game developers become braver. As to what we should call these things, I like Interactive media as a nice catch all. But if we convince enough people that games don’t have to be “games” then we won’t need a new name.