J. Nicholas Geist wrote on this phenomenon in his essay A Murderer’s Work. He artfully examines the differences and similarities between a violent videogame, and the violent running of the bulls. Bioshock is the game in question. It is a game about a fallen utopia under the sea, filled with death, destruction, and suffering. Geist’s interactions with Rapture’s citizens is described in ways that make it clear how absolutely desensitized he is to the violence within. Deaths are innumerable, and while killing is amusing at first, Geist finds himself doing so without thought because that isn't what is compelling him. Instead, he's focused on making his way toward Andrew Ryan. His narrative switches between Rapture to Madrid, Spain. Geist is uneasy in the stands. The violence he’s watching alongside a cheering crowd is affecting him. The matador is slashing the bull and bleeding it to a bleary, semi-conscious state. The dance draws to an end with the matador taunting the bull, one last time. The weary, dying beast charges and the tip of the matador’s blade pierces its skull. The sublime interplay between the graceful matador and bull is the core of the running of the bulls for many people. Its terrible beauty resonates with them.
Geist has no empathy for splicers, yet he claims a sublime beauty within Rapture akin to the events he witnessed during the running of the bulls. Within Bioshock’s narrative is a famous plot twist. The “would you kindly” that takes the role of a player as complicit in their actions, and manipulated by the game itself, towards the violence they engaged in happily up until this point. It strikes on both the narrative level, and on a meta-manipulation level. The player complicity follows the directions of the videogame without ever stopping to question if what they were doing was right. The climactic reveal of the player-character’s brainwashing is followed by him beating his father to death with a golf-club, and it is done at his father’s own command.
There is a relationship that is formed between videogame and player. One not unlike Matador and bull. Bioshock defied tradition, it made the player the bull. There Geist sat, controller in hand, learning of his character’s brainwashing. He was staggered and made weak by the betrayal of trust implicit in gaming, trust that the game was meant to be just about fun. Yet headlong, proud, he charged forward, towards Andrew Ryan. Still so certain of a positive outcome, the red flourish the narrative had taunted him with only made him press on harder. Then the famous scene played.
For Geist, Bioshock’s infamous words “would you kindly”, choked through a dying father’s gritted teeth, still sends chills down his spine.
Videogames can be impactful; I think Geist represents that capability well in his essay. Still, as someone who experienced this impact as well, I wonder what peculiarities of the human mind allow this.
Mirror neurons, possibly.
Mirror neurons are a recently discovered phenomenon. They are neurons that activate both when an action is performed, and when the same action is observed. They facilitate imitation, and possibly serve as a way to infer another’s inner state. Essentially, if you observe someone pulling a lever, the neurons that activate when you pull that lever are also activating when you observe that action. These neurons have been implicated in more than imitation. Use of them has been found in language, empathy, and even theory of mind.
Why is this relevant? It is relevant because videogames enable exploration into that which cannot be reasonably explored. We can delve into amoral or impossible situations and engage in them almost as though those experiences were real. Videogames allow us to drive along sidewalks, invert gravity, paint a world, or destroy it. While these experiences are detached from reality, they serve as catharsis, thought experiment, and a way to gain perspectives besides one’s own.
Mirror neurons activate upon the observation of a mere grimace, therefore it is not unreasonable to extrapolate that mirror neurons activate when we engage in correlating game experiences. Think of the individuals who shift and sway when driving a vehicle in a game, especially in the context of that having no effect on the game whatsoever. While there may not be a specific set of neurons in any given mind that can imitate using a chainsaw/machine-gun hybrid to saw an alien in half, taking the action is immensely satisfying. Possibly even more so because it is not something that individual could ever, or would ever do.
YEAH, YEAH, TAKE THAT STEVE! ER, UH, I MEAN LOCUST!
New research even indicates that the capacity games have for such role-playing as a desired self has a positive effect on self-esteem. Considering these factors I see a videogame as more than a window into the unknown, they function as a doorway. We can step through them as individuals, or as a group, to discover introspection and expression not found elsewhere.
Videogames are also dramatically compelling, and they allow those who partake in them meaningful action within a dynamic space. This is particularly something videogames are good at because they demand direct interaction and engagement from those who play them. Thus, players have a sense of agency while playing games. This may seem an obvious and even insignificant factor. However, when put into the context of other forms of consumable entertainment, film, fine art, theatre, and literature, it is critically different.
Agency is the philosophical and sociological concept of an agent, such as you, having the capacity to act in a world. The agent in videogames is often the player character, or group of characters, a player controls. Human agency is defined slightly differently from agency as a general term; specifically, it is the capacity for human beings to make meaningful choices. This agency is a critical element of the human condition, and when stymied results in frustration.
Life’s highs and lows stem from an abundance or deficiency in agency. Basically, when you cannot do what you want to, you become frustrated. Inversely, succeeding in obtaining your goals and desires is satisfying. This is a fundamental aspect of being alive, yet we thrill in experiencing the same in a false reality. This is because videogames are complex systems that enable players to make meaningful choices within them. The ability to make meaningful choice in a videogame creates more engagement and variance in experience than any other art form.
All fine and good, but what exactly is meaningful choice? If marketing is to be believed, that choice would be between Paragon and Renegade. I’m of a different opinion.
I’m Commander Shepard and I am my favorite cipher of the industry.
A game’s highs and lows are rooted in the successes its systems and its players define. As a creation that has finite definition, like the borders of a painting, a videogame has to have boundaries for a person to play within. These boundaries typically include rules for success and failure. Failure is often prototypically described by character death, and success with level completion. However, a player, as an agent of his or her own will, can define their own successes and failures within these boundaries. The experience of play is influenced by the player’s personality, and they can shift it consciously, because they decide how they are going to play the game. Just as you can reinterpret the meaning of a book, you can redefine the experience of a game.
Hey Ash’s often physically abused Anthony Burch altered the entire experience of Far Cry 2 by his own agency. Ignoring the game’s mechanic based attempt at balancing its difficulty with respawns, he opted for a permanent death play-through. Meaning if his character ever died in the lethal first person combat, he would stop playing that run. Besides being completely insane, this served to utterly change the experience for Burch and others using the same self-imposed limitations.
enjoy the malaria
A permadeath rule is one of many self-imposed rules players can use. Players of games have been speed-running, sequence breaking, and low-percent completing games for decades. A game does its best to guide the player, and good game designers recognize the need to provide players with motivation. Still, the best games are played time and time again by gamers because of the depth that exists both in the game’s design, and in a player’s willingness to create new experiences within these bounds.
Before videogames, only “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels and experimental film/theatre allowed consumers choice, and to very limited degrees. Otherwise a consumer’s choice was limited to whether or not they consumed the product. Players in videogames are integral to the experience to a greater degree than their choice to engage with them or not. A player’s motivation and personality come through in their play. The more ambiguous a game is, the more a player can project themselves onto a virtual character, and the more their personal tendencies appear within the game’s dynamics. Don’t take my word for it, Thaddeus Griebel demonstrated this scientifically. As an effort to justify using a videogame as a projective test of personality, Griebel experimented with The Sims 2.
The projection of personality is the human tendency to perceive and place a bit of themselves into everything they encounter. Griebel demonstrated a measurable effect of personality projection through videogame play in The Sims 2. The player identified with a singular Sim as themselves. The participants in the study were asked what behaviors they made their self-sims engage in, and to rate how much they enjoyed engaging in those behaviors. With statistical reliability at the .05 level, that’s pretty damn good by the by, Griebel found a correlation between the behaviors players engaged their Sims in and their results on the Neuroticism Extraversion Openness Five-Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI).
As an aside, the NEO-FFI was created from the Big 5 aspects of personality most professional Psychologists align with.
All of this demonstrates the influence of a player’s personality on their play experience. Whether in an ambiguous game like The Sims 2 that has no “right” way to play it, or a highly structured game like Super Mario Brothers with defined goals, a player can always define his own play experience.
Nascent authors and painters are often informed that their works will be interpreted in ways they could never imagine. Our individual realities are subjective experiences and videogames are no exception to this rule. Therefore ambiguity, a tool used to brilliant effect in fine art and literature, is also a fantastic tool for videogames. In particular, a videogames capacity for self-expression within its bounds is so potent that it can be used as an effective test of personality.
Opposing ambiguity as a function of player choice are narrative options in games. Options are one of the more defined selling points of contemporary roleplaying games. Bioware and Obsidian Software are famous for making role-playing games whose depth relies on a player’s agency within their game worlds. Yet the games they create, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Neverwinter Nights, etc, tell linear stories. Both companies’ games sell incredibly well and they sell on the factor of choice. Yet the choices they offer are illusions, because the introduction will inevitably lead to the same end.
Philosophically, the same can be said of a human life. We are all born and we all die. What makes life worth living is our ability to make meaningful choices within it, our aforementioned human agency.
Bioware’s epic, Knights of the Old Republic was full of moral decisions, plot twists, and interpersonal relations between player character and non-player character. The PC seemed fully defined by the player’s choices in dialogue and the almost all occurrences in the game appeared to result from what the PC had decided. At the broadest level, the defining difference between one form of player choice and the other was good and evil. On the first play-through players often chose exclusively one side, and reportedly were always blown away by the narrative and general game experience. However the second play through of the game, on which the opposite choice of light or dark was usually made, KOTOR remained strikingly similar. Bioware had played a brilliant trick on us. The second time playing KOTOR was never as amusing as the first.
Still, the novelty found in agency, even half-false agency, should never be underestimated. Players often completed their second play-through despite the repetition, and the thirty-some-hours it would take, because they enjoyed the illusion of the first epic they experienced so greatly. The joy in knowing your decisions matter is lasting, and even the illusion of this makes for a compelling experience worth high marks in the industry. Great game designers offer either the freedom to make meaningful choices, or the illusion of meaningful choice, and occasionally both.
Videogames are a new form of engaging interactive entertainment. They primarily serve as products, but I believe they can also be artful, educational, and evocative. Videogames can be reduced to assets, programming, and inputs on a controller, yet they can also characterize and influence the human condition. They can serve as vehicles of agency, examinations of human tendencies, joyous experiments of introspection juxtaposed against bizarre situations, and so much more. The values of videogames are found in their engagement of you, the player. Be it a character cipher, mirror neurons, or player choice, you are experiencing it. Videogames are played, and that makes them potentially the most important art form created in human history.
Thank you for reading.