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7:32 PM on 01.09.2008

GiA: What is a Game?

9 January 2008

What is a game?

Today's discussion, and the readings attached to it, all discussed the question of what actually creates a game. This is almost always the first discussion classes which revolve around media criticism seem to tackle, and it is always a very, very frustrating one. It was made slightly more frustrating (and lecture-styled, rather than discussion) by the fact that the bookstore ran out of the required book, so I could only do about half of the reading. The readings I missed were lectured on, and I took notes on them, but I won't really be able to give any response until I've read the primary text itself.

The teacher posed a question which was never really answered – he asked it in the middle of a discussion of the function (or necessity) of rules in a game - “Why do we need to define what a game is?” The readings all had different interpretations of what a game was, some of which were shifted because of cultural and technological changes over time, and every one had definitions which had different elements but ultimately felt inadequate. And, in truth, they were. So why did we pore over all this reading, especially considering that to define what a game is, specifically and completely, is practically impossible, as a game is a somewhat abstract concept?
To me, it seems to be a larger version of the argument of genre. In music, for example, it seems to be almost counterintuitive to classify music into genres; if music is unique in some way, then to classify it into genres is to eliminate that uniqueness and render the idea of that music as existing as something new void. But really, that's not the function of classifying a song or a band into a certain genre. Instead, classifying music into genre, or something into a game, creates a hierarchy of traits; it tells us what seems to be the most important traits, and this gives us clues as to how to interact with something. We classify, for example, role-playing games with strong narrative structures as video games rather than novels because the key element is still the specific way in which the observer interacts with the game (a topic which I will go into later in this entry). This enables criticism; if you have a set of criteria for a game, then you can rate that criteria. But a definition is also exclusionary, it tells us what is not included in the definition. So, when we look at something we have defined as a game, when we see things that are not necessarily within the definition, here we can see what is new, and revolutionary. Basically, we create a definition of “a game” so that we can see how the concept of a game expands. This also gives us a definition of what a game is not, which is oftentimes and easier definition to work with.

Most of the readings actually weren't that concerned with strictly video games; a number of them were written long before the advent of video games, and even computers. Crawford's “What Is a Game?” addresses video games in the midst of analyzing what makes other kinds of games unique amongst themselves (children's games, gambling, etc.), and Juul's “Video Games and the Classic Game Model,” chooses to analyze in what ways video games fit into the idea of games, but the most intriguing reading was Galloway's “Gamic Action in Four Moments.”
Galloway analyzes how games differ from other forms of media, and why this is important. His idea is, basically, that what separates video games from, say, photography or movies, is that video games are action; that is to say, rather than watching or looking at, one plays a game. He decides there are four kinds of action. First, he says, it can be broken up into diegetic and nondiegetic, terms borrowed from other forms of media criticism. Diegetic, he explains, is that which is within the game's narration, whereas nondiegetic is that which exists outside. An example: in World of Warcraft, the characters are diegetic, but their names appearing above them, and the HUD, are both undiegetic. He then says that these two actions (despite my explanations, we are still talking about actions) can be divided into whether they are performed by the machine or the player. For examples (this time of action), he gives us these: Non-diegetic, machine: Power-up, game over, network lag; Non-diegetic, human: configuring, pausing; Diegetic, human: move, fire; Diegetic, machine: ambience act (think about how Link scratches himself as if he's bored when you haven't done anything for a while in the more modern Zelda games).
What is most interesting about this to me is how games are working in certain ways to expand beyond this, to defy expectations. Galloway smartly points to the Psycho Mantis battle in Metal Gear Solid to illustrate how they are not mutually exclusive, and there are many more examples in the Metal Gear Solid series. He also cites the Metroid Prime series (and Assassin's Creed also does this) for taking what is normally the nondiegetic, the HUD, and making it diegetic.

By the end of the class, we obviously didn't have a complete definition of what a game was, but as I said earlier, that was never really the point – it was a jump-off to analyze what makes games unique in our world, and further, what makes video games unique from not only other games, but other forms of media from which it borrows.

Reading for today:
Galloway, “Gamic Action in Four Moments”
Juul, “Video Games and the Classic Game Model.”
Crawford, “What Is a Game?”   read

2:50 PM on 01.08.2008

New Blog - Gaming in Academia

8 January, 2008

Yesterday, I had the first meeting of the class I am absolutely the most excited about taking this quarter, The Aesthetics of Video Gaming. I thought some people might find the class – which is concerned with assessing video games as a form of new media, and exploring the ways in which it functions like other forms of media, and how it differentiates itself from these previous forms – interesting, and might want to read about my experiences.
The goal of this blog, then, is to relay a few things: primarily, I want to pass on some of the knowledge (admittedly secondhand) I glean from the readings and the class; secondarily, I want to give personal responses to the readings to the readings and other activities we do in the class; also, I want to give a reaction to the class itself – what I liked, what I think could be improved, and what I think is challenging about teaching the class. The blog won't have a specific schedule, but it will update at least twice a week (class meets on Monday and Wednesday). I haven't yet decided exactly how I'm going to format these updates, but for right now it seems I will be updating with reactions to the previous class and reactions to the reading for the next class in the same update. This entry will test that format.

The first class was, as most first classes are, little beyond an introduction and deciding the mechanics of the class. However, a few things did become apparent. One, is that the teacher is not a gamer. He acknowledged this, and also acknowledged that he has little experience beyond playing in high school, though he is trying to remedy that. He is a media critic, though, and this, I feel, qualifies him in two important ways. For one, he has experience that, although not game-specific, is certainly applicable to games in general. Secondly, I think being removed from the “gamer culture” allows for a certain degree of objectivity – he doesn't have a bias to declare games art, though that is a topic we will discuss, or to hold them up as the pinnacle of storytelling, and so I am hoping this ability to be objective reflects itself in the way the readings are interpreted.
I haven't yet decided whether it is his lack of gaming history or simply a dearth of academic literature on video games which have influenced his decisions as to what games we will be most closely studying. The choice for many of the older games we will be playing is fantastic – Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, Adventure, Ultima IV, Zork, Wolfenstein, Doom, among others – the more contemporary games seem to be a bit lacking. For example, the final four games we will be analyzing are GTA III (and, tangentially, the evolution of the GTA series since), America's Army, Tomb Raider Anniversary Edition (specifically for the Wii), and Final Fantasy X. Now, I can see the argument made for each of these games to be included on the list. I must admit I originally scoffed at Tomb Raider, but on further reflection, it does well to bring up issues of gender, especially in that a mostly male audience controls a female character, essentially assuming her identity. The one that irks me most at this point is Final Fantasy X, a game I found so boring that I played it for an hour and a half before turning it off and selling it (a friend had already spoiled almost the entire plot for me, anyway). But that was years ago, maybe I'll have a different reaction to it this time around.
There is also a list of games each student must buy; it's only 3 games, and they're all somewhat old and rather inexpensive, and they all are to be played on the computer. They are Max Payne, World of Warcraft, and The Sims. I've played all but World of Warcraft, and that is the game I am most conflicted about playing, partly because I still don't know how much I like the idea of a game that can only be played online, and also because I had a tendency (though it hasn't happened in a few years) to get really addicted to games, and I've seen for myself what a dark road WoW can be.
If any of you would like to join me in my n00btastic voyage in WoW, by the way, my username there is the same as it is on dtoid – russiaishere. Bonus points for any readers who can accurately cite what my name references. Protip It's not a video game.
It is of note, by the way, that the class has, at its disposal, a Wii, an Xbox 360, and a PlayStation 3, though the PS3 will be used only to play PS2 games.
I'll probably update later tonight (much later) with reactions to the readings. If not, expect one tomorrow.   read

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