Video games: ludic qualities versus representational dimension

The academic literature has made a bad habit out of defining video games as a form of cultural discourse that replicates the texts of either literature or cinema. But I think that firstly, video games should be at first studied as such, as games. In this respect, though, games still are a fuzzy concept. Nevertheless, as Buckingham (2006) admits, we can argue that games are defined through play, the framework of which is sketched out through rules.  Games, in contrast to other forms of media, “are not self-contained and they involve a different type and level of participation from that of reading a novel or watching a movie”. But, besides this participational aspect of play, it is disputable what other aspects should be encompassed by the term “video game”.

Game designer Celia Pearce (113), for example, also attaches the following elements to the game framework: a goal, resources, rewards, penalties and information. Others (Juul, 2003) go as far as defining the “gameness”, as a collection of game-like characteristics of games. According to Juul, all games share at least six common features in their “gameness”:

1. Games are based on rules. (aspect that we have already agreed upon).

2. Games have variable, quantifiable outcomes.

3. Different values, either positive or negative, are assigned to these outcomes.

4. The player invests effort to achieve the desired outcome.

5. The player is emotionally attached to the outcome.

6. Games have negotiable consequences for real life.

Once again, the distinction between game and play is clear: in order for play to concretize itself as game, it has to develop according to some rules. The player himself is restricted to act according to these rules, as he effectively becomes a character in the game (“digitally embodies” an avatar). But, as Juul himself underlines, his theory is far from sufficient. There are many games out there that cannot even be described from the point of view of his definition. For example, The Sims 3 (2009), which the producers, Electronic Arts describe as a life simulator game, has no other outcome but living a life similar to the normal, real existence. Also, other video games, like Magic the Gathering or well known strategy titles like the Age of Empires series, actually have negotiable rules and variable outcomes that the players are free to define and carry out accordingly.

So, this “gameness”, this collection of ludic (ludic comes from the Latin ludus, which means game) qualities in a game,  rather than helping us realize what games have in common, is more prone to demonstrate to us how video games differ from each other. Most importantly, these differences do not restrict themselves to the formal level, but affect play itself. Thus, two games like Dragon Age: Origins (a prestigious Role Playing Game, launched in 2009) and World of Goo (an acclaimed puzzle game that made it to the shelves in 2008) are not only distinguished by visuals (3D versus 2D graphics, or a third person perspective versus an all knowing God-like one) or narrative (open or multiple endings versus linear flow of events) but also by whether they support multiplayer, they allow multiple difficulty levels, or encourage exploration of the game world. Games also have their own economies (as suggested by Pearce’s collection of framework elements mentioned above) and this is best seen in Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) games like World of Warcraft. Blizzard, the developer, continuously strives to maintain a stable in-game economy, despite the continuous flow of cheating users that try to flout the rules. The following excerpt is taken from the official forums, on the sixth of September, 2006:

In keeping with Blizzard’s aggressive stance against cheating in World of Warcraft, we banned over 30,000 accounts in the month of May, and with that removed well over 30 million gold (GP) from the economy across all realms. The banned accounts were taking part in activities that violate the game’s Terms of Use, including using third-party programs to farm gold and items, which severely impacts the economy of a realm and the overall game enjoyment for all players.

We will continue to aggressively monitor all World of Warcraft realms in order to protect the service and its players from the harmful effects of cheating. Please note that selling World of Warcraft content, such as gold, items, and characters, can result in a permanent ban of the involved accounts from World of Warcraft.

Players themselves react to these decisions and sometimes choose to actively comment as specialists, just as they would do in case of a real life economical event. For example, a user with the nickname Gaston, on www.notaddicted.com, talks about the unfairness of such economic regulations and security measures, while defining concepts like Scarcity and even making some comparisons to Wall Street Journal topics. It then becomes obvious that games also implement a system that balances between elements of chance and elements of strategy. Players are confined by very precise limits, the developer and at a different level, the game, defining which elements can be controlled and which cannot be.

This creates the image of the player as a human being that slides constantly between feelings of engagement, frustration, immersion or boredom. The rules and limits of video games may generate both pleasure and displeasure and are in direct dependence to the above defined gameness. But the feelings derived from video games should not be solely attributed to the quality of play. There is also a deep echo inside the player that must be taken into consideration: the various elements of the game are actively interpreted and can appeal differently to the vast array of player enthusiasms and preoccupations. In other words, while “what players and reviewers call playability is certainly an important dimension of games, what attracts and motivates players may also be the visual spectacle of game, the storytelling, the emotional appeal of the characters, the use of humor, the sense that the game is somehow relevant to their own live and so on” (Buckingham, 10). In other words, games also have a very complex representational dimension, they are complex worlds in themselves and their capacity to create universes and ideas is crucial to the sense of immersion they convey into gamers.

Ana Todor is a Computer Scientist with a playful and literary twist. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering, a Bachelor of Arts degree in Cultural Studies and a Master of Science degree in Computer Science, Digital Interactive Entertainment.

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  1. Games are what you make them be ^ ^ be it a journey, be it something trivial, be it a time waster

    But all in all, they’re an escape from reality

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