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When it loses meaning: Interactivity.
by Bernardo Del Castillo on 08/13/12 03:48:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Interactivity is one of those words Game enthusiasts seemingly throw around to differentiate videogames from the rest of the universal cultural production. I've commented a few times on different places about the subject, but I think it's an extremely interesting debate now, and it's a good time to explore it a bit further.

From Phil Fish, to you CoD playing cousin, everyone seems to think that interactivity is a trait unique to this medium we love, and that is understandable on a surface level, but we rarely seem to analyze the implications this has. Lately, with the rise of some unconventional games, the senseless use of the term seems to have gone out of hand.

Look at all those blinking lights, this game must truly be highly interactive!

To get our bearings straight away, Interactivity is an information theory concept, based around the exchange of information (duh?). In computer science it refers to a system responding to an input, but in general terms it refers to "the situation or occurrence in which two or more objects or events act upon one another to produce a new effect; or the effect resulting from such a situation or occurrence".

The real lines that define interactivity are blurry at best, We normally consider any sort of transmission between people as an obvious two sided interaction. But when we read a friend's e-mail, or comment on someone's facebook update the definition is less clear, the response time is delayed. Most people would consider looking a painting on a wall as non interactive, although in many levels it fits the definition too.

When we observe a sculpture or painting, the system is generally not balanced, we learn individually the object's formal qualities, and then we generate an assesment of the meaning of it. Same happens with a movie, we are presented with a situation that explains itelf to us as an audience with variable levels of knowledge and using a range of degrees of exposition, detail and clarity. We learn about the situations through our particular mindset and respond to it accordingly.

Throughout history the different means of expression and communication have evolved with these considerations. Written word has had various degrees of audience involvement, letters have always had a delayed interactive intention, while non-fiction writing often emerges of a need to inform, discuss and present. Novels generally present a third person's story for us to follow. But it has become more and more evident to writers how the reader's create involvement is needed to complete the purpose of the book.
Cortazar in Hopscotch actively plays with the reader, Catch 22 expects us to piece together events from different perspectives, and David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" (please let the movie not be terrible) or "100 years of solitude" by Gabriel García Márquez present paralel narratives that are often half-real, and we have no choice but to assess internally.

There are many examples, but the Spanish interactive theater company "La Fura dels Baus" was quite influential in the rise of experiential design.
My question is, was there ever non interactive theater?

These interactions may not be as direct as pushing a button, but they can run much deeper, as they request the viewer to answer meaningful questions in order to understand, it generates an undeniable dialogue far beyond passive observation. In the best of cases, the shape of the question becomes secondary to the message, and this is the gist of the exchange.

Along this lines, Movies have done their share too. From grey characters, to open endings and abstract metaphoric narratives. Today the audience is considered as much more than the bucket where to dump the story (Ok maybe not you, Michael Bay). Some directors, notably David Lynch purposely aim for deconstructing the expectations of what a movie should be and forcing the audience to play editor.

Cultural and phylosophical evolutions have shifted the protagonic role to the audience, and this has had a profound impact in art. Classic concepts of art considered that pictoric and sculptural art had to representation of "correct" unstylized reality (In a way, Theater has always been the most abstract audience welcoming side of art). The gradual disappearance of religious themes, and the growing focus on secular individuality and personal emotion from The Renaissance to The Romantic period, started changing the objective of art itself. It ceased to be ornamental, and moved to an experimental, emotional realm.
From Monet, to Van-Gogh to Picasso, and later the Bauhaus, the purpose was to create objects that spoke to the people about people. Duchamp's Urinal  was obviously not a literal sculpture, and Magritte's "The treachery of Images" is more a metaphoric slap in the face to the social expectations of art.
Art becomes the experience and exploration, the discussion and the feeling.

although it still provokes some controversy, we can agree that art has been progressively less about the representation of beauty, and more about provoking sensations in the viewer.

Modern views of communication understand that message is modified by both emitter and receiver. We could argue that the current focus is aimed at making the person experience the message, and NOT necessarily sense the medium. Since the shape the message takes is an accident for it's nature.

In many ways, games are ahead of the curve, because their structure is perfectly adecuate for this Creator / Audience dialogue. But this default condition is also a semantic trap. The ability to not complete a level or die, or choose in which order I Shoot an enemy are some of the most basic forms of twitch conditioned interaction. These examples are as interactive as Microsoft Word: although they give us immediate feedback, they don't carry any particular meaning. As the scale goes, less constraints and more immediate response to actions don't automatically mean more interactivity, In fact interactivity is not the important factor, since the appreciation of interactivity greatly depends on the level of the spectators engagement.

We have seen quite a bit of this debate lately, and while I'm not in love with Dear Esther. I believe it is an excellent example of a mature videogames, since it doesn't follow the formal conventions of videogames just because it has to. It moves beyond common judgements of what videogames -should-  be, and it speaks clearly of what it is without labels. It is often criticised for the "lack of interaction" but I believe the use of confinement to express the emotional state of a game is brilliant. The player's input is purposely limited as a direct reflection of the game's message.

"my body is a cage"

Others, like the old Silent Hill, make combat uncomfortable futile and frantic. But also, games like Super Meat Boy make the interaction meaningful by requiring extremely simple inputs, but teaching the player that survival requires lightning fast precision. Journey, Shadow of the colossus, and even Modern Warfare often succeed in this, like many other mediums, in which we are ignoring the limitations of the technology, bypassing the limitations of the interaction, and we feel as if it was real.

And there lies the paradox of perception and the biggest advantage of all fiction: It doesn't need to be real if we believe it.

This and more articles at my personal blog on Myprinterbitme

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Darren Tomlyn
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(As usual, all my posts are based upon the contents of my blog - (though I'm re-writing the first two posts, again):
s_NEW.php ).

The term interaction, in accordance to the definition you gave, is far too general for the consideration of games (also) in general.


Because games differ in the nature of any such interaction in a different way to art, based on their application.

There is a very basic reason for this:

Games merely require ACTION, not INTERaction, on behalf of a player. They do not require interaction between PEOPLE, in order to exist in such a manner. Art, however, according to this definition, does - it requires a creator/performer/teacher, and someone to perceive such a creation/performance/teaching.

Art only "exists" when perceived - the latter - but is defined by, and represents, the behaviour of the former.

EDIT: Unfortunately- this definition isn't correct and consistent - (if it was, then there would be no difference between action and interaction for most of those who act).

A game has to be created in order to exist, but is not defined by such a process (as a work of art) - it is only defined by the behaviour of a/the player(s) when taking part, which, again, only requires action, not interaction.

The addition of any specific media, however, aswell as other players to compete against, can and will change that - such as the use of computers: people have to interact with a computer in order to use it to play a game. But such elements are optional for games in general - which is, unfortunately, not consistently recognised, as the word game itself, is not.

Interactivity does not lose its meaning for the use and creation of computer games - it's just far too general to describe any more specific behaviour on behalf of the people involved in either... And this is where the problems lie - finding the right language to describe the actions and behaviour of the relevant people in a consistent manner - starting with the definition of the relevant activities themselves...


You'll notice how I've ignored the use of interactivity to describe art - there's a reason for that, and it's because I've covered it already in my blog - (hint: perception, reaction and properties != action). Again this is a symptom of not understanding and recognising the actual concept words such as game and art represent/belong to, and therefore failing to understand how they should be perceived and described in relation to each other).

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Yes, I think this is a bigger discussion (are games art?, which I personally can't help but accept as true) but it's still interesting.
I consider action as a subset of interaction which connects both experiences.
However, I would argue that more and more art is requiring action. And at the same time, growing numbers of videogames are requiring actual interaction.
Also with the rise of multiplayer, more and more games have begun to require communication and cooperation or competition between players, bypassing the obvious technological interfaces that most activities require. (I wonder... are you talking about just generic games? or are you refering to games as an action? because I'm actually talking about them as a product).

Also, Videogames today have definately changed to accept creators/performers/teachers, both in solo and multiplayer experiences. Traits can be recognized permeating the whole process and you can see a direct influence from creator, tools and platforms in the final product. It is definately not only defined by player, since the player must adapt to the systems of the world to succeed, there is a maker-player understanding conformed by the systems which define a specific action structure or interaction ruleset.
Games such as Portal, are actively teaching you about this whole process, and eventually a well though game succeeds in creating this cyclical feedback of player and piece. Much like you would learn to recognize the morphological and thematical aspect of a painters's or a sculptor's work, your perception of materials and spaces changes.
A game requires a development team and the player as much as a painting on a wall or a grafitti require an author and a viewer to exist in such a manner. Or am I not following your Idea?
Evidently you must agree that as much as in games, the artist has only a degree of control over the interpretation or reaction of the audience. As a Game Designer, you have a limited control over what your player can do.

Of course this is a colaborative effort, and surely the creative line can appear blured or disjointed, but that doesn't mean it relies solely on player action. That is only a direct perception of the player that doesn't really differ from someone looking at an artpiece for the first time without knowing anything about it.

The main arguement here is that the aim should be directed at the experience itself more than the interfase mechanics.

I am very much interested in the aspect of the word GAME applied to videogames, as it brings certain requirements as to what it should be. There is a certain fixation in the mechanic components of games rather than on themes or ideas.
I personally dont like the word to define videogames, I use it for the sake of communication, and because alternatives sound rather far-fetched. But I would happily call it something else which didn't have such a strongly rooted ideologic charge:

I've just began reading your essays, but it seems that you are more interested in finding the semantic aspect of games as a whole, I am actually proposing that we should be separating videogames to the general perception of Games, to me Videogames are standalone products. Although to be fair, I never detailed that intent.

Very interesting though.. I'll keep on reading your writings.

Darren Tomlyn
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Well, as I said, I'm working on re-writing the first couple of parts to hopefully make them as clear as possible - (since that seems to be a problem for many). But this is all part of a (the next) post I've yet to finish writing (and then posting) at all, so...

TBH - I'll probably just end up repeating a lot of my blog here, anyway - which means I guess this post will be LONG..... (You've be warned.)

NOTE: This is all a matter (and failure) of LINGUISTICS. None of the problems we have can be solved in any other manner, without fixing this, first.

The taxonomic hierarchy of the English language, in relation to these words, is NOT recognised and understood - i.e. the RULES of the language that helps determine the relationship between WHAT (concept) words represent/belong to, and HOW they are then used, (because of what they represent) is NOT recognised and understood for this group of words AT ALL.

The symptoms this is causing, is that many of these words are then being perceived, recognised and understood, (and then defined and taught), in a manner that is not only inconsistent with the basic rules of English grammar, but also inconsistently in relation to each other.

In other words - because these words have no 'anchor' between themselves and the language as a whole, concerning what they represent, (that informs why they are used), they have then become perceived inconsistently, not as a whole group, but in isolation - so we have:

1) words such as game and puzzle that have become perceived and understood in relation to the media used to enable them to exist. (Note: the word "videogames" is part of this problem).
2) words such as play that become confused for why they exist (e.g. as being enjoyable).
3) words such as art that have become confused for the effects/properties they cause.
4) words such as competition that become perceived by a limited application of what they're used to represent, (that is then inconsistent with they're use as a whole). (E.g. failing to recognise and understand the presence and role of indirect competition.)

However, if you expand the list of words to cover all those that are suitable, including all those we have problems with:

Game, art, puzzle, competition, work, play, event, state, action, activity, interaction, (even act itself), emergence, flight, movement, decision, expansion, congratulation etc..

A few things SHOULD become very obvious.

The first is the relationship between these words, and similar (or even the same) words used as verbs:

E.g. Compete, act, interact, emerge, fly, move, decide, expand, congratulate etc..

NOTE: This relationship is NOT recognised and understood at this time.

The second is that every other word in that list can be placed under the words event and state. Only these two words cannot fit within each other - (for the purpose of a taxonomic hierarchy).

The overall concept these words belong to - that we can then use to inform their definition, and what they are used to mean in isolation - has to be consistent with the two points above.


These words are used in the same manner as those that represent 'things' that can and do exist in isolation, and are also being perceived (and then described and taught) in such a manner!

Since these words do not represent/belong to a concept that can and does exist in isolation, however, people are getting really confused.

The basic reason for this mistake, is that we are currently perceiving, recognising and understanding (at least) the English language - and then teaching it - based purely upon HOW it is used, instead of WHAT it is used to represent.

But the language has quite a few concepts that are used in the same way as others, even though they are different and unrelated, instead being related to other concepts used elsewhere and in a different manner.

The relationship between this concept, and the concept words used as verbs represent can be described simply:

As an APPLICATION. (E.g. flight is used as an application of fly etc..)

The only problem we then have, is to describe the concept words used as verbs represent, in order to describe the concept this group of words (used as nouns) represent, as applications of.

The fact that we currently use words belonging to this type, to describe the concept words used a verbs represent, - (e.g. an act as an activity or occurrence) - should tell you we've got real, serious problems with our current perception and understanding of the language as it stands!

There is only one, true, consistent way in which the concept words used as verbs (and then this type of concept, as an application of) can be described as:

Things that happen/applications of things that happen.

Note: I prefer to use the word behaviour instead of things that happen, since I've ran into people who get confused between all the different uses of the word thing to describe everything.

But by using the word behaviour, (as I prefer), we can now ask the right questions in relation to what these words represent:

WHAT application, of WHAT behaviour, of WHO, do these words represent?

Any properties/qualities/attributes any such behaviour/things that happen, happen to cause has NOTHING to do with their definition, whatsoever.


Because the English language deliberately separates the use of words representing the concepts of behaviour (things that happen) and such properties. Based on how we perceive the language, we have split the language into groups of words based on HOW they are used:

Words used to represent things that happen, are labelled as (belonging to) verbs.
Words used to represent such properties of things/applications of behaviour and other such properties, are labelled as (belonging to) adjectives.
Words used to represent such properties of things that happen are labelled as (belonging to) adverbs.
Words used as applications of things that happen, and applications of such properties are labelled as (belonging to) nouns.


There is NOTHING special about the use of computers for the word game and its definition - any more than any other medium. Just because we LABEL games by such media - (computer/card/board/dice etc.) - doesn't mean that is how they are DEFINED AS games.

E.g. Just like we can label objects by the material they are made out of, but the definition of the object itself is separate.

The reason for this, of course, is that the objects (media used) exist independently of such behaviour - (and materials independently of such objects) - which is why such words are used in ADDITION, in combination. (And 'video' is NOT a medium for a game, but a form/medium of art. A computer is the medium used, here.)

The ONLY thing that is truly special about computers (as a medium) is that they can be used to combine nearly all the forms of art into a single product.

But that has nothing whatsoever to do with the definition of the word game - only its (subjective) application.

If an activity is a game, puzzle or competition (or a toy to play with etc.) independently of a computer - then any consistent representation of such a thing using a computer will remain the same.

Puzzles do not 'become' games, just because of the medium being used.


The word art is used - (though it is not recognised or understood) - to represent the very process of creation - the act of creating something, but from a very particular perspective:

Everything we create tells a story of its creation.

Therefore everything we create can be seen and perceived as a work of art.

BUT... (And this is where everyone fails).

Only that which we create that has being a work of art as its primary FUNCTION - (telling a creative story) - its sole reason to exist - can, and will be DEFINED as such.

Nearly everything we create, is done so , however, to enable other functionality - to be used to enable some other behaviour - and this is how they are then/must be DEFINED.

That such objects - such as cars, or houses etc., can then be seen as works of art in addition to such functionality, is neither here nor there - because art and such functionality, represented by their labels and definitions, are COMPATIBLE.

Games, puzzles, competitions etc. are NO exception - even if they use different forms of art and media to enable such functionality to exist.

The thing about games, is that they do not REQUIRE any additional media or forms of art to exist at all. That computer games can use so many, is merely a condition of such a medium in the first place, and is part of their SUBJECTIVE application, not its definition.

And even for art - all the forms of art that computers may use and enable, already exist independently (and often long before) such a medium, in the first place, so even for the forms of art in general, it means very little - only how they are applied are computers special.


So computers are special for games is two/three ways:

That they can use many different forms of art in combination to enable a game to exist. (Far beyond any other single medium.)

That they can be programmed to act on their own behalf.

They can have different ways of interacting with such a medium - (can enable different applications and methods to enable such behaviour).

All of the games they are used to enable, however, are simply derived from the basic games that exist without such media, even if their specific applications can be further defined and labelled as specific types of game.


Unfortunately - (which is where my blog is ultimately heading) - we are also confusing the medium with the behaviour it enables, and the 'playing pieces' used as part of the (subjective use and application of such a) medium to enable such behaviour, especially in relation to one 'type' of computer game:

Computer-based 'role-playing' games.

But that is for a future post, a ways into the future, at present.


Art is defined by the BEHAVIOUR of its creators/performers/teachers.
Games are defined by the behaviour of its player(s).
Puzzles are defined by the behaviour of those that interact with them.

People apply the definitions of such words based upon what they perceive of others or their own behaviour in a consistent manner. Merely perceiving art and applying such a definition upon it, is not the same as behaving in such a manner.

Again - action != perception.

Likewise - action != interaction. Perception != interaction

To interact involves mutual action between two people/entities, either directly or indirectly.

Art does not require interaction, merely action (on behalf of it's creators/performers/teachers) and perception on behalf of anyone.
Games do not require interaction, merely action on behalf of the player(s). No-one else's perception is necessary.
Puzzles require interaction between their creator/existence and the person/people trying to solve them.

(Art and games are naturally of human creation. Puzzles are not - (which is why one definition is not enough for the word puzzle as an activity - we need two to cover those we create and those we do not, which means puzzles do not have to involve or be a work of art.))

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Hehe, I have a hard time following you...
It may or may not be because my native tongue is not actually English (It's Spanish). Some of the terms you use don't even exist as a direct translation.

I think I can get the gist of your analysis though, there is a problem with the tautological aspect of those listed words, because they define their actions behaviours and meanings by themselves. (I suppose meaning is equally positive as behaviour)

I suppose that my own thesis.. without really looking into linguistics as deep as you have is that in practical terms PERCEPTION>INTERACTION >ACTION. In the sense that everything, Other actions, inputs and stimulus, even our own actions are translated by our perception. In turn, it also modifies our behaviour when faced with interfaces for action.

Question: would you say videogames count as games or as art? (I'm assuming not naturally puzzles) I'm having trouble determining that from your explanation.

I think i have to read through your response again @_@...

Darren Tomlyn
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Not quite. I'm hoping you can follow what I'm about to say...!

Person A (A) & Person B.

1) Person A ACTS. Person B perceives action.

2) Person A Acts -> Person B. Person A acts and affects Person B. Person B also perceives action aswell as being affected by it. Action and effects are treated separately by the language - as cause and effect.

3) Person A acts -> Person B. Person B reacts -> Person A. Each individual action is defined and perceived by both, separately, and now also involves interaction (as a whole) between both people.

Art only requires action on behalf of creator/performer/teacher, for it to be then perceived by someone else. (1)

Games only require action on behalf of the player(s).

Puzzles require interaction on behalf of both the puzzle (B) (on behalf of its creator when applicable) and the person trying to solve it. (A) (3).

Computers enable interaction between the user and the software via keyboards/mice etc. for the player, and the monitor etc. for the software, (on behalf of the people who created the software, itself).

Such interaction can enable many different activities, of which games are merely one.

Everything we create can be seen as a work of art, completely separately and independently (and in addition) to any other function they may have, unless a work of art IS its function.

('Video'game is a misnomer, which isn't helping - it should be computer game instead. (We don't call any other type of games 'picture' (board) or 'sculpture' (dice) games, do we?))

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Yeah, that's what I was thinking, computer game, nicer.
Ok so I mostly get what you are saying, but I still find an issue with the definition of games as having no need for the pre-creation process. After all, the creator defines the rules with which a player can act, even if that sole action defines the game.
Maybe computer games are actually puzzles? It seems to fit better with the concept I have come to understand.

Darren Tomlyn
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Remember what I wrote in the first reply:

A game has to be created in order to exist, but is not defined by such a process (as a work of art) - it is only defined by the behaviour of a/the player(s) when taking part, which, again, only requires action, not interaction.

Most things we create - (including games, puzzles, computers etc.) - are defined by a function that is separate and independent of the word art itself, even if the act of creating (including designing) them is art. (Art naturally encompasses design and craft - (is superior (above them) in the taxonomic hierarchy))

Unfortunately, the concept you have come to understand is inconsistent, which is why you're having problems.

Games, puzzles, competitions and art can (and should) all be seen as different activities. All of these exist independently of computers. Though computers can be used as a medium to enable any of them to exist if wanted, they have no place in defining any of them.

However, they all represent DIFFERENT applications, of often DIFFERENT behaviour - (and are often only compatible when applied by DIFFERENT people).

Games and puzzles represent different applications of different behaviour, that are compatible in a limited, (very specific) manner.

Games are about people competing in a structured environment (rules + setting), by doing something for themselves (writing their own stories).

Puzzles are about people a) interacting with a creative story being told (a work of art), or b) interacting with a story being told in order to solve a (difficult?) problem.

What makes games and puzzles different, is that the story of a game does not exist until it is played, whereas the story of a puzzle exists before it is interacted with, and the nature of the interaction is to gain influence over, or to discover such a story.

Also note that there's a big difference between interacting with a medium to be told a story, (e.g. reading a book), and interacting with the story itself (a puzzle) - (e.g. a choose-you-own-adventure storybook). (A simple choose-your-own-adventure book is merely a maze in literary form - a type of puzzle).

Do not confuse a medium for the behaviour it can help to enable if the two are not linked:

E.g. work and play exist without toys and tools. Games only require a player, a set of rules and a setting (of any description/type) - any other objects/media are completely optional.