I cringe inside when people say they're not "good" at video games, or that they'd never in a million years be able to figure out the controls to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. "It looks really good, but I'm not really a gamer so I'll probably never play it," they say with a defeated shrug.
In the past, I've argued that video games are a medium unto themselves, but I realize now I've been wrong. There is a new and evolving medium, but video games are only a small piece of a much larger picture.
If you have a Facebook profile, can use MS Word, or have bought something on eBay, you understand the essential language of interaction, which is at the heart of every video game. You may not want to bother figuring out a hardcore shooter, but that doesn't mean you're not an active patron of the medium in which video games are contained.
Virtual interaction is at the heart of the modern media, the answer to the looming question of what comes next. For thousands of years games mimicked the forms of interaction, but they required two present parties to reproduce the interactivity.
With widespread adoption of the home computer and, consequently the internet, all the necessary technology for systemic interaction in everything from commerce to storytelling has arrived.
It's Facebook that's introduced the benefits of interactivity to the mainstream more than Wii or DS. Like AOL, Amazon, and eBay before it, Facebook uses many of the same mechanical principles of traditional video games, though its ultimate purpose is completely different.
What follows is a comparison of Facebook to World of Warcraft in an effort to more clearly define interactivity as its own unique medium, and then carve out the special purpose of video games within that larger medium.
The PC is the biggest gaming platform in the world, and it's the frontline for demonstrating the most essential qualities of interactivity. With a mouse and keyboard you have the interface to browse the web, build a spreadsheet, or smack zombies in the face with a crowbar. While the purposes in moving the mouse cursor in PowerPoint versus adjusting your aim in Left 4 Dead 2 are different, the interface is identical.
In World of Warcraft, user interface is multi-layered, framing the game world with iconic buttons, a running log of events, and a record of social exchange. Facebook's pages are drawn in clean columns with actionable buttons and links standing out in sharp blue against the soft white background.
In both, mouse navigation fine-tunes your orientation in the world while keystrokes are used for personal interaction and expression. WoW presents its visual interface as the frame of the entire game world. In Facebook, each new bit of information has a smaller set of interface options that are consistent from profile to profile and status update to status update.
"The primary guideline for anything that we add to Facebook is to help our users connect and share with each other," said Gareth Davis, Platform Manager and Games Lead at Facebook. "That's the lens through which we evaluate every single thing that we add to the site. Does it help people connect and does it facilitate sharing?"
Sharing and connecting is crucial to WoW, but it happens in the context of roleplay and fantasy projection. Those elements, the quest design, the story that connects them, and the art style through which players can bring their fantasy to life are elements of art and authorship.
"Simplified UI that is able to easily achieve what the user is motivated to accomplish often outweighs gorgeous design," said Ariel Waldman, digital anthropologist, founder of Spacehack.org, and former NASA coordinator.
"In social networks, Twitter and Foursquare are shining examples of this factor, while Tumblr leads the way on balancing simple interactivity with decent aesthetics and information architecture."
Creating an Identity
Interacting is a way of self-expressing, be it on the highest level of metaphysical fantasy or in the most mundane functions of e-commerce. "I think the difference between an MMO and a social platform is an MMO is about a fantasy projection and a social network is about self-identity and expression," said Neil Young, co-founder of ngmoco.
"Another way of thinking about it is the difference between reality television and dramatic television. Yes, it's a reflection of yourself, but it's also fictional. Whereas a social network tends to be a much more accurate reflection of you and you can modify that and play with that, but it tends to be regulated by your friends in the real world. "
In WoW you align with a faction (conveniently good or evil), pick a character class based on your preferred metaphor for interaction (druid, hunter, priest, mage, paladin etc.). Your appearance becomes a record of events you've completed or places you've been. It's a fictional aggregator that tells people small pieces of information about your experience.
In Facebook, you have many more options for creating your identity, but the function is still through association. Your most basic identity is established through personal affiliation, guilds and classes become towns, networks, and mutual friends. The aggregation of tagged photos creates its own sort of narrative about where you've been and what you've done.
"A decision was made very early on that the interface should look very clean and very consistent, so if I'm visiting three different friends' profiles I can find the information that I care about very quickly and easily," said Davis.
"The most important thing is that people are really who they say they are and who you know they are."