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Understanding Video Games: The Extension of Play

by Jan Hansen on 11/02/15 03:29:00 pm

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There is a nature of the medium of video games that goes undisputed despite of its extends of form, style, content, genre, size and scope. It is this nature that I would like to elaborate myself on because I have come to believe it is the nature, and not the content or subject matter, that we experience when playing video games. I come with the intension of exposing this thesis to a community I hope can be open to such an unpopular opinion.

But before that, I would like to start with an opinion recently expressed by Shigeru Miyamoto.


The Concern regarding Cinematic Games

Shigeru Miyamoto has been known to like cinematic games. He made one himself in 1998 called the Ocarina of Time. In this game he put great emphasis on cinematic elements in order to create emotional stimuli, which he discusses in details at the Game Developer Conference of 1999. He has even addressed in interviews that he likes and believes the influence from moviemakers can do good to video games.

What worries him, as was translated in the recent interview with him, was that creators of video games are more concerned with creating a movie-experience rather than creating the experience of playing a video game. In fact, he calls the creation of the video game experience not really a creation at all, but rather a design of toys for the player to play with. In other words, the player is the creator, creating his or her own experience with whatever tools are made available.

He calls this "the player is the director", based on how a video game is depended upon the input from its user, and by designing a game you are designing something the player takes direction of, which creates the feeling of stepping into a world controlled by yourself. This is the unique experience that video games has to offer. It is the neglected precedency of this experience by young game developers that worries Miyamoto.


Content vs. Gameplay

When addressing subject matter in video games one is prompt to avoid the experience of play, making the belief that the source of artistic value lies in the passive aspects of the product like its story and visuals. But the concern of stimuli from passive experience is misguiding because video games actually provides little involvement with substantial stimulus due to its nature of being about not what we see and hear but about what we do and control. This is because gameplay is a cognitive process and requires the player's conscious involvement, making the source of stimulus come from the player, and not from the game's content. A pretty picture or a nice story calls for our attention but not for our self-conscious participation, which is how we fundamentally consume the interactive medium. 

The nature of a game lies in its mechanics. This is what makes it a tool, a mechanical machine that can extend a persons capabilities, even if it is that of virtual means. Metaphorically, Super Mario does not jump in a Mario game, instead we are jumping. We feel that we jumps, not Mario, thus Mario has become an extension of ourselves. It is like how technology extends our own reach of abilities. It is this nature, and the exploration of it, that we consciously participate in when playing a video game and is therefor what we are receptive of. The picture painted or the story told as the subject in video games does not address the real message, for the medium itself is the message.



The value of games is only extracted when the player consciously participate either for creative or tactical purpose. The player becomes a creative person when the tools available allows playfulness, while the tactic player depends on the game's tools to deliver a challenge. The design of these tools are not separate, but crosses each-other since there are no game that is purely creative or purely tactical. When a game does not provide such tools, it ceases to be a game, and instead becomes a new medium that conflicts with the nature of play.

In every game of play, the creation and the challenge that the player indulges in is imagined by the player. It is this fantasy of play that reflects the medium as a whole. It is here we find the message in all video games; that the player is the director. Due to the modern ideas of auteurism and video games as an art-form of design of expression, this nature has become a highly unpopular and misunderstood factor of this medium. My suggestion is that we embraces it and makes it the hallmark of video game design.

In my probing to understand the medium of video games I have failed to find anyone who writes about this to have ever made the arguments that I am making here. Though, I have not looked everywhere so there might be some people who would agree with this. So please, by all means, show yourself, and if you do not agree with this and can tell me why I am wrong, please do!

Also as a side note, I am speaking much of how the content does not create the gaming experience, but I do not believe a developer's ideas of style, form and expression is obsolete. In fact, a developer's design can leave a personal mark on the game when it is applied to the core gameplay. It is here that the personality of the creator can shine through.

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