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Edu Feature: ‘Press The Action Button, Snake: Self-Reference In Games'

Edu Feature: ‘Press The Action Button, Snake: Self-Reference In Games'

November 25, 2008 | By Jill Duffy

Where does the video game character end and the player begin? Matthew Weise, a lead game designer for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, considers the complex relationship between video game players and characters in a new feature article on

Weise's argument is that, unlike in theater and film, video games don't ever really break the fourth wall, as it were, because in games, there is no hard and fast wall between the characters on the screen and the player in front of the screen.

There is evidence of a much more complex relationship between the two in all kinds of video games, says Weise, from more experimental modern titles, such as Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem and Mirror's Edge, to older games, like Sonic the Hedgehog and Zork.

Weise disagrees with Ernest Adams, who argues that a player's sense of immersion is "interrupted" when something in the game reminds them that they are "only" playing a game.

"When a game is self-referential," writes Weise, "when it acknowledges the technological apparatus of the computer, it can have a profound effect on player experience." Part of re-interpreting the relationship involves getting rid of this notion of a "wall" that can be broken:

"It is useful to think about the boundary between player and fiction as an elastic membrane -- a threshold -- rather than a wall, like Adams does. Drawing attention to how this threshold functions through self-reference can actually enhance fiction rather than destroy it. It can draw the player and game fiction together rather than driving them apart.

Conventional wisdom suggests that anything that draws attention to the technology of a medium is destructive for fiction. The characters in a movie, book, television show, or stage production must not 'know' they are in one, else they become aware of their own non-reality and everything falls apart. This is typically what's meant by 'breaking the fourth wall.'

But video games are not exactly the same as these other art forms. The reality-fantasy dynamic in games is complicated by the player, who is always tethered to the game world by an umbilical cord called technology.

In some sense, the 'reality' of a game always involves the player, since it would not be a game otherwise. In story-based games players make choices that have meaning and consequence in the fictional world of a game, so they are always a part of the fiction, acting under the guise of an avatar, a digital mask the player puts on to 'enter' the fictional world of the game and become part of it."

The article, "Press the 'Action' Button, Snake! The Art of Self-Reference in Video Games," is now available to read in full on

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