I wrote the following in the comment section of Jim Sterling’s Jimquisition latest episode (Note: Updated with Full Video Below):
I have to disagree with Jim (Note: It’s Mr. Jim Sterling, he and I don’t know each other from Adam, Eve or Alduin so let us dispense with the disrespectful familiarity, shall we?) here. Yes, calling something, “Not a video game,” as a pejorative does not one any service, but any game has to, at the very least appeal to the Illusion of Control, and not simply to the Illusion of Participation. Visual novels, text adventures and the like are based on the Illusion of Participation, that is, that the would be player gets to press a button once in awhile to enhance the experience somehow. They are not video games, and you know what, they don’t have to be.
Let me repeat that, they don’t have to be!
They can be something different, virtual installations, interactive novels, interactive fiction, what have you. And once freed from the burden of trying to be “gamey” in someway, they can flourish, just like poetry and prose are part of literature but are clearly different forms of expression.
Yes, I agree with Mr. Sterling on the fact that one should not say, “that’s not a video game,” when we mean to say, “that is something I don’t like.” However, I find his definition of what is a game too broad to be useful. Video games are not merely electronic devices with a modicum of interactivity. Video games demand the players attention. One does not interact with a video game, one engages with and within the experience created by it. This is what I call the Illusion of Control. Said illusion is predicated on the sense of player agency, that is how much control the player appears to have over the space/events in a given game. The greater the sense of agency the stronger the illusion. Sandbox games like Minecraft maximize player agency. Player characters are placed in a procedurally generated world with a series of tools and allowed to shape the environment as they see fit. What the player does, when he does it is limited only by the tools available and his imagination. Most games constrain the player agency in a variety of ways including but not limited to, linear paths, the use of cutscenes, quick time events, scripted sequences and other limits in game play. Each of these mechanics take away the player’s agency and minimize the illusion of control.
But what happens when you slide the agency slider to the other side of the spectrum? What happens when a game stop demanding your attention and it just welcomes it? It is no longer a game. It may be interactive but without the Illusion of Control you are left with the Illusion of Participation. Take for example the Mission: Space ride in Epcot Center:
Before boarding the simulators, each rider is assigned an on-board role (navigator, pilot, commander or engineer) and given two tasks to perform during the mission (pressing a specific button when told). For example, one of the commander’s buttons initiates the rocket’s first-stage separation, and the other activates manual flight control. The spacecraft’s on-board self-automated pilot will perform each task if the rider does not respond to his or her prompt from Mission Control or if there is no one to perform the task. Also featured are various labeled buttons and switches which the rider may play with but do nothing; they are only there to add to the realism aspect of the ride. (Emphasis added)
Ride goers participate but at no point does the ride stop if anyone fails to press the button. I’m sure there a few ride operators who would love to stop the ride, haul the offender out of the cabin and scream that they should press the F#@!-ing button. Putting aside the dreams of deranged carny operators, the ride uses the Illusion of Participation to enhance the experience. Other products like Dear Ester and anything made by David Cage appear to rely on the same illusion to engage their audience. And there lies the problem for video game critics as illustrated by this installment of Zero Punctuation. Time and time again a certain type of developer creates something using game development tools like D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die only to remember half way through the development cycle that the product will be marketed as a video game and decides to stick some game play elements in order to qualify. The game play elements feel out of place like an obligatory arcade sequence in an object game (Space Quest and their ilk) or the obligatory stealth sequence in an action game. It is as if the title of video game hangs like chain around their necks, dragging them back into the fold kicking and screaming.
But who is doing the pulling?
Members of the video game industry including critics like Mr. Sterling. He admits that to call these products “Not a video game” puts them beyond his reach. Yet different is not better or worse, just different. They don’t have to be games and just because they are not games doesn’t mean that can not be analyzed. The irony is that Mr. Sterling summons the spirit of the late Roger Ebert to criticize those who would carelessly throw around the label of “Not a game” when in fact he finds himself in the same role as Ebert. Ebert, the movie critic, lacked the language to describe games the way he described movies. The vocabulary of passive visual media does not fit in the realm of interactive media. Mr. Sterling, the video game reviewer, lacks the vocabulary to describe these forms of interactive fiction. That is neither a failure of the late Roger Ebert or of Jim Sterling. Everyone is struggling with the same problem. The solution is not to slap the label of “Bad Game” on works that are pushing beyond the boundaries. Instead, we should judge them on their own merits and allow them to flourish.