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A Treatise on Videogames

A Treatise on Videogames

Author: Matthew D. Barton
Artwork: Elizabeth Katselis
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Notes: All screen shots used within the article were taken directly from the author's copy of MAME.
Special Thanks: Bill Loguidice

The CriticWhen most people use the word "critic," they have in mind someone who makes and explains decisions about why a certain movie, book, or videogame is or isn't worth buying. This connection to money is one reason why so few critics earn the public's trust, especially in cases where the critic is "owned," either directly or indirectly, by the corporations which make the products they are criticizing. In other words, most "critics" produce little more than ad-copy, and we encounter their work mostly as endorsements--for instance, phrases mumbled by some well-fed critic may appear in the trailer of a movie, or on the back of a new novel. This problem has long plagued the videogame industry, in which most videogame journalists lacked professional backgrounds and had little sense of traditional journalistic ethics.

I bring up this commonly held definition of "critic" so that I may contrast it with another one: The critic as a scholar. Such a critic is less concerned with the subjective features of the works he studies than the objective features common to all of them. Instead of asking whether a certain videogame is worth $50, for instance, these critics may inquire into its technical or literary aspects; consider what it has in common with other videogames, where it fits into the historical evolution of its genre, and so on. These critics would look at videogames not as commodities, but as works of art--serious works that deserve serious study and cogent analysis. These critics are called "literary critics."

Now, at this point, I may as well address the argument that videogames are not literature by definition. Since the word "literature" is a form of "literate," which means the ability to read and write, some people argue that only books and other forms of writing can properly be considered "literature." Indeed, some literary critics deny that film is literature; to these people, any genre but the hallowed book is not worthy of serious study.

I respond to these arguments concerning the literary aspect of videogames in a simplistic way: Writing is only a technological medium used to give commands; this imperative aspect of language trumps the declarative aspect and thus allows videogames to become a particularly suitable vehicle for its delivery. Probably the only real difference between speaking and writing is that speaking requires only natural "tools," whereas writing requires artificial tools. This is an important point, because so many literary critics have gotten bogged down in this discussion and tried to make a clean break between writing and speaking, only to flounder at the last minute by horrible incongruities in their logic.

I mentioned that writing is a medium used "to give commands," which is a function I also ascribe to speaking. All acts of communication are commands, even if those commands are implicit rather than explicit. I say this realizing that most critics claim (and this is a tradition that goes back at least as far as Ancient Rome) that there are at least three purposes for writing: "to inform," "to persuade," or "to entertain." All of these are merely variations of "to command." Even if I tell you to "sit back and enjoy my story about a man shipwrecked on island," I am telling you what to do. If someone is "giving you information," they are telling you what to believe. As far as "persuasion" goes, the command implicit in all persuasive discourse is "consider what I am asking you to do." Thus, there is no form of communication whatsoever that is not in its pure form a command. As if further evidence is needed, consider that the simplest decipherable sentences in the English language are one-word commands: "STOP!" "GO!" "RUN!" "ATTACK!" Consider that even when the common person does not quite understand what his friend has said to him, he may respond with "Do what?" Thus, he anticipated a command in the garble. The verb is the soul of any language, and verbs are commands.

All of this talk about language and literature may seem a bit abstract and unrelated to videogames at first. What does an understanding of how language works have to do with Pac-Man? There's not even any text in Pac-Man!

The reason for my apparent digression is that to properly understand my literary theory of videogames, someone should first know some of my assumptions about literature and language. These assumptions will form the foundation of my critique of videogames. The command-aspect of language is what makes videogames worthy of being considered literature. What I will develop later in this paper is the idea that game authors have a more complex relationship with players than book authors do with readers; the game author must take into considerations not only the commands he will give his players, but the commands he will let them give his game, and how that game will respond to them.

Most literary critics cite Aristotle as the first literary critic, although Plato had some things to say in a couple of his dialogues. Aristotle is called the great empiricist because he studied things "in the real world." For instance, when Aristotle turned his attention to tragedy, he studied the plays themselves and invented a terminology to describe their features. This is a vastly different approach than that taken by Plato, who was the "rationalist" thinker. I won't go into detail the differences here, but suffice it to say that Plato thought literature was evil because it was "a copy of a copy of a copy." The perfection of an object exists only as a "form" or "idea," a physical manifestation of it is only a "copy" of this otherwise inaccessible form. A word used to describe this physical manifestation is yet another "copy" of it, and, finally, if the word is written down, yet another "copy." Just as second, third, and fourth generation copies of a VHS tape are exponentially distorted, so is the written word a wretched copy of the "original" idea which exists only in some metaphysical realm. Aristotle was less concerned with this abstraction and focused instead of classifying and defining literature and its parts.

My goal in this work is to do for videogames what Aristotle did for tragedies. While this goal may seem overly academic and even pedantic, I feel that the end result may well change the way enlightened people think and talk about videogames. I would also hope that any lover of videogames is a lover of challenge, and will consider the more difficult passages in this work to be far less difficult than Epyx's Impossible Mission!

Part One: The Soul of Videogames

In his famous work Poetics, Aristotle defined "plot" as the soul of tragedy. Here, I ought to define two terms as Aristotle understood them; namely, "plot" and "tragedy." "Plot" for Aristotle did not mean the story behind a work; for instance, we might say that the "plot" of Moby Dick is that a man loses his leg to a whale, hunts down the whale, and is eventually destroyed by it. This is not how Aristotle used the term. Instead, Aristotle meant the arrangement of incidents and episodes that would lead to the expected conclusion. In Greek tragedy, the audience already knew the "story," i.e., they knew in advance that Oedipus would kill his father, marry his mother, and eventually discover the truth and stab out his eyes. The challenge a Greek tragedian faced was not inventing a story, but inventing and arranging the events that would lead to the conclusion. What would be the scenes? What would the characters say to each other? In other words, "plot" for Aristotle was not the story itself, but rather the manner in which it was told.

"Tragedy" in Aristotle's time meant a very specific kind of play that ended, as we might expect, rather badly for the main character. The finer points of tragedy can be overlooked for our present purpose, but one vital point Aristotle makes is that the purpose of tragedy is "catharsis," or the purgation of the emotions. Aristotle viewed tragedies as a sort of emotional orgasm, which, once enjoyed, relieved the audience of bottled up emotions and allow them to live normal and healthy lives. We might almost consider catharsis a form of "stress relief." Now, the way this catharsis was reached in tragedy was by having the audience live vicariously through the characters; the audience identified with the characters; that is, they placed themselves in the characters' shoes. For a crude but effective example, consider horror films. Even though a viewer realizes she is not actually being chased by a madman with a butcher knife, she may discover that her heart is pounding. How is this possible? The answer is that she, to some degree, is living vicariously through the movie star. If the movie star is brutally killed, our viewer may reach catharsis: Her fears turned out to be unjustified; it was the movie star, not her, that was stabbed to death. She can now breathe easily; the fear was built up and has now been purged. As you may already guess, these notions of "living vicariously" and "catharsis" will be a very important part of my videogame criticism. In the case of tragic plays, catharsis depends on how well a viewer identifies with the protagonist. Videogames are better than traditional literature in this regard: Videogames effect this identification so strongly that players are known to refer to a moveable block on the screen as "me;" i.e., "Look--that's me on the screen." This type of identification is not possible in tragedy; someone may see a performance by an actor and say, "I know exactly how he feels!" but never, "That's me on the stage."

Let me turn now to the heart of my criticism.

Screen shot of Space Invaders from MAME.Like tragedies, the soul of videogames is their "plot." However, I, like Aristotle, do not mean "the background story" or any such thing related to fiction. The average game player does not care about "narrative" elements and finds most efforts to map a story onto a game to be cumbersome and intrusive; few are the gamers who praise the "cut-scene." When I say the "plot" of a videogame I mean the way the author has invented and arranged the events and devised the control mechanism. The best way to understand what I mean by "plot" in this context is gameplay, which is a strange coinage nevertheless familiar to almost all videogame enthusiasts. I want to be very specific about my use of the term "gameplay." I define the term to mean the way in which the player performs physical actions to manipulate objects (play), and the inherent challenges and assets offered by the game which make such actions necessary or desirable (game). This is a fair approximation of what Espen Aarseth refers to as the ergodicity of videogames; however, for the sake of simplicity, I will use the more common term. Let's start by analyzing the gameplay of a game most of us are intimately familiar with: Taito's Space Invaders.

Space Invaders typically offers a player two methods of physical control: A joystick for moving an object, in this case a spaceship, left and right, and a button for firing objects, namely missiles (or photon torpedoes). The control mechanism is easy, simple, and quite limited. This constitutes the "play." Now, the challenge of Space Invaders is likewise simple: Avoid being hit by an enemy ship or its missiles, and destroy as many enemies as possible before the inevitable tragic result. In addition to these simple elements, there is also a strategic factor created by the four barricades, which are assets. A player can hide behind these barricades and take potshots, or even destroy them himself, either by accident or design. If the game offered "power ups," like extra firepower, speed boosts, or extra "lives," these would also be considered "assets" for the player.

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