From above, from below: a videogames thesis

So, finally, the marks are in, and I’m able to post this thesis I’ve been rambling on about for far too long. I won’t say much by way of introduction, except to note that if you’ve got any feedback, I would absolutely love to hear from you, either in the comments here, or at dangoldingis [at] gmail [dot] com. So, without further ado:


From above, from below: navigating the videogame



Filed under study, videogames

17 responses to “From above, from below: a videogames thesis

  1. Consider your thesis Kindled. 🙂

  2. xenchik

    Seriously looking forward to reading this tomorrow! Especially now that I know it’s a first class thesis. 😉

  3. Ahhh crap that was me up there. That’s whatcya get for posting comments at 1 in the morning from your friends laptop in the city.

  4. Since we’re focused on similar topics of space in games I’m looking forward to seeing the insights you’ve brought to the table and using them to inform my writing. I might just steal the whole thing and disguise it such that nobody can tell it’s just one 40 page quote that I cite at the bottom of my paper.

  5. @Bobby – just be sure to edit out the spelling mistakes first. 😉

  6. Hey, Daniel. I read though your thesis over the weekend and wanted to give some feedback.

    First of all, it’s a strong piece that makes a very convincing argument. I have no doubt that your paper will be a reference point for intelligently discussing video games in the future. I agree that, in most cases, analyzing games as navigable spaces is more valuable than as rules systems or story tellers.

    For quite a while I’ve been thinking about video games as one of the best mediums for communicating spatial awareness and movement. Shooters are a genre which makes excellent use of this advantage. They force player to understand the playspace and constantly reassess the areas of threat/reward.

    As an art form (from the player’s perspective), I’ve also been thinking about the similarities between playing a video game and dancing. Again, both are very much about spatial awareness and movement. Both have rule sets while allowing for improvisation. Both hinge on participation. I’d dig more into this, but I honestly haven’t done much research (see Street Fighter)… it’s just a notion.

    Second, I took note of a few small weaknesses in your paper. Again, I think your argument is very strong, but I’m interested in your thoughts on these (I’m mostly playing Devil’s advocate here):

    – You argue that because video games have optional content they defy the classical text definition. I could argue that other classical texts also contain optional content.

    In film this can be knowledge taken from a previous viewing or from outside the film. For example: the dialog in Fight Club or The Usual Suspects can take different meanings depending on whether you know the ending. Knowing that Indian Jones shot the sword fighter because Harrison Ford was sick adds an extra dimension to that scene. Knowing the true stories of the victims will give you another perspective while watching Titanic.

    In books you could see foot notes as optional content. Also if a character is described as reading or enjoying a specific book, optionally having read that book yourself will tell you something about the character. Books can also be navigated non-linearly… if something is revealed near the end of a mystery novel, I may reread a previous chapter to look for the missed clues. Additionally, you could think of your imagination as a way of navigating a possibility space that the writer creates. For example: if, “Joe kicked the ninja,” you are left to explore the type of kick, and the kick that you imagine will be different than mine.

    Music can contain many layered parts and often it takes several listens before you’ve fully heard the optional depth. You could also think of attending a live show, looking for covers, or learning to play a song yourself as a way to optionally explore a song.

    – You argue that video games are best described spatially. I could argue that this is only true for some genres.

    What does the spatial navigation of a standard rhythm game look like? In Parapa the Rapper the player navigates the menu and can choose to either press the correct button at the correct time or fail. Describing Parapa by its rule set or story would give someone a much richer understanding of the game.

    Finally, the analysis of Portal is great. Your facts and assertions are all good. However, I think you missed an opportunity that is especially important when looking at Portal. Virtual spaces can be used to constrain, imitate, and expand on real spaces. I’m not completely sure how this ties in, but I think it could add weight to your argument.

    Something like Pong constrains the gamespace in ways that say, a movie about air hockey can’t. During the movie you could wonder, “What if the puck flies off the table?” These hard limits on the gamespace force the audience to focus on specific details.

    Again I’ll argue that video games are very good at communicating spatial awareness and movement, including recreations of real spaces. For example: a game that takes you on a tour of the White House would communicate that space much better than a documentary. A flight simulation that has you fly from Seattle to LA will tell you more about the runway spaces and the distance between the cities than a book can describe.

    For expanding spaces: Portal allows you to navigate non-Euclidean spaces. Bioshock allows you navigate the possibilities of genetic augmentation. etc.

    Anyway, that’s all I had. Thanks for the interesting read.

  7. First of all, Jeep, two points: thank you very much for reading the thesis. As I said earlier, it is so rewarding to know that someone involved in making the game has read my thoughts on it. Second, thanks for posting such extensive feedback. You make many good points, and I’ll try and respond in kind.

    Your analogy of dancing is quite interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but it is an intriguing point. I’ll have to think about that one a bit more; as you point out, there are many similarities. It reminds me of an analogy I read a while ago about games being like poetry; something you wouldn’t immediately jump to, but it has a surprising amount of merit.

    I think you are right in terms of optional content within classical texts. I think perhaps the difference, if there is one, is that the types that you point to are more to do with the user’s experience of the text rather than anything inherent about the text itself. So in videogames, I may often be confronted with a choice the very first time I participate in/with the text as to what content I will engage with. In the classical text, the optional content you’ve described comes more as a result of the user’s own experience/knowledge. Certainly, it adds to the text in its own inherent way, but it depends on the viewer to have that prior understanding, or that desire to go off and learn how to play the song, rather than anything about the text itself. ‘The House of the Rising Sun’, for example, doesn’t inherently teach me to play it. If I’m going to get that optional content, if we call it that, it’s because of my own predilections and decisions. In games, I’d argue that it’s a little bit different.

    I quite like the idea of imagination giving expression to content with the act of reading, and it is an idea I’ve encountered before. I guess this feeds in, however, with Aarseth’s idea of extranoematic activity – that which stands outside effort required to simply interpret and understand. You’re absolutely right that this type of interpretation occurs in every medium. Even in games, there are points that are ‘taken as read’ rather than every fully explained; you’re relying on the player to make the leap of logic. That’s good storytelling in any mediums: the show, don’t tell maxim. However, I don’t know if this is quite what I was saying in the thesis. What is different about games is that it isn’t simply interpretation and meaning that is dependent on the user/viewer.

    Yes, I’ve had several people pull me up on the blanket application of my ‘games are best described spatially’ argument. In the text, I actually limit myself to games of first-person perspective so I’m not making that claim. There are certainly some genres that gain little from spatial analysis. However, I’d argue that these are fewer than many people would assume. Even your example, the rhythm game, strikes me as reasonably spatial. Perhaps not Parapa, but if we take Guitar Hero/Rock Band, it seems to me that the main interface, the scrolling patterns of notes to hit, creates quite a navigable space. Being a musician as well, I’ve often been reminded by these games of pianola piano rolls. I would argue that when playing these games, we think of music spatially and visually. When playing Guitar Hero, I feel myself concentrating more on the musical space and the unstoppably approaching notes within this space rather than the music itself; in fact, I’d argue that this is key to the genre’s success.

    I’m absolutely intrigued by your suggestion that Portal can be used to constrain, imitate, and expand on real spaces. I’d love to hear more on it, if you’d care to. I do absolutely agree on the power of videogames to illustrate real spaces, however. As I wrote earlier on this blog, one of my favourite games is Spider-Man 2, and that’s almost entirely due to its wonderful use of Manhattan. Additionally, one of the most successful games made here in Melbourne (if not the most successful), this year’s ‘de Blob’, was initially a student project commissioned by the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands to convey how the railroad station area of the city would look in ten years. It seems to me that instead of powerpoint presentations and extensive charts and programs, urban planners might be better off creating a virtual, navigable space or a game in order to ‘sell’ their plans. Anyway, interesting ideas.

    So anyway, thank you very much for dropping by, and I hoped you enjoyed the read. I very much appreciate all of your thoughtful feedback!

  8. Tristan K

    Where did you read about games as poetry, or was that something that came from discussing Braid with me?

    If there is something on the topic I’d love you to point me in its direction before I write on the topic.

  9. Tristan K

    nice final sentence aye. topic.

  10. I’ve been searching through various books and I still can’t find the ref, Tristan. I’m sure it was either Ian Bogost or Jesper Juul, so I’ll keep looking and hopefully have something to show you for Saturday… Something about games functioning for-itself, like poetry, and only being able to be ‘re’-read. Ah, my memory is really failing. Sorry.

  11. I find the idea of interpreting a game as a kind of space very appealing and intuitive. As a point of comparison, structural biologists often talk about “fold space”, which is the set of possible polypeptide structures given the laws of physics (rules) and the amino acids, solvents and ligands found in nature (materials). The different possible “protein folds” do not create themselves, but are actualized by evolutionary processes in living things. Obviously the use of “space” in this sense is an abstraction, but I think it has some clear connections to de Certeau’s idea of the city. Conceiving a game as a set of possibilities constrained by the rules and materials chosen by the developers and actualized by the participation of the player has some clear attractions. Thanks for a very interesting read.

  12. It was my pleasure, Sparky. That’s an interesting way of summarising things, also: science is a weak point of mine, but even I can understand the example you’ve given. Thanks for reading.

  13. I’ve been reading your thesis over the last week and recently finished. I’ve got to thank you for posting it, most people would be too nervous to post that much of their own work for others to read.

    As for the content, I’m still bouncing my own ideas over what you’ve written. I really like your analysis of games as navigable texts. I’ve always considered myself an explorer in terms of gaming, so it fits nicely with that level of analysis.

    In the end notes you mention the pursuit of defining “videogame” wouldn’t be helpful. I agree the process would be difficult, but I think trying is important, especially because videogames are growing and changing so rapidly. Even if we can’t place all games in a category, I think it may be helpful to draw some lines around what we consider videogames to be.

    Take a look at Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) for example (I’m referring here to those commonly used online as a form of viral marketing). These blur the line significantly, yet to tend to be categorized as one form of videogame. Some crucial aspects of these may not even be in a digital form. Would it be helpful to start paring what is and is not a videogame down? It might be ugly, but would a broad definition imbue the medium with a sense of certainty and therefor, respect as an art? I’m still unsure on the subject.

    Your paper also made me think about choice and spatial awareness. The idea that developers can corral player choice through spacial design is interesting, and then how players can undermine those choices. I’m curious how you would include the shaping of narrative within this architectural framing.

    Mass Effect, for example, gives players narrative choices which shape how the story unfolds. But since this is designed into the game, it is essentially an illusion of choice. Even if a game changes the plot outcome based on player decisions, the game is really just offering multiple types of experiences from which we can choose. It would be a navigable choose-your-own adventure, which calls into question even the sandbox style game in relation to authorial intent.

    This got me thinking on another subject, which is the idea of emergent narrative. This being how a set of isolated rules could encourage players to imbue them with meaning. So beyond rule sets setting an atmosphere, they can actually shape the narrative by encouraging types of interpretation.

    Pac Man could be intepreted as a story about paranoia and self-medication, though that may not have been the creators intent. While Braid encourages players to insert meaning into the very mechanics of the game.

    My apologies for the barely coherent ramblings. I just got off of work and my own ideas are still fermenting. Anyway, thanks again for the interesting read.

  14. Thanks for reading, Jorge. I’m sure that it could seem like an impenetrable wall of text at first, so I’m very grateful that’d you’d get through it all and leave such thoughtful feedback.

    On defining ‘videogame’: partly, the reason I did that was to avoid getting bogged down in a debate on semantics, which was against the spirit of the work, I thought. However, I still do believe that for the most part, getting some sort of workable definition for videogames is near impossible, and probably useless because of its difficulty. I agree that, ideally, a definition would be helpful for the reasons you suggest, but as I argue in the thesis, there is such a variety of things that we usually agree are videogames these days (‘Wii Fit’, ‘World of Warcraft’), that to get a definition broad enough would be to defeat the point.

    I shied away from narrative a little bit in the thesis largely because I feel like it’s been covered well before by Henry Jenkins in ‘Game Design as Narrative Architecture’. For the most part I agree with his thoughts, though I think it would be fascinating to do a further, deeper study into the way developers now use game space to develop and shape narrative. Nonetheless, your thoughts on the matter are interesting; thinking of dialogue trees in Mass Effect et al as navigable is thought-provoking indeed.

    So anyway, thanks for dropping by, having a read, and for posting such thoughtful feedback!

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