In Chapter 1 of Gaming: “Gamic Action, Four Moments,” Alexander Galloway explores video games as a mass medium. He does this without delving specifically into the more creative comports of gaming or the social and specific significance of the playing of video games, but focusing on the semantic makeup of the video game design as a whole and play as medium-specific actions.
First, he explores the differences between video games and previous media. “If photographs are images, and films are moving images, then video games are actions” (2). This is not the same as “active audience” media, where an audience can apply their own subjectivities to media, such as an interpretation of a film. While films and images are passive in our intake of them, in that we cannot affect them directly in how they affect us, video games are an “action-based medium” which requires our input to engage us (3). This concept can be compared to children’s toys.
First, there is the image, the photograph—or in children’s toys, the action figure. Think specifically of the action figure that you are not supposed to play with, or one of the shoddier type you get in Happy Meals: the one that doesn’t have moveable bits, where you must invest your own interpretations into the toy. This could range from anything to fighting aliens to having a tea party, but the main point is that while the toy might look like Iron Man or Barbie, it doesn’t have to be played with in a certain way.
However, once bought, one quickly realized that while when you turned them on, they would warble and giggle and move their eyes in a semi-terrifying way, there wasn’t much else left after that. Certainly, you could hug them (they were furry), but the mechanics inside got in the way. Otherwise, there wasn’t much you could do but watch them, or have them wake you up in the middle of the night when they suddenly decided to talk (as it was extremely difficult to fully turn them off.)
Finally, there is the video game, the action—one could see this sentiment echoed in a coloring book, or a board game, or legos. You can’t just look at these toys, because there is no fun at looking at a coloring book. These toys are essentially useless unless you act upon them, and it is that action that is its purpose.
Then, Galloway goes into the “Four moments” of gaming action. First, he writes about the diegesis of video games: “[It] is the game’s total world of narrative action. As with cinema, video game diegesis includes both onscreen and offscreen elements. It includes characters and events that are shown, but also those that are merely made reference to or are presumed to exist within the game situation” (7).
Then, throughout the chapter, he breaks down the four moments, actions, suggestions of the video game thus:
First, there is the diegetic machine act, which he describes as an informational and atmospheric process, specifically the “ambience act” (10). This is when the player has temporarily ceased playing, but it is the “inverse of pressing pause” because while the game is going unplayed, certain acts are still going on. The trees might rustle, a bird might caw, and your character is still there, usually bobbing up and down in an uncomfortable fashion. The game is still within the created universe, allowing it to live and breath mechanically while it waits for you to pick it up again. This can be seen in more cinematic video games, such as Myst, or Ico, in which the “experience of ambience, of nonplay,” is more desirable to the actual game (18). However, Galloway feels that “formally speaking, cinematic interludes are a type of grotesque fetishization of the game itself as machine” (11).
In the following video, game review Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw deliberates on why cinematic gameplay does not work.
(Disclaimer: Ben uses some NSFW language, but he has several good points nonetheless.)
Second, Galloway describes the nondiegetic operator act as a “subjective algorithm,” in which the action is material and subjective (37). This is about pausing the game, or gathering cheats to flout the game’s original intentions to win. This is applicable to gameplay heavy games, where one seeks to buck the system and skip ahead, or even just freeze the game because there is little time for rest in the actual game.
Then there is the diegetic operator act, which is simply the gameplay: shooting, running, climbing trees, etc. He calls it “ritualistic dromenon” and refers to Huizinga’s ideas of gameplay as “an activity that is (1) free, (2) separate, (3) uncertain, (4) unproductive, (5) unregulated, and (6) fictive” (20). Huizinga also calls out Jodi (remember them?) as “spoilsports” because “their games intentionally deviate from the enchanting order created by the game” (28). Huizinga, Galloway explains, see video games as perfect order in an imperfect world.
Finally, there is the nondiegetic machine act, which are simple actions that are coded within the machine: the disabling or enabling of gameplay (which could be simple shutting off the game via a button or cutting off the play via death) which is based in the “play of structure” (37). A game in connection to this would be DDR, or Guitar Hero. Here I’d like to return to Yahtzee when he reviews the new Guitar Hero 5 and Beatles Rock Band (same disclaimer applies):
You’ll notice that at the end Yahtzee mentions that he realized that after a while it wasn’t about the music anymore, it was about how quickly he could press a bunch of buttons.
One last point: when I was reading about video gaming, I wanted to see if it was cybertext or hypertext. It seems to me that video games are cybertext in general, in that they are supposed to be linear (in terms of levels and advancement) and are also set up to be orderly. However, within the game’s frame, one could see it as hypertext. In the diegesis of video games, one does not need to follow the set rules. For example, when my friend would play Fable 2, he would often ignore the game’s hero aspects (save this village, avenge your sister, etc.) and do things like kick people to see if they noticed, or marry one woman per town, and have children with each of them, and see if he could fight the children with his sword (he couldn’t).