Four Way Gameplay

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.

Next, there is the moving image, the film—or the active toy, like the Furby. Furbies were these toys from the early 2000s. If you don’t remember, here’s a commercial:

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).

5 responses to “Four Way Gameplay

  1. A part of Galloway’s essay that I thought was interesting was that although there were “machine” and “operator” actions, both combined together to form a “cybernetic relationship” (5). This relationship is definitely apparent today just by observing a player’s high involvement in the video game, sometimes playing at hours at a time completely immersed. I found this clip on youtube of a new way of playing a video game and intensifying said “cybernetic relationship”.

    3D virtual reality at this extent has not become widespread yet, if it will at all. Perhaps this form of game-playing is simply too immersed- what happens if the phone rings or you need to go to the bathroom? Maybe the operator is drawn too far into the diegesis? Either way, sure looks like fun.

  2. The point you bring up about cybertext and hypertext is interesting. I think video games are cybertext because they give you a set of instructions, but what about when you ignore those instructions? I think it would still be considered cybertext because you can’t advance to the next level unless you have completed your assignment. You’re still restricted by rules.

    I also think it’s interesting that Huizinga refers to Jodi as spoilsports because they deviate from the enchanting order created by the game. It’s like seeing how your hamburger is made or seeing the man behind the curtain in Oz. The enchantment is gone and the fantasy is ruined. But is it really? Most people realize that games are sets of algorithms and codes and are not real but they hose to lose themselves in it anyway.

  3. Sulagna,

    can you please embed the videos you link in the page, so that we can watch them while we are reading your texts?

    Thank you,

    ps If you don’t know ho to do it you can find the instructions in the HowTo section of this blog. Sulagna for Escapist Magazine, just click on Embed.

  4. In one way, I agree that video games are cybertext in that they are suppose to be linear. Most action and adventure games seem undoubtedly cybertext but what about video games like The Sims? or Second Life where you have an entire universe of options and no real linear way of action. You create your own goals and aspirations and you strive to meet them in your own particular way. Games where the opportunities are endless and the degree of freedom is exceptionally large seem more aligned with the concept of hypertext rather than cybertext.

  5. Taking the point made by asw316 a step further, I think its even possible to argue that video games are cybertext disguised as hypertext. On the outside we seem to be given all the freedom of a virtual reality, while still being confined by the boundaries of “levels and advancement” and the overall structured form of video games. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game where these boundaries don’t exist.

    Of course in all of these conversations, simulation games such as the Sims or Second Life always comes up. Even in these games I think the player is fooled into thinking he or she has is free to do whatever. On the contrary, these players already have pre-set goals in mind, to say, build a house their Sim can live happily in, to get job promotions for their Sim (which are almost “levels” in themselves), or to achieve certain interactions with others in the community. What else would motivate you to play?

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