the artistry and psychology of gaming

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Interactivity: Does It Define the Video Games?

Interactivity: Does It Define the Video Games?

This is the second article on the philosophy of video games. Here you can read the introduction and here is the first part.

Spoiler Alert: There are some spoilers in this article.

To most people, the distinction between the video games and all the other things in the world is the fact that the video games are interactive. Therefore the interactivity is the definition of video games. And this makes sense in many levels. Compare the video game I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream with the story it was based on by Harlan Ellison. In both the story and the game, a super-computer with an evil AI traps five humans in a virtual world and controls them completely. It tortures them all the time and doesn’t let them kill themselves, and doesn’t let them die.  Therefore it seems that they are trapped in for all eternity.

However, the game and the book follow the same plot in radically different ways. While the five characters go through the same, linear plot. They act in a group. The story is narrated by one of them, Ted. And the story will inevitably have one outcome, one ending, and a limited range of possible themes and interpretations. People may have different readings of this text, but no one would come out and say that this was a cheerful or uplifting story. However, in the video game, this is only one of the possible outcomes. In the video game you control each character separately and therefore it is your choice what the events will follow, and therefore the ending is decided by your actions. In the story four characters are killed and one survives, condemned to eternal torment in the AI, but in the video game all five may survive or all five may die, they may group together and defeat AM and therefore the story of the game may be uplifting and inspiring, or not. The game, unlike the story, has endless possibilities of interpretation, and actually your interpretation is the same as the narrated story.

One can see that in this example the main different between the story and the video game is the interactivity. If you didn’t have the chance to play the story yourself and therefore follow different paths yourself, the game would not be much different from the story.

However, even if the story and the gameplay of a game is linear it is still marked by its interactivity. A horror game is a completely different experience from a horror movie, even if they follow the exact same plot, because this is you who is experiencing the horror, firsthand. And also, can you name any video game which is not interactive? No? Good. Because they all are. All the different video games, from casuals like Tetris, to the linear ones like Doom, to RPG ones like Final Fantasy VII, or Skyrim, they all have one thing in common, and that is that they are interactive.

So can we rest our case and go home? Simply say that OK, video games are the interactive media, as their interactivity separates them from the other genres, and all of them are interactive? Have we defined the video games? Not so fast.

The problem is, the claim that “interactivity separates video games from all the other genres” is false. Many things are interactive that no one considers a video game. Your DVD menu is interactive. An ATM machine is interactive. Bjork’s latest music app is interactive. Actually, all softwares and apps are interactive. We live in a world where many things are interactive.

OK, can we say that video games are an interactive narrative? An interactive entity which is also fictional. In the last article we proved that even the games without a story (such as Tetris) have a narrative and are fictitious, so is that it?

Again, no. Imagine we have an interactive movie in which you will get three choices along the way, It’s still a movie, isn’t it? It shows why we consider some interactive novels video games and some not. Ace Attorney is definitely a game, and some other interactive novels like Katawa Shoujo and Don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story are also games. But is a hyperfiction also a game? Not really. In the future most probably there will be many examples of interactive books, movies, music, and visual art.

Interacticity alone can’t define the video games. All video games are interactive, but not all that is interactive is a video game.

One Comment

  1. I kinda agree and disagree. The definition that I came up with was “An interactive form of entertainment.” A DVD menu isn’t a video game because the purpose of the interactivity is not supposed to generate entertainment. That’s not to say that the only driving force behind games is interactivity, just that interactivity is what sets it apart from other mediums, such as movies and books. Based on that however, I would still consider an “interactive movie” a video game, because the interactivity is necessary to communicate the idea that the author had in mind. It might be a bad game, but it’s a game nonetheless.

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