Games are languages


 Michael Abbott posted “Games aren’t Clocks” in which he makes the case that reviewers and critical study of games as works should step away from the use of mechanics as a single metric to measure a game (extreme ludogy). He also makes the point that we, as gamers and writers, should look beyond “broken” games to consider what more the game can show use through experience and interpretation. (I agree, but side with Matthew Gallant’s comment that flipping over to pure aesthetics — emotional responses to playing — is bad too.)

Kate Cox in her post “Win, Lose, or Fail” makes the connection that goals and the consequences of going after goals — including success and failure, both in terms of the allowed outcomes and those brought in through use of subversive play (my words, not hers) — should be part of a discussion on how to look at games as works too.

Line Hollis, in a post on RobotGeek entitled “Players are Planners“, takes the ideas put forth by Kate Cox and extends them into a thought — “A goal is just a desired state; a plan is a proposed sequence of actions to get to that state” — that brought me to the point of defining games as languages.

–End Background–

Perhaps it is just my background as a Computer Science student, but whenever I read about state changes and plans to bring about said states, I immediately start thinking about languages and formal mathematical definitions. I have sat though several different classes where the entire session was spent on talking about context-free grammars and in one particular enlightening experience with a professor who tried to invent a pushdown automata language on the spot then, after an hour of working with it, realized that it would never be accepted and ended the class in frustration. My point is that I have spent time viewing this material and that reading about state changes immediately put me back in those classrooms.

When two different people start looking at video games as ways to achieve (outcome of planing) states (goals), I start to think about ways to formally define a way to go about this method. If you had to define a way to describe both mechanics, interpretations of those mechanics and the ability for interaction, how would you do it? The game states, as defined as Success, Failure, or otherwise would obviously be the result of some grammar. In turn, that grammar would define a finite-state machine — that is, the game continues or the game ends. What we need is something then is something that both considers the mechanics, grammar, and the current input. Looks like we need something like a Mealy Machine.

Let’s start some defining!

First, we need a finite set of possible states (S).  In terms of gaming, this is all possible configurations of the character and the environment that the game allows, usually a very large but ultimately finite set.

Then we need an input alphabet (Σ) and an output alphabet (Λ) . This is all possible input combinations that the game recognizes and, in using Kate Cox’s work and title, Win, Lose and Fail, with the third (optional) output Fail meaning a loop to the beginning of the last valid branch of states.

Next, we need two functions. One, (T : S × Σ → S), is a transitional function that uses the current input state (S) and selection from the input alphabet (Σ) to decide which state to go to next. The second function, (G : S × Σ → Λ), is the output function that considers the input, the current state and then picks the corresponding output (Λ), the game engine.

To make it even simpler (or more confusing depending on your point of view), the transition and output functions can be stated as (T : S × Σ → S × Λ), meaning that the game’s engine is at odds with the player’s choice of input which influences the move between states. The current input and state, which was produced from considering the previous state and input, is used to transition between states ending in one of the finite set of outputs. You make a move, the game engine considers it and makes another move. You both repeat until you as the player either Wins, Loses or optionally Fails.

A plan then is a specially selected chain of inputs that will produce a goal, series of states, that the player wants to happen. However, the game engine is also part of the transitional function and, to quote Line Hollis, usually creates “experiences that frustrate and satisfy plans” (Unnecessary Obstacles). In order for the developer to keep the player in interaction with a game engine, many systems require a mastery of the alphabet and an understand of the output function (jointly the mechanics of the game in the traditional sense) before the player can achieve the Win state. In other words, the more the player plays — considers the state as they are aware of it, puts input and then sees output — the player learns the language and is able, given time, to beat or get to the desired output of Win.

What happens if the game does not have a Win, Lose or Fail state as in Kate Cox’s examples of The Path or even something like Minecraft though? (Arguable, Minecraft has a fail state, the Game Over screen, but the other two are pretty much nonexistent.) What if a designed experience  from a session of Subversive Play attempts something that does not result in any recognized output? This is why I chose the word language with care. Anything that can still be read, understood with context, that can exist within the game (language) yet not produce an end in and of itself is a performance. And performances can be art.

This may seem like a roundabout way to approach the ‘Games are art’ debate but its important to the understanding how language is used. While a game can be understood to be a language — that is, capable of holding information and relaying it in some manner — it is performance that isolates certain inputs in a way to convey to another party (an audience) some information that may or may not produce an emotional response as a result. Art then, in the context of gaming, is a session of using a game in the form of a language where states are chosen via input that produces an atheistic reaction to the audience. (Developers can control this experience by limiting the inputs at that point in order to limit the possible states during some interval. In a very simple sense, Flower has the inputs of pressing a button and not pressing a button, moving or staying still, during a session in order to push the player into their own performances and thus reactions.)

A game engine is a finite-state machine. A player interacts with this engine via its language, the game. When a game is not being played is just a system of rules, a set of tuples for determining transitions and outputs. It is only in the live interaction or the recording of a performance that information can be passed using the game itself, the language. These planned execution of inputs can be art.