essay, video games

Defining the Possibility Space of Games – Part 1

[Before I write anything else, let me say that I have learned the lesson of trying to make blogging plans. It’s this: don’t do it. I ended up getting occupied over the weekend with doing some research into intersubjectivity (on Saturday) and then this (on Sunday). Oh, but I did create a Gamasutra member blog and wrote this which was originally that. I might write weekly over there too. Maybe. We’ll see.]

We understand the narrative process to be a conversation between designer (author) and player (reader). They talk to each other through, in the example of books, the ideas and an understanding of said ideas in the process of reading. As a person reads a story, they build “a matrix” [1], a “poetic structure” [2] or interact with a “second self” [3] (e.g. the process of constructing a fabula). In playing a game, however, the collaboration is on two levels, the reading level (in which reading-response criticism can help us understand the discourse) and the interaction level.

I have, in the past, tried to reconcile these two parallel discourses as “The Third Self” and, of course, in trying to understand what a player brings with them “Player Bias” (and later Understanding). For the moment, I’m going to ignore that.

The player brings with them… something. I do not have a good hold on that (yet) but we can understand this, at least in subset, as a set of Expectations, some amount of Foreknowledge and Cognitive Abilities. It is these, in connection with the game on the interaction level, that dictates the physicality of the possibility space. How it does this though is what is in question.

Let me start with my first thought on the subject: The Ideal Player.

Ideally, this is a player who always travels the critical path within an averaged time period. They experience the game with little to no bugs or glitches and nothing occurs (e.g. ludonarrative dissonance) to break flow (interaction level) or suspense of disbelief (reading level). They are the averaged player.

From this Ideal Player, then, it would seem to reason that a standard deviation could be determined to highlight the possibility space. Not unlike a “bell” curve, the possibility space could be thought of as binary partitioned around the Ideal Player mean. However, this idea has some major problems.

For one, how do you get that data? From play-testing? In which case, how do you know when you have enough data to make a ‘good’ average? For some games, millions of people will play them. Their ‘average’ is probably a great deal different from anything internal or even external play-testing could come match. Even if you had really good data and you could determine the average player (something Valve has been trying to do for years), the curve is probably not symmetrical. It’s most likely skewed.

So, we need another theory. For that, I go to Chris Lepine at The Artful Gamer. Specifically, his post “Games We Can Dwell Within – What is Interactive Space?”.

Says Chris:

“Space, as we experience it playing games, is not a Cartesian coordinate system for representing objects, characters, narrative, or sound… I believe that there is a much deeper understanding of space in video games that we implicitly live as we play them.”

Space is created the second a player sits down and begins playing a game. Most of the time we think of this as an dialogical ‘interactive space’ — the player issues commands to the computer, and the game responds in some way, which the player responds to, ad infinitum. When we think of interaction in this way, we think of the player and game in some kind of unfolding dialogue with one another. But I’m not convinced that players really dialogue with games or computers. I see the player doing something different when they act in an interactive space.” (emphasis added)

Using the example of The Curse of Monkey Island, Chris lists several aspects in defining the “interactive space” (e.g. possibility space):

  • Physicality: “As a first-time player I explore the scene with my hand — I move the cursor around and click on a few items around Guybrush.”
  • Embracing Storytelling: “I realize — this game is not just about solving problems or fulfilling quests or hearing a story — it’s also about finding silliness and humour in the profane.”
  • Realization of dissonance between known experiences and the current one (Conflict of Expectations): “If I use the cutlass on Wally, Guybrush grimaces… This is not the same kind of interactive space as, say, TES: Oblivion which all but encourages the player to slice and dice everything in sight and complete tasks in a straightforward and efficient manner.”
  • Understanding (or self and therefore own social norms): “The game matters to me because somehow Guybrush has a quest worth pursuing, interesting relationships with his friends and enemies, and a hilarious world in which every action has some kind of unintended and hilarious outcome. So, the ‘interactive space’ in which Guybrush’s world is expressed in is one inherently tied up with my cultural values, senses of humour and morality.”

    “[The] player has a personality or psychological habitude that typically results in a certain play-style that also contributes to the kind of interactive space s/he experiences.”

    “[The] player’s expressive style also sets limits on the kinds of experiences they will have as they play.”

Going from my original list (Expectations, Impressions, Foreknowledge, Environment), I think Physicality — my word, not his — could be folded into Environment and Embracing Storytelling into Impressions but with it now renamed Sway (a measure of the suspense of disbelief). So, going back to the thought that there are two discourse levels (reading and interaction) then two aspects to a “Player Profile” — the latest term for the previous bias — could be associated with each level. For Interaction, Expectations and Environment. For Reading, Sway and Foreknowledge. Cognitive Abilities, then, overlaps both levels.

In Part 2: More theories, more terms and (probably) more confusion!

[1] Margolin, Uri. “Naming and Believing: Practices of the Proper Name in Narrative Fiction” Narrative. Vol. 10, No. 2 (May, 2002), pp. 107-127 (http://www.jstor.org/pss/20107279)

[2] Riffaterre, Michael. “Describing Poetic Structures: Two Approaches to Baudelaire’s ‘Les Chats’” Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Edited by Jane P. Tompkins. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1980. pp. 26-39

[3] Poulet, Georges. “Criticism and the Experience of Inferiority” Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Edited by Jane P. Tompkins. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1980. pp. 41-49