essay, video games

Movements in the Body: Games as Anatomy

I’ve been playing around with an idea for a few weeks now. After hearing about the anatomy genre — don’t worry if you haven’t heard about it, I’ll attempt to explain it in the next paragraph — I began to think that it might hold part of the secret to understanding how games work as a medium. After all, as a mashup between database theory and hypertext criticism, it seeks to bridge the gap between authorial spaces and reader response through attempting to identify a collection of made “objects” that have seemingly weak relationships which allow them to be reconfigured during a traversal. In other words, the user creates meaning — or even a narrative — through the process of following one, of many, possible paths through the text, which itself might change at any time.

Before I go too far, let’s deal with some definitions of a sort. An anatomy is a genre… of genres. It’s a collection of, in my words, different media, genres or even texts packaged together. It is everything an author wants in a text put together as that text. Think House of Leaves or an even an earlier text like Moby Dick. It might contain other works or even apparent nonsense, yet is clearly created. It’s not just miscellaneous materials, but structured in some way for some purpose. It’s that constructed root that it shares with databases, yet differs in its ability to be highly heterogeneous. It might highlight certain passages between its components, like other hypertextual works, but does not limit the agency of a user to create new connections at any time. A work is identifiable in this genre not by how it follows certain patterns, but because it doesn’t seem to follow other conventions.

In looking at the study of video games, such a genre classification has high appeal. Not only does it account for the ability of games to be made up different other mediums like music and video, it allows for the activation of agency within the body of the work itself. Users can move between different parts according to the mechanics of the container itself. As a book, this might be turning pages or even moving between chapters. In a video, scrubbing back and forth. Yet, across other mediums and including video games, this also means that the mechanism of traversal can be defined per work. All games do not have the same method of allowing the user to map metaphors and, if the mechanics can be different depending on the collection, each game could be a separate anatomy: each body pointing to different  units for re-configuring and each with its own rules.

Such an idea leads nicely to the aspect of performativity in games as well. If the user can make the virtual world their own through acts that are defined within its context, they can build an identity that is consistent with the world, yet not at the same time. The subjectivity of the system can be broken in the very actions of reordering its composition. The role of interpretation can come from the user while they use the tools presented by the author to make something both known and unknown at the same time. The very presence of a new user to the system means that the body changes too: a new perspective is a new configuration. The text as performed is presented as part of the traversal; the player brings their own “mental mappings”, cultural understandings and even knowledge to the text, and leaves it changed. By interacting with a text, the user gains an additional model of interaction. They learn as they try new combinations within the text.

Successful paths can also lead to a greater expression of mastery. Skillful repeat traversals can lead to the discovery of content or methods of access that were not as apparent. By continuing to interact with the work, a grater fluency can be developed on the part of the user: the more familiar they are with how it works, the faster they can move between points within the text. Even as the work expands or contracts, the user can leverage their known rulesets in order to understand changes as they happen. Continued use of the mechanics of the work in its understanding can lead to faster parsing of new content or expansions as they are added: even different objects in the collection all come from within the same range of authorial voice.

The anatomy genre, as currently applied, deals with primarily with digital archives, attempting to account for both the trials and tribulations of implementation and maintenance. Central to this idea is the idea of transposition or transcription errors: those created during initial processing and those who appear during later transferring. The closest approximation to the original, when dealing with a physical copy, must be maintained. Any troubles that show up as part of the access must be removed or corrected as soon as possible in order make the presentation as clear as possible from the author’s side. Yet, errors do happen and they can become part of certain instances, being accepted or rejected by the user at the time. As the ultimate arbiter of the experience, the user can shape the errors too in order to determine how a link might have been made and then making it themselves given that they know about the mechanics.

Errors in video games code are much more serious. Since it is an executed medium and not a representative one, flaws in the construction of the collection or even access can be devastating. While minor glitches might be mitigated on the player end, crashes can end the instance and even cause irrecoverable damage to future traversals. Thus, even though video games may share in many of the digital archive woes, their “bodies” can be broken much easier. Even though they are virtually copied, the process to fix compiled code does not simply make an addition of the text, but creates a wholly separate text whose digital signature is fundamentally different. Video games are digital natives, they do not exist outside the virtual.

It is this addition that video games bring to the anatomy genre that sets them apart. Paths can be saved. The purely digital nature of the medium means that not only are multiple traversals possible, an unsuccessful path may be abandoned mid-transition for another. They can even branch or loop. While a digital archive might allow a trajectory across itself, allowing the user to pick the next part of the journey, it very rarely does so while saving the choices made. The current position might be bookmarked, but reloading a previous state of the mechanics is often impossible. Video games excel in this area; the possibility space of the work can be explored and mapped quickly. Not only can fluency lead to greater expression over the entirety of the work, often a user can have the option to repeat a portion of the content until a high level of mastery occurs.

However, it is this same structure of mechanics that might also, ultimately, lead to video games inability to use this genre classification. While anatomies might allow for each work to have its own mechanics, it lays a greater emphasis on access and the user’s actions than the authorial work. The tension between agency and required mastery in many video games might disallow, for any one user, the ability to gain access to another part of the game or even other parts of the mechanics. If the user cannot comprehend or supply the required input, she might be locked away from large portions of the content. In video games, not all possible paths have the same level of accessibility.