essay

The sandbox has walls

Okay, I admit I was pessimistic last night. After reading Andrew Vanden Bossche’s The Tyranny of Choice and Raph Koster’s On choice architectures, I put back into the same mind set I had found myself roughly a year ago when I had been researching avatar performativity in virtual spaces. Basically, as was highlighted to me again, the issue is if a player is overdetermined by the system with they are interacting. In other words, can a player perform an action that is non-deterministic within the system?

The problem arises because video games, like all other software, are state machines. Given the current input and the established rules of behavior, a conditional branch is chosen. In turn, the next input is examined a new decision is made. This is how algorithms work and serves as the basis for how computer architectures are designed and created. From some core properties, a system grows in complexity using the rules in place and some amount of input.

It was easy for me, then, to see Bossche’s point about video games being statements. As systems, they enforce their rules and govern player behavior. They establish which actions are allowed and prevent those that are not. Even for Koster’s explanation of different ways a designer might shape branching paths, the idea that a game is a system is a statement is strengthened even more. Every choice a player may think she has is an illusion ultimately then. The designer has pre-arranged the outcomes and thus the player is then overdetermined: she cannot do something the code cannot understand.

At the time, I took it even further than I had seen Bossche or Koster position the problem. From the very input, the player is overdetermined. She cannot ‘speak’ a new language because the system has chosen not only what she might do, but has also limited how she can act too. Even if she were able to introduce new input to the system, it would ignore it because it does not have rules to understand how to handle the new input — and thus it’s invalid.

Thinking about it today, I was reminded of my favorite articulation of this issue in game form: The Stanley Parable. (In case you haven’t played it yet, I recorded and uploaded a session from the current version earlier today. You can watch it in the video below. Oh, and check out it’s Steam Greenlight page too.)

As a game itself, The Stanley Parable pokes at the player constantly. Think you are actually making a choice here? Stanley, I placed the door there and connected the hallways together. It’s all an illusion. It works fantastically as a coda to Bossche’s article because not only are all the possible endings in The Stanley Parable pre-determined, the game’s narrator will point them out to you in a way to illustrate (often comically) how much control the system has over the player. Everything is planned beforehand and, as the second narrator points out at the end of the video, the only real choice is to stop playing.

The conclusion I came to after thinking about this problem, and part of what Koster wrote in response to my comment, is the same one I found out was discussed much later in the Storify of their tweet exchange: this equates games as texts. Such a idea is not particularly new though. Since video games are cultural artifacts they encode ideologies. How the developers thought about aspects their culture is imprinted on their work. However, the new addition to this is that the rules the developers created also encode a power structure. This is what  Bossche is getting at later in the article.

As a whole, a game is a system through its cohesiveness and each therefore is a statement about something. What is important (and what is not) is not only in the content of a game, the assets themselves, but also in its mechanics too. What is allowed by the rules of a game is just as important as how something looks or sounds to the player. This is also the confirmation that, at least to me, the perceived differences between what might be seen as story heavy games and those of a systemic nature are actually closer than we might think: each equally encode messages in their construction.

Because of this, our interpretations of the systems and assets as players becomes vitally important. Since the sandboxes of these virtual worlds have fierce walls, our ability to create new and possibly oppositional narratives is essential. Video games are not constructed in a culture vacuum. As both designers and players alike, we conform and resist the greater societal systems in which we interact. Video games, as representations of a subset of these systems through simulation, produce the same effects and elicit in us a similar performance.

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