The language of videogames and why it matters

Iain M Banks’ The Player of Games is a fairly short sci-fi novel that is part of his Culture series and was released way back in 1988. The book’s plot concerns the exploits of Gurgeh, the best game player in the entire ‘Culture’ system, a pan-galactic Liberal Socialist socio-economy of plenty, as he visits the smaller empire of Azad in order to take part in their gaming tournament. In the Azadian society, everything from civil status to fiscal wealth is determined through the success at the game of Azad. This super-complex game permeates society at every level , even dictating who is the rightful emperor, as it is seen as the ultimate measure of an individual’s intellectual, tactical and social capabilities. Like all the best works of literature, The Player of Games certainly poses more questions about its themes than it answers.

 All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elegant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games

While the game of Azad is never properly explained in the book – it is assumed that it would be almost impossible to do so – it is essentially a multi-board, multi-round based game that utilizes the use of cards, game pieces, dice, scores, eliminations and alliances, and it focuses on unquantifiable criteria such as morale, unit strength and compassion. Playable with 2-10 players and using high-tech and organic elements, which not only allow various feedback like morale to manifest and be represented, but also introduce some aspects of chance into the game. It is seen as an accurate model and replication of real life and is played on giant sports-field sized arenas, though no direct player interaction occurs. In a symbiotic paradigm, success in the game equates to success in life, and vice versa.

Can computer games ever become this complex? What constitutes a video game at all – is it the output of data on a screen that defines the medium? Are games like Azad the logical conclusion of games in general? What parallels to real-life do games currently exhibit?

” Tetris can have an impact upon real-world thinking “

Of course our current gaming landscape is heavily linked to its culture of origin. Videogames support play and play is intrinsically useful and inextricably tied to culture. This is the case even on a shallow level, such as in games like GTAIV that lean upon our knowledge and familiarity with Western culture, presenting an environment, rule-set and content that mirrors the society that many of us live in. This can also exist in abstract terms; in Janet Murrays ‘Hamlet on the Holodeck’, she draws parallels between Tetris and the “overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s – of the constant bombardment of tasks that demand our attention and that we must somehow fit into our crowded schedules and clear of our desks in order to make room for the next onslaught”. Whilst certainly only a hollow and crude shadow to real-world problems, perhaps reading the world within the language of a game (and perhaps vice versa) can further our understanding and enlightenment of real-life situations, practice and ideologies.

So then, if such a bond (between games and life) is desired or is to be achieved, then games will need to be considerably more complex than the likes of Tetris, or even GTAIV. Despite a recent trend in the industry to minimize and simplify control schemes, such as the advent of the Wii and games like Prince of Persia 2008 or Fable 2, many also crave ever more complex systems of input. Even seemingly small adjustments over the last fifteen years can illustrate the progress made in complicating controls and thus enhancing the bond between player and game, such as the shift from Goldeneye-like controls to Halo-esque dual-analogue schemes in FPS games, which is initially less accessible and more complex but ultimately affords more finesse, interaction and immersion.

If we look ahead to the distant future of our industry, would some fantastical interaction system that granted total control of game inputs be feasible, or even desirable? If there were a series of input devices that gave us intricately complex control of the human arm for example, would there be anything to be gained from obtaining such precise interaction? If the end result is the same for two different players, does it matter that some minor contraction in the triceps or a particular twist in the ulna occurred in only one of the processes?

Increased complexity in input can only be a good thing. It allows room for the gaming medium to emerge as a language of sorts, and to a degree it already is. Even the 600,000 word-strong English language is limiting in its structure, semiotics, semantics and scope; it is argued that our thought-processes and beliefs are shaped largely by our method of communication. Games could be a fitting and potent format for expression, perhaps even more so than spoken or written language, restricted as it is by its syntax, scale and structure. That hypothetical twist in the ulna very well may connote far more than an adjective or sentence ever could.

With their wide range of input methods and huge range of variables, games afford a broader range of expressions and outcomes than conventional language. Also, as Iain M Banks suggests, games also have the element of chance that does not occur in strict, traditional means of communication and expression. Banks argues that this aspect of chance makes games (specifically Azad in the book) far more potent and closer to reality than any other format or vehicle, as the Universe also exhibits such behaviour, from sentient life to quantum mechanics.

Although we are talking about speculatively complex games here, there are already examples of games acting as a language on a basic scale. Consider the structured but open templates of games such as the aforementioned GTAIV, or of Fallout 3, Mass Effect, Fable, Command & Conquer or Red Dead: Redemption: these games allow the player an almost limitless range of behaviours and interactions, and not just through the linear choices enforced upon the player that are denoted by the developers. These games do require a fair amount of personal imagination on behalf of the player to truly embody an expression of themselves, but the principle of a multi-input, multi-media, environment infused with chance (a game) as a tool and representation of the self does exist.

 Spore explores gaming as a communicative device and platform for expression with its near-infinite variables 

In The Player of Games, the narrative climaxes with an ideological showdown between the Azadian emperor and Gurgeh, which is expressed not through language, but through the game of Azad. While their conflict of belief systems is invisible to many, the game is being played as the ultimate reflection of the players – their decisions, playstyle and input is manifesting in an Azad-representation of everything the player is: their genetics, nurture, religion, opinions, beliefs, values, morals, ideologies and more.

Of course we are a long way from anything even remotely as complex as Azad, but games as an ideological expression are present in some forms today. Approaches to missions in MMOs, player-player interactions and battle tactics in RTSs are all outlets for personal expression, and although they are somewhat in the abstract, they certainly have similarities and bonds to real life. This is not to say that an in-game aggressive Modern Warfare 2 player necessarily has an aggressive approach to life, but it does suggest that the player is of the mindset that some problems are best solved with attack. We can see this in other games like Chess, where players may show their general attitude and beliefs through gameplay techniques. Also one of the facets and indeed the beauty of language and expressive tools is their inherent ability to allow people to betray or conceal their true feelings too. In this sense we can view gaming, especially competitive gaming, as a test of ability, tactical nous and rule familiarity as well as the capacity to manipulate them. Moreover this skillset can be adapted and used as a form of communication and expression; the game environment affords an arena for a conflict or agreement of fundamental (or trivial) ideologies between players, which don’t necessarily have to be significant or within the confines of the developer’s expectations.

If games are to be more complex in the future, be it through input devices, design or simply increased variables then the potential for the medium as an expressive tool is enormous. Indeed, it is interesting to read modern games in this manner, and leads me to only crave more and more sophistication, complexity and real-world parallels in future games – like Robert Lynd said: “It may be that all games are silly. But then, so are humans.”