How You Got Videogames Wrong: It's All Interactive

 Pissing you off in installments, the monthly series “How You Got Videogames Wrong” delves beyond appearances into the slimy interior of The God’s Truth (about videogames).  This month we’ll be looking at a common misconception: that videogames—and nothing else—are interactive.


I heard once that people like freebies, so here ya go—a game, programmed by yours truly:

It’s Saturday night in your favorite
city, the city of your birth.

Wouldja look at that: One line of code; eighteen syllables; twelve critical interactions; two possible outcomes…and all DRM-free!

N’importe quoi! you scoff. This eez not a game. This eez a sen-tunnz! Ah but consider the “play” that goes into this sen-tunnz: You’ll need, for instance, your leet vocab skillz…From where else might the meanings of each word come if not the reader? And that’s just the denotative meanings…What are the connotations of Saturday, and how is it different from Monday? Sunday? Labor Day? And is there not a difference between Saturday night and afternoon? sunset? morning? early morning? Hell, we haven’t even gotten to the multiple endings yet: For many of us, our favorite city isn’t the same city we were born in. I might have said Boston, but I wasn’t born there. I could change Boston to fit my city of birth, but then I’d be a liar—Macon, you see, isn’t my favorite city. And I could just change my second answer, change Macon to Boston, but then ain’t I just crafting a fictional character at that point? Our decision thus straddles a fine line, has consequence: Am I a liar, or just fiction?

Or how about that famous game from Ernest Hemingway…

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

…what playing have we just done here? Long before any narrative choice we might make (“the baby died” vs. “duplicate baby-shower gifts”) we have already chosen a play-style…Per the highly-recognizable format of the statement “For Sale”—a Classified—we adhere intuitively to a structure, one that is identifiably different than a Declaration of War, a Personals ad, and a Victorian-era Novel. Thus before we can even get to “the good part” our expectations have been already shaped to the system of the genre. And before we read another syllable, we’ve got a set of tools at the ready—tools that are geared towards the consumption of goods, the identification of deals, the teasing out of ambiguities and truths regarding amateur marketing.

Games are systems, and a language game is a system of did and did-nots…is and is-nots. Though games do have a standout feature, interactivity is not it. We will return to this point soon(-ish). Before that, however, I want you to begin imagining these systems as they actually are—as a series of tumblers in a lock, complete with the tiny imperfections that allow the key and lock-pick alike to enter. Like a lock we cannot see inside, only blindly feel around within the system, listening for the tell-tale click!

It is commonly known that all mediums provide a condensed version of our reality, a representation. That’s how we can look at a painting of a tree and imagine a tree at all—we recognize that the shape before us is most probably a representation of a tree. Seldom will we imagine that the tree is Batman, or outer space. This is because our minds treat representations as simulated realities—and like a real reality we can imagine ourselves standing in them, noting the hundred-hue leaves (which don’t actually exist), the feel of the cool, November air drifting in over the brook (which doesn’t actually exist), and our outside-picture selves looking in (ditto?)

Quality of Life

The average game has literally tens of thousands of “interactions”…shall Mario run, or walk? jump or slide? shall he land upon the block from the left or the right? will he backtrack or progress? and in what order will these things occur?…all this by the time of the first flag. But it’s not as if these interactions occur within a vacuum—they occur within the system of Mario Bros., a system that disallows as much as it allows. While you might do something that no one’s ever done before in a game, you won’t ever do anything that the game-system wasn’t prepared for—that it didn’t already have a response to. Even glitches are traceable. This, you see, is what’s called a potentiality space…Things you can potentially do; things you caint. This gets me thinking: If every interaction we might make within a game is stored as a potentiality way down in the binary-soup of its guts…are all interactions equal?

For instance, if I deliberately direct Mario into a pit that’s no doubt of a different quality of interactivity than wiggling him at the top of a stalk, right? And what about accidentally falling into a pit instead of landing safely on the other side—one lessens a Lives counter…the other progresses the game. Or what if I chose to hop back and forth over the pit…? The previous quality of “crossing safely” has just changed again, hasn’t it? So it’s my thinking that if we’re out to find some key difference between videogames and other mediums, then we’re first gonna have to broach the subject of interactive quality; to develop guidelines for classifying interactions that matter…and to what degree their mattering matters.

(It’s at this point that I must note the methodology of hypothetical play here…Are we playing to simply progress? or are we playing to get every coin? are we speedrunning? or just goofing around? Though I believe the system below covers all styles, I will say now that we’ll just keep it simple: we’re just playing a game, no particular interpretation of the potentiality space in mind…Just, like, normal.)

So without further ado let’s get to categorizing. In the following you will find every sort of interaction we might hope to make:

  1. Incidental Interactions: unconscious, inconsequential tinkering within the system, such as the twitching of a thumb during a non-critical jump. We might call them “accidents.” Though truly no action is without consequence—as the system is built to recognize even those—the game’s reaction to them is without significant value relative to the system. Imagine where you sit now, absentmindedly shifting your weight from butt-cheek to butt-cheek…Unarguably there is a difference in weight distribution…unseen molecules react. But relative to the system (in this case, the Real World), the action is insignificant.
  2. Experimental Interactions: Perhaps best thought of as “goofing around,” these interactions are deliberate attempts to amplify or modify game-mood beyond the expected response capabilities of the system in question. Classic examples: targeting an NPC’s man-pickle (or counterpart), or using SNES Link’s grab ability to hump a bookshelf (“I gotcha link right here!”) Despite our goofing around, however, these interactions do not significantly (see “Incidental”) alter the game-space.
  3. Meaningful Interactions: …Should they alter the game-space, however…should the NPC react (as RE4’s Ashley does), be the interaction deliberate or accidental, then that interaction is/becomes Meaningful. These are “true” interactions—actions which modify not only game-mood but game-space as well. Though for the purposes of classification there is a second requisite, for reasons discussed in the final type: Meaningful interactions are not necessary for the system itself to progress. Examples include RE4-Ashley’s aforementioned reaction; a shattered but non-important computer terminal; and (in many but not all cases) shooting enemies or snagging gold coins.
  4. Critical Interactions: The final category consists of those interactions that the system depends upon to progress. Though these interactions can certainly be “meaningful,” the system itself is reacting not to their meaning but to their necessity in regards to progress. Examples include: dying; progress-critical options/choices; and “end points.” To further drive home the point that critical interactions can be mutually exclusive from the player’s sense of meaning, consider that game-wide critical interaction that is nearly ubiquitous in a videogame system: the very ground you walk upon.

…It’s something, ain’t it? But make no mistake: the classification of interactivity isn’t as cut and dry as how-the-game-reacts…Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one type ends and the other begins. No, the varieties above are how the system recognizes that it’s being interacted with; in other words, how the system categories us.

Games without Games

Well now that we have a system of classification in place, we are able to create a visual map our interaction (interpretation) within a potentiality space. Here’s one in action:







Check that out: a rough estimate of Mario Bros. 1-1. While there are numerous ways this visualization could be improved upon, it is no less sufficient for our purposes here. In it we can see several interesting features of play, the first being the overwhelming presence of Incidental interaction…And that’s kindly true: One of the allures of videogames is the tremendous quantity of “wiggle-room” we are afforded—of space in which our interactions are “insignificant.” As a matter of fact, the only “medium” with a higher number of “dead space” than a videogame would be, well, the Real World. And let’s keep in mind that, like the real world, the Incidental is always accompanied by a potential for the Experimental…Where we can goof up without punishment, we can simply goof around, too. But be sure not to get that mixed up: the Experimental is a side-effect of the Incidental…not the other way around. Though not all videogames provide such ample wiggle-room (see N+, which allows for exactly zero), the generalization of games as such does fall in line with that knee-jerk reaction we have to someone asking why we play videogames: cuz they’re just fun…

This “funness,” however, is only in-part derived from the sheer potential for Incidental interaction…Our world, for instance, has plenty of Incidental interactions…too much, one might argue. But as philosophers have noted over the centuries, the Real World lacks a recognizable system of meaning, something that videogames, as the graphic above shows, happily offer.

However, our question isn’t if games share an interactive similarity with the real world, but if they share the same similarity with other mediums. So now that we’ve applied our categories of interaction to a videogame-space, the question remains: can the same done with something else? Let’s have a look-see:

Like I did with Mario Bros., I have created here a rough estimate of our interaction with the Mona Lisa, and immediately we notice a glaring difference in the overall quality of our interactions—the Incidental is nearly non-existent. See it there, mapped along the borders of the painting? The reason for this should be evident: paintings, at least in the case of the Mona Lisa, work our eyes away from the border, not unlike the “free roam” videogame that turns our character back main-land the moment we wander too far. And before you say that this is an unfair comparison of interactivities, keep in mind that this bouncing-back of the eyes is not exclusively a feature of the painting itself, nor is it something you do just cuz…Our eyes must wander in order to be bounced-back at all. Which is to say that it is another proof of interactivity within a medium outside of games: had we not roaming eyes, the system of the Mona Lisa wouldn’t need to lead us at all. But we do roam, and she does lead.

As for the other interactions that occur within the Mona Lisa, my placement can be broken down by the following methods: Critical interactions are focused exclusively around the standout features of the Mona Lisa, which in my own experience are (1) her crossed hands and (2) her eyes, mouth, and nose. I call these Critical because it seems to me that if we were to imagine the painting sinking into a fog of unseeingness, that it would be these features that distinguish her final moments. In terms of the system of the painting, all other aspects are merely tangential to these. But, as is the case with mediums outside of videogames (as we will get to shortly), the quality of our interactions are somewhat subjective…I do, however, believe that the general consensus will compare favorably to what I have here.

Meaningful interactions I have centered in two places: (1) high-contrast areas and areas of depth perception; those aspects that force us to reckon distinct parts…Mona Lisa’s bare chest from her clothing…her hair from her skin tone; as well as Mona Lisa’s standing before a landscape as opposed to being a physical feature of it; and (2) areas surrounding Critical interactions, due to our attributing meaning to them. It’s for this reason that you’ll find Meaningful interactions around her facial features, as well as surrounding the intersection of her hands.

And floating between the Meaningful and Incidental you’ll find our Experimental interactions…those that neither meaningfully impact the system nor attempt to—though they do “color” the experience, providing the reader-player with aspects to “goof” around with. You’ll find these interactions placed safely within the boundaries of distinct parts (Meaningful interactions), such as the dark areas of Mona Lisa’s clothing, as well as parts of the background.

Comparing these two examples we begin to see similarities of interactability between visual art and videogame art, yet we also find one major dissimilarity: Predominantly, videogames exist as a fusing of the Incidental, Experimental, and Meaningful interaction…Whereas a painting will often have clearly-defined zones of interaction, in a videogame the three planes collapse into one another. And so it makes sense that videogames have had such a hard time being seen as an artform—the vast majority of our interactions within them exist just beneath a membrane of “goofing off,” and just beneath that, insignificance.

Let’s think about this for a moment: Can it be that the more deeply interwoven the Incidental, Experimental, and Meaningful interactions become, that the harder it is for the average person to separate them again? Sure. Our world is filled with just that. Yet let me offer another reason: videogames also feature the steepest ratio of Incidental-to-Critical interactions…Look at the Mario Bros. example above, noting how much of the space is dedicated to the Incidental, and how few elements are Critical or even Meaningful…Now expand that thought across the level, across every level of the game. See how small the critical becomes in the face of all that excess space?

Then consider the “opposite” of videogames: Language…As far as “systems” go, language can create some of the steepest ratios of Critical-to-Incidental possible, reducing the entire experience almost exclusively to a Critical system…with hardly any room whatsoever for goofing off.

Take for example the “game” that kicked this whole thing off:

…which becomes, applying our categories of interaction, the following:

Active Criticism

Thus we come to the crucial question: What makes games different?

…The standard answer to this question has done damage to videogames: interactivity, erroneously simplifying their capabilities. But greater yet is the damage that this statement has done to other mediums, mediums that are just as interactive. And this is a point we must be clear on before proceeding: comprehension, even the attempt to do so, is interaction. Take the scenario of two characters engaged in dialogue: the first accuses the second of a transgression, and the second consistently changes the subject in response. How else are we able to figure that the second character is hiding something, that he is evading interrogation, than by recognizing the social gap and filling it in with our understanding of our social world, of being accused, of escaping accusations? We pretend ourselves into a represented world, and when we do we bring our tools, having known no other worlds from which to pull tools from.

A similar “gap” appears in videogames—a physical gap in the landscape that we must cross in order to progress, a standard in videogames. Recognizing this physical gap, we interpret it with our understanding of the physical world, of gravity and momentum. How often do we critique a game for having controls that don’t feel right…Do we truly think that this not-feeling-right is merely in our thumbs that physically “feel” the controls? Or is it the kind of something doesn’t feel right that we feel when we step off an elevator onto the wrong floor of an apartment building? Surely we don’t mean that the hallway feels physically different…the floor beneath us is no doubt the same material, created by the same tools and measurements as the “correct” one. So how do we mean feeling in this case?

What we mean is that the nearly-imperceptible identifiers of our hallway are no longer present…the dimming bulb over 3E…the new ashtray near the hall window…the creaky floorboard halfway to it. This is the kind of doesn’t-feel-right that occurs to us upon playing a game with poor controls: that the world before me is too removed from my world…this hallway too unlike my own. In the real world this difference cannot be reconciled without leaving the hallway—I can’t just make this other floor my floor, too…there are rules. But games, as virtual worlds, allow us to do just that…to internalize both the rules of the gameworld and our world…to live on both floors. That’s how, in terms of the game with weird controls, we can eventually speak of “getting used to it”…We’ve adapted ourselves to both worlds.

But it isn’t even this living-on-both-floors that makes videogames unique…that’s simply what makes videogames and other mediums the same. What makes videogames unique is their capacity for what I call active criticism…the ability to provide real-time, authoritative feedback on interactions. In my Mona Lisa example above, I noted the difficulty of giving an empirical analysis of its interactivity. Well that isn’t because we don’t interact with the painting…it’s because the author isn’t right beside us, critiquing our interpretation. We could create such a scenario—perhaps not with the Mona Lisa but with another painting, another more-alive author. Imagine that you are presented with a painting but only in “phases” defined by the author…say a glimpse of a hand…or a selection of the color palette. After each phase the author would ask you to interpret what you just saw, and based on your answers, he or she would either allow you to go on to the next phase, or require you to interpret the previous phases again.

Because this, in essence, is what videogames do—what they actually do—they embody system and author alike, intertwining the two into one…critiquing our interpretations, rewarding and condemning them. When we speak of videogames, we are speaking of the only medium that offers active criticism. I say the only medium, but perhaps we might include the Real World…its active critic goes by many names: Fate; God; thermodynamics. And though, as we have just seen, prose, music, and visual art can be actively criticized, no other medium but videogames has an active critic built into it. Our above scenario regarding the painting can be derailed by the simple action of telling the author to go stuff himself and running off with his painting (and interpretation alike). That’s because outside of videogames a critic, no matter how snugly he may cling to his work, is not the work itself. Videogames collapse this distinction.

Which brings up an even more pressing point about the unique medium of videogames: what is an author, and is the one lurking inside a videogame more “author” than the person who created the game? Do videogames turn their authors into imposters? Consider this example: Pac-Man was, as we all know, “authored” by multiple people…a programmer, a designer, a composer…all adding up to a super-author we usually just call Tōru Iwatani. Fine. In that statement alone we can already see the lurkings of our dilemma, but let’s not rush ourselves. Consider, instead, one of the most infamous features of Pac-Man—the kill screen, a feature that I have written about extensively in my novel, Kickaround Nixon. This kill screen, as we now know, was the product of a programming bug—upon reaching the two hundred and fifty-sixth screen, the onscreen data becomes garbled nearly beyond recognition. In authoring Pac-Man, Tōru Iwatani had no intentions of creating a bug that stops the game at this screen…in fact, the original conception was that the game would go on indefinitely. Yet the game itself had other plans in store. Let me rephrase that: the system itself had other plans in store. The system, despite its “authors” intentions, actively criticizes in a way that its creators never planned. But if the standout feature of videogames is their ability to embody both system and author into one, how is this possible? Who, exactly, is the real author?

This is a question that comes up a lot in literature. The gist of it is this: When we discuss a story…let’s say it’s by Ernest Hemingway…and we make statements like, “Ernest Hemingway argues X, Y, and Z,” well, we’re not necessarily speaking of the physical entity known as Ernest Hemingway…the now-dead Hemingway. No, we’re speaking of the conceptual author…given the name “Ernest Hemingway” out of a necessity to have some name to refer to it by. The conceptual Hemingway can argue X, Y, and Z…the dead Hemingway cannot. Because he’s dead. This means that the story itself argues X, Y, or Z…that there is something inherent to its being that particular story that makes an argument. And what is it that is inherent to that story? A system…an incredibly complex web of is and is-nots, of did and did-nots that yes and no our various interpretations, that shape our analysis. That’s why it’s going to be hard to argue that a Hemingway story is about Batman…The system doesn’t allow for Batman…unless of course it does.

All of which is to say (and by all of which I mean this entire document) that a videogame’s standout feature, a feature that is possessed by no other medium, is that it gives the conceptual author an analyzable presence…The author is systematized, sometimes by the creators (Pac-Man), and sometimes by the system itself (the kill screen). That embedded author “who” we have such difficulty describing, such trouble pinning down, is in videogames preserved in ones and zeroes; “he” is parsable.  Want to see such a thing in action? Well, check out Ben Fry’s work, in which he has taken the code from various Atari games and created a visual map of how each event “moves” to the next.

Or just pop in a videogame and don’t worry about it.


Think I’m wrong? Great! Deliberate below and I’ll post the most cogent and/or most “liked” counterarguments…along with my own counter-counterarguments!  And come back next month, when I’ll be discussing just what videogames—if not an interactive medium—are.



  1. Pingback: How You Got Videogames Wrong: It's All Interactive | Nightmare Mode | industry, blog, iphone, app, creative, games, programming, project, various, criminalminds

    • ObjectivismSucks

      Hasn’t Systems Analysis done enough damage already. Do we really need to kill videogames with it as well?

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  3. Kimadactyl

    This is a great read, thanks.

    I’m kinda fascinated how it applies to multiplayer games here too. Blizzard could never have known that Starcraft: Brood War would have the status it does today, and the narratives in high level competition could never have been foreseen – I think this is called “emergent mechanics” in game design logic. Also in a way, getting better at those games revolves around reducing the incidental to none – the best players will always be using everything they have available all the time, and downtime on anything is where games are won and lost.

    • Ah great point, Kimadactyl! Those clicks-per-second multiplayer sessions are indeed a special breed of interpretation, as the players try to “personalize” the Critical. Interesting!

  4. Useful stuff here, thanks for writing this! I have a different oppinion on this, though, so here’s a bunch of my thoughts.

    The biggest problem I found is with your definition of interactivity, or mostly your lack of one. Without a clear definition to work with, I think the classification system you built on top of it became necessarily muddled.

    Here’s what I use, just so I have something tangible to work with: An interaction can be described as a feedback loop; as two cybernetic systems engaging with each other. An entity acts, another responds, the first responds to this response, followed by another response, and so on.

    You use the term interaction where I would use ‘reaction’. You react to a sentence you read, you react to a painting you’re observing, you react to the music you listen to. But none of these things react back to you! In most cases you don’t even act on the observed phenomenon as a response, and if you would your message would be completely unheard by it. It takes two to interact. If there is just the one participant (or if you only consider one participant), there is no interaction.

    A lot happens in your head during these activities, I completely agree. A lot of these cognitive processes are shared by both games and other media, I agree again. But they are reactions, not interactions.

    As you mention later, when you incorporate the author into the loop you *do* get interactivity. A produced work, be it a play, a musical performance, a painting session, becomes part of an interactive loop when the audience can respond to the work, and the author can produce a response to this response. The work itself does not have the capacity to respond, it does not have this component of ‘active criticism’, it does not interact.

    You mention several times that formulating your system of classification for interaction and then applying it to other media produced difficulties:

    “In my Mona Lisa example above, I noted the difficulty of giving an empirical analysis of its interactivity. Well that isn’t because we don’t interact with the painting…”

    But that is exactly it! That *is* where the problem lies. You seem to be so intent on proving that other media are interactive that you ignore a whole bunch of signs that tell you that it might not be working out. The results are vague because you didn’t start your work with a clear definition, which lead you to treat reactions and interactions as if they were the same thing.

    In your comparison of Super Mario Brothers to the Mona Lisa you look for similarities between the navigation of a possibility space with your avatar and navigating a visual space with your eyes. You can find similarities and correlations, of course, but they are not one and the same. They are definitely interesting and useful metaphors, but metaphors only map to their subjects in a limited way; they no longer work beyond a point.

    I think the four categories you chose are better off labeled as qualities, since they are not at all mutually exclusive. Going by your classification system, I was a little surprised when I read your example on language. You claim every single word and sentence is crucial, but surely that can’t be true.

    “It’s Saturday night in your favorite city, the city of your birth.” The sentence contains several parts which could be left implicit. It would still work as bullet points, for example:

    – Saturday night
    – Your favorite city
    – City of you birth

    That’s the gramatical fluff removed, but you could always compress it more by removing further dressing:

    – Saturday night (time/day)
    – city (place)
    – favorite (value)
    – birthplace (significance)

    Still retains a lot of function, right? And that’s just the different levels of significance. Granted, I need to put in more work to see what it means, but I can work it out.

    More generally: I know people who can speak for 15 minutes and not convey a single bit of information. I can produce grammatically correct sentences of pure nonsense just for fun and experimentation. I can misspell words, trip over them, or make other errors and learn from them or use them. If language only considered significance, all language would be like programming languages.

    Thanks again for writing this! I may have had some issues with it, but it gave me a a real chance to work out my own thinking on interactivity. 🙂

    • Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment! I of course have a response, but it’s not to be a smart-ass: I had hoped I would get some good discussion out of this piece.

      I like the fact that you used the word “react,” but of course not for reasons yer gonna like: who or what, I must ask, did the initial “acting” so that I could re-act? Would you say it was me…? Is that to say that I act the thought “pretty” upon the sunset just to have the exact same thought bounce back? How is that possible? “Pretty” is my *reaction* to seeing the sunset…Unless someone has told me I am going to be witnessing a sunset (which is another issue altogether), or unless I just act the thought “pretty” towards *all* objects before I see them (sunsets, car accidents, dead cats), then I won’t be thinking “pretty” until I see the object in question…if “pretty” is in fact how I’ll react at all. The question remains: what/whose action am I reacting to?

      Surely we agree that “pretty” was not generated by the sunset itself. The sheer variety of mankind’s different reactions to similar objects precludes us from choosing this option, not without attributing to an object some kind of self-consciousness that decides how it will act to different people.

      So which one is it? Am I pre-judging all things before I first see them (pre-cognizance), or are the objects telling me how to see them (object consciousness/”subject”)?

      But of course there is a third option: *I* am the actor, but my action isn’t the thought “pretty”…it’s the thought “what do I think of you?” So how exactly does the thought “what do I think of you?” come back to me as “pretty”? Well, “pretty” is the result of an interface between my “seeing” and the objects “being seen.” Which happens to be the very feedback loop you spoke of…a conceptual loop, yes…but that’s exactly my point. Imagine that the thought “what do I think of you?” is a red ball and the thing you’re looking at a deep, black expanse. Now you can toss that ball into the expanse as much as you like but it’s never going to return. However, what you *can* do is watch the ball as it bounces off through the expanse, noting *how* it bounces…its arc, its direction, its sound, how long it bounces, etc. Naturally, when you toss the next ball you’ll know a few of these things already, and you might modify your throw to explore those features more thoroughly. And so on; so forth. Seeing is like (emphasis on “like”) tossing balls and noting their reactions.

      I know this conception of the feedback loop is not the usual one. But I like being unusual. Consider this second example: Have you ever heard the phrase “what would your mother say?” Most of us can answer that question, and often what we say will be fairly accurate. But not totally accurate. That’s because the mother we’re “thinking” into existence in order to let her “see” the thing we’re doing and thus “hear” her reaction doesn’t actually exist…”Her” reference does (the actual mother), and the construct does, but not the “mother” that the construct generates. Yet this question has been used again and again to get people to modify their own behavior by letting them hear a reaction to it(feedback loop). Which means that a feedback loop *can* occur without any “actual” interaction. Yes, your construction referenced your actual mother, but your behavior wasn’t modified by her–your behavior was modified by imagining her reaction.

      Cool, right?

      As for my definition of interactivity, I’d say: “the exploration of the potentiality of an object/concept.” That definition includes everything from pushing a pencil across a desk, walking through a park, guessing what a friend’s response to a question will be, wondering what my (let’s say dead) father would think of a decision I made, and seeing a painting/sunset and thinking, “Oh pretty!”

      Let’s keep ’em coming. If I see anything else to comment on, I will 🙂

      • As well, the reason that each syllable/part of the sentence was labeled as critical was (1) to generate “nah-uhh, no way” thoughts, and (2) because that grammatical “fluff” is very important. Did you know that there are algorithms that use *only* that fluff to predict (with up to 80% accuracy) the gender of the writer (as a socio-linguistic construct)?

        As well, your core-function version of the sentence still must use the knowledge of my previous sentence (meaning the fluff you cut out of it) to produce the same effect my sentence originally did: Your compression states “favorite city” but whose favorite city? The same thing with “birthplace.” As well, how are the two linked together without remembering all the “fluff” I had included? Where’s the “your”? And there is a world of difference between “*the* Saturday night” and “*a* Saturday night”…

        And as for speaking incomprehensibly, that incomprehensible-ness would still be strictly defined by each word/sound used, and by examining that I could differentiate it from all other incomprehensibles. As well, your “meaning to or not to” is not as important as “what was heard,” cuz there’s only one you vs. a minus-you everybody else. Just try it. Try an incomprehensible sentence and watch me comprehend it, and do so using the exact system you provide me with.

        I mean, that’s just how language works. It’s the most “critical” system of representation available to us.

        As well, most great language *is* programming mistakes…very clever programming mistakes. Because it stands out.

        Oh and I wouldn’t be so sure you can speak for 15 minutes and not convey a single bit of information…the primary “bit” being (paradoxically) “I’m not conveying a single bit of information.”

    • This may be the primary problem of games criticism. Clearly, there are a lot of similarities between how we interact with games and how we interact with other texts – and that stops us from easily declaring that games’ interactivity makes them unique. Equally clearly, however, the interactivity of games is of a different quality, a different type, from the interactivity of a film or novel…what accounts for this difference in experience?

      I have to agree with Lockaby (this really is a very powerful article about which I am still scratching my head ). Even if interaction is defined as a cybernetic feedback loop, I’m struggling to understand in what sense a book or sentence fails to interact cybernetically. When I act by scrutinising a sentence, it reacts by happening to coincide with certain values and suppositions in the system of language I’ve learned since childhood. I then modify my understanding of its ‘meaning’ and read on; its meaning assumes shape based on my assumptions. At bottom, both a videogame and a book comprise systems of possibility. In both cases the possibilities are limited; the text of a novel may not ‘allow’ for a certain interpretation of it in the same way that a game does not allow for certain actions. In neither case can the text actually respond in any way that does not figure in its system. And of course in both cases any transmission of meaning whatsoever actually relies on the text corresponding with our culturally-inherited understanding of the world and pressing the right buttons, rather than fundamentally ‘containing’ anything…so it goes.

      For a parallel, consider how videogames relate to board games. Many prominent developers consider the two as part of a spectrum. What makes videogames special is not the ‘game’ part, but the ‘video’ part. One thing videogames do is give flesh to rules through high levels of automation. The automation of rules – quicker and more accurately than any human could manage – opens up such a wealth of new possibility for the complexity of those rules that this almost becomes a difference of type rather than degree.

      One concern this raises is whether games, in comparison with books etc, are actually tyrannical in some sense – that they go too far towards actually crystallising the meaning the player makes from them. There is, the argument goes, less room for interpretation and, in an ironic sense, less room for ‘play’. I’m not sure I agree with this argument but it’s something to consider.

    • Edward Burnell

      I’ve been thinking of interact-as-feedback systems for a while as well, and I’m curious what you think of the only example of non-author participatory interaction I can think of:

      When a book’s narrative voice is poorly defined or self-referential, interpretation of the narrator cam be a chaotic system, where initial conditions matter enormously.

      For many book, interpretation is a stable system — Harry Potter, for example, is enormously self-correcting if you misread a line.

      On this note, I’d highly recommend the “Communication” chapter in Maurice Blanchot’s “The Space of Literature.” Cheers!

  5. Wow, really interesting article. Clearly written and exploring some novel new ways to look at video games (I especially like the pictures). I’m not sure I really agree with you, though.

    The sentence-games at the start of your article pose an interesting problem. I’d argue that your own example counts as a game in a very important sense, one which the Ernst Hemingway sentence lacks. That feature is something I’ll hazard calling “envelopment” (just because it’s a nice sounding word), or maybe “involvement”. Interactivity covers it too. The essential feature of the first sentence is your own implication. In the second sentence, it is only your critique that is “involved”. Almost all art contains this aspect, of an analysis not only being brought by the viewer (after all without a view it is just a meaningless artefact), but some degree of falsification. This is not hard, scientific falsification, as any picture may be interpreted any way imaginable, but one that lies in the viewer’s own potentiality space of interpretation. “Is she smiling? Yes, but no, look at her eyes..”, and so on. The Hemingway has this feature. However, what your own sentence-game has is an involvement of the viewer – now the _player_, themselves. We should probably be mindful here of Wittgenstein’s classic point on the definition of “game” (what is a game, anyway?”) but one general feature of family resemblance has to be participation. The different type of participation here between the two sentences given is non-trivial – this is where the secret of video games is hidden. While the Hemingway sentence gives us our own interpretations, and then we look inward on ourselves and think about how we reached them, in this case we are entirely in the position of the subject. What the first sentence does is make us the _object_ of the work of art itself. You bring your own self – the city of your birth and your favourite city, and they are juxtaposed. This is the essential feature of games, this interactivity.

    Interactivity should not be seen as a feature of critique. In theatre, audience-interaction is a two-way process, a stimulus is taken from the audience themselves and worked into the performance. Though in a weak sense the audience themselves have been interacting with the performance in that they have been drawn in and come up with their own critique, the level of real interaction comes into play. Real interaction is a dual subject-object relation – the game itself needs to be able to look at you, and react to you. In a rudimentary way your sentence accomplishes this (the nature of the work of art anticipating you as an object, and having outcomes prepared for this). _Inter_action, as opposed to one-way subject gaze.

    I don’t think the conception of the author is at all important to an aesthetic grasping of video games. If anything games are generally taken to be death of the author taken to an extreme. You use Mario Brothers as a counter point to the Mona Lisa, but this comparison is way off. There is no hidden meaning, or aesthetic value attached to Mario directly (if we were to compare Mario to a work of art, it’d be a very highly conceptual piece that sought to distract you as far as possible from any aesthetic value it might posses). A much better partner for the Mona Lisa would be Emily Short’s Galatea ( ), an interactive fiction that takes a look at a single woman (an artifice) in a gallery. There are a lot of similarities here. Our relation to the work is one of an observer, looking at this peculiar woman, wondering who she is and perhaps who she represents (the original model of the Mona Lisa, or that of the statue Galatea). What Emily Short does is involve us in the work of art ourselves. This role of a critique is played out within the game itself, and, crucially, the sculpture of the woman comes alive, and reacts to our behaviour. We ourselves become objectified by this real woman, viewing us, nominally the subject now turned object. The question of authorship is thrown out the window, what takes place in Galatea is a dialogue between a synthetic woman and a player. By obsessively coding in different avenues of interaction reaction, different emotional states and resulting outcomes into Galatea, Short abstracts herself from the game. Any analysis of the author here will not help us, because when the work of art itself starts talking back, and working out who you are, there is something far more important going on here.

    In my own blog I recently tried to throw up an explanation here of a third entity, the player-character, that comes into existence during gameplay, as an explanation of this phenomenon. I’m starting to wonder if this might be a rather messy ontology, if my second guess on this matter is right, then this argument leads us down an interesting path. I think you are exactly right that games are interesting in that they offer their own critique, though I would say it is a not a critique of our interpretation, but of us ourselves. A game’s agency is much more proactive than merely that of a shifting object. If this line of thinking leads anywhere, it might just point somewhere new and frankly a bit terrifying for the theory of games. What if that second critique, that of the game looking at us, is the really important one? Games don’t just question, they listen to your answer and analysis _that_. I’ll leave you with that thought. :p

  6. ObjectivismSucks

    Hasn’t “Systems Analysis” done enough damage already? Do we really need to kill videogames with it as well?

    • Exactly! And that’s why I wrote an analysis of subjective systems…to counteract art-killing objectivism.

  7. There are so many big words here I don’t know how to handle it; even the pictures are complicated. I read enough, however, to notice that in your categories of interactions you forgot to mention “Sexy Interactions” which are the only kind I hope to make. They’re also probably the most important to analyze; your next feature should be all about them; you should include many pictures. Also I disagree with what you consider makes video games unique. Laterz dawg.

    • Sexy interactions are obvs the only ones that matter.

      • Everywhere and forever.

  8. Fascinating read! I must admit I find your definition of interactivity a little broad but I wholly agree games certainly aren’t the only interactive medium out there. I wonder if you may have come across Chris Crawford’s definition of interactivity: “A cyclic process between two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listens, thinks and speaks.” Perhaps a little programmer-y but it is a great way of thinking about what an interaction is.

    I’d be interested to hear more about what you think separates games from other media. Keep up the unusual thinking!

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  11. Hi Eric. I’ve written up my thoughts on certain parts of your article. It’s a bit long and on my blog here:
    I’d like to hear your thoughts. But I’m also tired so I’d like to take a nap as well.

    • Thanks, man! I’ll check it out!

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  13. Josh Foreman

    I agree with Martijin that a hard definition of interactive would have been a great benefit here. In my own thinking I’ve drawn a distinction between interactive and participation vis-a-vis art. And from my position what you are describing is participation. One can participate with any media in many ways. Drinking games with movies, dancing to music, yelling at the TV news, etc. The thing that I think is important to keep distinct as another register for evaluating artforms is how interactive they are. In MY definition this is along the lines of Crawfords quote about active systems. You seem to be saying that since language is a system that this provides another actor in the equation, and I guess that’s valid. But what I’m looking at is how the artifact *objectively* changes in response to your input. Most mediums only change *subjectively*.

    A funny anecdote from my childhood to clarify… My uncle had the class to put a small Mona Lisa above the toilet in the basement bathroom, and so I encountered her many times when I’d visit my cousins to play. At some point one of my cousins shared his feelings about her “always watching”. From then on it was a challenge for me to pee in front of that smirk. While nothing changed about the artifact so lovingly tacked above the toilet, something in ME, did. My interpretation changed.

    So consider this continuum of media from least to most Interactivity:

    Film, Music, Literature, Painting, Sculpture, Fashion, Architecture, Culinary Arts, Dinner Theater, Video Games.

    I would argue that the amount of Interactivity in video games is an order of magnitude higher than most of that list. And so I still see it as a defining characteristic of the medium.

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