June 9, 2003

You put your left foot in

by Nick Montfort · , 3:04 pm

As we get serious about studying new forms of art and new sorts of games, the question of how to draw categories for consideration arises. Defining categories isn’t just some tedious Scandanavian pastime; it’s also a way of figuring out why exactly we are more interested in some stuff than in some other stuff. Do we like certain types of literary works because they are presented on a computer, for instance, or because they require effort from the reader, who participates in determining what is read? (This is the implicit question asked in Cybertext and in some of Espen Aarseth’s earlier writing.)

Espen, Stephen Granade, and some others have been discussing the virtues of the category “Games in Virtual Environments,” as an alternative to “computer games,” here on Grand Text Auto. The “virtual environment” is a feature of interest to me (it’s part of my definition of interactive fiction, while “game” is not) and also, I think, of interest to Stuart. In fact, I do think there is something more interesting about richly world-simulating computer games than one sees in computerized versions of card and board games. But this idea for a category also raises some questions.

For one thing, if the virtual environment itself is so compelling a feature, why limit one’s consideration to games? On the computer, there are non-game virtual environments such as social MUDs, MOOs, and graphical chatspaces. Off the computer, dollhouses are real rather than virtual spaces, but ones that are controlled and stand for larger spaces in an interesting way. And there are artistic and other virtual reality experiences that are not goal-directed. The presence of a quantifiable outcome, or of symbolic rewards, seems like it may not be so necessary for defining an interesting virtual environment.

Also, there seem to have been many interesting interface innovations and computing developments in the early arcade days, for instance, that did not rely on the simulation of virtual environments. Space Invaders, despite having the word “space” in its title, doesn’t seem like it will be well-understood from a virtual environment perspective, but it and many of its kin contributed to the techniques and tropes used in Tetris as well as first-person shooters. (Yes, it can be seen as a virtual environment, but I bet it will be hard to explain why it is fun by referring only to the virtual environmant.) I would guess that a perspective from computing, rather than a “virtual environment” one, would be the best way to approach these early games and the way they contributed to the development of modern console and arcade experiences.

Then there’s the question of when a game actually has a virtual environment and when it doesn’t, which I just alluded to. I’m still wondering if chess and hopscotch have virtual environments.

Of course, “games in virtual environments” should be an interesting perspective to take, and a lot of works that interest me fall into this category. It highlights a less examined and yet clearly important feature of interesting games. I certainly like it a lot better than “video games,” given than the computer games I write can be played perfectly well without any video at all, using text-to-speech synthesis.

19 Responses to “You put your left foot in”


  1. drew Says:

    g.i.v.e. reminds me somewhat of f.r.e.e. (fully reactive engaging environments) a term a group of actlabbers (http://actlab.utexas.edu) used to describe experiences like shenmue, virtual worlds where you could pretty much do whatever you wanted (within the limits of the world of course…

  2. drew Says:

    correction, f.r.e.e. actually was… fully reactive engaging entertainment

  3. Stephen Says:

    Then there’s the question of when a game actually has a virtual environment and when it doesn’t, which I just alluded to. I’m still wondering if chess and hopscotch have virtual environments.

    I’m interested in that as well. What precisely must be present for it to be considered a virtual environment? How much of a world is required? Some level of abstraction must be allowed, since no game perfectly mimics a world, but how much? There are games that intend to evoke a world, as the old Avalon Hill games did with their hex-grid maps. What about a game such as Monopoly? It alludes to physical spaces, but does so very abstractly.

    I find it easier to think of board games that have this sense of a virtual world, but there are card games that seem to fit the bill. Once Upon a Time establishes a fairy-tale world through the story the players weave.

    As to whether or not a game is more interesting based on whether or not it has a virtual environment or it tries to simulate a world, well, I’m not entirely convinced that this is the primary measure of a game’s interest, or even necessarily a major one.

  4. andrew Says:

    How is this idea, of what might be called an abstract virtual environment?, similar or different to the idea of the “magic circle” in play?

    Once play begins, players are enclosed within the artificial context of a game – its “magic circle” – and must adhere to the rules in order to participate.

    I recently heard the term magic circle come up in Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s talk at GDC about play, based on their upcoming book.

  5. nick Says:

    I think the “magic circle” refers, again, to the context of play — as the quotation states — not to the issue of whether or not a game simulates a virtual environment. When two boxers are in the ring you do not arrest the one who hits first for assault, because they are engaged in sport. But there is no virtual environment in boxing. The fact that games (like theater) create their own “artificial context” with special rules is very important, but it’s a different issue.

  6. Jesper Juul Says:

    Then there’s the question of when a game actually has a virtual environment and when it doesn’t, which I just alluded to. I’m still wondering if chess and hopscotch have virtual environments.

    I have been grappling with this as well. Here’s a suggestion:

    A game has a virtual world when it can be described in its own terms (independent of board pieces and servers) and when it’s possible to reconstruct “what happened” and what time it took for something to happen.

    EverQuest, Counter-Strike etc… have virtual worlds since we can recount the events effortlessly: “The elf climbed to the top of the mountain and was attacked by a spider”.

    Chess does not have a virtual world in this sense because we can’t recount what really happened: The queen was attacked by a pawn? What? And how long time does it take for a bishop to move anyway? So chess is rather an allegory of war, and Monopoly is an allegory of the real estate market.

  7. Jesper Juul Says:

    Oh, the concept of the magic circle is from Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens.

    There are some weird overlaps between rules and fiction. Roger Caillois is all up on it:

    Despite the assertion’s paradoxical character, I will state that in this instance the fiction, the sentiment of as if replaces and performs the same function as do rules. Rules themselves create fictions. The one who plays chess, prisoner’s base, polo, or baccara, by the very fact of complying with their respective rules, is separated from real life where there is no activity that literally corresponds to any of these games. That is why chess, prisoner’s base, polo, and baccara are played for real. As if is not necessary.

    (Man, Play, and Games p.9)

  8. Espen Says:

    Stephen writes:

    As to whether or not a game is more interesting based on whether or not it has a virtual environment or it tries to simulate a world, well, I’m not entirely convinced that this is the primary measure of a game’s interest, or even necessarily a major one.

    To focus on certain types of games, e.g. GIVEs, is not to say that those games are “more interesting” than others. Some of them might be quite interesting, while others probably are not.

  9. nick Says:

    But certainly we’d have to be able to say that GIVEs have one interesting aspect (the virtual environment) that other games don’t, even if the category happens to contain some things that aren’t so fascinating, yes?

    I suspect there are GIVEs that are very interesting despite the presence of boring virtual environments used in tedious ways; the gameplay is nice but the virtual environment is pretty much incidental to the experience. Similarly, there will be some GIVEs that are not so hot as games but have a pretty compelling simulated world despite that. I wouldn’t expect that the study of GIVEs specifically will shed a lot of light on how these two sorts of games manage to be effective, although it might help us to understand them somewhat.

    But I find the category interesting because it focuses on how “game” and “virtual environment” can work together effectively in (to get Aristotelian again for a moment) an excellent virtual-environment game, one that would not excel only as a game (without the environment) or only as a world (without the game). I suspect that, looking beyond gaming, it’s in intersections like these that we will find some of the most interesting 21st-century artistic and cultural endeavors, and that investigations of this sort will be particularly fruitful.

  10. ragmana Says:

    Regular old codex novels generate virtual environments too. We might want to distinguish virtual environments in the medium from virtual environments in our heads, but really both text and imagery/sound are simply cues with which we reconstruct a virtual environment. (The black of Space Invaders is just the cue that indicates Space, but we think of it as space proper and generate the environment on our own in our concept of the game.)

  11. Peter Says:

    I’m new to your forum, but the question of what constitutes a virtual environment interested me. Hopefully I won’t drag you all back to ground you’ve already covered. Particularly, at what point do game pieces or displays cease to become representations of an environment, and become the environment themselves? ragmana, I think you’re right in suggesting that we need to be careful in how we use the word virtual. For instance, the text of a novel may cause me to generate a world in my imagination (though S.T. Coleridge calls it suspension of disbelief), but I don’t perceive words like tree or dog that appear in a book to substitute physically for what they describe (I don’t take the word dog for a walk, I take the dog). But in simulated worlds, I do take images themselves to have a near physical presence – if I see an spaceship in Space Invaders, it doesn’t refer to a spaceship, it is a spaceship. (This might mark a interesting divergence of text-based vs. image-based worlds.) I would also suggest that the position of “I” in a virtual world involves some sort of narrative, which is one way the category “game” might be contrasted with the category “virtual environment.” Referring to nick’s last post, can there be a sense of agency for the interactor if there is not some sort of narrative (such as a game provides) structuring the experience of the virtual environment? This question of agency and subjectivity is one of the investigations that interests me most and I think will indeed be interesting to see unfold.

  12. nick Says:

    The difference between the virtual environment of a novel (or a poem like the Inferno) and that of a computer game is the difference between description and simulation. They’re not the same; the latter requires not just interpretation but operation as well. Theories of textual interpretation don’t explain how people operate cybertexts.

    at what point do game pieces or displays cease to become representations of an environment, and become the environment themselves?

    I think Jasper’s perspective on this can be a good one. Let’s look at different games in the gray areas and find out if a virtual environment perspective helps us learn something new. Perhaps the important boundary between virtual environment or no is found when there is too much overhead in trying to explain how pieces move and what the rules of the system are by only referring to the physical game board or display screen. If it simplifies the explanation to describe the virtual environment and refer to that, this is a good sign that you’re dealing with a GIVE. If it makes things more complex without providing any benefits (as would happen if we imagined chess as having a VE) then we shouldn’t bother.

  13. Peter Says:

    Nick, your comments are helpful. It seems that the boundary you’re speaking of is between knowing (through description) and being (through experience). Textual interpretation, as you point out (and correct me if I’m reading you wrong) is a form of knowing,not of being (or operating). I would read “overhead” as knowledge necessary for getting the sense of being, and I too think the less of it more simulated the world will seem and the less described. But, there has to be some sort of initiation into the simulation, doesn’t there? In the “real world” discourses like psychoanalysis try to account for this. So how are users intiated into a simulated environment? Obviously we’re not born that way; in my first experiences with video games, I was hilariously inept.

  14. andrew Says:

    Torill reacts to this discussion on her blog.

    (An automatic trackback didn’t occur from her post to grandtextauto, I think because she’s not using Movable Type.)

  15. nick Says:

    Peter, your more direct distinction between “knowing” and “being” seems a very good one. I was using “operate” in the sense Espen uses it in Cybertext and “interpret” in the common usage of literary studies; this avoids claiming that the game player actually has some form of “being” within the game – maybe they are just working or operating the interface or system. But it is certainly the same fundamental idea.

    Although it relates to your use of the term, I was thinking of “overhead” as being what we want to avoid in explaining a game, as theorists and critics. For instance, we could talk about what goes in a game of Super Mario World without making reference to a virtual simulated space, but our description would either be very vague or hideously elaborate. A lot of descriptive overhead of this sort would be avoided if we introduced the concept of a virtual world. That would make our explanation simpler while being as powerful, or more powerful, than before. Yes, It’s likely that not only theorists but also players build these intermediate representations when they encounter a game that has a virtual environment.

    And as for Torill – I read her post on the topic, but surprisingly I found that I was unable to comment upon it. I wonder if she knows that she has comments turned off? *

    I think in her discussion of virtual environments that, once again, Torill is talking about what I call the context of play, and what Huizinga (and Katie and Eric) refer to as the magic circle. This (“the imagined common arena within which play happens” as Torill puts it) is an essential sphere to understand, but not the only sort of virtual environment one can have. People playing the board game risk sit in a “magic circle” in which discussions occur and in which they can make and break alliances by talking to one another. This is a context of play – if your friend breaks an alliance with you that does not mean that she won’t give you a ride home from the Risk game, as she agreed to do before the game. But this environment isn’t the same as the geography and topology of the Risk world that is represented on the board. On the other hand, it may not be best to understand this “Risk world” as a virtual environment; perhaps we can understand it just as easily if we simply think of it as a game board. If we are playing a purely verbal game such as Twenty Questions, there is no representation (physical or virtual) of a geography of this sort, but there is still a context of play – questions of a certain sort are going to be “in game” and others (“hey, do you smell something burning?”) are not.

    I certainly don’t think that a computer is required for a GIVE, and I don’t think anyone has proposed that it is. Dungeons and Dragons is a clear example of a GIVE that doesn’t involve a computer. Also, I am in agreement with Torill’s take on why we find virtual environments interesting – the idea that they “are the way we think, theorize and explore abstractions.” I wouldn’t say that they are the only way, but certainly they represent an important one.

    * [A reference to Torill's recent discussion of comments and blogging. Also, good-natured sarcasm.]

  16. Jason Says:

    Rather than pasting in pages of text, I commented here: http://misc.wordherders.net/archives/000352.html

    I love trackback, but I sure wish they appeared along with other comments rather than in their own separate section.

  17. miscellany is the largest category Says:
    Taxing Taxonomy
    While I want to add more to the conversation we’re having about content/style, I’m taking a brief aside because I have wanted to (however briefly) engage some of the really interesting discussions happening right now in the gaming community regarding…

  18. miscellany is the largest category Says:
    Joining the Hokey-Pokey (or, Putting My Left Foot In)
    I’m hoping that we can dig deeper into this discussion of the difference between textual interpretation and operation, all of which seems to be attempts for us to grapple with this always present and rarely (well)defined concept of interactivity (with…

  19. accidentals and substantives Says:
    operating and interpreting
    I’ve been following the GrandTextAuto comment thread , mostly as excerpted and commented on by Jason, who singles out this by Nick: The difference between the virtual environment of a novel (or a poem like the Inferno) and that of…

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