One of the things I have seen a lot among younger critics who prefer narrative-centric approaches in their games is an emphasis on questioning definitions of “interactivity.”
Here’s the thing: noticing that the act of interpreting something is effectively “interactive” is not a novel observation.
To start with, it is a rather fundamental notion in learning theory in general. For example, it’s a cornerstone experimental result in studies of how learning to read in the first place works.1
But let’s jump to art rather than cognition; the premise that you can be changed by, say, a book, is hardly new.
Beginning with the exploratory
It’s been discussed in literary theory for decades if not centuries. Horace in Ars Poetica argued that poetry should instruct and delight; instruction is fundamentally “interactive.” The Romantics were discussing these ideas in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and is implicit in Wordsworth’s Preface to the 1802 Lyrical Ballads:
the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants… It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor… To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse. When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation, I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble effort with which I have endeavoured to counteract it…
These days science is in on the act too. You’re likely to get pointed at the work of Robert Gerrig4 but he’s building on results in psychology that go back to the 1930s, when it was noticed that where a reader was from profoundly impacted their interpretation of a text. Gerrig conducted experiments showing that unquestionably, on a cognitive and psychological level, readers bring a huge component of the act of interpretation or indeed even comprehension. When Gerrig et al say
In light of this evidence, we propose that fiction, like fact, necessitates a willing construction of disbelief…
they are not so far off from Coleridge desiring
…to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.
In the world of hypertext criticism, there was active discussion of the issue of subjecting oneself to an all-powerful narrator; Jay Bolter, for example, was rather critical of the very notion of immersion, arguing that immersion in the sense of passively accepting what the author tells you is what “bad” readers or “lazy” readers do, and condemns writing meant for pure escapism that is written according to conventions of genre.5
It’s even been thoroughly looked at in the context of virtual realities and simulated environments and games by scholars such as Marie-Laure Ryan.6 Ryan even provided us with helpful terms for discussing the concepts of “interactive that is interpretive” (she terms it “exploratory”) and “interactive that changes things” (her term is “ontological.”)7
If we want something a tad farther along this scale than purely interpretive, it is trivially easy to draw connections between, say, Dear Esther or other experiential work that relies primarily on player “assembly and interpretation” and say, the poems of Gertrude Stein. As she says in Tender Buttons,
Why is the name changed. The name is changed because in the little space there is a tree, in some space there are no trees, in every space there is a hint of more, all this causes the decision.
That frankly sounds an awful lot like a lot of experiential criticism of certain videogames. I mean, Stein even said she was after capturing “moments of consciousness” which sounds rather like what Tale of Tales says when they use the term “notgame.” Or maybe they mean “emotions recollected in tranquillity.”8
I could go on and on. The assumption of “exploratory interactivity” is basically rampant throughout the arts. So I, at least, take this part for granted, and for that matter, don’t think videogames as a form do anything at all new or special here. Not even notions like Bogost’s procedural rhetoric are outside the mainstream current of thinking on this front: there are elements in a work, these are subject to interpretation, the audience all sees it slightly differently, the audience’s world may change a bit, hurrah.
When supposedly formalist critics say things like “that isn’t very gamelike,” “not very interactive,” “on the experiential side,” and so on, what they tend to mean is “there’s very little ontological interactivity.”
Starting to get ontological
It’s important to realize that given the observation, there is still quite a lot that is interesting in looking at work in various mediums that uses the ontological form9 of interactivity: that which requires the reader/viewer/player to do more than assemble mental models, but to make a choice which causes a differing output in the work.
This is not new either.
After all, Homeric verse was declaimed, and likely altered on the fly as it was misremembered, changed around based on audience response, etc. Those of us with a literary background are getting tired of citing Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela, Carolivia Herron’s Thereafter Johnnie, or Nanni Balestrini’s Tristano.
It’s been done in theater. A lot. A typical example cited is Ayn Rand, of all people, with her play Night of January 16th. In this courtroom drama, some audience members join the jury and vote on whether the accused in guilty. The play has multiple endings. But you could go for a less interactive form, and cite clapping for Tinkerbell in the stage version of Peter Pan. Indeed, J. M. Barrie rather breaks the fourth wall in the original book text as well:
His head almost filled the fourth wall of her little room as he knelt near her in distress. Every moment her light was growing fainter; and he knew that if it went out she would be no more. She liked his tears so much that she put out her beautiful finger and let them run over it.
Her voice was so low that at first he could not make out what she said. Then he made it out. She was saying that she thought she could get well again if children believed in fairies.
Peter flung out his arms. There were no children there, and it was night time; but he addressed all who might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think: boys and girls in their nighties, and naked papooses in their baskets hung from trees.
“Do you believe?” he cried.
Tink sat up in bed almost briskly to listen to her fate.
She fancied she heard answers in the affirmative, and then again she wasn’t sure.
“What do you think?” she asked Peter.
“If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.”
A few beasts hissed.
The clapping stopped suddenly; as if countless mothers had rushed to their nurseries to see what on earth was happening; but already Tink was saved.
As in the case of the exploratory angle on interactivity, I think there’s ample evidence that outside of games there’s a robust tradition of what might be termed “mild” forms of ontological interactivity. I say mild, simply because most of these examples are limited to simple branches:
A Choose Your Own Adventure story is actually a fixed set of stories glued together through commonalities in plot.
Most experiments in random ordering fall back on what might be termed an impressionist approach; your overall perception of the narrative is not significantly different based on the order.
There are exceptions, but thinking here of stuff like Afternoon: A Story;
The reader of a classical interactive fiction–like Michael Joyce’s Afternoon–may be fascinated by his power to control the display, but this fascination is a matter of reflecting on the medium, not of participating in the fictional worlds represented by this medium. Rather than experiencing exhilaration at the freedom of “co-creating” the text, however, the reader may feel like a rat trapped in a maze, blindly trying choices that lead to dead-ends, take him back to previously visited points, or abandon a storyline that was slowly beginning to create interest.
The experience wasn’t fun, or moving, or riveting, but as I forced myself to slog through its juxtapositions and disjointed scenes, I started wondering if there was an idea embedded in the project’s architecture. Through its play with contingency, variation, and instability, Tristano forces us to talk about it like we talk about the world and about politics. It situates us in a specific viewpoint—different from but no less legitimate than anyone else’s—and then challenges us to seek out the common ground that makes discourse possible.
Or the aforementioned Rand play, where the actual point of the play is apprehended by seeing both endings. Perhaps a linear version of this might be Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
What lies beyond
As Ryan puts it,
Interactivity is not merely the ability to navigate the virtual world, it is the power of the user to modify this environment. Moving the sensors and enjoying freedom of movement do not in themselves ensure an interactive relation between a user and an environment: the user could derive his entire satisfaction from the exploration of the surrounding domain. He would be actively involved in the virtual world, but his actions would bear no lasting consequences. In a truly interactive system, the virtual world must respond to to the user’s actions.
Or as Bolter says,
The computer therefore makes visible the contest between author and reader that in previous technologies has always gone on out of sight… this traditional belief in the fixity of the text cannot survive the shift to the electronic writing space.10
In mild forms of ontological activity, the world responds only by unveiling yet another predetermined brick in an edifice of authorial logic. This is why we have some game critics claiming that all systems, all artistic works, are in fact built of false choices, of the tyranny of the author.
But there are many games where what the player brings to the table is not “choice” of using a tiny set of verbs on a tiny set of largely irrelevant props, all aiming in the end towards the same predetermined authorial lesson. Systems can be designed for authorial imposition — Wordsworth’s or Horace’s intent to educate and illuminate — or for players to express, create, and even innovate. It is here where games like The Sims, Eve Online, Minecraft, Universalis, Dwarf Fortress,11 and even less “free” designs like Core Wars lie. And there is a case to be made that in that space are things that only games can do.
The main reason why critics keep thinking in terms of linearity, exploratory interactivity, and false choice is because that’s what most of the games they have played offer.
An article like Beirne’s portrays “ye olde interactivity paradigm” as a) the notion that interactivity is the unique quality of games, and b) interactivity is “pressing a button in a game to make stuff happen.” As the above hopefully shows, he’s correct to say that both are false, and correct to say (as he does) that he’s built a strawman. But along the way, “make stuff happen” is being erased.
And if we’re talking about “ye olde” definitions of interactivity, it doesn’t hurt to point back at Crawford, kind of the granddaddy of all the formalists in videogames, who defined it as
A cyclic process between two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listens, thinks, and speaks—a conversation of sorts. In this definition, the terms listen, think, and speak must be taken metaphorically.
When people seem like games fundamentalists, they are stretching for greater agency, not less. They are trying to identify the structures that lead to this strong ontological interactivity. When they talk about systems, they are reaching for realer choices, not false ones. When they minimize narrative, they are saying they want to think for themselves more, rather than be told what to think. When they say “interactivity” they mean freedom from those thousands of years of mainstream cultural current that say you must be lectured to. It is not an accident that self-determination theory is being found to have great applicability to game systems design.
None of this means that exploratory interactivity is bad. Or that mild ontological interactivity is bad. They’re not. There’s nothing wrong with making an exploratory interactive text and calling it a game. There’s also nothing wrong with doing fairly bog-standard literary exegesis work on games like that. But they are found in many media. Strong interactivity, though, is found in fewer places, mostly tied to improv: music, comedy, roleplay, games.
Which means that focusing on this powerful and relatively rare tool, one that has only been able to come to fruition fully on a digital stage, is actually a really valuable effort, and not one that deserves denigration as sterile formalist wankery.
In fact, one might even make the argument that flowerings of ontological interactivity layered atop exploratory games — as in the case of speedruns, glitch hunts, subversion such as pacifist FPS play12 — are signs of the ways in which players themselves are engaged in this same exploration, like water that naturally seeks to break out of its prescribed channel.
So where does that leave us? Well, Bolter mentions that Harold Bloom believed13 that
each poet must misread his or her predecessors in order to create a new text under their otherwise crushing influence.
To me, that feels very much like the enterprise that many game critics are currently engaged in.14
Such as, for example, the work by Rumelhart et al starting around 1977. For examples of experimental results, see http://psych.stanford.edu/~jlm/papers/RumelhartMcClelland82.pdf. ↩
Well, at least according to Plutarch. We don’t actually have a lot of Simonides left. ↩
“Losing oneself in a fictional world is the goal of the naive reader or one who reads as entertainment. Its is particularly a feature of genre fiction, such as romance or science fiction” — page 155 of Writing Space. ↩
A good synopsis of her work can be found here: http://www.humanities.uci.edu/mposter/syllabi/readings/ryan.html ↩
This builds on the work of Espen Aarseth in Cybertext, but I find Ryan’s formulation more succinct. ↩
or “squinteractive” as Stephen Beirne calls it in his piece here: http://normallyrascal.com/2014/07/07/ye-olde-interactivity-paradigm/ when he states “I’m going to try to move away from the application of interactivity to almost exclusively mean ‘press button to make stuff happen’ by giving a name to this old critical/design model. I’ll call it ‘squinteractivity’, because it only makes sense if you squint really hard. Also I suppose because it offers only a very narrow perspective.” ↩
Writing Space again, pp 154-155 ↩
whose most recent patch note included the marvelous statement “Some dwarves have life-long dreams and it is possible for them to recognize that they’ve accomplished the ones relating to skills and family. They cannot yet realize their dreams of taking over the world.” ↩
all the coolest quotes in Writing Space are indeed on pages 154-155! Or rather, all the stuff that has held up the best, anyway… ↩
The preceding post expanded from an abortive tweet that was kinda grumpy. Sorry. ↩