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A tale of two chesses

Sparky Clarkson's picture

Chessboard Image

If I throw a ball at you I don't expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories.
—Marku Eskelinen "The Gaming Situation" Game Studies 1(1) 2001.

That's true, but it begs the question: is a videogame like a ball?

If we intend to interpret videogames entirely in terms of rules and mechanics then obviously we ought to model our study off the long tradition of analog games. In correspondence on the subject of videogame criticism published by Paste Magazine, Simon Ferrari explicitly framed his discussion with Tom Bissell in this way, pointing the long history of studies of traditional games and asking, "Do you think that video games are substantially formally different from analog games?" Bissell doesn't directly answer, but I think something can be said on this point. A salient difference, one that speaks to Eskelinen's ball, is that videogames are representational.

Now if I say "video game" and you think of a first-person shooter (FPS) or role-playing game (RPG), this will sound like an utterly trivial thing to say, but I intend to encompass more than games where you slay virtual people with mouse clicks or button presses. Video games use their audiovisual context to imbue abstract acts with meaning, even when those games include nothing like a "digital actor".

To illustrate my point, let's imagine that I have invited Tom and Simon to come to my school to play a game of chess against an AI intended to mimic the skill of a normal human player. Alas, I am an inveterate liar. When Tom arrives, I seat him in front of a computer displaying a typical chess interface. When Simon arrives, I take him to a different room with a normal chess board and pull out my netbook. As Tom moves, I reproduce his actions on the physical chessboard, and as Simon moves I type his actions into my netbook so that they are reproduced on the chessboard that Tom is seeing. So, Simon and Tom are playing the same game, but what they're actually doing is quite different.

Suppose that Simon takes Tom's knight with his queen. This involves making a particular set of motions with a group of physical objects in accordance with some set of rules. It's intellectually complicated, but it doesn't require Simon to interpret the objects he senses as anything other than they are. He can, if he wishes, imagine that the pieces represent the courtly or military entities their names suggest, or even go further afield and pretend that they represent famous chefs, so that the action represents Julia Child's triumph over Wylie Dufresne at a contest of pommes dauphine. However, nothing about the game or the situation obliges him to contextualize his actions in this manner.

Chessboard Image

In Tom's next move, he takes Simon's queen using his own bishop. This involves making a gesture with a mouse, one that correlates with the positions of certain colored pixels on a screen. For Tom, there are no pieces, there is no board, and there is no such thing as moving his pieces on the board. Rather, there is an abstract action represented in this way.

Trivially, the image on the computer screen represents a real, physical board somewhere else, but Tom's experience would be representational even if he and Simon were playing a normal game of computerized chess over the internet, in which case there would be no physical board to represent at all. It is not merely the interpolation of the screen that matters: representationalism results from the fact that the objects that define the state of a videogame are the states of memory components and processor outputs. Human beings have no ability whatsoever to interpret the real objects they are dealing with, so every game experience taking place on a computer must be mediated by representations.

Even though chess is not representational, video game chess is, because the player never actually moves a piece on a board. Rather, he makes a mouse gesture (for instance) that represents moving a representation of a chess piece that is in a relationship representing "on-ness" to a representation of a chess board. Simon's game of chess is something he is doing, and Tom's game of chess is a story he is telling himself about what he is doing, even though they are the same game of chess.

Playing a video game is a hybrid experience, in which what we say about what are doing or have done is both true, in that the game-state changed in particular ways, and fictional, in that the objects and actions we perceive differ from the objects and actions actually involved. This is most evident in games that have obvious fictional trappings (e.g. "[I] [jumped] [over] the [goomba]"), but is also true of games that appear to have no associated fiction at all ("I [moved] the [pawn] [to] [E4]"). In playing a video game, the player participates in the creation of a fictional narrative about what he is doing. Playing a video game is not like playing with a ball; it is like pretending that you are playing with a ball, and that implies a story. So, video game stories matter because video games are always stories.

When I say "story" in this connection, however, I am not using it in a sense that would apply in discussing the plot of a film or a book. The story of a video game is the story of the player's interaction with its systems and content. In this sense, Eskelinen's statement is apt. The ball does not tell a story; the player creates a story with the [ball].

Category Tags
Platform(s): PC  
Genre(s): Puzzle   Strategy/Sim  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Game Design & Dev  

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Great article

You very eloquently and clearly make the argument I was trying (and failing) to get at with a thread on the forums not long ago ("New Criticism").

It was really cathartic to see a better writer than I clarify the matter so effectively. Thank you.

The two are equally representational.

Sparky, I completely agree with your conclusion that "the story of a video game is the story of a player's interaction with its systems and content".

However, unless I'm misunderstanding you, your argument is that playing a "real" game such as tennis is not inherently representational while a video game such as Pong is. I'm not convinced that that is the case. It seems to me that you are applying some inherent quality to so-called "real" video games that is not there, and therefore giving them undo precedence.

To illustrate where I'm coming from, let's look at your chess example:

You claim that Simon is not required to interpret the objects he senses as anything other than they are. But I do not believe that Tom is required to either. Why must he be? Suppose that Tom had grown up never seeing or knowing about a "real" chess set made of glass, wood, or plastic, but he learned to play chess only on computers. You make the claim that Tom is pretending to be playing with a real chess board, but if he never knew one existed, how could he do that?

Further, suppose one day Tom and Simon switch places so that Tom is playing with a "real" chess board. It seems perfectly reasonable at that point for Tom to pretend that he is playing the game on the computer!

It seems to me that there is no inherent property of "real" objects that makes them more or less representational than a video game. In the case above where Tom never knows about a real chess board, he could easily envision the symbols on the screen to represent the court and military entities the names suggest, just as Simon is free to do with the "real" chess set.

So I would argue that both "real" and computer games are representational. It would also seem that there is some component of games that is in some sense independent of their representation, otherwise how could Tom and Simon play the same game of chess together? Something mapped from one representation to another.

One final point: With regards to computers, you say that humans are not capable of interpreting the real objects they are dealing with - the bits and bytes and electric signals and so on. But in a "real" game people are not capable of interpreting the full capacity of all the physical atoms that are moving back and forth, governed by the same physical laws that govern the silocon and electrons in the computer microchip. A professional baseball players doesn't analyze the microscopic physical details of a bat hitting the ball, and yet he can hit far better than I ever could. Likewise, you don't need to be a programmer to play Tetris. (Also when I'm playing Tetris, I'm not pretending that I'm playing a "real" game of falling wooden blocks).

Odo, your response seems

Odo, your response seems pretty confused to me.

I'll take the last point first. It's true that our eyes do not perceive the underlying forces that govern the way real chess pieces work. Similarly, even computer programmers equipped with an oscilloscope may not understand the precise physical processes going on in the semiconductors. If that amounts to a level of representation for you, so be it, but keep in mind that what is true of the chess set is true of the screen (that is, we also do not perceive the underlying atomic structure of the screen). So, whatever number of levels of representation you believe lie between a player and a "real" game, however, my point is that there is at least one more level interpolated between the player and the videogame by the mediation of the screen.

For the rest of your argument, the central confusion you have is that my case rests on whether Tom interprets videogame chess as a game of real chess. It doesn't (if it did, Skyrim would not be representational, for instance). If Tom thinks of [moving] [something] [somewhere] then the videogame is representational, no matter what he fills the blanks in with. And, I hasten to add, this is the way most people think about videogames. They do not think "I am changing the occupation variables of the spatial matrix". Even if they did, they might still be engaging in representations, depending on how you interpret the relationship between high-level and machine code.

It doesn't matter what Tom imagines the symbols on the screen to mean, and indeed it doesn't matter if he imagines them to mean anything in particular. The interpolation of the screen always means that the game state, bound up in the transistors, is represented to the player rather than directly perceived by him.

But does that ultimately MEAN anything?

Sparky Clarkson wrote:

my point is that there is at least one more level interpolated between the player and the videogame by the mediation of the screen.

Okay, I can buy that. I think I'm most of the way there. In a "real" chess game the game state data is stored directly in the objects you are looking at, whereas in a video game version you are not looking directly at the game state data as it is stored in the computer memory.

As a theoretical exercise, suppose that the game state for chess were actually stored in the screen data itself. Then every frame the chess program copied that data, interpreted it, and constructed an internal game state from it. Then the program processes that state and sends the results to the VRAM, then erases the internal state. In this situation is the player not directly observing the game state? Is the extra layer of representation gone?

Also, this raises the question: So what? I don't mean that in a dismissive way at all. I mean even if there is an additional layer of representation in a video game, what significance does that hold? You said

Sparky Clarkson wrote:

If Tom thinks of [moving] [something] [somewhere] then the videogame is representational, no matter what he fills the blanks in with.

You are applying this to video games, but doesn't it apply to "real" games as well (maybe you are applying it to real games too and I'm reading it incorrectly)? When Simon plays a real game of chess, he doesn't think "I am moving 3 million atoms approximately 2 inches along the X axis". He thinks along the same lines as Tom: "I am moving the knight to F-2". Does that extra layer of representation in video games matter if the player is mentally bypassing it and both players are interpreting what they see in terms of the actual game state?

Hi Odo, The thing is that

Hi Odo,

The thing is that Simon is never telling himself a story. Of course, it is true that he is moving 3 million atoms of molded plastic of a specific shape so many inches, but it is equivalently true that he is actually moving the chess piece. This is just using different words that mean exactly the same thing. In contrast, when Tom [moves] the [chess piece], the way he represents this to himself has nothing, really, to do with the actual changes to game state taking place inside the computer. His mental construct of the action is necessarily completely separate from the action itself.

How important is this? In a sense, it isn't, because physical games sometimes do have components of make-believe and storytelling involved. I don't just mean something like Bhaloidam, but even a game of Monopoly involves a degree of make-believe. And of course there are ritual games that are intended to convey stories. My point is not that videogames are special in some way. Rather, I mean to point out why I don't buy the strict ludological position (that the "content" of games really doesn't matter) any more than I buy the strict narratological position (that the gameplay isn't especially relevant to understanding what games mean). Videogames are make-believe, always. This does not separate them from the history of analog games, but it does clarify their position in it and perhaps how we ought to approach them critically.

What about for analog games?

Sparky Clarkson wrote:

Rather, I mean to point out why I don't buy the strict ludological position (that the "content" of games really doesn't matter) any more than I buy the strict narratological position (that the gameplay isn't especially relevant to understanding what games mean). Videogames are make-believe, always. This does not separate them from the history of analog games, but it does clarify their position in it and perhaps how we ought to approach them critically.

Hi again Sparky,

Question related to the above quote. Do you buy either the strict ludological or strict narratological position with regard to analog games? Why or why not?

Could you elaborate on why

Could you elaborate on why you think "real" chess is not 'representational' in your sense of the word? I am a long time chess player and I'm not sure that accords with my experience playing with the aid of physical boards.

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