A breakdown of the arguments made in Espen J. Aarseth's seminal video game text.
Part of the context of the book is that Aarseth is arguing against the post-structuralist conception of video games as meaning play, a group who “tried to show the inner contradictions of concepts such as sign, structure, work, and author in order to foreground the metaphysical nature of these innocent-looking terms” (83). Post-structuralism is the theory that two people can sit down, read the same book, and have two different understandings of its meaning because of their personal backgrounds and varying attention spans. Your desires and personality will dictate your understanding of a book. To the post-structuralist, gameplay is just an extension of that concept. What Aarseth points out is that portions of a cybertext will be cut off and will never be seen depending on your actions. He writes, “A nonlinear text is an object of verbal communication that is not simply one fixed sequence of letters, words, and sentences but one in which the words or sequence of words may differ from reading to reading because of the shape, conventions, or mechanisms of the text” (41).
Like myself and other writers discussing video games, one approach to games breaks the gaming experience into a triangle of player, design, and narrative but Aarseth opts instead for operator, verbal sign, and medium (21). Aarseth tears into the concept of analyzing just the narrative of a game by pointing out that the expressive component of a book or picture in terms of the audience is at best trivial. You can read the book aloud and modulate. You can string together a bunch of pictures to create a movie. Yet the transition from source to expression is still minimal; the act of expressing a text or picture can only be minorly adjusted through that expression. Aarseth notes, “To write is not the same as to speak; listening and reading are different activities, with different positions in the communicative topology” (163). Instead, he believes that between player and game “the relationship might be termed arbitrary, because the internal, coded level can of course be fully experienced by way of the external, expressive level.” There are multiple layers of meaning occurring in a game that go far beyond the surface and instead come from the ludic elements that the narrative is built upon.
From Mondrian's Victory Boogie Woogie
How then do the relationships between player, designer, and machine pan out? Since you have no control over the final text of a game as the player, can it actually even be said you have written something in the Aristotelian sense? (84). Aarseth argues that the player engages in a contract with the cybertext. Discussing interactive fiction he explains, “The contract between user and text in 'interactive fiction' is not merely a 'willing suspension of disbelief' but a willing suspension of one’s normal capacity for language, physical aptness, and social interaction as well” (117). But if you’re not really authoring anything, what is the player’s role in a game? The book muses, “When I fire a virtual laser gun in a computer game such as Space Invader, where, and what, am 'I'? Am I the sender or the receiver? I am certainly part of the medium, so perhaps I am the message…just as the game becomes a text for the user at the time of playing, so, it can be argued, does the user become a text for the game, since they exchange and react to each other’s messages according to a set of codes. The game plays the user just as the user plays the game, and there is no message apart from the play" (162).
Looking back at the now almost ten year old book, I’m sympathetic to the fact that many of these ideas and principles are now considered self-evident. Aarseth himself admits in the last chapter that the book will probably date rapidly as technology advances, but what’s remarkable about his work is how much of it is still true today. Even if most people are willing to accept that a game emphasizing just plot or design is not as compelling as when the two are merged skillfully, the process of how to do that has hardly been answered. Ian Bogost, Alexander Galloway, and Jesper Juul are all grappling with the techniques of that combination in their own way. Aarseth, struggling to make sense of the medium in the mid-1990s before video games were even totally acceptable amongst my own generation, is mostly concerned about the gap forming between people who are engaging with the technology and people who are not. In the final chapter, he ponders the flaws of a growing group of people who are familiar and engaged with the medium. Doing so, “reduces our possibility to empathize with those who are not using the same technology as we, be they our less well-endowed colleagues or our historical predecessors, the texts’ creators or their contemporary readers” (169). As the generation gap widens and the staggering complexity of things like video games continues to grow, what is probably the most worrisome is that those who continue to dismiss them are ultimately just going to be left behind.