Post-Structuralism in Video Games

From the Parc de la Vilette

It doesn’t matter what you try to force a space into being, people will define that space themselves in connection to other parts. A game designer never truly plays their own game.

Bernard Tschumi’s Architecture and Disjunction is a collection of his essays on post-structuralism. Overall, they engage with the idea of applying Derrida’s theories about how people interact with meaning in art to architecture and space. If you need a basic rundown on some ways that architecture and video games relate to one another, you can check out my column on the subject. This is a bit more complicated and explores how interaction creates or destroys meaning in a virtual space. I’ve done my best to make this accessible to someone with no background (or interest) in these fields, but it only works for so long.

The first thing that you need to know is that anytime you see the word “post” next to a term for an artistic movement, it means that they’re talking about the artistic reaction to that movement. So, structuralism is a movement that roughly started with Kenzo Tange in 1960 when he was designing the new Tokyo Bay. It was an abandoning of functionalism, or the idea of making a building super-efficient, and instead organizing it around how people engage with one another. Video game design is extremely structuralist in this sense, all spaces are built around playtesting and studying how people respond to them. Changes are made to change the space to fit a designer’s vision for what people should be doing in that area. Post-structuralism, as a branch of post-modernism, is the idea that the meaning of a place comes from events and spaces relationships to other parts of a whole. Meaning is not controlled by any one specific design, person, or action but rather by all of these things working together. Keep in mind that post-modernism in architecture is not the same thing as post-modernism in the arts. To an artist, it means a critical practice. To an architect, it is a visual aesthetic (17).

Tschumi argues that it doesn’t matter what you try to force a space into being, people will define that space themselves in connection to other parts. Although spaces and words take on meaning because of their organization, all it takes is a bit of poking around to realize that this process can be pulled apart. He illustrates this point with a word play, “the football player skates across the battlefield.” Individually those nouns and verbs mean totally different things then when they do lumped together. A battlefield with football players on it is not the same thing as a war zone, particularly if there are people skating around. The purpose of creating the jangled phrase is to make a reader become aware of the meaning creation process when describing a space. He breaks down the key defining elements of this idea as "space", "event", and "activity" (1). He further explains, “In architecture such disjunction implies that at no moment can any part become a synthesis or self-sufficient totality; each part leads to another, and every construction is off-balance, constituted by the traces of another construction” (212). That is, you can’t accurately discuss one of these things without the other.

Like most post-modernist thinking, Tschumi is very adamant about there being no concrete meaning for a space because it can’t ever be just one thing. He writes, “Architectural space is neutral, there is no such thing as socialist or fascist architecture, just architecture in a socialist or fascist society” (8). Meaning is created in a participatory manner from the influence of outside forces in this way, never independently of them. Video games are interesting in that there is the content aspect where meaning is clearly up to the player, however, they also have a more concrete foundation in their design. Take something like a level in an FPS: there’s what the plot says is going on, there’s the actions of the player, and then there’s the design puzzle created via the enemies.

Since Tschumi wasn’t writing about games and I’m not talking about architecture, I’m going to make a few tweaks to his ideas when applied to games. Unlike a building or work of art, there is such a thing as an absolute in a game. By it's one very natural as an imposed kind of reality. It has a beginning, end, and underlying framework that connects those two points. You can argue all day about the meaning of Pac-Man’s content, but the design dictates that if the ghost hits you then the artificial space terminates. The dilemma is whether or not you want to believe this still falls within the realm of perception (and thus deconstruction) or can actually be declared something more permanent and universal.

This highlights a dilemma that’s also seen in the sciences when trying to discuss post-structuralism. Derrida’s assertion that “there is no meaning outside the text” gets tricky for a scientist because no amount of debating about the dangers of fire and the social constructs changes the fact that it’s going to burn your house down. Brian Hanson makes a similar observation about Foucault’s refusal to distinguish between a biological fact and a social construct when doctors tried to explain to him that he was dying of AIDs. Or put another way, are there some things you can’t deconstruct? (Brian Hanson, "Science, Voodoo Science, and Architecture", Katarxis 3, September 2004). Such a topic is at the center of a very long and unpleasant academic debate, the only consistent element in that debate being that every side insists that the reader question everything except the author’s views. I personally try to believe that modernity can be fixed or at least properly moderated to account for competing interpretations of reality. So, put on your bias hat (if it wasn’t already in place).

In this light, video games pose an interesting dilemma because they are distinctly composed of both a subjective and objective component. While you can potentially observe and understand the design or objective element of a game, the content falls under the sway of post-modernism and can never have its meaning locked down. When a player begins to interact between these elements, a space is created. A solution to the science dilemma proposed by Michael Mehaffy is relevant here. He writes, “There is now emerging a new way of looking at things that I will call 'symmetric structuralism.' The term 'symmetry' refers here to an isomorphic property between two structures, such that one has 'symmetrical' (same-measure) aspects in relation to the other. Importantly, these features will be simpler than either structure in total. They will be, in essence, abstracted structural relationships” ("Meaning and the Structure of Things", Katarxis 3, Spetember 2004)

While you can always go look up game FAQs, a virtual space’s design is perceived in the same manner as content. That is, the perception of design is subjective, BUT unlike in real life, you can conceivably observe a design entirely to the point that it becomes objective. It‘s just not possible to do so because once you perceive the design completely you then cease to be experiencing it. Put another way, a game designer never actually plays their own game. Returning to Tschumi, he explains, “Space and its usage are two opposed notions that exclude one another, generating an endless array of uncertainties…the relationship between them is inevitably one of disjunction” (21). The designer is intrinsically aware of everything about the reality that they’re in and how it works. They are perceiving the space in a totally different manner from a person who is playing it. Tschumi is asserting that these two perspectives are so alien as to be incompatible. The best analogy that I can think of is to contrast playing a game without ever reading a game FAQ as opposed to playing a game where you read the entire strategy guide before starting. Knowing how the design works in a game inherently shifts your understanding away from the perspective of usage and conversely usage has the same effect on design. That’s not really as extreme as the perspectives that Tschumi is asserting, but you get the idea. He calls this the paradox of architecture and post-structuralism: it’s impossible to question the nature of space and at the same time experience space (36).

The paradox is also complicated by the fact that people themselves warp space by their presence. Even if you’ve read the strategy guide, your presence in the game intrudes on the reality and changes it. Tschumi writes, “Spaces of movement – corridors, staircases, ramps, passages, thresholds; here begins the articulations between the space of the senses and the space of society . . . bodies not only move in but generate spaces produced by and through their movements…at the limit, these events become scenarios or programs, void of moral or functional implications, independent but inseparable from the spaces that enclose them” (111). A crowded bathroom is not as pleasant as an empty one. A level where you have a stressful firefight is perceived differently than if that space is devoid of any action or quick movement. In this way, activity is a major factor in the meaning of space. Tschumi takes this idea to its logical extreme: the space can’t be discussed without discussing the presence of the body and its relationship to the area (122). So, to properly discuss an architectural space, you have to discuss the action and the two external relations of design and perceptions (153). In video games, this concept is much more obvious: you are always discussing what the player is seeing and doing in a level.

Much of the book revolves around tackling various modernist arguments or defining Tschumi’s ideas in response to other artistic movements. Many of his points are more rigidly structured and meant to be applied towards physical spaces rather than the awkward semi-omniscient design of a video game. What’s applicable is his attempt to apply post-modernism to a medium like architecture, which constantly juggles the subjective and objective while hiding one behind the other, and his outlining of three core discussions that need to be present -- the action, the experience, and the overall structure itself while all of these aspects change in response to each other. Tschumi explains, “an implied narrative is always there, whether of method, use, or form. It combines the presentation of an event (or chain of events) with its progressive spatial interpretation (which of course alters it). Such, for instance, are rituals and their routes of initiations where, from points of entry to point of arrival, successive challenges await the new candidate. Here, the order of sequence is intrinsic. The route is more important that any one place along it” (163). This brings us back to why I make a V with my fingers when I’m explaining video games to someone who doesn’t play them. One finger is the objective design, the other is the subjective content. Once the player engages with them, it creates a space.

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