Connectivity Issues: Abstraction, Subjectivity, and “Close-Playing”

The inaugural issue of The Journal of Games Criticism featured an article by critic and author Brendan Keogh that argues for a more eclectic approach to games criticism, one based more on the feedback loop between the player and the text rather than on a strictly formal approach that attempts to create a “top-down model that attempts to understand all videogame play the same way” (“Across Worlds and Bodies”, The Journal of Games Criticism 1.1, January 2014). According to Keogh, criticism is strongest when it focuses on the shifting sands between player and game, and any model that attempts to understand games purely as isolated texts restricts the depth and variety of discourse about games.

Keogh inspired a number of responses, including one from Zoya Street, who was kind enough to document most of the conversation that came out of the initial article (“The cyborg critic: Reflecting on a rhetorical figure”, Medium, 25 January 2014). Without going too much into the responses to Keogh, he makes a strong case, even if a lot of what he argues for has been in practice on pop culture blogs for a number of years now. Keogh himself wrote a book-length analysis of Spec Ops: The Line in 2012 (Killing is Harmless), so he isn’t a stranger to close-playing. He’s been practicing long before he’s been preaching (Ian Bogost, “Overall, the best version of @BRKeogh’s argument is not this methodological article, but his book on Spec Ops!”, Twitter, 24 January 2014). The problem, however, is that even though the kind of writing Keogh calls for exists, it’s a tough sell because it deals mostly with the abstract qualities of games. And that necessitate a subjective reading.

Keogh celebrates the vague area between player and game, and understanding a game from that position depends a good deal on the player’s individual experience and abstracting a game’s inner workings into language. In fact, the content of most games is only interesting because games are such an abstract form of storytelling. Players must necessarily accept onscreen statistics and meters as abstracted information meant to communicate something relevant to a game’s fiction (G. Christopher Williams, “Danger, Romance, Adventure and the Health Bar, or How I Learned to Love the HUD”, PopMatters, 20 June 2013). Similarly, menus and turns are proxies for the characters’ experiences inside a game (Zack Fair, “A Functional Definition: 55 Theses on Final Fantasy VII, Uninterprative, 9 March 2013). Abstract information inspires feelings in the player; that’s the subtext that makes up most of a given video game. That isn’t something that can be slipped into a design model. It requires a human player to read and interpret it.

Last week fellow PopMatters contributor Eric Swain and I in his words, “sat on a couch and had a conversation from half a continent away, as two guys are wont to do.” During that conversation I had a hard time convincing him that my reading of a stealth-based real-time tactics game was valid because there was nothing within the game to support my reading. I interpreted the game’s limited control scheme as an appropriate proxy for the characters’ limited ability to coordinate within the game’s fiction (Mark Filipowich, “Plural Protagonism Part 8: Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive, bigtallwords, 20 January 2014). The game tells the player that several characters must coordinate their actions without being detected. Silent, impromptu coordination is clumsy, fastidious, and dangerous. Therefore, it’s appropriate that, as a player, coordinating those characters with a keyboard and mouse is clumsy, fastidious, and dangerous. The game should not be smooth and user-friendly because it does not match the context that it puts its characters into. Nothing in the game justifies the poor controls; the controls are just poorly designed. But my reaction to the poor controls was positive. Poor controls enhanced the experience because they were a logical intermediary for me and the characters based on the context that the game had given me.

Abstract challenges and information communicates feelings that are relevant to the fiction. That’s how games operate as storytelling devices (Sylvain L., “Honoring Cinema”, Postcards From the Uncanny Valley, 29 September 2013). It might not always succeed and it certainly might not be realistic, but games operate as a form of fiction primarily through abstract the communication of ideas through their systems. That requires more than just the text itself. As Keogh explains, it requires a player to engage with it as a subject.

And really, that isn’t such a novel idea. A close reading of a poem or novel necessarily includes a discussion of rhythm, structure, the use of grammar and literary and narrative devices. Similarly, a film or a staged production can’t be understood without examining the use of focus and direction, costuming, and music and sound are all used to communicate ideas. A set of a living room is not a living room. It’s the abstract version of the room with visual draws and to focus the viewer on elements that communicate something relevant to the narrative. Music is understood by its tempo and complexity, visual art by its lines and colors. In that regard, criticism is just a subject trying to understand why an art object prompted a certain reaction (Avee Bee, “Craft and Form”, Mammon Machine, 17 July 2013).

The story of Breaking Bad’s Walter White is pretty shallow taken at face value. It only becomes interesting upon examining the composition of each shot, the use of music, the recurring themes and images, and what they mean in the context provided (Robert Alford, “Frontier Masculinity and Desert Symbolism in Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season”, PopMatters, 7 June 2013). Most of any kind of fiction is communicated indirectly between the lines. That’s as true for games as anything.

There is a significant body of criticism that focuses on just this kind of abstraction, that kind of personal imprinting fleshed out in longer form, but much of this kind of criticism is lost in what Keogh calls a search for a model “fixated… on understanding videogames first and foremost as games [that] reduce a heterogeneous cultural form and all its intricacies and tensions of style, form, and content to a singular type of system”. Maybe the study of video games just isn’t as interesting as the study of the study of video games, but for all the marketing-speak about the power of the player, criticism that actually deals with a personal close-playing of games rarely gets the respect of broader writing on the culture or design function of games at large.