For years, videos games were considered nothing more than a trivial, distracting form of entertainment. However, the notion of video games as a banal commodity is now a misconception; they are recognized as both culturally relevant products and sometimes even works of art. It’s no secret that video games are the culmination of some of the most respected and appreciated art forms, including visual arts (concept art, digital graphics, animation), musical score and sound effects composition, voice acting, narrative construction (writing plot/sidequests, dialogue), and general game design (programming, gameplay/mechanics/puzzle design, etc.). Even though video games are this incredible convergence of mediums, they truly don’t shine without a competent player behind the controls. In fact our performance within video games matters more than we think- it could be considered artistic itself, and may even affect our appreciation and experience of video games.
Gaming has been a part of my life since I was five, where on the family computer we had only two games for years: Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion, and The Secret of Monkey Island. I didn’t think twice about who developed these games, and unbeknownst to me I was playing the early works of Carmack, Romero, Shafer, Grossman, and Gilbert, talented developers whose works would populate my future catalogue. I did realize, however, that these games were damn fun and I loved them. I replayed these two games many times, spending hours exploring every space of the pixelated scenery, whether splattering zombies with my shotgun (Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion was the first id Software title to feature a shotgun), or emasculating cutthroat pirates in a battle of insult sword-fighting. Even in my infancy as a gamer, I noticed a striking contrast in gameplay between the two. Dangerous Dave is an action oriented 2D side-scroller/platformer that requires dexterity with careful aiming and precise jumps, while The Secret of Monkey Island is a point-and-click graphical adventure driven by gorgeous (at the time) backdrops, and a humorous narrative with swashbuckling dialogue. The former has a point system with a high score to beat, various ghoulish enemies to defeat, and extra lives to earn in case you die; the latter lacks any point system, doesn’t allow the player to die (save for a clever Easter egg), and is heavily based around conversations and useable items in your inventory. Even though the player is set out to save a loved one in both games, one is grounded in action based gameplay while the other is driven by a slower, unfolding narrative. It wasn’t until recently did I give this serious thought. I now understand that these contrasting yet complimentary types of games demand different ways of playing, and can be described as mechanical play versus aesthetic play.
Playing games in a purely mechanical sense bluntly means mastering the mechanics of a game itself (go figure). There is a wide variety of definitions on game mechanics, but for the intentions of this article they are best understood as the underlying, fundamental actions, rules, or systems a player obeys/performs within a game’s context. Mastering these inevitably equates to proficiency of a game, no matter what the genre. Some examples of mechanical based games are Bejeweled, or more famously Tetris, which rely on solid game systems rather than narrative to entertain the player. Perhaps mechanical play is best appreciated in the blossoming eSports scenes around the world, most notably with the real-time-strategy game Starcraft 2. Unlike other professionally played video games, Starcraft 2 has virtually no in-game down time where the player can take a mental breather. In addition, the demands on the player increase exponentially as the game transpires, requiring cognitive and physical rigor to accomplish various goals at the same time. This usually results in players having to complete hundreds of actions-per-minute to remain at a competitive level. The masterful, artistic prowess of professional sports athletes is echoed in both the minds and hands of these Starcraft 2 competitors, whether at professional tournaments or home training sessions. Another way to appreciate mechanical play is emphasized through post-game statistics reports. Common to games such as Starcraft 2, DotA2, the Halo series, etc., these stats screens fundamentally and numerically break down the skill of a player in various categories. Within these screens players can view the progression of their mechanical skill, and see how well they performed in previous engagements.
Aesthetic play includes yet involves more than just competency at a game’s mechanics- obviously we can’t immerse ourselves in a game if we have little grasp of the basic controls. As mentioned above, games can have excellent mechanics absent of any narrative and still be great. However, the most celebrated games in recent years have had both solid mechanics and an accompanying meaningful narrative. In fact, there are many other factors that might entice us to play games apart from the mechanics. In the paper “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research” by Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek, there are at least eight total aspects to aesthetic play: Sensation (sense-pleasure), Fantasy (make-believe), Narrative (drama), Challenge (obstacle course), Fellowship (social framework), Discovery (uncharted territory), Expression (self-discovery), and Submission (games as pastime). Each of these motivates us in different ways when we play games, and this in turn affects how we play. For example, if I’m playing a game purely for the sensations it gives me (entrancing pretty colors, great sound effects) then it’s possible that I could care less about the narrative elements. However, if I’m playing a game for the narrative, I might slowly interact with all possible NPCs, exhausting every dialogue option, and carefully pay attention to each cut-scene. These motivations induce entirely different interactions, and thus experiences with each game almost regardless of genre. We respect games differently depending on our experience with them, which is partially under our control and not the developers.
I have played Bioshock many times now. Judging from the videos that came out before the game released, I was intrigued and completely engrossed by the underwater city of Rapture. So during the opening scene, I rushed towards the lighthouse and ran down the stairs to enter the bathysphere as soon as possible in order to finally experience the deep sea dystopia myself. I didn’t play as if I had just survived a plane crash in the middle of the ocean. During the rest of my first playthrough, I may have missed certain audio logs or failed to explore the space as much as I should have, eager to finish the main narrative. Now when I emerge from the plane crash I look around frantically for an exit… even though I already know which way to go. When I finally climb onto the lighthouse shore, I look down towards the ground to “catch my breath,” then slowly look back at the crash hoping for someone else to have survived, even though I know I’m the only survivor. I guide my player slowly and cautiously as I enter the lighthouse for the nth time, staring curiously as the banner that reads “No gods or kings. Only man.” Rather than run, I walk slowly in the darkness towards the bathysphere; with each step I take a new light turns on, coaxing me towards the dark city. I don’t want to miss anything.
Video games are the only medium where active performance is demanded by the audience to advance the narrative. I purposefully play all games with care and patience now to increase immersion, maintaining my suspension of disbelief. It’s not something the developers coded into the game, but it’s within my power to shift the camera slowly, scour ever corner of the levels, use resources wisely- to role-play as if I’m really there. This enriches my experience with the game and increases my appreciation for what the developers have crafted. Conversely, I could run through the levels, skip cutscenes and dialogue, just worry about ammo and health- but that would be missing the point, an insult towards the creators, and result in a lackluster experience. A balancing of mechanical and aesthetic play is required to fully appreciate modern video games, and as gamers, we should be aware of our personal motivations and how we play before we even press Start.