The Video Game as Live Telecast: An Analogy

While we tend to think of the act of playing a video game as a direct experience in which no mediation takes place, it is important to realize that in a video game, the casting of the game event happens simultaneously with the game event itself. In other words, a video game is mediated play. The simultaneousity between the ongoing game event and its real-time casting seems to open up some space for an analogy between live telecasts and video games. In this article, I’m going to explore this analogy a bit by looking at the game Railroad Tycoon 2. 

Assessing the Basics

There are a few points that need clarification before we can start making something useful with this analogy: First of all, we have to consider the differences of the “raw material” that is being used. In contrast to the real life events cast during a live TV program, the events cast in a video game are generated procedurally in real-time through the controlled assemblage of stored data and player input.  While in both live TV broadcast and video games the casting of the event is directly depending on the actual event, their unpredictability is of a different nature.  In live TV broadcasting, the cast event  is simply bound to the unpredictability of actual real life events, whereas in video games, the cast event is bound to the unpredictability of the “chemical reaction” that takes place in real-time between the procedurally generated event and player input.

This brings us to a second point: During a live TV broadcast, the telecaster may have no control over the direction of the actual event; i.e he cannot manipulate the actual event, only the aesthetic parametres of its casting. However, in video games, the player is part of the actual event and thereby influences its direction.  We must keep in mind here, that the player’s partaking in the actual event does not cancel out the fact that the game event is still both actual event and cast event.

Third, one of the roles that a player can play beyond partaking in the actual event and watching it being cast, is to alter the aesthetic parameters of the casting itself, that is, he may also be in the shoes of the live telecaster. During actual play and its casting, a player may change the field of view, shift POVs, do editing on the fly (just like a image switcher does during a live TV show), etc.

This allows us to speak of at least three player roles that a video game may support:

1. Being an actant, that is, someone who partakes and ifluences the actual events.

2. Being a spectator, that is, someone who watches and interpretes the cast events.

3. Being a live telecast director, that is, someone who directs and orchestrates the casting of the actual events.

Telecast By and For Oneself: Railroad Tycoon 2

A closer look at the game Railroad Tycoon 2, may help us to make visible the various roles that a player may take on during the act of playing a video game.

First of all, and obviously, the player is the spectator of the ongoing “telecast”. He interpretes the cast events (including his own actions) and the information that is presented to him in order to form hypotheses that will be verified or falsified throughout the process. The hypotheses he forms are in regard to many different things: Some of them are about what his affordances are and how he can make use of them. Some others are about his goals, the obstacles inbetween, and the course of action he can take to overcome these obstacles in order to reach his goal.

Also quite obvious, the player is an actant in the game world, that is, he is someone who initiates, carries further, and terminates actual game events. Examples are plenty, from laying tracks, to building stations, to buying trains, to investing in stock.

Railroad Tycoon GUI with callouts

What seems to be a bit more hidden is his role as telecaster. While we would consider them simply as gameplay, many actions do not result in change of the events themselves, but in their audio-visual presentation, that is, the casting of the actual events. One of the typical operations he can carry out in that regard is switching between cameras, just like someone who’s sitting at the switching table during a live broadcast. The player is both, director and switcher: he decides what should be brought under focus, and he orders these images on the screen by himself. The scroll function, the zoom buttons and the cam angle modifiers all aid the player in this role. But he can also blend in info screens and other graphic displays.

It must be said that giving the player this role is a  safe way of editing, because the player decides by himself when to switch to a different angle, scale or viewpoint. Giving the control to the player, avoids confusion that can come from AI-controlled switching. Since it is the player who focuses on whatever he wants, the risk to slow down gameplay by calling in images that the player is not interested in viewing at that particular moment, is minimal. The result is some sort of continuity editing done by the player himself.

Conclusion

While the analogy with live telecasting has the apparent shortcoming of being too far-fetched, considering the similarities and differences still gives us space to draw some conclusions on how narrativity is achieved in mediated real-time events such as playing a video game.

We may conclude that gameplay in video games consists of the real-time manipulation of various narrative layers at once: On one hand, by carrying out actions that influence the outcome of game events, the player manipulates the Actants and Events layers of the emerging narrative. On the other hand, by changing the aesthetic parameters of the casting of the actual events he co-creates, and manipulates the narration layer of the emerging narrative. Finally, by doing things like changing the game settings, the player alters the narrative situation, that is, the overall parameters that frame the various roles he takes on during the mediated play.

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