Izmir, Izmir University…

After a break of almost 8 months, I’m teaching again. This time I’m a full time assistant professor at the Film and TV department at Izmir University. The department is newly established and it is a nice challenge to be part of the process to make it flourish.

Izmir University is located at Göztepe/Izmir, just a 2 minutes walk from where my parents live and where I grew up. I’m happy to have back this feeling of proximity.

I found a nice place to live, and it looks like my two cats are happy with the place too!

My contract runs until September 2014.

 

The Production of Subject and Space in Video Games

My latest article has been published in GAME, the Italian Journal of Game Studies, along a number of very interesting other articles.

For GAME, go here.

For my article, go here.

Three Types of Point-of-View in Video Games

 

 

A Different Point-of-View

Many of us share the tendency to equal point-of-view (POV) to perceptual view, that is, to visual sense-data perceived by a particular perceiver from a particular position held in space. This is what we usually mean when we say “first person” view. But we often also imply a certain distance and angle from which this pair of eyes views the world, for example when we say “third person” or “God view”. As can be easily inferred, we address through these a camera’s distance to an avatar as well as the camera’s distance to the ongoing events. Using the term POV in this way is quite practical in daily life, for instance when we want to describe a game to a friend, because using POV in this way has become part of our vocabulary.

However,  narrative designers maintain a subtler approach to the POV issue and take into account a number of nuances that improve their craft and bring in additional artistic  and narrative choices. One reason for that is that using the term POV only in its perceptual sense causes a lot of details about a broader notion of POV to get lost. In this article, I will try to show that POV is not only about seeing, but also about interpreting what is seen and whether the perceived events cause a reaction in the perceiver or not. In other words, I will speak of an eye that not only sees, but one that also thinks, and has an interest. This has several implications in regard to character creation, challenge, identification and exposure, all of which I will try to address.

 

What the Eye Sees, Thinks, and Desires

In a chapter of his book Story and Discourse, published in 1978, and since then one of the most recognized publications in the field of screen and literature studies, Seymour Chatman points out that there are at least three different types of point-of-view. He goes on to clarify that these are

  • perceptual point-of-view,
  • ideological point-of-view and,
  • point-of-view of interest

Chatman deals with each one of these POV types extensively, and looks not only at how they relate to each other, but also at how they relate to those whom they belong to: to characters, narrators, narrator-characters, or spectators for example. When I say “belong to”, I don’t mean to say that one type of point-of-view can only belong to one type of owner. It’s not for example that only characters can have a perceptual view, and only narrators an ideology. Variations between point-of-view and owner types are endless. Besides, they may be subject to change even in transitions from one shot to another. And the combinations that a narrative designer goes for, will create major differences to the player’s experience.

It could be said that in contrast to perceptual view, ideological POV and POV of interest work rather at the mental level, and are in regard to what the things we see mean to us. In that sense, they are mental pictures about perceived visual sense-data. We label them as point-of-view, because they are specific ways of filtering what we see. They are partly conscious partly unconscious frames that may cause us to ignore or misrecognize things that we see perceptually. As art critic John Berger says, what we believe to see depends on what we know to be true: We see the sun revolving around the world, but we believe into the opposite. In narrative design, this simply means that we have a lot of options to manipulate the  knowledge, thoughts and emotions of an audience so as to create immersive, intriguing and entertaining experiences.

 

Perceptual Point-of-View

The first of these three POV’s is the one most obvious to us: perceptual view. This is simply what is being perceived through a “pair of eyes” at a particular moment in time. This type of POV basically denotes the perception of visual sense-data, and thereby also implies a position that is being held in space from which this sense-data is collected. In short, perceptual view does not only yield a sight, but it also establishes a perceiver, however anonymous, in relation to an environment, like the “first person” in a shooter, or the “God” in a god game.

It’s very important to realize that the perceptual view represented on a screen is an appropriation of a view that hasn’t existed in reality. Nor has its implied perceiver. When we look at the screen, all we really see is an image procedurally generated and rendered into sight through a virtual camera. The efforts of the designer and artist in the visual constrution of this rendering must achieve that we think of this image as if it were the moment-to-moment perceptions of a perceiver. This is in particular important if the designers and artists want us to assume this perceptual construct as our own view.

In constructing this perceptual view carefully, the designers and artists goal is to make us forget about the distance between our own pair of eyes and those represented on the screen. Helping a spectator to ignore the distance between himself and the screen and make him assume the eyes implied in the visualization as his own eyes  is by no means a guaranteed thing to happen. It looks unproblematic to us, because most of the games we play have been made by experts who don’t fail in this and make it look like it is the most natural to “see” as is visualized.

Constructing such artificial perceptual view is part of character creation too, because the way we construct this image, also co-constructs and suggests the presence of a perceiver with certain attributes and traits. Hence, when a player identifies with this perceptual view and overlooks the distance between him and the screen, he not only assumes the artificial pair of eyes as if they were his own, but he also assumes the characteristics of the perceiver that is implied through this specific visual construct.

Finally, perceptual view alone may not be sufficient to express what the owner of the pair of eyes encounters. For example in a first person shooter, it becomes a problem to make a player realize that he has been hit by a bullet. For one, bullets are fast things ;) and naturally they escape the eye (in other words, their travelling through the air isn’t actually represented, although exceptions such as the bullet-representation in Max Payne exist), and second, the visual construction in first person view doesn’t allow the player to perceive the virtual body to which the pair of eyes seems to belong to. Hence, when a player is hit by a bullet, it is implied by other means that make its perception possible: the screen turns momentarily red, the health bar in the Heads-up-display gets shorter, and the cam backtracks in quick spurts like if we were pushed by something.

In other words, designers use many visual elements and embed these into the perceptual view they have constructed. Many of these visual elements however, belong already to other types of POV, ideological POV and POV of interest. Hence, what we perceive to be a perceptual view when we play, is already a combination of various POV-types.

Ideological Point-of-View

The second definition of POV takes seeing rather in the metaphorical sense and implies not only a view, but a worldview. Hence the term ideological. Here, a second lense is applied to the lense that sees: thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. What we call point-of-view has gained another dimension and is no longer only the perceived sense-data. Take this example: In a scene, we hear an old man reflecting back on events in the past (let’s say on a time in his youth when he cheated on his wife). We hear him expressing how he labels this as a foolish thing to do and how he regrets it. However, the scene itself is presented  through the perceptual view of the man when he was young yet. Thus, the scene presents both, a perceptual view and an ideological view. Not only are we presented a view of, but also a view on the event that is presented. It’s not only perception anymore, but also cognition; not mere sight, but vision. Such combined use can be found in games like Dear Eshter or Company of Myself, where a parallel narration -perceptual and ideological- takes place. Max Payne too, is an example: As the perceptual view unfolds, we also hear Max Payne‘s comments on what we perceive to happen.

We can witness this difference also in textual narration. For example in Football Manager, most of the comments during a match present a perceptual view: “Ronaldo play the ball long” or “Messi attempts a long range effort”. But some of the comments are also views on the unfolding events: “Real Madrid has now a mountain to climb” or “He knows he had a bad game”.

The ideological POV type gives many things at the disposal of a designer or writer: He may use it in order  to make it run counter against another POV-type, as it is the case in the old man reflecting on his youth, or, he can put one in the service of the other, for example by supporting a view on things with a view of things. More than that, he can introduce more views, those of others, and thereby shift the overall perspective in regard to things: What’s the wife’s point-of-view? Or that of the woman with whom the man cheated on his wife? Or those of his children? Or the child he had from the woman he cheated with on his wife? Various view that have different perceptions and thought are a great way to manipulate the player’s view and ideas on things he is presented.

Once we become aware of the  nuance between the perceptual and ideological POV, we have entered a creative space full of endless variations in order to deliver a story in an interesting way. One of the storytelling techniques that makes use of these two type of POV’s is unreliable narration: It presents an ideological POV that stands in contradiction with what is presented through perceptual view. Often the result is irony, or even sarcasm: A character who maintains a naive vision on what he sees. This may achieve comedic as well as tragic effects.

Point-of-View of Interest

The third definition may sound a bit confusing because we often think of ideology as already representing interest, which is true to some extent, but which at another level doesn’t mean that they are inseparable. The difference between the two becomes apparent when we consider that what we believe to be in our interests (ideological POV), may be in conflict with our actual interests. In other words, we may not be aware of our actual interests, or blinded by our beliefs to a degree at which we can’t perceive them thorougly. Interest, is  therefore not about perception or ideology, but rather about an awareness in regard to the consequences of events.

This can create interesting situations. For example a character may be aware of the negative consequences of a particular choice, but he may still chose to face that consequence due to his beliefs (ideology) as is the case in situations that involve sacrifice. Or sometimes a character may find himself in a dilemma: He may not be able to decide whether to follow his belief or his interests. Or a designer may come up with a plot where two equally important interests are put against each other: Chosing over one of these will cause the other one to be lost. This conflict can be then the basis of a certain ideological view that develops out of this conflict. This latter example is known as a Corneille Dilemma, named after the famous French playwright, who often put the protagonist in a situation in which he had to chose between love or reputation, and where chosing one would definitely mean to lose the other.

Another very interesting example is that of Kassandra, a figure from Homer’s Illiad, who, due to her ability to see the future, knows already the consquences of the Trojan War: the city will fall and all members of her family will be killed or fall into slavery. But because of a spell that was placed on her by Apollon, noone believes a word of what she says, and she is sentenced to watch her folk running towards its terrible fate. This is a very powerful use of POV of interest, because the character can’t do anything to prevent the consequences that she is aware of. This is similar to films in which we yell at characters things like “Don’t open that door!” or “No, don’t believe him! He wants to kill you!”. We know the consequences, but the character doesn’t. The french philosopher Gaston Bachelard has termed thereform such situations as Kassandra Complex,  and the melodrama genre in the cinema makes heavy use of it. But you may be surprised to find out how often it is also used in games. Take Lemmings for example: the poor creatures,  themselves not aware of the consequences ahead, urge us to take control of the situation, because only we as players are aware of what could happen to them.

The Spectator’s Point-of-View

As some of the examples above have already shown,  the use of various POV types becomes even more interesting when the spectator is added into the mix.

The most obvious aspect here is that of POV of interest. Assuming the POV of interest of a character is central to what we call identification.  We are scared for the protagonist when he is about to face negative consequences, and we feel happy when something happens that is in his interests. We care for his interests throughout the story. Even in films that pretend to be objective, like some documentaries, the audience will still share a certain point-of-view of interest and identify for example with a species that faces extinction and whose survival story is being told.

There are many ways to put the POV-of-interest of a in-game character that represents the player against that very player’s POV of interest. The simplest way is to give the in-game character no POV-of-interest at all. For example when in a TPS our unit is under fire, it won’t move to take cover. We must move it away from the threat, or it dies. The Sims does it a bit different though; here the contrast is partly based on different ideological POV’s: The player has a POV-of-interest, communicated to him through the general set-up of the game, however the in-game characters themselves seem to hold a different worldview (ideological POV), one which is not aware of the POV-of-interest of the player: They don’t care about working out on the bench to get a promotion, or they don’t care finding a job. Instead they watch TV or play video games all day. In many regards, their POV of interest conflicts with that of the player: They refuse to study when they are in a bad mood, put the book back to the shelf and play a round of pinball. And interestingly, while they know how to find the fridge and get food, they don’t know how to find the toilet and use it, which indicates that the fellas possess a highly fragmented overall point-of-view.

In many cases it may be the spectator himself who isn’t aware of the consequences of events, which can be a great way to create surprise when the spectator realizes that such consequence existed.

Another interesting example is the so-called MacGuffin, an object that may never be brought to our perceptual view, but which we still perceive as something that is in our interests, and that we chase therefore, just like it is the case with the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, which the two protagonists are ready to protect, even if it would cost them their lives.

In terms of ideological POV, we can say that a spectator also maintains certain beliefs as the story unfolds. He has a view on things, an ideology, partly fostered by the way the events are narrated: he distinguishes between what he thinks to be right or wrong, true or false. He may tend to believe that x is the murderer and not y, or he may believe that a character who is actually a liar “looks like a honest man”, and therefore believes his words.

 

Point-of-View Types in the Game Interface

As can be easily understood from these examples, a narrative designer can construct very interesting plots based on the manipulation of all three types of POV’s and how he constructs them differently for spectator, narrator, and characters. To give an example from Age of Empires: The perceptual view here is constructed in a way that gives the player a perceptual view over the map as a whole, but in order to see the details of the map, he has to move his units around and make use of their line-of-sight (the unit’s perceptual view) in order to complete the picture. From an ideological point-of-view, these units seem to be on his side and in full support of the case: They’d sey “yes sir” when they are assigned a duty. But on the other hand these units don’t seem to have a POV of interest: Villagers under fire keep working instead of hiding, so the player has to jump in and represent their interests. This complex structure in Age of Empires is a good example in regard to how interesting the various POV-types and their relations to player, narrators and in-game characters can be structured, and how they amount to interesting and highly immersive gaming experiences..

Consider another example, that of Need for Speed: Perceptually, it positions our car to the center and close to the lower egde of the screen. This creates focus, because one car is emphasized over others. Furthermore, this visual arrangement sets up an advantageous position that enables control. These are already enough visual clues to suggest that we must identify with the car at the center. On the other hand, the mini-map in the lower corner allows for the construction of a mental map that brings expanded screen space into our perception. In other words, it helps us to maintain a worldview, a vision about the world as a whole of which only a fragment can be seen at a particular moment in time and space. The speedometer is another visual element embedded into the perceptual field of view that helps us to maintain a vision about what we believe to be doing. Finally, the actual rankings list is a way to visualize our POV of interest, because it tells us whether things develop in our favor or not. It gives us feedback of the consequences that our performance had so far.

 

Conclusion

In this article I tried to show that there are a number of POV-types, which when combined can help in the construction of interesting gameplay experiences. I distinguished between perceptual, ideological and interest POV’s and gave examples not only in regard to how they relate to each other, but also to spectator, narrator and character. Finally I gave an example in which I briefly tried to show how these three types of POV are embedded into interfaces.

An interesting point to consider here is that what we usually call “the gameplay” has a lot to do with these intertwinings of different POV-types. It could be a good idea to make use of these concepts in order to refine our notion of gameplay, and also realize how close it is related to storytelling methods.

I believe that an awareness of the existence of various POV-types can only improve a narrative designer’s ability to create compelling and immersive gameplay experiences. I hope this article can make a contribution into that direction.

Game Idea #48

The Final Cut

In The Final Cut, you play an actor who is performing on a film set. Your goal is to deliver the required acting performances in as little “takes” as possible. If you forget the script for the particular scene or perform bad for any other reason, the director asks you to perform again, so long until he gets the shot he desires. Unless you perform in all scenes as is being demanded of you, the film remains incomplete.

The game ends when a) the crew runs out of raw film, b) the shooting schedule is violated (there is a limited number of shots that can be made per day), or c) when all scenes are completed within time and raw film constraints.

Your acting performance will be evaluated based on a “cutting ratio”, that is, the amount of shots you wasted with your bad performances compared to the minimum number of shots that were required to complete the film.

The interesting thing about The Final Cut as a game is that it points out the similarities between film-making and successfully completing a sequence of actions in a game. Whereas in a game like Medal of Honour: Allied Assault, failure sends us back to the previous save point until we succeed; upon failure in a film shooting, the director asks us to perform again, until he gets what he wants. This makes me think that we can liken the repetitious gameplay in certain games to the shooting action on a film set.

One thing that is highlighted through this, is the wrong idea of many game scholars in regard to the “linearity” of movies. It becomes apparent that it takes a lot of effort from a film crew to achieve what game scholars criticize as linearity. During shooting, the film is as undecided as a game. The second thing that is highlighted is the opposite: that games may look quite undecided, but that in a lot of them, we re-play in order to make possible (cut together) an “ideal story”. To me this is an important blurring of lines which renders the divide between games and narratives ineffective.

Finally a doctor!

I’m very happy to announce that I received today my PhD degree in game studies, after a succesful defense of my dissertation titled “Interaction and the Problem of Video Game Narrativity”.

I’m thankful to everyone who contributed in this process, first and foremost my thesis adviser Prof. Dr. Beybin Kejanlıoğlu, the members of my thesis observation committee Prof. Dr. Mutlu Binark and Assoc. Prof. Sevilay Çelenk, and my jury members Prof. Dr Uğur Halıcı and Assist. Prof. Burcu Sümer.

Many people have given me support without even being aware of it, but they took their times to read or comment on stuff I wrote or they inspired me to write stuff that was directly or indirectly related to the content of my thesis: Kerem Yavuz Demirbaş, Assist. Prof. Levent Kavas, Hakan Karahasan, Dr. Gabriele Ferri, Dr. Tonguç İbrahim Sezen, Prof. Dr. Veysi İşler, Assist. Prof. Güven Çatak, Sande Chen, Darren Tomlyn and Richard Terrell (aka Kirbykid).

I’m grateful to all of you!

I dedicate my thesis to Kayhan Önal, Magister Ludi and friend for a lifetime, who is the most passionate player I’ve ever encountered on this planet. Keep playin’!

Now it’s time to celebrate ;)

Game Idea #47

Time for a new game idea! My new game idea is inspired by a discussion on the nature of images and language. Letters are often considered as two-dimensional graphical elements, not capable of three-dimensionality. On the other hand, they are seen as a different representative system, and not associated with systems of visual representation, although they use the same basic graphical elements such as lines, dots, planes and even volumes. Therefore I like the idea to make a text adventure whose world is visually constructed through letters and words, a world that maintains the illusion of depth and can be navigated, something that uses in its representation of its world the words that are associated with objects, rather than depicting the objects themselves.

Here comes..

This is not a Word

This is not a Word is a “text-world” adventure. Its world is visually represented by letters, words and sentences that are discernible as objects. The way in which these letter-objects are displayed, changes, as we approach such object. For example if we see a “tree” and approach it, we start to identify the many “branches”, and if we get closer we see its “leaves”. Or we see a “river” in a distance, and as we approach it, we see the “water” flow, and the “fish” in it.

kaligrafi

By eliminating from or adding to the world certain letters, the way we perceive the environment changes, since without certain letters, certain “objects” can’t exist.

The game makes use of color, font families and other aesthetic parameters of typography.

The title “This is not a Word” is intented to be a pun on “This is not a World“, since I want to draw attention to the “artifical” character of any type of representation. It is also a reference to Magritte’s series of paintings titled “This is not a Pipe”, which approached the question of representation from the “other end”, yet being about the relation between images and language.

The game will be available in several languages, including dead ones. Having the game in several languages is a funny aspect, because it somehow seems not to make sense at all, but then I believe that it makes a difference because we also would look at different visual styles of representation and not merely of objects that have a same shape regardless of what languages have been used to give them their shapes.  And I’m very intrigued by the idea to use dead languages, especialy cuneiform. I somehow like the idea to see people recognize letters and words of dead languages as objects rather than text, because it seems to show how the representative values of certain combinations of lines and dots can shift culturally and historically, questioning our ways of seeing and the way cultures maintain or “forget” about distinctions that decide whether graphical elements qualify as “text” or “visual representation”. A Quipu version that uses “real” threads would be also highly interesting to use.

If we lose all letters in the game, what would we see? The world “as it is”, or “nothing”?

Game Idea #46

After some time, I’ve come up with a new game idea. This time it is an experimental game about perspective… here it comes:

Game Idea #46

Cubism

This multiplayer online game starts by presenting an object or human according to rules of classic perspective. However, as more players join the game, the number of vantage points multiplies and starts to “deform” the object/human that the individual player sees. Stylewise, the object/human starts to turn into some sort of cubist painting. As players navigate around the object/human, the changes in the vantage points are reflected onto the representation of both object/human and environment, which turns gameplay into the shaping of an interactive cubist sculpture-world that morphs in real-time.

The game has two experimental goals: On one hand, it is a technological experiment, challenging the capacities of current game engines and graphics programmers; on the other hand it is an experiment on reception, challenging the ways in which players “view” 3D representations, and their notion of interaction.

Bonsai

“Narrative”, as it is perceived today, is the decision to chose one out of the many branches of a “branching story” and present it as the idealized “original work”. In a sense, it means to fix the outcomes at certain decision nodes in favor of a “best” story, and to restrict players to “play out” only one out of many possible scenarios: the one with the “halo”. We did this often when we were kids: We took our ball to the playground and kicked it around while we were imagining to dribble around the Maradona’s and Pele’s in our minds and scored in last minute that one goal that would bring us the World Cup and make us the hero of our nation. The ball is round, yes, but we never wanted it to be “too round”.

Narrowing down a possibility space to an idealized scenario is what we call “linearity” today. We’ve grown suspicious towards the word “narrative” because in today’s belief, a “narrative is linear”: In a “narrative” decision nodes are carefully decided and connected in a way that makes only one ideal scenario emerge. However, it seems to be a mistake to call this linearity for all the other scenarios that are left out wouldn’t have been less linear than the one that was favored. A better word to name this could have been essentialism: to refrain from embracing multiplicity and possibility and idealize singularity and determinism; to privilege one variation as the “original” and mark all other variations as being of a lesser nature. Isn’t it the artist himself who often defines his own artistic drive, practices and creativity on the grounds of this “original”? While he could have presented his work at many different stages and in a great number of variations, he picks one moment of what is a process and accepts all other moments to be rendered into “sketches” of the “original”. This is probably one of the most telling acts that makes visible the artist’s aleniation to his own labour in the light of the “original” as an instiution of art and a favored label of the industry.

Presenting only one stage out of the many stages in the creative process as the “finished” work, the “original”, has been for centuries a practice that is deeply rooted in our culture. Ironically, the game industry follows this practice and presents to us a certain development stage of a game as the “original”, as “that” game. But which one is “that” game really? The one that is presented as the “finished” one? We know that this can mean anything. What more evidence is then needed to lay bare the arbitrariness behind such decision? While on one hand the modding communities and the open source  trend open a door to reveal the arbitrariness behind the notion of the original, on the other hand we also seem to witness a kind of orgy of the original. The multitude of games within a game finds us in a fragmented way (for example in the form of increased sequelization), every “deviation” being presented to us as another “original” in the app stores. This can be traced back to the logic behind the game business, which can only make use of the “product” as a unique, seperate, stand-alone and “finished” object. The game designer has therefore no other choice to decide at some point which stage or variation of his work will be presented as “that” game. In fact, he has changed his creative processes as to make his labour to aspire to a product or a series of products: the “original”s that will be displayed on the front page of the app store as the “latest” hit.

Today’s art and popular culture criticism suffers, as it did in the past, from mistaking the restrictions of the “original” as an art institution and the modes of production in the culture industry for the nature of the artistic forms themselves. The traces of this confusion can be clearly seen in game studies: what it perceives today as the “problem of linearity” in the novel and in film, is merely the impact of industrial practices build around the notion of “originality”. Although it should be dropped as useless and misleading divide, the distinction between linearity and non-linearity somehow helps us to make visible the restrictions that have been historically put on modes of consumption in literature. What we call linearity should be seen in its historical context, as the preferred mode of consumption of the industries in the past. However, this is probably the only thing in which this distinction is helpful. Otherwise it just causes the responsibility of the institutions in the past in fostering “linearity” to be taken from their shoulders and being put on the shoulders of the “object”, “narrative” itself, now stripped from its historical context, and put as the scapegoat. Non-linearity, on the other hand, has turned a buzzword that presents the same institutions attempts to turn games into products and champion on “originality”, as progress, as an achievement.

The chance that bears itself today through the digitalization of games is that this may play a part in making the arbitrariness of the “original” visible, and allow narratives and storytellers to free themselves from the confines of the mode of production and consumption of the mainstream industries. Game researchers, however, need to revise those of their concepts that remain within the discource of “originality” if they want to play a pioneering role in this. A first step for this is to stop to see “linearity” as the nature of narratives and realize that linearity is rather a result of the mode of production of the culture industries and the way in which literature has become institutionalized. Narratives and games are the same thing, the “narrative” of the industry, however, is a “game” bereft of its possibility space, a bonsai, if you wish.

The Sparkling Line of Time – Zamanın Kıvılcım Saçan Çizgisi

Berbard Suits says that the only reason why we obey to the rules of a game is that it makes possible such game. We stick with the rules for the game’s sake, and a game has no other purpose than itself. A human being  doesn’t need anyone else in order to play with the world, it doesn’t need to “communicate” with anyone; it can let itself go into transitions from modality to modality, from game to game, without ever feeling the need to signal that such transition takes place. More than that, as a game, the world doesn’t need any player, not even “me” who feels so special when playing with it. The moment in which we realize this, is the moment in which we seem to grasp the world’s being-for-itself, seem to grasp the simultaneous presence and absence of our “relation” to it, and find ourself enchanted by this discovery. We might therefore say that play starts with the presence of presence, the being there of the “being there”; it is a way to sense presence – sense as both feeling and meaning. The playing human, in all its solitude, experiences something that I would like to call the “sparkling line of time”: This is the interfacing of two surfaces -that of ourselves and that of the world- through which we experience the vessel as time. Just like putting a finger on a dusty surface to let it glide over it, and looking at the emerging line on the dusty plane, and at the dust that builds up at the tip of our finger, simultaneously revealing and burying a secret. Or like the pen I stare at, and the many traces I left, as I put my final mark on this paper – in sheer wonder of how it’s possible at all, yet happening.

“Bir oyunun” diyor Bernard Suits, “getirdiği kısıtlara uymamızın, oyunu mümkün kılmak dışında bir amacı yoktur”. Oyuna oyun uğruna uyarız ve bu nedenle de oyunun oyundan başka amacı yoktur. İnsan, dünyayla böyle bir oyuna dalmak için kendinden başka kimseye ihtiyaç duymaz, kendinden başka kimseyle alışverişte bulunmak zorunda değildir, varlığının kipindeki değişiklikleri kimseye duyurmadan temas halinde olduğu dünyayla bir kipten diğerine, bir oyundan diğerine geçebilir. Dahası, kendi oluş haliyle oyun-olarak-dünya, hiç bir insana, şu an oynamakta olan ben’e dahi gereksinim duymaz. Bunu anlar gibi olduğumuz an, onun mutlak kendi-için-oluşunun sınırına dayandığımız, onun ve kendi oluşumuzun, onunla, eşzamanlı olarak var olan ve var olmayan “ilişki”mizin kendini ele vermezliğinin büyüsüne kapıldığımız andır. Öyleyse oynamak için belki de şunu demeliyiz: Varlıkla, varoluşla, “burada oluş” denen boşlukla başa çıkmanın, eşzamanlı olarak onu duyumsamanın ve ona anlam biçmeyi denemenin bir yoludur oynamak. İnsanın tek başına, kendi kendine dünyayla oynaması, benim “zamanın kıvılcım saçan çizgisi” olarak adlandırmak istediğim bir şeye denk düşer: Bu, iki yüzeyin -varlığımızın yüzeyiyle, dünyanın yüzeyinin- kesişme noktasında, varlığı, varlığın mekanını, zaman olarak, temastan başka bir şey olmayan bir zaman çizgisi olarak deneyimlememizdir: Tıpkı parmağımızı tozlu bir yüzeyin bir noktasına bastırıp onu o yüzey boyunca kaydırmamız, bunu yaparken tozlu yüzeyde oluşan çizgiyle parmak ucumuzda biriken toza bakıp, onda bir sırrın aydınlanışını -ve yitişini- görmek gibi. Ya da, bu çalışmanın son noktasını kağıda yerleştirirken, elimde tuttuğum kalemle onun bırakmış olduğu onca ize hayret içinde bakmam gibi.

Rock-Paper-Scissors: A Linguistic Approach to Games

This essay is a sketch for a linguistics-based approach to games. It is “under construction” and will be frequently updated.

A Bit of Theory

Expression and Content

According to danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev, language has two layers:

  • Expression Plane
  • Content Plane

The expression plane is the plane of signifiers, whereas the content plane is the plane of signifieds. A sign (or meaning) is then the connotative sum of a signifier and a signified. [1]

When we play a game, what we “interact” with, and interpret, is the expression plane, which we perceive as a chain of signifiers. The expression plane must be always present in some material form, whereas the content plane is an organized accumulation of mental contepts, which are associated with the material forms of the expression plane according to some rules or conventions.

When we say that a sign is the connotative sum of expression and content, we mean with that that the expressive form alone is not the meaning. Meaning arises when the expressive form is associated with a mental concept. For example, the (X) button on a gamepad is not the sign itself, it is only a signifier. Before the signifier (X) can be read as a sign, it must be associated with a certain signified, something that it will stand for, such as “kick” or “shoot”.

The same counts for players. Their visible performance amounts to a chain of signifiers that can be associated with signifieds. Through this association, player action produces signs that can be read as meaningful action. In that sense, player itself is a sign, a meaning that should not be confused with the “real person” at play, who only serves as a signifier and doesn’t gain a meaning until her behavior stands for some content.

Substance and Form

In Hjelmslev’s model, both expression and content plane have a form and a substance. This gives us the following pairs:

  • Form of Expression
  • Substance of Expression
  • Substance of Content
  • Form of Content

Based on this distinction, we can say that every sign and the sign system that it is part of, consists of four related layers. The same can be said for signs in games, and games as sign systems.

Beyond the Sentence

While Hjelmslev’s was concerned with natural languages, Roland Barthes, and later Seymour Chatman, applied his distinctions to semiotic systems and discourses, such as narratives in the novel and in film. This move required to “expand” the linguistic model so that can it lend itself to the study of discourse, which presents an analytical unit that is larger than the sentence.

While in linguistics the largest unit of analysis are sentences (beyond the sentence, all that linguistics finds as an object of study, are just other sentences), discourse analyses and narrative theory studies units “beyond the sentence”, and works with categories that must “grow” accordingly: Actants and Events, rather than subject and predicate. Such growth in units also applies to modalities of time and space: story time versus discourse time, and the construction of fictional space through spatial signs.

Yet, the growth in categories doesn’t render Hjelmslev’s distinction between expression and content plane useless. His distinction applies to all semiotic systems, including games, as I try to show in this essay.

Rock-Paper-Scissors as Language

Based on the game Rock-Paper-Scissors, I briefly show how Hjelmslev’s (and Chatman’s “expanded”) model applies to games.

Form of Expression

The form of expression consists of the materialized forms that are utilized and recognized as the array of signifers of the language. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, this array of signifiers consists of the gestures |rock|, |paper| and |scissors|.

Substance of Expression

The substance of expression is the material substance that is utilized to shape the forms that are recognized as the array of signifiers of the language. In Rock-Scissors-Paper, these are the players hands.

Substance of Content

The substance of content is the catalogue of positive meanings that qualify as the signifieds of the language. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, these are semes like “rock”, “paper” and “scissors”.

Form of Content

The form of content is the arrangement of semes according to an internal system of operators. Through this internal system, semes leave their positive meanings behind and gain values, which allows them to be compared and exchanged. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, this is the logical form and its operators that holds up the intransitive relationships between the semes “rock”, “paper” and “scissors”. Indeed, as values that are determined by this underlying logical form, “rock”, “paper” and “scissors” can be exchanged, and they can also be compared in terms of whether one is superior to the other.

The Materiality of the Expression Plane

The content plane can be completely imaginary. One may invent a number of substances of content (a “Pac Man”, a “Pinky”, a “maze”, “dots” etc), and then give this content a form, that is, design a value system that defines how these substances stand in relation to each other. The expression plane however, must be material, because it is only through its material form through which the world of semes and their underlying value system (the way we have to evaluate their relationship, and interprete the resulting states) can be “expressed” to someone. Usually, a rulebook or a tutorial will be employed in order to describe the content plane. But playing (or observing players in action) serves the same purpose, because from the way a chain of signifiers is interpreted by others, one can infer the elements and structure of the content plane.

Articulation and Signification

During interpretation, we associate a chain of forms (signifiers) with a group of mental concepts ( signifieds). This produces a chain of signs (meaning). Roland Barthes describes this process like a flat line between two amorph masses of air and water suddenly taking on a particular shape. A certain order of the signifiers will change the “air pressure”, which in return will simultaneously divide and re-unite the “water mass” of mental concepts into patterns of waves. This wave pattern can be “read”.

An example for this can be given from Chess: When the board and chess figurines aren’t used for play, the line between air and water remains flat: only two unassociated masses of signifiers and signifiers are present. However, once we take the board out of the box and place the chess figurines onto it, the “air pressure” changes and discernible “waves” emerge: We can now “read” a game state. Each player move alters the “air pressure” and a new meaningful game state (a readable chain/composition of signs) emerges.

When we come back to Rock-Paper-Scissors we can describe the process as follows: When a player poses the gesture |rock|, she simultaneously mobilizes both planes together with both their forms and substances: Her hand is the substance that is used to “shape” the gesture |rock|and thereby it puts forward a form that is recognized as a valid signifier. This form, once posed, does not only “call” the seme “rock”, but also the potential value “rock”. Once the opposing player poses a counter-gesture (let’s say |paper|) and calls thereby calls the value “paper”, a productive articulation of signs takes place, which enables a “reading”: “Rock versus Paper. Paper wins.”

Lizard Spock

RPS Lizard Spock, a version expanded to include the signs Lizard and Spock to the existing sign system (or language) of RPS, alters both the array of signifiers and the array of signifieds. On the expression plane, new forms have been added (the gestures |lizard| and |spock|), whereas the substance of expression, hands, remains the same. On the content plane, things seem to become a bit more complex, especially when considering the form of content. In terms of substance, only the two semes “lizard” and “spock” have been added, but the truly significant change can be observed in the internal system that must integrate the added semes as replacable and comparable values.

A Classification of Rules

Rules of Substance

These rules specify the substances that can be used to “carry” the forms that are recognized as signfiers within the system. For example in professional sports, one may come across very strict rules in regard to existents, such as the weight, diameter, air pressure, and material of a football. However, kids would often use a tin can or any other object they see fit as a “football”. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, people often go by simply using their hands as the carriage/substance, but it could well be a pair of d3’s made of wood or diamonds.

Rules of Form

These rules specify the parametres and traits that a form must possess in order to be recognized as a valid signifier within the system. Forms may be subject to standards (as it is the case in professional chess), however, one can often see variations in style and theme (like in a Star Wars themed set of chess figures). It can be compared to font families, which are variations of a certain set of types with discernible traits. Quite often, style and theme variations may push the limits of recognition in regard to form. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, only three gestures with clearly discernible features are recognized as forms/signifiers.

Rules of Content

These rules delineate the range of existents and events in the game. For example the array of units in a RTS, or weapons in an FPS; or the array of actions, such as kick, punch or dodge, in a fighting game. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, the rules of content limit the number of existents to three (the existents “rock”, “paper” and “scissors”), and the actions to a single one: “attack”.

Rules of Value

The range of operators and the set of rules that specifies the arrangement of semes around these operators. These rules hold up a system of values against which relationships between content elements can be measured, and a state of affairs be expressed. In Rock-Paper-Scissors there is a single operator (“>”) which sets up an intransitive relationship between the semes “rock”, “scissors” and “paper”. When two gestures are posed against each other, they can be evaluated based on the value system (semes + operators or, if you wish, data + algorithms) they put into motion, and they express now a state of affairs that can be “read” to decide a winner.

Rules of Association

Rules that specify what form is to be associated with what content. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, the gesture |V| must be associated with the seme “scissors”. Many games are very strict in regard to association, since avoiding ambiguity seems to be a major concern in most games. But it is often possible that a signifier can express more than one signified, and that a signified can be expressed with more than one signifier. For example, many games feature a “joker” or “wild card”, which allows the player to associate this signifier with a seme of her desire. [Example for one signfied-many signifiers?]

Rules of Articulation

The rules in regard to how signifiers must be articulated and arranged in respect to time and space. These rules bring an order to the signifiers so that their arrangement in time and space (and changes in such arrangement) can be read as a state of affairs (and as a progression from state to state). These rules could be also called compositional rules. In its broadest sense, a standart game of football asks players to articulate their actions within the borders of a football field, and within the time frame of 90 minutes. Chess, on the other hand, provides different options for use of space and time.

The space in which articulation takes place must be seen twofold: On one hand, it is a format, that is, it provides a general frame in which articulation must take place, just like a sheet of paper or the frame of a painting, within which expressive forms (letters, words, lines, dots etc) must remain in order to be counted as part of the expression. On the other hand it also specifies rules for placement of signifiers within this format, that is, there may be measures that ensure that signifiers are placed according to a certain “reading line” or compositional aspect. For example, a chess pawn may be moved anywhere within the “format” of the chess board, yet it would need to be placed within the confines of a square as well, and not at a line at which two squares intersect, or there would arise ambiguity in regard to how to evaluate the relationship between signifiers, and it would be impossible to “read” the game state.

It is needless to say that a game may have neither a clearly defined format nor any rules in regard to placement. An ARG for example, may use multiple and diverse spaces (a city, GPRS, the internet) as parts of its format, and allow to place signifiers anywhere within these confines. Also, some games may include real life processes such as traffic, weather, stock exchange data etc. However, all these aren’t really a blurring of the line between games and real life: Anything that is recongnized within the format, even if this format is something in constant flux, is elevated into a ludic state, for its behavior-for-itself, is now recognized as a valid signifier, and stands in association with the signifieds of the ludic value system. Therefore, in design, non-intervention is an intervention: Leaving something as it is, is a design choice.

The distinction between the rules classes offered here is analytical. In reality, different classes of rules, and also rules within the same class, will “work together” in order to structure the shape of existents and events.

Computer Games

One of the things that a computer game does, is to display a signifier that is associated to elements in the content plane when it receives player input. For example if the (x) button on a console stands for the seme “kick”, upon receiving (x) as input, the program would call the (chain of) signifiers ( the relevant visuals and sounds), and display them through its output channels. Hence, a computer game is software that converts input signifiers into output signifiers, both of which are associated with the same signifieds. Output signifiers (what some would prefer to call feedback) actually confirm whether we’ve used the appropriate input signifiers or not. This is an important aspect of learning game controls.

Owners/producers of such “tranlation devices” (for example console developers) will ask game developers to stick with the confines of their translation machines, which means to game developers that they limit themselves to value systems that can be expressed through the set of input signifiers of the console (for example the range of buttons on their gamepad), and refrain from putting too much stress on the console’s capacity of displaying output signifiers (like its sound and graphic processing power, or its storage capacity). For example the content plane of a console fighting game must be associated with the limited set of expression elements on the gamepad (buttons etc).

However, as single button games clearly show, a single substance such as a button can host a variety of discernible signifiers/forms (which might be differentiated through button pressing duration, button pushing frequency, and different button states for example). Also complex combinations of mouse, keyboard and click&point interfaces allow for the content plane to be presented in an embedded manner, such as it is the case in The Sims.

Diversification and Institutionalization

What a person can do with already produced signs and the sign system as a whole is another question. Obviously, the first thing we “do” with them is to enjoy them, derrive fun and many other emotions from them. But there are also many ways to make such signs and sign systems subject to meta-languages and meta-games: re-producing them as part of fan art, commenting on them on blogs, making mods of them, or articulating them under a bigger frame of rules.

It is possible that a whole sign system may become subject to additional rules or conventions, which will often lead to a certain way of institutionalization of said sign system. Typically, a sports federation would frame an already existing game with additional rules, which may be motivated by concerns that weren’t essentially part of the sign system that has been framed, but will nevertheless have an impact on play styles. It is therefore important to consider games as ever-evolving sign systems that can diverge into many directions, depending on how they are framed by additional rules motivated by commerce, politics, culture etc. For example, certain types of institutionalization will introduce ways to articulate different agents into the greater frame, such as the ways in which fandom is being regulated and fan’s consumption of the sign system as spectacle is bound to certain rules. Supplying fans with seasonal tickets for a football team can be given as an example here.

But institutionalization also works on the level of player access to sign systems and gameplay. Business models for example, are a framework that specify the ways in which a person can access and maintain the state of “player”.

A Few Remarks

Learning to play a game can be likened to learn a language. A player gradually grasps the relationship between the substance and form of expression and content planes, and gains skills in both articulation (“writing”) and interpretation (“reading”).

Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds can be seen as a game that basically kept the form of content (the value system) of Age of Empires as it is, changing the expression plane almost entirely, and overwriting the array of semes of AoE (the substance of content) with its own array of semes (the existents and events of the Star Wars universe).

Game design documents could well be analysed based on the expression and content planes that they are a sketch of. In other words, they are also sketches of a sign system, a language.

We often witness non-productive instances of articulation in languages. This can be the case in Rock-Paper-Scissors, too. If both players pose the same gesture (lets say |rock| versus |rock|), no meaning, that is, “meaninglessness” is produced due to the value system underlying the semes, which denies a comparison between the same semes, and hence, doesn’t allow for meaning to emerge.

Transmediality in games becomes possible because of the flexibility of a sign system in employing varying materials as the substance of its expression plane. Indeed, one version of Rock-Paper-Scissors could be based on players hands as the substance to deliver its recongized forms, whereas another version would use cards or sounds as its substance.

While rules may specify aspects of a game in great detail, they may leave many things to be infered by the player. This means that players may fill in the gaps in regard to things which aren’t mentioned (bound to rules), just as readers would fill in such gaps according to reader-response theory. This is not simply the application of common-sense, but utilizing common-sense elements in accord to the ludic meaning system. Just because it is not mentioned that we cannot use knives to overcome the opposition, doesn’t mean we would use knives in a match of soccer.

Notes

[1] The tie between signifier and signified is essentially an arbitrary and socially motivated association, and not one of direct reference, equivalence or one of an inseparable nature. The latter view is known as the “referential” model of language. Referential models tend to confuse the signifier for the sign, and thereby assign substance to form, as if the signifier (say, a word) is the meaning itself. This renders the fact of an association between a signifier and a signified invisible, and causes people to think of language as an “immediate” experience, or as a “mirror” of reality that reflects it “as it is”.

However, the relation between a word (a signifier) and what it signifies (the mental image that it “calls”) is arbitrary: |Table|, |Tisch|, and |Masa| are all signifiers from different cultures that “call” into mind a mental image of the same object (that of a “table”). This clearly demonstrates the arbitrariness and conventional nature of the words, since there seems to be no reason other than social convention in regard to why one culture uses the signifier |Table| while another one uses the signifier |Tisch|. Hence, the signifier |Table| is only a form, not the sign/meaning itself. To linguistics, therefore, the signifier |Table| itself means nothing, but the sign ‘Table’, as the connotative sum of the signifier |Table| and the signified “table” (the mental image of a table), does.

The association of a signifer and a signified in order to produce signs/meaning is why in contrast to referential models, structuralist approaches claim that language is not merely a reflection of a natural world order, but that it plays a central role in the representation of contingency as a construct that can be experienced as “reality”. Language doesn’t reflect an already naturally categorized world, it categorizes the world and thereby constructs an experience of the “natural”. Dealing with the value system rather than words themselves is one of the goals of discourse analyses, and in particular, that of deconstruction, because it’s there where the “world”, or the logic underlying our interpretation of it, is constructed.

All this is just another way to say that language is an area of political struggle, for words are not simply an immediate expression of the world’s natural order, but that every word (every signifier) is subject to a constant cultural battle over which signifieds to associate it with. One example can be given from Ludology: The words |semiotics| and |narrative| have been associated with signifieds such as “insufficiency”, “dissonance”, “ornament”, “wrapper” etc over the past 15 years and have over time become positioned inferior to |interactivity| and |gameplay|, which are associated with values such as “essence”, “core” etc. Often such struggle over meaning may resort to referential uses of language like saying “a game is a game is a game”. The donimating type of associations between signifiers and signifieds are by no means harmless: A designer at Bioware has been subject to verbal aggression when she expressed that she would like to see games in which gameplay can be skipped, something which for the “core” gamers “violated” what they perceived as the “nature” of games.