Below is my academic paper on interactivity, why it is an object of fascination, and what it reveals about those fascinated with it. Although it is due today, I’m still very much in the process of tightening it up and proofing. Any feedback is more than welcome!
Video games may be the best medium for exploring the depths of human creativity and kinetic interaction with other worlds. Cities are possible in the sky, creatures can be formed out of electricity, and regular citizenry can fly. Players are faced with a myriad of choices during gameplay, and if they’re not they create their own choices. Deep, emotional, and thoughtful moments meld together with intuitive controls to create a challenging experience for the gamer. Gamers look to lose themselves in these experiences and seek to understand the designs of the game and if it has a deeper message. Geertz states in his article entitled, “Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” that the “culture of a people is an ensemble of texts” (452). Interactivity must be analyzed to reveal the heart of the video game culture because the society is in fact based upon it. Gamers insist on their partial control not because they are a “slave to society,” as the clichéd saying goes, but because they choose to personalize an experience tailored for the game playing masses.
The industry may be graphics-focused, but at the heart of every lauded video game is a clear and fun sense of interactivity. Interactivity is more than just the control scheme of a video game or how responsive the character is to their surroundings. When the player feels as though they have full control over their character and their story, the game designers have achieved interactivity. A fluid, seamless experience is necessary. There are several components to interactivity: controls, fun, immersion, kinetic activity, depth, and breadth. Depth refers to the meaningfulness of both the actions and the narrative. Breadth means the scope of the game, its actions, and its lore. If all aspects are well-crafted and thought out, the player will have a great game experience. The player’s actions are both reflective and fun, and immersion is not lost. When control is taken from the player, whether it be a cut scene or a glitch, the player is unceremoniously reminded that thy are playing a video game and their suspension of disbelief is promptly ruined. Cut scenes, thematic scenes in which the player has no control over the game, are especially jarring because the player is now told that they cannot do what they have been doing throughout the duration of the game: play. Perfect interactivity is sought after by many game developers and challenged by several independent developers; however, no one has achieved the perfect simulation yet even as the industry demands it. Interactivity is representative of the player’s need for both immersion and control and their unending quest for it.
Interactivity is superficial and meaningless to everyone but the player because they must follow a prescribed path set out by the game designer. To designers, interactivity is merely the responsiveness or the tightness of the controls. Interactivity does not account for the experience in this case—that is inherent to the design of the game. The design of the game dictates what type of thematics and controls will be used in order to create a meaningful and cohesive experience for the gamer. The concerns in the developmental stage are mainly mechanical because if any part is lacking, the illusion is no longer real and in that moment the player no longer believes that they are taking part in an experience unique to them and they realize it is merely a crafted experience. Players suspend their disbelief and allow themselves to become the character. The game design must then become invisible to the player. However, gamers can be reminded that they are merely following a scripted sequence of events at any time. BioShock, released in 2007, was often lauded for its plot twist—it revealed that the main character has never had any freedom of choice throughout the game and that he was merely a puppet of the man communicating with him. The message was obvious and clear: players may feel that they have free will and they may feel that they are in control of their destiny, but they may only go where the designers choose to let them, they are allowed to state sentences and perform actions only when the designers allow them to, and they may fight only those that the designers choose to let them fight. It is merely the player interacting with a predefined set of rules and events. The implication here is that interactivity is merely a farce, an imaginative scheme that tricks players into believing that they are in control of the game and that they defeated the final boss on their own terms.
Interactivity allows players to explore themselves as a person. From the simplest game to the most complex, all games offer a window into the player’s personality and style. Oftentimes, aggressive gamers will torment other gamers and passive gamers will leave others alone. Games can allow players to explore parts of themselves in situations that they would typically never have to. In Mass Effect 2, touted as a “space opera” and an epic, presents the player with a myriad of choices that they will hopefully never have to encounter in real life. In most cases, gamers play true to themselves. If they are truly an empathetic person they will have extreme difficulty choosing the option that forces the death of another character, or dilemmas with similar consequences. Furthermore, massive multiplayer online games are extremely telling of player’s personalities. Gamers can usually be divided fairly cleanly into four groups: the explorers, the killers, the achievers, and the socializers. Explorers exist to understand every facet of the game and the world. Killers exist merely to kill other players and make their life miserable. Achievers must be the best players in the game. Socializers are merely playing for social interaction. Furthermore, these groups are all codependent upon each other. Without Socializers, there were would be no Killers. Without Killers, there would be too many Socializers and the Achievers and Explorers would be ostracized. Explorers need Achievers to discover new methods of play and possible glitches in the game world. Achievers need Explorers in order to discover tricks and bugs that may illegally help them. Finally, Socializers need Achievers and Explorers to keep the population of the Killers down to a reasonable amount. Of course, blends exist between these groups, but for the most part player types are fairly obvious. Players can easily explore the type of player they are—and, by extension, what type of person they are—by interacting with other players, their surroundings, and the game itself.
The player needs control and interactivity because of their need to superficially direct the narrative and the world. Humans—especially Americans—enjoy being in control, especially in the midst of chaos. Tales of heroism and the lone savior have long perpetuated our history, and the notion that the middle class man can create his own destiny is one often sought after by gamers. At the core of the American story is a message of ascendancy. Likewise, all games are a triumph over an opposition, whether it be artificial intelligence, another player, or the player against themselves. Red Dead Redemption is a critically acclaimed Western game that followed a man who needed to do penance for his previous crimes and who wanted to exact revenge upon an old friend of his. Throughout his journey, he stays true to his wife Abigail and embodies the values of the everyday man. Players can easily sympathize with him, and they are drawn to his story because it deals with emotions we all feel—anger, revenge, hurt, love. In Red Dead Redemption the player’s motive to press on is due to John Marston, the lead character. They control the pace at which his story unfolds and, furthermore, how it unfolds. Players can reenact their own fantasy of ing over adverse conditions via Marston because his situation is both classic and easily comprehended from a narrative and emotional standpoint. Players can take superficial control of the narrative and the pace at which it unfolds—something they simply cannot do in real life. Interactivity provides players with wish fulfillment and satisfactory control over situations they would normally never be in. This is why players cherish interactivity. It allows them to “control” their character’s actions, to control the manner in which the story progresses, and to sympathize with the main character—at their own pace. They assume the role of protagonist and suspend disbelief, allowing the façade to unfold before them.
Interactivity is about presenting the player with challenges and tasks that reward the player when completed. At the heart of player-game interaction is another concept other than control. The concept of overcoming tasks and rewarding players is one that is present in nearly all video games—in fact, there are several games that experiment with the notion that perhaps the challenge is to simply not play the game. This challenge is especially prominent in the independent game development environment, where they are constantly questioning interactivity and its methods. When players are given the challenge to simply not play a game because that is the method to achieve the best ending or even the only ending, many gamers must exert their control over the game by proving that they can perform the kinetic tasks at hand. In doing so, they are given instant gratification in the form of a short-term reward. Gamers are constantly drawn to challenge because they are besting a system that is programmed to defeat you. It is a struggle between coding and quick processes and the human mind and reflexes. A game such as Halo 3 exemplifies the player’s desire to be challenged in the level entitled, “Cortana.” Cortana features many areas where the character is attacked by a seemingly endless amount of enemies. That level has often been called by many as one of the hardest levels in recent video game history. Yet players continually throw themselves into the fray in order to prove themselves to the game, to other players, and to themselves. Players who overcome the onslaught are rewarded with the completion of the game shortly after and an increase in their Gamerscore—points that players accumulate by completing challenges in different video games on the XBOX 360. The acknowledgment that a player has completed a difficult task on the hardest difficulty is reward enough for those who put themselves through the digital trials. It is simply risk and reward.
Players place great importance on interactivity because it enables both wish fulfillment and a sense of triumph and accomplishment. Players take immediate control over a character and have access to all of their abilities, thus the players allow themselves to fall prey to the misconception that they are truly in control because the sense of control is immediately satisfactory. Through the misrepresentation of total direction the player can then go about realizing their fantasies and imagined scenario. Interactivity allows for a respite from a life where very little control can be exerted and offers up an experience that allows the player to wrest power and direct the game.