Games in Virtual Environments
Espen Aarseth, in “Playing Research: Methodological approaches to game
analysis,” describes games in virtual environments. Such games, unlike
“twitch” games or “shoot-em-ups,” focus on the performative possibilities
of virtual immersion, providing opportunities for questing and exploring
a new world. Aarseth lays out the three dimensions of such games:
* Game-play (the players’ actions, strategies and motives)
* Game-structure (the rules of the game, including the simulation rules)
* Game-world (fictional content, topology/level design, textures etc.)
He describes the different interactions between these three dimensions:
“In some games, typically multi-user role-playing games, the first level
dominates. In strategy and reaction-based games . . . the rules dominate
the game. And in world-exploration games . . . the Game-world is the dominant
In my discussion of Blake’s Songs as a game, it is world-exploration
games I am focusing upon. Janet Murray describes such “explorer” type
games as “symbolic dramas . . . abstract storytelling that resembles the
world of common experience but compresses it in order to heighten interest”
(142). In such games we “encounter a confusing world and figure it out”;
in so doing, “we have a chance to enact our most basic relationship to
the world—our desire to prevail over adversity, to survive our inevitable
defeats, to shape our environment, to master complexity, and to make our
lives fit together like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle” (143). Such games
are, in fact, “ritual actions” that allow us to “symbolically enact the
patterns that give meaning to our lives” (143).
There are four important aspects of virtual games, all of which are present
in Blake’s “Contraries” game.
1. Virtual games are immersive.
2. Virtual games are multimedia.
3. Virtual games are interactive.
4. Virtual games create agency.
As we will see, all four of these aspects interact with and help define
Virtual games are immersive
Virtuality always implies immersion. Virtual worlds are not created for
us to ignore; they are meant to be entered and explored. As Murray puts
it, “in a participatory medium, immersion implies learning to swim, to
do the things that the new environment makes possible” (99). Michael Heim
adds, “What emerges from virtual worlds are new functional habitats that
emulate the engagement of real worlds” (89). This emulation—or simulation—occurs
in a liminal, between-worlds space. If we can locate such a virtual space,
it might be found somewhere between our brain and the machine that makes
virtuality possible—whether we are talking about a painting, a film, a
book, or a website.
Such liminal space allows crucial psychological engagement—which connects
to the “role-playing” or avatar aspect we will discuss below—and transformation.
Murray writes, “We can sustain our engagement in such a constructivist
world, bring our deepest emotional conundrums into it, and then play them
out in multiple ways until they come clear” (169). To truly comprise liminal
“game-space,” virtual worlds, like “real” worlds, need to simulate a movement
through space and time.
In some sense, this is also a function of interactivity, for in virtual
worlds, we create space through navigation (Murray 80). This is not to
say that one world and one time need be manifest in a virtual world: it
might contain the immensities of many spaces and times, some more compressed
than others, along with multiple portals to these multiple worlds.
All of the above would fall under the rubric of “transparent immediacy”
as defined by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in their book Remediation.
In a virtual, immersive world the medium by which it is accessed is meant,
at some level, to disappear, thus allowing the necessary verisimilitude
to make the immersive experience a “real presence.” But as Bolter and
Grusin note, “This disappearing act, however, is made difficult by the
apparatus that virtual reality requires” (21-22). This may, in fact be
necessary to the immersive environment, to counteract the anxiety produced
by the loss of identity and disorientation that virtual worlds engender.
For the same reason, perhaps, “transparent immediacy” is often accompanied
by what Bolter and Grusin call the “logic of hypermedia,” which consists
of a “fracturing” of the virtual space and a “hyperconscious recognition
or acknowledgement of the medium” (38).
Virtual games are multimedia
It is multimedia that allows for the “sensorially inhabitable virtual
space” that Fraistat and Jones mention in their discussion of digital
immersion (7). Having our senses engaged by image, sound, even touch,
through the devices that facilitate such sensations, is the role multimedia
play in virtual space and, by extension, virtual games. This is not merely
an experience of perception. As Michael Heim writes, “Perception by itself
is passive, but using the senses, as James Gibson’s psychology reminds
us, is active” (77). This is what brings us into, and allows us to inhabit,
virtual spaces: the activation of perception through the invigoration
of the senses. This is not really an aesthetic experience, a “disinterested
play of the senses” as Kant would have it, rather something not only interested
but vitally engaged. It is sensation based on intention, an “intentionality
that builds worlds” (77).
In fact it brings us back to art before the Renaissance, when “Art functioned
within a world and expressed that world. Art was held by a context of
commitments to a commonly held iconography and symbology. Art at that
time . . . pointed to basic truths and helped build a world” (77). As
Bolter and Grusin point out, such was the function of such medieval multimedia
objects as the cathedral, the painted cabinet, and the illuminated manuscript
Virtual games are interactive
In a “gameworld,” in which a text is augmented in virtual space with
multimedia, interactivity is enabled; it allows for the discontinuous
reading—the navigation—of an entire world. Virtual games are interactive
stories that “can be a powerful agent of personal transformation” because
they offer us “the opportunity to enact stories rather than to merely
witness them” (Murray 170). In texts in a digital environment, such interactivity
is found through the use of hypertext, which, as Stuart Moulthrop puts
it, is “the practical implementation of a conceptual movement that . .
. rejects authoritarian, ‘logocentric’ hierarchies of language . . . and
seeks instead systems of discourse that admit a plurality of meanings
where the operative modes are hypothesis and interpretive play” (qtd.
in Murray, 133).
A couple of points need to be made about both Murray’s and Moulthrop’s
formulations about interactive texts. First, it is important to note that
while interactive texts are certainly potentially liberating, in practice
they often are not. Indeed, as Aarseth explains, in an interactive text
“the user can be manipulated in new and powerful ways”; for instance,
“the author can make sure that the user must go through a particular sequence
to access a certain part; in an adventure game, the author can even make
the user perform detailed and distasteful symbolic actions . . . . As
with most games, the rules are well beyond the player’s control, and to
suggest that the user is able to determine the shape of such a text is
the same as to confuse the influence of a city’s tourist guide with that
of a city planner” (139).
Secondly, it is crucial to any discussion of Blake's texts as games that
we see that interactive texts, or games themselves, need not be exclusive
to the digital, or electronic, world. Aarseth identifies the I Ching,
a text that is 3,000 years old, as the first hypertext—or, to use his
term, “cybertext” (Cybertext 9). Blake’s Songs comprise
a text that is certainly not electronic, but is hypertextual and interactive
to a very high degree; I would argue that it is highly liberatory as well.
Virtual games create agency
This flows naturally from our discussion of interactivity. Depending
on the level of interactivity, agency develops within a virtual world;
from agency comes the ability to craft a personality, or persona, to arise
within that world. In gaming, this is what is called an “avatar.”
Such role-playing has two important effects in virtual space: it allows
for different points of view and helps create empathy. Janet Murray suggests
that with virtual media, the reader/interactor “creates juxtapositions
that are intentionally open to multiple meanings” (160). Bolter and Grusin
say much the same thing when they write, “In a virtual environment, the
user learns by moving through a scene and sampling available viewpoints”
Once multiple viewpoints are encountered, empathy often results. “[T]he
goal of virtual reality is not rational certainty, but instead the ability
of the individual to emphasize through imagining” (251). Such empathy
has important therapeutic implications. In a virtual space, we can use
empathy—by working with virtual objects or other avatars—to work out unresolved
conflicts and come to a sense of closure. This closure comes, according
to Murray, “when a work’s structure, though not its plot, is understood,”
which we might restate as “when a work can be navigated, as opposed to
merely understood” (174).
But Murray also points out that closure “can be feared as well as desired”
because the immersion might be too deep, and the resurfacing to “reality”
too precipitous. That is why, to preserve a sense of agency, borders and
restrictions are necessary: “We need to define the boundary conventions
that will allow us to surrender to the enticements of the virtual environment”;
we need the equivalent of the theater’s fourth wall (103). The arousal
that occurs in virtual games should not be too enticing or real or the
immersive “trance” will be broken, which can lead to disorientation (119).
This returns us to Bolter and Grusin’s logic of hypermedia—the “hyperconscious
recognition or acknowledgement of the medium”—as an antidote to a transparent
immediacy that is too tangible. It is important, in virtual games, that
we not merely replace one world with another; for a liminal space to be
transformative, we need to be able to move between worlds. To reach closure,
we need a safe place to experiment with unsafe thoughts and feelings,
and such places cannot be safe unless we know it is truly a virtual world,
and can leave it when we are ready. We need borders, even borders of hyperconscious
hypermedia, so that our agency is not overwhelmed by possibilities were
are not prepared to deal with.