May 13, 2004

An Economy of Rules (part 6) – [musings]

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Games and form. What is the form of a computer game? Should the form be restricted by certain requirements, so that one form of computer games requires a "PC" system with a certain level of video and audio support, and a certain operating system? That would make things easy in many ways, so that "computer game" would be shorthand for a PC-based game with certain requirements. Normally the PC part is referred to as a platform, so you have the PC platform, the Mac platform, the Gameboy platform, and many others.

Some computer games exist on multiple platforms. Are they the same games? Sometimes. Are they the same form? No, I think they are different forms. The title, or brand, of a game may be the same, but the PC version of Diablo is different from the Playstation version of Diablo.

But if different platforms can split one game into multiple forms, do different computers, with different configurations, also make many forms out of the same game? I think perhaps they do, but it isn't an interesting split — I would say rather that a game with certain system requirements will only take on a functional form when those requirements are met, so a given game played on a collection of different computers will be either functional or non-functional on each of those machines, and the computer game form is limited to the functional form. (In other words, it is only meaningful to talk about computer games when they can be played. Distorted and dysfunctional game forms are something else.)

The form is not merely the software, but includes a computer monitor, a mouse, a keyboard, &c. The computer game, as a functional form, requires some kind of platform. A given game is refined by the established idioms, and structured according to the operations of structure, and crafted by tools, and given a polished surface.

[At this point I have to pause and wonder: why don't "game studies" people talk about different platforms? Have I missed some fantastic scholarship on the evolution of the Playstation controller in a past issue of Game Studies? Or is such a thing too technical for academic pursuit? Certainly the issue of obsolete and inaccessible platforms is an issue for the historic study of computer games.]

As game genres develop, they put stresses on the idioms they are based on. Some of this stress can be absorbed on the idiom level, but sometimes it can have an effect on form as well. Do you have a joystick hooked up to your computer? Do you have a floor mat for playing Dance Dance Revolution? For some games, changes in the form (with respect to the system configuration) are optional, and others not.

Are there rules of form? I think the rules of form are less tangible than the rules of idiom, they aren't as easy to locate the way that idiom can be identified by a lexicon. At the same time, form is an abstraction of the physical, at least for the form of computer games. For a given game, there is an abstract form — the PC platform — that allows the game to be played. But the rules that determine that form, the technology, the market forces, the laws of physics, the cultural mores, are not motivated by games. Which is to say, computers weren't invented so that people could play computer games.

So I think computer games, as a form, are an incidental product. They are also quite volatile and fragile. This may seem contradictory, especially for a form which has yielded a number of popular titles and dozens of different genres, but that is the difference between looking at the whole field of computer games versus the hundreds of individual forms taken on by those games. One game form (platform) may support a hundred "game titles", and a hundred game forms support a million games, but history locates each of those individual forms in a very narrow period of time. Computer games are less like novels, and more like movie theaters — not just the rolls of film, but the projector and screen as well.

The computer game is a form that is perpetually dying, which means it must be perpetually reinvented.

Next: The New Forms Manifesto

Posted by B Rickman at May 13, 2004 07:35 PM | TrackBack

I haved talked a little bit about the different axes of genre formation, and platform is one of those axes, I think. I think there are other considerations, too - in some ways, we can describe a PC as a platform. In another sence, a modern gaming PC has less in common with CGA-based 386 than it does with a PS/2. And convergance happens: I've played emulated games on my PC with a joystick and video output to a TV monitor, and now I'm playing FFXI on a PS/2 with a hard drive and a keyboard. The Infinium Phantom, if it ships, will complete the occupation of the hybrid space.

But there are still real differences in the culture and feel of PC and console gaming - and I attribute some of that to the legacy of television in the console (connotations: social space, the living room, children, family space, shared object of vision/gaze), and the legacy of the PC as a general-purpose device (connotations: work/private space, the office, adults, communication with other households, personal object of vision/gaze). But they remediate games on each other, and in other media as well - Super Mario World released for the GBA, for example.

Posted by: William at May 26, 2004 05:17 PM