Of course, in addition to making some critical moves easier, this particular aesthetic also makes some critical moves harder. In many ways, this aesthetic cuts against the grain of the main body of existing videogame scholarship. Certain elements of play that are usually taken to be central (interactivity, competition, learning) have been shifted to the periphery while other elements (choice, anticipation, doing) have been moved closer to the center.
In part, this reflects my own taste in games and my ideas to the direction in which they should be moving as an artistic enterprise. I think there is a lot of interesting play to be had from spaces that emphasize stillness over action, contemplation over interactivity, and layered meaning over explicit challenges. I think that previous critical approaches to videogame design have borrowed too heavily from traditional games – zero-sum play spaces in which extended stretches of individual mastery are discouraged in order to keep all the participants, winners and losers alike, interested.
But I have also chosen this particular frame because I think it allows us to say interesting things about cultural enterprises other than games. There is an element of play in visual art, in music, in literature, but it’s difficult to perceive it when play is viewed largely through a lens of competition and conflict and interaction. You can’t win a symphony. The words in a novel don’t rearrange themselves in response to our actions. You don’t have to struggle with a piece of sculpture to view it from different angles. And so games feel like a radically different form of expression, a radically new way to structure experience.
But if we choose different constraints to structure our discursive field, a completely different set of critical moves becomes available – moves that are much more applicable to other media of expression. Instead of treating conflict and interaction as essential to play, we can treat them merely as medium-specific techniques for generating interesting horizons of intent. This means that we can use the heuristics of play as a critical tool for understanding how art in general goes about structuring experience.
The problem with privileging interpretation is that it directs our attention away from our immediate engagement with a work and toward the aftermath of that engagement. It’s a denial of „presence” – our sense of being immersed inside an evolving now. By focusing our attention primarily on the meaning of a work – the traditional approach of Western critical thought – we marginalize our actual experience – the fluid and unstable play that necessarily precedes and prefigures the construction of meaning.
It has been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. When we listen to music, we certainly play within the framework the performance provides. We construct interpretive constraints that explain the patterns of notes we hear and allow us to anticipate what will be coming next. We alternate between satisfaction and surprise as the melody confirms or thwarts our expectations. But the understanding we construct is almost entirely self-referential. The previous notes may suggest an impending crescendo, and we may feel a rush when that anticipation is satisfied. But the understanding that allowed us to form that anticipation isn’t portable. It isn’t something that we can use afterward in our daily lives, and it may not even be particularly applicable to other pieces of music. It is a provisional tactic for dealing with the immediate constraints presented by the performance itself. Thus, if we try to analyze music as a medium for transmitting meaning, we find ourselves oddly confined to the periphery of the experience. We can talk about the formal structure of a composition, or how people use a piece within a social context, but the actual experience of listening lies tantalizingly beyond our interpretive grasp. We can sense that something personal and complicated and interesting has transpired, but the traces that linger with us afterward are difficult to articulate.
Games pose a similar problem. A game exists in the playing, just as music exists in the listening. Our movement from horizon to horizon shapes the construction of a set of internal constraints that represent our understanding of the game. But often this understanding is both ineffable and nonportable. We can feel the threat of the zombies lurking around the next corner, the momentary gap that is about to open in the defensive line, the pattern of falling jewels that will set up the perfect combo, but the interpretative constraints that generate these expectations are difficult to talk about or apply afterward. As with music, a great deal of the worth and power of the experience comes not from what it means, but from the fleeting presence effect it produces.