June 9, 2003

You put your left foot in

by Nick Montfort · , 3:04 pm

As we get serious about studying new forms of art and new sorts of games, the question of how to draw categories for consideration arises. Defining categories isn’t just some tedious Scandanavian pastime; it’s also a way of figuring out why exactly we are more interested in some stuff than in some other stuff. Do we like certain types of literary works because they are presented on a computer, for instance, or because they require effort from the reader, who participates in determining what is read? (This is the implicit question asked in Cybertext and in some of Espen Aarseth’s earlier writing.)

Espen, Stephen Granade, and some others have been discussing the virtues of the category “Games in Virtual Environments,” as an alternative to “computer games,” here on Grand Text Auto. The “virtual environment” is a feature of interest to me (it’s part of my definition of interactive fiction, while “game” is not) and also, I think, of interest to Stuart. In fact, I do think there is something more interesting about richly world-simulating computer games than one sees in computerized versions of card and board games. But this idea for a category also raises some questions.

For one thing, if the virtual environment itself is so compelling a feature, why limit one’s consideration to games? On the computer, there are non-game virtual environments such as social MUDs, MOOs, and graphical chatspaces. Off the computer, dollhouses are real rather than virtual spaces, but ones that are controlled and stand for larger spaces in an interesting way. And there are artistic and other virtual reality experiences that are not goal-directed. The presence of a quantifiable outcome, or of symbolic rewards, seems like it may not be so necessary for defining an interesting virtual environment.

Also, there seem to have been many interesting interface innovations and computing developments in the early arcade days, for instance, that did not rely on the simulation of virtual environments. Space Invaders, despite having the word “space” in its title, doesn’t seem like it will be well-understood from a virtual environment perspective, but it and many of its kin contributed to the techniques and tropes used in Tetris as well as first-person shooters. (Yes, it can be seen as a virtual environment, but I bet it will be hard to explain why it is fun by referring only to the virtual environmant.) I would guess that a perspective from computing, rather than a “virtual environment” one, would be the best way to approach these early games and the way they contributed to the development of modern console and arcade experiences.

Then there’s the question of when a game actually has a virtual environment and when it doesn’t, which I just alluded to. I’m still wondering if chess and hopscotch have virtual environments.

Of course, “games in virtual environments” should be an interesting perspective to take, and a lot of works that interest me fall into this category. It highlights a less examined and yet clearly important feature of interesting games. I certainly like it a lot better than “video games,” given than the computer games I write can be played perfectly well without any video at all, using text-to-speech synthesis.