Dissertation: Approaching a Rough Decision
September 30th, 2013

I’ve been reading through more of Eric Zimmerman’s essays and watching various lectures and videos about game design – mainly Extra Credits, a Youtube Channel which I was extremely skeptical of at first but have quickly come to love.

I’ll talk about the Zimmerman / Frank Lantz essays then move onto where I think I’ll be taking my dissertation. Although I will attempt to convey what I have learned, I absolutely recommend that anybody interested read the essays for themselves – in fact, I expect that I’ll completely butcher Zimmerman’s writing.




Narrative, Interactivity, Play and Games: Four Naughty Concepts in need of Discipline
Written by Eric Zimmerman in collaboration with Frank Lantz
Published in 2004 in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game
Link to essay

In this essay, Zimmerman writes about how despite our excitement for the possibilities of digital media, we’re dissatisfied with its current state. The gaming industry lacks cultural sophistication and in many areas critical theory, not to mention the limits put onto it by current technology. The main theme of the essay looks at the ‘game-story’ – currently most high-production titles can’t really get over the fact that they can’t be films – they attempt to create a narrative in the same way that a film does, and you kind of get this hindered piece of cinema with a bit of interaction. What the game-story is, is the narrative that games tell through their mechanics and the events that take place through play. To reach a better understanding of the game-story, he breaks it down and recombines the term into four more specific areas: narrative, interactivity, play and games.



Definition in this context –
1) A narrative has an initial state, a change in that state, and insight brought about by that change.
2) A narrative is not merely a series of events, but a personification of events through a medium which such as language. (This component of the definition references the representational aspect of narrative)
3) This representation is constituted by patterning and repetition. This is true for every level of narrative, whether it is the material form of the narrative itself or its conceptual thematics.

Like books, chess has a narrative – a beginning state (initial game setup), changes to that state (the gameplay), and a resulting insight (outcome of the game). It is a representation of a war complete with a cast of characters. It involves structured patterns of time (turns) and space (the checkered grid).

He advises that rather than look at your work and ask yourself whether or not it simply has a narrative, ask yourself how it has a narrative.



The four modes of narrative interactivity:

Congnitive Interactivity or interpretive participation with a text
Psychological, emotional, hermeneutic, semiotic, reader-response, etc. Interactions that a participant can have with the so-called “content” of a text. Example: you re-read a book after several years have passed and you find it completely different to the book that you remember.

Functional Interactivity or utilitarian participation with a text
Included here: functional, structural, interactions with the material textual apparatus. Did the book have a table of contents? An index? What was the layout of the pages? How thick was the paper stock? How large/heavy was the book? All of these characteristics are part of the total experience of reading interaction.

Explicit Interaction or participation with designed choices and procedures in textThis is interaction in the obvious sense of the word – tapping a touchscreen, following the rules of a game, rearranging the clothing on dolls. Included here: choices, random events, dynamic simulations, and other procedures programmed into the interactive experience.

Meta-interactivity or Cultural participation with a text
This is interaction outside of a single text. The clearest examples are from fan culture, in which readers appropriate, deconstruct, and reconstruct linear media, participating in and propagating massive communal narrative worlds.



I absolutely loved his definition of play – play exists in opposition to the structures it inhabits, at odds with the utilitarian functioning of the system. Yet play is at the same time an expression of a system, and intrinsically a part of it. If interaction is completely pre-determined, there is no room for play in a system.



A game is a voluntary interactive activity, in which one or more players follow rules that constrain their behaviour, enacting an artificial conflict that ends in a quantifiable outcome.

To take part in a game is to submit your behaviour to the restrictions of the rules. It’s worth acknowledging the odd coupling of rules and play – it’s one of the fascinating paradoxes of games.

Games & Narrative
Games are narrative systems. They aren’t the only form that narrative can take, but every game can be a narrative system.

Games & Interactivity
Games generally embody all 4 types of interactivity, but are particularly good examples of explicit interactivity.

Games & Play
Games are among the many and diverse forms of play.


The Game-Story
The point that he is trying to get to is that game designers should experiment with unique ways of conveying a story, rather than trying to replicate film or some other medium. How can games be narrative systems in ways that other media cannot? Games have the unique status as being explicitly interactive narrative systems of formal play, and so need to find their own voice to tell a tale.


Although I still feel that I need to read through the text a couple more times to get the fundamental concepts solidly into the back of my head, I love what this essay taught me – mainly about interactivity and play. The concept of a game can be much more broad than most games appear – there’s a lot of experimentation to be done.




Rules, Play, and Culture
Written by Eric Zimmerman and Frank Lantz
Published in 1999 in Merge Magazine
Link to essay

When talking about this essay, I’m not going to attempt to pass its message – rather, I’m going to pull out some parts that stood out to me and have helped me come closer to a decision for my dissertation.

The complex pleasures and experiences of games demand their own rigorous investigation. Unlike architecture, graphic design, and other design disciplines, game design lacks a critical discourse which identifies and explores gamesĀ  as designed and constructed cultural objects.
One things that I feel so appealing about game design is the room for experimentation – there’s so much to be explored, experimented with and written about. With every new breakthrough in technology, there is so much more to do.

Play is the experience of a rule-system set into motion by the player’s choices and actions. Within the strictly demarcated confines of the rules, play emerges and ripples outwards, bubbling up through the fixed and rigid rule-structure in unexpected patterns.
I loved this paragraph in the essay – it describes what a game becomes once you bring in the player. It relates strongly to this Extra Credits episode, in which Daniel Floyd mentions that another way that games are different to other mediums is that they are shipped incomplete – the game is not truly its whole until the player is involved.

A game is a system of rules. But once the rules are activated, once humans enter the system, play begins – and play is something altogether different than rules.




That dissertation thing
So, the area that I’m considering concentrating on is design, designed so that it takes form in the hands of the user. To sum it up, blurring the author/audience divide. I’d like to look at the affect of bringing play into a game, and how games could use play to evolve. I’m still trying to get my head around exactly what I’ll be looking at, but narrowing in on it now makes me feel much better.