Controlling Gameplay

How to Cite

Banks, J. (1998). Controlling Gameplay. M/C Journal, 1(5).
Vol. 1 No. 5 (1998): Play
Published 1998-12-01

Computer and video games are one of the primary uses of personal computer technologies, and yet despite an increasing interest in cultural practices that are organised around computer and information technologies cultural studies has paid very little attention to this phenomenon. In the War of Desire and Technology Allucquére Roseanne Stone comments "that there seems no question that a significant proportion of young people will spend a significant and increasing proportion of their waking hours playing computer-based games in one form or another, and so far the implications of this trend have yet to be fully addressed in academic forums" (26). This Christmas will undoubtedly follow the trend of the last few years, with video game consoles and software being the biggest toy sellers. In the lead-up to this Christmas Nintendo shipped 5,000,000 units of the much-anticipated Shigeru Miyamoto-designed game, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The Zelda series of adventure games made its first appearance in 1987 on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) with The Legend of Zelda (which sold 6.5 million units worldwide). It is increasingly evident that whether it is in games arcades, on console systems such as the Nintendo 64, or on personal computers, the playing of computer games is a crucial component of the popular cultural terrain.

In The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the fifth installment in the series, the player controls a young boy, Link, through his adventures in the 3D-rendered fantasy world of Hyrule. By defeating various monsters, solving puzzles, and discovering magical items the player progresses through the game with the aim of saving Hyrule and rescuing Princess Zelda by defeating the evil Ganondorf. Yup, once you get past all of the 3D polygon graphics enabled by the Nintendo 64 platform this game is your basic rescue-the-princess quest with all of the troubling gender implications that this raises. Cultural theorists such as Stone and Dan Fleming raise the concern that this rapidly expanding industry that is an increasingly significant component of many young people's cultural lives is limited to the problems associated with a narrowly defined masculine identity. Stone asks

should things like computer games, which are so terrifically absorbing and which take up so much waking time -- so much precious, irreplaceable waking time -- be expected to possess a modicum of invention, to be able to stretch players' imaginations and skills beyond the ability to hit targets and dodge obstacles? (163-64)

Fleming observes that "this remarkable technology could support a much richer play space and with it a position less rigidly tied to a simplistically projected male identity" (57). But the narrative content of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time does not come even close to explaining what it is about playing the game that hooks the gamer into this 30-50 hour experience, and keeps us coming back for more -- just one more session until I finish that Dungeon.

Fleming makes the important point that an analysis of the symbolic content of games tells us very little about what it is actually like to play them. He takes the step of shifting our attention from the meanings of cultural objects to their status as events (11-16). The criticism that computer and video game content is dominated by a constraining masculine identity is important, but is no more than a starting point. Is this all that can be said about games such as Zelda? I would argue that the activity of playing computer games cannot simply be approached through a textual analysis of the symbolic content of games. If we tentatively accept that gaming is not simply a content, but an activity, then, how can we analyse or describe this activity? Does cultural studies provide us with the tools necessary to describe it as a cultural experience? How is this experience organised, and what ramifications does it have for cultural studies' understanding of contemporary cultural technologies?

An initial avenue of inquiry is provided by the term gameplay. Gameplay is a term that constantly emerges in my discussions with both gamers and game designers. It is a quite ephemeral and at moments incoherent concept that is used to describe the experience of a player's visceral immersion in and interactive engagement with a particular game's environment. It is an aspect of computer gaming that resists or at least would seem to be excessive to representation or symbolising. The very ephemeral and rather vague ways in which it is used have made it tempting to reject any serious analysis of it as an incoherence which may well function to simply side-step or avoid criticism of games' very obvious problem with representations of gender. However, as a player of computer games I recognise the experience that gamers are attempting to describe with the term gameplay and find it difficult to reject it out of hand simply because my theoretical vocabulary as a cultural analyst has difficulties in accommodating it. Where is the problem -- with the cultural experience or the theoretical vocabulary?

In many of my discussions with gamers the term gameplay functions as something of a shared horizon or assumed knowledge. If I ask what gameplay is or does I will often receive a response such as the following: "Gameplay is what makes a game fun. It is the fun factor". If I then query what elements or features in particular make a game fun the response will invariably be, "well good gameplay is what is important. Graphics and stuff can be good, but often are just eye-candy". The discussion will generally end with a comment such as "you've played [Game X], you know what I mean, it has great gameplay". This term seems to function as something of a marker for how the cultural experience of gameplay exceeds our symbolic vocabulary. It opens out onto the event status of playing. (But I think exchanges such as the above are also about the event of a research relation.)

In email discussions Cameron Brown, a lead game designer employed by Auran (a Brisbane, Australia based game software company -- Auran and Activision co-developed the real-time strategy game Dark Reign) described gameplay in the following terms:

I was made 'lead tester' for 'Radical Rex', a SNES [Super Nintendo Entertainment System] platformer.... It got to the point where I could finish the game (10 levels plus bonus 8 levels) in 27 minutes -- about 40 minutes if I held the controller upside down. I could literally play the first level with my eyes closed, using only muscle memory! Anyway, Mario Kart: sometimes, playing it, I lost all sense of everything except the game. My hands moved without conscious intervention on my part.... I believe the MK 'trance state' short circuits this delay not requiring the brain to be aware of something before the hands have responded."

The term gameplay appears throughout gamers' discussions of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on newsgroups ( and fan WWW sites, for example Nintendojo. The Next-Generation review of Zelda describes a gaming experience "beyond the superficialities of graphics, sound, and controls (which are all excellent) ... that sucks the player into a mystical world that has never been seen or felt before". Eric Enrico Mattei, a reviewer on Nintendojo, asserts that the quality of gameplay in Zelda is such "that you are COMPLETELY IMMERSED in Zelda's world". Writing in anticipation of Zelda's release Mikey Veroni comments that "ease of control is important in Zelda 64 (not to mention any game) because only then can the player feel like Link is acting and responding exactly to the player's actions. Perfect gameplay is so simple yet terribly crucial at the same time". Miyamoto, the designer of Zelda, said in a recent interview that in creating game environments such as Zelda he is concerned with "how players feel when they are touching the controller, so that is the way I'm always making the video game. I'm always thinking of the player's feelings".

These various ways of talking about and describing the experience of playing computer and video games are not exactly new or mysterious. They draw on well-established conventions and metaphors for understanding the human interface with technology or equipment in general. When I asked Cameron about his use of the phrase "muscle memory", for example, he responded that it came from a guitar player magazine and was used in the context of explaining exercises to teach your fingers how to play a scale. Other sources for this technological sublime relation include science fiction texts such as William Gibson's descriptions of the experience of jacking into the matrix of cyberspace in Neuromancer.

Dan Fleming's careful distinction between the symbolic content of games and the experience of playing them would seem to apply to the above descriptions of gameplay. He asserts that playing a game like Nintendo's platform adventure Mario Brothers is an intriguing experience that involves "the replacement of the gameworld's thematics by its geometry, which is where the fully engaged action really is" (191). Fleming sums up by commenting that "at their best computer games simply operate elsewhere for much of the time" (193). Although I have reservations about the tendency to position gameplay and representation in an almost strict opposition the foregrounding of this elsewhere of playability is useful in that it suggests the status of computer gaming as an event rather than a text or content to be interpreted. In his recent essay, "The Being of Culture, Beyond Representation", Alec McHoul argues, against representationalist understandings of cultural objects, for an approach that takes into account the movements and dynamics of "event-ness or eventality" (2). This shift away from a representational framework towards what McHoul calls "eventalistic experiencing" is where I head in my engagement with gameplay. This spectral dynamic of computer gaming calls us to change our modes of engaging with research objects.

The issues of control and controllers appear in many of the gamers' discussions of playing Zelda. Fleming refers to this experience: "the player feels the responsiveness of the controller, the forward momentum, the onset of a relaxed energy, a feeling of competence" (192). Entering into the world of the game is also a skill or competence; it involves the ability to effectively use the game control system or interface to navigate through the play environment. This game control would seem to function within the terms of a traditional controlling masculine subjectivity. It appears to be about enjoying a sense of ease, empowerment and control in a technologically mediated environment. Relations between the human and the technological are from the outset caught up in fantasies of control. But the event of playing, the elsewhere of gameplay, exceeds the limits of our stories about an autonomous self in control of and using technology. When we play games like Zelda we are being positioned in those regions of cultural experience that involve a transformation in the mode of our relation to technological equipment. Our assumptions regarding the relation and separation between the human and the technological -- and perhaps also the gender implications of these relations -- are increasingly transformed, subverted, and questioned.

Computer gaming is at least in part about the enjoyment gamers derive from the blurring and confusion of the boundaries between the technological and the self: techno-enjoyment. This element of enjoyment exceeds both the symbolic and the corporeal. But it should not be understood as some kind of more real or immediate bodily experience posited outside of and in opposition to the representational. It invokes another materiality of the technological object that is other than a reduction to technics or the human. It is a spectral interspace: the relation between the human and nonhuman. This relation with technology is not simply or only at the level of representation, nor at the materiality of the technological object or the bodily experience and sensations of the gamer. Gaming opens onto this domain of materialised techno-enjoyment. And in this region of cultural experience it is no longer clearly decidable who or what is in control. This experience of gameplay radically undermines notions of equipmentality grounded in a controlling human subject. Cultural Studies academics -- and I include myself in this group -- should be cautious about rushing to reduce the experience of gameplay to a problem or issue of representation. This is not to argue that representational effects are not operative in the practices of computer gaming. It is to argue the careful consideration of other important effects and processes.

Author Biography

John Banks