In ye olden times (circa 2008) one of the favourite pastimes occupying game critics was to establish truisms about what made the medium of videogames unique in order to divine which god to whom they would dedicate their prayers. The needle most often fell on ‘interactivity’, so this became the conceptual linchpin around which they based entire paradigms. After all, no text of any other medium necessitates audience interactivity for it to proceed, they said.
From this two rules were established. You’ve the one above—since interactivity is exclusive to videogames, it naturally follows that it’s the medium’s strength. Games ought to play into this facet in order to properly explore the power and potential of what it means to be a videogame, and games that don’t do this do not recognize their own primacy.
The second rule comes more literally from their original logic: ‘interactivity’ refers to pressing a button in a game to make stuff happen, and because this is games’ major proclivity, through common usage interactivity came to mean this and only this. The beauty of equivocating it that way is it converges design lingo with critical lingo and gives practitioners of both discipline a mutually preconceived ground for talking about games. It also empowers fans and critics to romanticize the medium and embellish it with the pride of claiming a mystical exclusivity over a form of expression.
I say rules—nobody etched them in stone, as far as I know, unless maybe there was one GDC behind closed doors… But they’re quite commonly held beliefs from which a prominent ideological battleship has been launched to float around the culture issuing declarations of value and shooting down insurgents. Hence there’s been a big crisis in recent years of what constitutes a game, with ‘insufficiently interactive’ games deemed counter to the medium and so are culturally disregarded as not actually games.
Also hence that almost sinister design ethos that says the player’s actions must affect substantial, tangible rewards if they are to carry any legitimate value. Karma that ups your ability to shoot the heads off baddies, interpersonal relationships founded on unlocking cool new powers rather than on respect and companionship, moral decisions manifestly reflected by a difference in how the entire city decides to treats you. These kinds of solipsistic and selfish narrative implications being symptoms of an over-infatuation with an input-to-output feedback dynamic which spells out the entirety of ‘player interaction’.
To see how this paradigm looks in motion when applied to a videogame, let’s use Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney as an example. Unluckily for Phoenix Wright in this case, these games take the form of visual novels, so they largely play out with characters talking to the protagonist and the protagonist talking back with little direction on behalf of the player. Visual novels sometimes get flak for this fact, called ‘not-games’ and all that. The player does have a little bit of input insofar as they need to keep pressing a button for dialogue to play out, but this is often considered an inadequate measure of interactivity by folks of the above frame of mind. You don’t actively affect anything in the game’s state other than what was inevitably going to happen1, so this interaction supposedly carries little by way of value.
As the various court cases develop, the modes of available interactions expand and switch depending on the scenario. While investigating a crime scene, the player can prod the screen to get Phoenix to examine that spot. There’s little else going on here other than the opportunity to trigger more dialogue and maybe expand Phoenix’s case for the defendant. If you click on a ladder, for instance, Phoenix will always say “it’s a ladder,” and your partner will always respond “actually, it’s a stepladder.” You don’t get to control Phoenix to say “it’s a stepladder” and nip your friend’s smartarse response in the bud. There’s little deviation and the player’s participation could be ungenerously considered perfunctory. In these scenarios you can also move, question witnesses and show them evidence, which all amount to navigating menus and selecting the correct option.
Since the game is totally linear, you can skirt through the whole length of it by pressing the right buttons in the right sequence. This satisfies the criteria of ‘interaction’ as described above, but you know, I can help but think that paradigm falls short at describing most players’ experience with the Ace Attorney games.
The short of it is, this understanding of interactivity is kind of a load of bollocks, isn’t it. Maybe now, highly esteemed critics and designers are gnashing their teeth at my brevity and roughly-built strawmen. Sorry folks. I’m being brief and rough because if I got properly started I could talk forever. But I’m not actually writing this to refute the old gods, bee in my bonnet though they may be.2 Instead I’m here to say something about interactivity to make it useful to me in my writing, to demystify and restore it to wonderful normality.
So you’ve got this old thought-framework of what interactivity means and the actual forms it takes via mechanics and systemic relationships. Interactivity to mean this and only this, however, is limiting in its description of a player’s (or an audience’s) relationship with a videogame (or a medium). For one thing, it really doesn’t encompass the player into the virtual sphere of meaning-making as a person or a soul—it’s only really concerned with what their fingers and thumbs do to engage with the virtual gameworld.
But meaning is made from the player’s eyes and ears, too, and from their brain and their mind, and from the life they’ve led and from their relationship with the world around them. I’ve sometimes seen a few circular diagrams embracing the relationship between the player and the game, and in them the player is typically represented by a person rather than a disembodied set of fingers and thumbs, so this idea shouldn’t be too radical. In general, many societies have kind of moved away from the belief that people are just soulless organic machines, autonomously roaming through fields and supermarkets ingesting food and attending whatever business is most pressing. So to slot that consideration of the soul into the topic at hand, I think phenomenology might be a useful way to go about looking at this relationship.
Phenomenology is a philosophical framework concerning the formation and nature of experience—in other words, it suggests a way with which we interact with the world. Rather than being mindless robots who go about blandly doing whatever, people perceive the world (through their senses, thoughts, memories, etc.) as composite of little parcels of meanings infused with that person’s subjectivity.
For example, you might look out your window right now and see the world around you, but you don’t perceive it objectively as it actually exists outside of the realm of your human consciousness. Perhaps there’s a bird in a tree tweeting melodically, and if that catches your attention, you might have missed noticing a plane flying overhead or the squirrel perched one branch over. Or perhaps the bird is instead tweeting obnoxiously—perhaps, even, that bird took a dump on you yesterday, and you hate that bird, with its smug little face. Whatever it is you perceive, you only perceive some things and you consider them a certain way depending on… well, on you.
Which is not to say, “All meaning is subjective, therefore no meaning or interpretation has communal value.” Meaning is also bestowed upon you by society and by culture. If you grow up being taught a certain thing, such as to view and extract meaning in a certain way, chances are you’ve internalized that practise and have come to demonstrate it entirely naturally. The little stick figures on bathroom doors are a good example: we’re taught from a young age that this stick figure represents men, and when that stick figure is on the front of a door it usually means only men can go in there, and it also usually means the room behind that door is a bathroom. Another less universal example is the word “phenomenology”—if you’ve studied or read a bit of philosophy, when you saw the word printed out three paragraphs above, it might have meant to you “a philosophical framework concerning the formation of experiences and consciousness.” But if you’re not familiar with the word, it probably seemed just a nonsensical jumble of letters, almost comical in its wankiness.
So as you go about the world experiencing things, your experience is characterized by the fleeting whims and deep-seated mental predispositions of your personhood. And particular experiences are described by your perception of a phenomenon of an object with all the embedded meanings therein, and not by an objective perception of the object as it “actually” is, whatever that might suggest.
Within this framework, the part of the act of perceiving that grants phenomenon their meaning and character is called intentionality. I’ve written about it more fully elsewhere but to be quick here, intentionality means the power of a mind to be about something. All thoughts have something as their subject—you can’t have a thought that isn’t about anything without reverting to thoughtlessness.
In essence, intentionality is our ability to engage with the world on a conscious level, to derive meaning and value from it. Through this manner, we cognitively interact with the things around us and inside us. If this interaction were viewed as an input, the resulting meaning of a mental phenomenon would be the corresponding output. The very way we experience the world is founded on this interaction, in how we extend our minds outwards towards the world and bring phenomena and their meanings to life. So of course, we go through the same process when we play a videogame.
Because to be honest, you don’t put your brain on autopilot and communicate with the gameworld solely through your thumbs. At least, most of the time you don’t. You often need to engage with the gameworld in order to figure out what it wants you to do, which requires a degree of cognitive interaction. You further engage with it when it throws something clever at you or when a particularly striking scene elicits an emotional response deep within your heart. You engage with it when it bores you, and when it provides you with another fetch quest, and when a character tells a joke, and when the fluidity of your character’s movement feels just right. For as long as the game continues to exist in your living room, you and it form a participatory relationship simply through your mental involvement.
Let’s revisit Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. When you investigate a crime scene and then go about defending your client’s innocence, what you are doing is constructing a mental image of the crime in your mind and testing it against the evidence and testimonies presented in court. The actual court battle is like solving a narrative puzzle. All the info you gathered during your investigation is stored within this image and forms the pieces you wield to advance objections and dodge the prosecutor’s traps. As the trial progresses and you learn more about the case, some of the evidence in your inventory may take on a new meaning that you’ll need to consider in order to get to the bottom of the case.
So while it’s true that you survive each trial by scrolling through menus and pressing a button on the appropriate option, your impactful interactions with the game largely reside away from button presses and changing internal game states. What you engage with as a player is the narrative, completely linear and indifferent to your button inputs as it is. When a piece of evidence presents meaning, it is in how it fits into the current narrative context and the way it relates with your mental model. The entire game is completely void of meaning and value if you choose to disregard this realm of interaction.
As with every medium, the audience actualizes a videogame through perception and creation of meaning. This is fundamental to the experience; it is not unique to videogames, and it is not discounted as interaction just because it doesn’t involve the push of a button. Or at least, it shouldn’t be discounted as interaction.
Unfortunately, I find it is awfully difficult to discuss interaction in videogames down the line of perception and personal engagement without stalling at the hurdle of interactivity as used colloquially in games criticism. So here’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to try to move away from the application of interactivity to almost exclusively mean ‘press button to make stuff happen’ by giving a name to this old critical/design model. I’ll call it ‘squinteractivity’, because it only makes sense if you squint really hard. Also I suppose because it offers only a very narrow perspective.
The branching-off from this older paradigm towards one which better encompasses the player as an active human soul can be referenced as ‘splinteractivity’. I’m dreadful, I know.
And what will I call ‘interactivity’ to mean the way an audience engages with a text as a cognitive participant? I’m going to call that ‘interactivity’, as it should have always been.
1. This might seem out of left field but a fair few people levied the same complaint against The Walking Dead, describing the entire experience as meaningless because story branches tended to link back up sooner or later.
2. Incidentally, media predicated on mechanical interaction include: board games, sports, phone-in radio shows, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, table quizzes, pantomime, karaoke, QR codes, dress fashion, Sunday mass, scratch cards, the bulletin board at your local Tesco, telephones, buffets, cooking and baking, Crufts, pop-up books, the Punchestown Races, and so on.
This piece was community funded. If you liked this article, please consider supporting my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.