Jones, Steven E. "The Meaning of Video Games"

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[edit] The Meaning of Video Games (2008)

by Steven E. Jones
Review by Spencer Roberts, May 24, 2010

Steven Jones, The Meaning of Video Games
Steven Jones, The Meaning of Video Games
In Steven E. Jones’s 2008 book The Meaning of Video Games[1], he approaches the topic of video games by skirting the long debate between ludologists and narratologists, preferring to drive at the heart of video game culture through an analysis of various elements within the history of video games. Whether discussing the Nintendo Wii game console or Will Wright’s ultimate sandbox game Spore[2], Jones suggests an alternate way of understanding games through a process similar to textual analysis. For Jones, the meaning of video games is not based in the blueprints from which they are built, but in the experience of playing them in the world.

Jones begins his alternative exploration into the meaning of video games with a discussion of what some people might not consider a game: the hit television show Lost. He points out that the paratextual online marketing campaign used to draw people in and link to real-world products was more developed than that of any previous show. Viewers who explored the online content were drawn deeper into the narrative of the show (through the paratext) and the campaign adapted and responded to the users. Eventually, a real-world book was produced and thinly-veiled connections to companies like Jeep were found throughout the extended Lost story. For Jones, this marked a distinct shift in gaming; for the first time, a significant amount of effort was put into the extension of a television narrative and its paratext into a realm that is easily defined as a game. But Jones also sees that Lost reflects even more of video game elements than in its extended story. The similarities between games such as Myst or its sequel Riven[3] and the show Lost are striking, which Jones argues is an indication that the producers of Lost intended the show to evoke the same style of gameplay immersion. For Jones, a television show that draws so heavily on video game elements marks a significant development in cross-genre narrative creation.

In his second chapter, Jones looks closely at the Nintendo game Katamari Damacy[4], in which players control a rolling ball of items, people, debris, vehicles, and the like. He highlights the main theme of the game, collecting, and says that this basic but compelling gameplay device tells us much about the mindset and culture of games. Katamari Damacy is different from other games mainly because it is so up-front about the nature of collecting. Whether a game allows us to collect things, points, kills, or coins, we are drawn inevitably to collect more and more. Jones says that Damacy “demonstrates the centrality to games and game culture of the act of collecting. Points, levels, scores, objects, paratextual paraphernalia—most of all knowledge about the gameworld—gaming is always on some level about collecting” (16). Jones continues by comparing the hit game Halo to his previous examples, demonstrating that even a game based on fighting and killing aliens has strong ties to paratextual and collecting themes. The use of the online ARG “I Love Bees” extended the Halo universe into the real world, creating a massive paratext that involved characters from the game, characters unique to the ARG, and a storyline that shifted to reflect the involvement of thousands of players who found themselves immersed in the complex narrative that served to introduce the release of Halo 2. The meaning of Halo was thus altered by the players, says Jones, and so we must understand video games to possess meaning that is fluid and reactive. A rather striking example that Jones provides is the game Facade, in which players interact with Non-player Characters to create a unique narrative. By typing responses and clicking on objects, the player alters the actions and responses of the game characters. Each time the game is played, a slightly different narrative is produced, which in turn alters the meaning of the game. Rather than possessing a meaning that is defined by the creator of the game, Facade is specifically designed to have only the meaning that the player incorporates in their playing. Jones relates this to improvisational acting, whether in comedy or drama. In each instance of the game (or play) the meaning is created through collaboration between the genre and the players.

A further exploration of this concept is seen in Jones’s discussion of the Nintendo Wii’s unique gameplay experience. The Wii, with its industry-changing interface and carefully-chosen position of neutrality toward gamer gender, has made gaming a social activity that can take place in the real world. The meaning of games played on the Wii are made through the collective experience of the people in the room, who compete, play, and laugh together over a video game. Within the realm of video games, says Jones, the Wii has allowed the refinition of the game platform. In his final section, Jones takes on Will Wright’s newest game Spore, which was not released when he was writing. His opinion of the game is based on play demos, trailers, and information from the game developers, but he comes strikingly close to predicting the effect of the game. While many academics expected that Spore would attempt to replicate and simulate evolution from a scientific perspective, Jones has even loftier expectations that would eventually be realised. Though many were disappointed by the lack of scientifically accurate evolution, Jones’s argument that Spore’s “most significant feature is its planned content-generating system, allowing users to make creatures and other objects that will be procedurally animated and placed in the games of other players” (18) certainly proved accurate. When Spore was released, it was immediately apparent that content creation was a major focus for players, and the implications for the meaning of the game are as yet unknown. For Jones, Spore is the realisation of what he calls a “possibility space”, in which contributors interact and exchange an endless supply of ideas and creations.

Steven E. Jones has not tried to negotiate between the two main schools of thought when it comes to finding the meaning of video games. Narratologists may consider the meaning to come from the narratives that exist within the games; ludologists might find the meaning in the gameplay and experience of the game itself. Jones steps out of this two-step dance and wonders whether the meaning of video games might be found through an alternate access point. His examinations of culture, narrative, gameplay, experience, paratext and so on are all done through a lense of textual studies, which consider all the various influences and effects that a text (or in this case, game) might have. Analysis through deduction rather than induction may be labour intensive and time consuming, but as Jones has made clear, it is possible to better understand a video game’s meaning with even a small amount of textual study.

[edit] Notes and References

  1. Jones, Steven E. The Meaning of Video Games: Gaming and Textual Strategies. 1st ed. Routledge, 2008.
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