On “Interacting” with video games

Video games have, for a long time, used the word “interactive” as their main draw. It’s never needed to be used as a major selling point, but rather has become tucked away within the video game vernacular where it’s become a phrase that has become ubiquitous with the medium itself. When we talk about games it’s as an “interactive” art form, and it’s the interaction element that becomes a major focus for game design, marketing, and discussions; We talk about “interacting” with the world, we write long books on how interaction works and how to design it, and companies sell us games based on how much freedom and interactivity they allow us to have.

So, then. What is interaction?

In a brief aside in Steve Swink’s book Game Feel, a book frequently cited in mainstream games discussions, Swink describes the general ethos of both consumers and designers:

“Perception happens on a scale of passive to active. The interaction of objects you see on TV and in films is passively perceived. Exploring a simulated space using real-time control is active perception. Game feel is active perception.”

For many people, who share the same sentiment as designers like Chris Crawford and Steve Swink, the interaction element of video games is what sets it apart and defines it as a medium; even the name ascribed to the medium itself, “game”, implies interaction at its core. Gonzalo Frasca, while proposing the term “ludology” for the field of study within video games, also touches on this emphasis on interaction – “Observers are passive, the player is active. If the player does not act, there will be no game, and therefore no session at all. It is a completely different activity to watch a game and to play the game.”

But what is interaction?

In his book Chris Crawford on Game Design, Crawford awkwardly attempts to define games via a variety of dichotomic conflicts, in which he distinguishes between “movies, books, etc.” and interactive works. Crawford argues that in interaction a “conversation” takes place, a process of input-thought-output that transfers between two participants. Within non-video-games media such as movies and books this conversation is one-way (work -> audience), while in games it is two-way (audience -> work -> audience etc.). The definitions for “passive” and “active”, here, are the completeness or incompleteness of the input-output loop – passivity is consumption via an incomplete loop, while activity is consumption through a complete loop.

The interaction here is achieved through a device – the controller being the primary form of this. We take in on-screen information through our eyes and output information through our hands into the controller, which is converted into on-screen image by the computer. In the “interactive conversation”, the two participants create a loop of information processing that constantly travels between them. This is a very computer language oriented interpretation of the word interaction, and as we’ve seen it argues that, for video games, if we were to decide not to output anything, there would be no interaction, and the game wouldn’t progress. This is in contrast to movies, for example, which in this view continue regardless of our output to them. While not everyone uses this same metaphor, a similar idea is usually in play. The interaction exists in an instantaneous fashion; if any part of the loop were to break, video games would not be interactive.

However, by reducing output from the human side to the instantaneous “input-output loop”, it ignores the myriad of ways in which audiences can interact with media without directly controlling the image. Interaction can be defined as “reciprocal action”, and in order to understand the ways in which the audience can interact with a work we need to look beyond the moment-to-moment call-and-response notion that has been applied to it for video games and look at discourse and discussion.

When we separate the two sides of interaction and conceive them as two individual entities, like Crawford’s metaphor for conversation does, we ignore the ways in which interaction can be conceived as the whole. There is not a continuous “interaction loop” moving linearly through time, that stops when one party breaks the loop, but a continuous process of contextualising and recontextualising via information both new and previous. We do not “break” the interaction when we move away from it, but constantly reexamine previous information through discussion and interacting with new, different works.

Say, for example, we want to see a movie – let’s pick Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956. Immediately, just from the title, we interact with the work. We read the word “invasion”; what kind of invasion? A historical one, a modern political one? an alien one? Then we read “body-snatchers” – why do they snatch bodies? Do they steal them, possess them, – are they invading to body-snatch, or invading and body-snatching? We interact with the work by taking the information it supplies to us and applying meaning to it. Depending on the person this can have varying effects and understanding, as no two people possess the same banks of knowledge.

We watch the movie, continue to interact with it by taking the information it gives to us and recontextualising it among the information we have before. We talk about the movie, we discuss what was good and bad about it, we share our interpretations. We can then read the original book The Body Snatchers, and compare it to that, examine the differences – or we can watch the 1978 movie of the same name, compare the narratives, their approaches to the themes, and their differences. How have the themes changed over the years? Did the second movie improve on the former? How could we examine the best of both works? We can even compare the movie to other media, and discuss the ways in which, say, 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers compared to Carly Rae Jepsen’s album Emotion, if we really wanted to. There’s no limit on the ways in which we can interact with media, history and culture.

While the work may exist seemingly detached from us we can still influence how it is seen or read by the ways in which we, collectively, talk about it. Reviews, analysis, peer-reviewed papers, discussions between two people and forum discussions are all parts of the dialogue and discourse around works both on their own and part of a collective culture. The audience interacts not only with the work but with each other and with history, in order to create an understanding of a work formed not in the immediacy of consuming it but over a long period of time.

The Room began life as a serious drama, but through the discussions and interpretations surrounding it, the movie became reframed as a comedy. By talking about the film in a certain way, we took the poorly made aspects of the film and highlighted them as funny, not just as fatal blunders of a work taking itself seriously. This transformation is an extreme example of how an audience can interact with a movie, and we have many other ways of interacting with discussions around media.

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So if interaction is the process by which we discuss a work, what are “passive” and “active” interaction? For the answer we need to look to theatre.

German theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht wrote specifically about theatre in the 1930s and 1940s, but we can find his observations and conclusions just as relevant to video games, as well as every other form of media, as the dominant forms of Western drama have become only more ubiquitous.

Brecht discusses the dramatic theatre as being the dominant form of European theatre at the time. In this theatre, the audience is treated like spectators to an event that they have no control over. The production is performed and produced so close to reality, so accurately, that it takes on the appearance of reality itself. Actors don’t take on roles, but characters – the illusion is held at every level of the play. The audience is asked to identify themselves entirely with a character, to sympathise with them in their narrative. As a result of this the audience loses the ability to critically analyse the events of the play – they are entranced by the events on stage. When a character feels sadness, the audience in this situation also feels sadness. By asking the audience to interact in this way they become passive, uncritically accepting the narrative of the play. The injustice appears natural, because everything else in the play appears like this.

Brecht writes; “The theatre as we know it shows the structure of society (represented on the stage) as incapable of being influenced by society (in the auditorium)”. In response he wished to create theatre which encouraged the audience to not be passive. Heavily influenced by Chinese theatre, Brecht and his fellow practitioners removed the illusion from theatre, using the stage as a platform to discuss injustice rather than just show it. The production, the acting, the presentation, all work to remind the audience that they are not watching reality, but watching a play about reality. The actors still act convincingly, but they do not fully take on the identity of the character. The goal of this theatre is to inform the audience, to teach them about the world and the ways in which it can be changed. By forming a distance between the audience and the events, by placing the actors as teachers as well as entertainers, the theatre becomes a place where the audience can actively interact with the events on stage. For this type of theatre, Brecht describes his intentions for the audience;

“He cannot simply feel: “thats how I would act”, but at most can say: “if I had lived under those circumstances”. And if we play works dealing with our own time as though they were historical, then perhaps the circumstances under which he himself acts will strike him as equally odd; and this is where the critical attitude begins.”

Passive and active interaction are not about our direct influence on the narrative’s flow, but the way in which we engage with media. We can play video games, which many see as “interactive media”, while still passively interacting with them. Likewise, the same so-called “passive media” as movies and books can be actively interacted with. All media is interactive; the importance lies in the ways in which we critically engage with the events, and the degrees to which they ask us to engage with them. Where media asks us to empathise with characters and make us passive, we should instead become active, interrogate the ways in which characters act and what their choices are; but most importantly, we should ask what their other choices could have been.

The majority of games now ask us to identify completely with a character, to passively go along with the dramatic flow of events in the game, while entrancing us into thinking they are our choices and our consequences. When we choose a dialogue choice in a Mass Effect or a Fallout, we ask “what if I made that other choice?” not as a possibility for systemic change, but a difference in narrative. The narrative that becomes more appealing to us becomes correct, but in terms of the world presented to us we cannot change it. When a character suffers less in one branch but more in another, we say; “it is only right that they suffer less, but we cannot save them completely. That’s how the world is.” Our choices only go so far as to allow us to minimise the levels of suffering, but the numerous people that cause them and the systems produced to enable it are unchanged. In these games we only choose to solve one person’s problem at a time, and leave the systems in place intact; we should instead demand games that teach us how the problems exist in the first place, and how to understand, and hopefully overthrow, the systems that oppress us.

Video games need to understand interaction not as a “defining” aspect of the medium, but as something that exists across all mediums and disciplines. More importantly, interaction is an ongoing process, one that is constantly evolving and adapting with new information, not just occurring in the moment of consumption. We can form our works to attempt amplify or suppress certain ways of thinking, to encourage the audience to interact in a certain way, and to take the work either as pure entertainment or as a way to learn about the world. Once we understand interaction in this way, we can make much better use of it than we would have in the definition that the video game medium is so accustomed to.