Method mastering the rules of the video game

Video games possess 'an excess of visual and aural stimuli' but also 'the promise of reliable rules' (Gottschalk 1995:13). These rules, which are reliable in that they are systematic and unambiguous (for they are unencumbered by morality or compassion), constitute the video game's environment, or location, which is not restrained by the laws of the physical world. The game user can experience video pleasure primarily by attempting to master these rules, i.e. decipher the game's logic. Moreover, the desire to attain mastery makes video games addictive, which at times can lead to the user's total absorption into the game's rules and environment. This absorption in turn may alter the user's state of consciousness and lead to a momentary loss of self (see Fiske 1989: ch. 2).

Here we outline a number of the general structures used to construct these rules. When analysing digital narratives, attempt to identify several or all of these structures, since by themselves they do not define a narrative as digital. It is only when combined together that they begin to dominate a film's narrative structure. At present the list of structures is inductive, although it covers some of the most common rules to be found in video games, including:

• serialized repetition of actions (to accumulate points and master the rules)

• multiple levels of adventure

• space-time warps

• magical transformations and disguises

• immediate rewards and punishment (which act as feedback loops)

• interactivity

Video games are organized around the serialized repetition of actions for several reasons, including the accumulation of points and the opportunity to master the rules of the game. 'Once players have learned a set of skills,' writes Nicholas Luppa, 'they want to apply them in new situations. Elevating a game to other levels has long been a secret of good game design' (1998:32). In other words, users are keen to refine their newly acquired competence in game play by applying and testing it in similar but more difficult environments.

Space-time warps represent an alternative way to reach another level. They are the video game's equivalent of the hypertext link, for they enable the player to be immediately transported to an alternative space (and time), leading to a sense of multiple fragmented spaces, with immediate transportation between them. Once the user has reached another level, his character on screen may be magically transformed into another character, or may don a disguise.

The user's accumulation of points acts as a feedback loop in the process of mastering the rules, since it represents a reward for good game play, and confers upon the user the sense that his competence is improving and the game is progressing. In similar fashion, the loss of points or a life acts as an immediate punishment for failing to master the rules. A repetition of this punishment leads to the user's premature death and an early end to the game. Serialized repetition therefore involves repeating the same stages of the game - usually at a faster pace, or moving up to another similar (but more difficult) level. According to Nicholas Luppa, pace is one of the most important features of video games: '[video games] require pacing and the beats that are being counted in that pacing are the beats between interactions'(1998: 34). The important point here is that the player controls the beats via interaction, which confers upon the player the feeling of control - the manipulation of a character in a usually hostile digital environment. Moreover, the interactions need to be immersive - that is, must focus the user's concentration, and must be multiple and varied. Interaction is also dependent on the interface design, which must be detailed, but also easy to use.

Video pleasure, created by a user's addiction to and immersion in a game, is therefore not simply a matter of a heightened stimulation generated by high-quality graphics, audio, and animation, but is also - and, I would argue, primarily - a function of these rules, of the user's success at mastering these rules. Of course, in discussing the popularity and pleasure of video games, we should not leave out their content and themes, which can in fact be summarized in one word - violence: 'The central organizing assumption of videology is unarguably that of violence The only relevant question posed by videology is not whether a particular situation calls for negotiation or violence but how efficiently can violence be administered' (Gottschalk 1995: 7). Moreover, the violent enemy to be destroyed is invariably coded as 'other'. The content of video games therefore perpetuates Western ideological myths, and playing games - especially by oneself - is said to lead to antisocial behaviour. Yet beyond these social concerns there are what Fiske calls important semiotic pleasures to be gained from video games (see Fiske 1989: ch. 2). Hopefully, the above discussion goes some way to outlining how that pleasure is generated.

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