on Thursday, December 5, 2013
Jeff Wheeldon recently published an article entitled, "Video Games, Texts, and Interpretation," over at Push Select. Its central thesis argues that the fundamental frameworks that we use for thinking about artistic works other than video games do not apply to video games because games cannot be treated as texts (where we are using the word "text" in the literary sense of a coherent set of signs original and inherent to an object of analysis). His argument wanders through Francis Watson's non-standard usage of the terms "work" and "text" and touches on the role of authorial intent before winding up at the main crux of the discussion. Wheeldon asserts that "a video game puts the player, the reader of the text, into the shared role of authorship." (Emphasis his.) Ultimately, he claims, this essentially renders the game non-static among players, and it thus cannot be treated as a text in the traditional sense.

This argument makes little sense. Indeed, the very act of aesthetic analysis implies a text that is the subject of the analysis. That statement, however, perhaps avoids Wheeldon's point, because one might better phrase his argument as saying that each game player is analyzing a different text due to their subjective experience arising from their "shared role of authorship." Such a claim, however, is really just an appeal to complexity. Wheeldon is mistaking the variable aspects of the subjective experience of a text, which exist when experiencing any sort of medium, for changes to the text itself, merely because there are a larger number of variables in the subjective experience of games than in certain other media.  This difference is perhaps easiest to see by way of examples in some of those other media.

Consider first linear, primarily narrative media such as feature films and novels. Wheeldon seems to easily identify these objects as texts when they are the subject of analysis. In these cases, the text is the synchronized and sequenced images and sounds in the case of the film and the sequenced characters and words in the case of the novel. All viewers and readers are attempting to identify meaning in these well-defined sets of symbols. Their experiences of these symbols, however, are not necessarily uniform. There are many obvious potential differences.  Viewing or reading locations may differ, changing the physical  and emotional state of the audience, or past knowledge and experiences may change what information can be gleaned from the text. Technical details like lighting conditions, font size, book bindings, screen size, page-turning speed, etc, will affect emotional impact. Though such experiential differences may affect any one audience member's ability to produce an analysis of the text or the emphasis of such an analysis, these are, for most purposes, clearly distinct from the text.

The scope of these experiential differences can be even larger for other media, though. Consider sculpture or architecture. The viewing patterns for these objects vary wildly with each viewing. In addition to many of the aformentioned complexities of the linear narrative forms (lighting, etc), we have 3-dimensional space with which to contend (note the similarity to many video games). Still, traditional criticism has had little difficulty analyzing such texts. We can enumerate endless other examples (music, poetry, performance art, etc) with their respective difficulties, but in all cases we have little difficulty identifying a text for discussion.

The same is true of video games. In this case, we have a system of rules, video assets, and audio assets as our text, and the player interacts with that text just as the audience does in the case of any other medium. The veneer of agency that most games offer is not far removed from the other experiential differences that we have discussed. One explores a 3-dimensional game world as one would wander around a sculpture (imagine, for example, walking through Sandy Skoglund's "Fox Games"); one chooses levels or scenarios as one might choose the order to view a series of paintings (like, perhaps, Monet's Haystacks series). In all cases, the rules and assets were put in place by a developer as a set of signs that convey meaning to the player -- the definition of a text. That text is static among players, and it is the subject of analysis that we discuss when writing about video games.

It is curious that Wheeldon has chosen to argue against this paradigm. He mentions several times The Stanley Parable, which (in both its incarnations, the 2011 mod and the 2013 game) takes the non-agency of game players, and by extension the textual nature of games, as one of its central themes. Campster, over at Errant Signal, recently described this theme eloquently:
Players in game systems aren’t free, they’re exploring a text with rules put there intentionally by an author.  The Window Ending, for example, references how players will eventually explore both paths to consume all of the content: [example] The Stanley Parable posits that thinking a player’s choices signify free will in a game is like thinking fictional characters have free will over their own actions when the whole text is already written out before them.  Your choices in games aren’t decisive in nature, but instead they’re exploratory; you’re not making lasting decisions but you’re choosing a branch of possibility space to examine.  You don’t have the freedom of choice, you have the walls of rules and mechanics that give shape and meaning to the game even as they confine you.
As in all novels, films, sculptures, and other art, this is true of all games. Even the simplest games are texts quite dense with information, so it is easy to mistake the variables that create experiential differences among players for an authorial agency. But it is indeed a mistake, and games are texts like any other. Games criticism must integrate the unique aspects of these texts in a way that has not been done for other media, but it is an extension of other aesthetic theory, not a break (an idea that I have tangentially touched on in the past).