Thursday, November 10, 2011

Systems Narrative

While working on the Gamification and Law series, I got curious enough about advertising to start thinking about the reverse idea. Games offer a new way for people to advertise crap, but do advertisements offer games a new way to communicate? It’s not really that strange of an idea, ads are basically meaning generating systems where values are assigned to various abstractions. Applying a few ideas from advertising to games has made me wonder if perhaps video games have worked like advertisements all along. I will be borrowing extensively from Judith Williamson’s excellent book DecodingAdvertising. Just bear with me.

The above image is from a famous ad campaign featuring Catherine Deneuve for Chanel No. 5. She is, or was I guess, famous for her sophistication and classic beauty. You slap the product next to her skull and print it into every single magazine you know potential consumers read. They glance at it, shrug, and keep flipping pages. The subconscious makes the connection, your conscious mind doesn’t have to do anything. The basic formula is “Fame and Glamour = Catherine Deneuve = Chanel No. 5”. You dump enough cash into this and eventually people will eventually just think, “Fame and Glamour = Chanel No.5”. That’s a basic 1 to 1 ad system with only one intermediary. Williamson’s theory is that, “this is the advertisement…constantly translating between systems of meaning, and therefore constitute[ing] a vast meta-system where values from different areas of our lives are made interchangeable.”

Here is the catch: unless you know who Catherine Deneuve is, the ad is just an empty system. It has no content, no value assignment. Williamson points out that an observer needs exposure to the referent system, the fashion and modeling industry, because this allows the observer to apply differentiation. This might be a bit tricky to understand if you don’t give a shit about modeling so I’ll try a different example. Pretend you live in a vacuum and there is only one chair. You have never seen or even heard about any other kind of chair existing, this is it. As a consequence, you have no conception of the chair being good or bad. There is no other chair to compare it to in order to generate value. It just is. Williamson explains you need to know about the whole system the referent exists in to fully understand the ad.

Like Deneuve’s skull and Chanel No.5, in a video game two systems are being juxtaposed so that the player will eventually connect them. The formula is “game system = game content.”  On a very superficial level you can already apply some of Williamson’s ideas to content you see in games now. The space marine image derived from Warhammer 40K or Aliens is borrowed heavily. Sexualizing the female form to play to male conditioning. Elves that look like Tolkein’s elves because people recognize that shape. Orcs that look like green nasty things because that’s what other people have done. This is obvious and you don’t need me to spell it all out. Games borrow these preconceptions and expectations because it’s likely their referents are already in our heads. We’ve all seen these movies, played previous games, or read these books.

What’s interesting about games is that they also generate their own referential and differential systems at the same time that all of this stuff is being juxtaposed with our models of reality and our models of the game’s system. That is, it’s borrowing the visuals for the orc but also assigning various values like HP, damage, and other values generated by the game design. Unlike the ad, interaction in the video game creates an additional layer of meaning.

Several interesting questions are raised by this, the largest being how much conflict can there be between the referential visual system and the differential game design system? This isn’t a new concept, Clint Hocking coined the term ludonarrative dissonance to describe when the content and design are experiencing disconnect. The issue, when using Williamson’s formula, is the fact that she asserts there is no need for there to be a connection between the two. The dissonance is what gives it meaning, not the corroboration. Hocking is presuming the opposite.

The revelation here is abandoning the notion, like ads long ago did, that the content is speaking to the player. It goes beyond just a translation between visual images and systemic values. It isn’t just X = attack. Instead a vast web of associations and meanings that cross from content to system, then back again are all in play. The NPC giving you a quest is not JUST a downtrodden peasant nor are they JUST a quest-giver. They are metaphors for one another with two separate sets of values. One comes internally from the game design and one comes from the content and our own cultural values.

This constant system of visual and audio metaphor taking on systemic meaning is akin to a specific kind of metaphor. James Geary breaks down the metaphor process in his book I is an Other. Metaphors are an extension of our natural desire for pattern recognition. We naturally assign agency and consciousness to things we don’t immediately understand. A knock on a wall becomes a ghost, a flash of light a UFO. You deal with something new by basing it on the familiar. Geary goes over many different types of metaphors but I think with games it might be better to focus on the scientific variety. This is because scientists have to struggle with the presence of literal scientific information and the need for analogy so people can understand it.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoted in the book, explains it like this, “We cannot learn to be surprised or astonished at something unless we have a view of how it ought to be; and that view is almost certainly an analogy. We cannot learn that we have made a mistake unless we can make a mistake; and our mistake is almost always in the form of an analogy to some other piece of experience.” Scientific analogies develop slowly. You begin in the subjective by asking something basic like is the Earth formed like Tapioca. You do tests, you compile results, and eventually you start to put together a model of the system. Metaphor tells you what things are like, not what they are. Eventually as you gain complete understanding of the system you dispense with the metaphor.

When we say the dissonance is what generates meaning in a system narrative, we mean that the relationship between unrelated systems, the referential mechanism of both value from game design and the analogies in content is where it comes from. Sticking these two things alongside each other establishes the connection, our minds will find it in the same way they make associations with an ad. Pressing X is attack. This does damage. I need to damage this thing. I know all of this because of the complex series of animations and signals the game sends to me. Competing with all this is the slow erosion of those first subjective impressions as the player goes from subjective to objective, from the analogy to the system. That transition process is where the bulk of the narrative takes place through metaphor and new experiences. New subjective information must constantly be added for the player to base their constantly developing model of the game design.

The necessity for this kind of approach is that most games already look like this. A systems narrative has several common features. Characters do not change independently, they are static until the system coerces change. The narrative consists of ever-shifting viewpoints of the system and various changes enacted there. These effects are observed as they spread and characters respond to them. Examples of this in other mediums would be something like The Wire, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I am mostly proposing abandoning half-ass attempts to shoehorn in literary conventions and conversely avoiding totally ignoring the attempts of games to tell their own unique brand of story.

We’ll see how it goes, it is time for me to focus on individual classics and modern games with a particular critical lens. We’ll see if this has any legs when going over a variety of individual examples.


Rob said...

Great post! I have some things to say about this in regards to "ethics" games like Sweatshop. This recent post on "The Fascist Politics of the Infinite Respawn" spurred me to get started, I think it is very relevant:

Unknown said...

I am routinely impressed with yr essays. I hope they are collected and published some day.