Understanding Video Games text-book
Computer games, media and interactivity

Date posted: May 18, 2006
Updated: Oct 23, 2006

By Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen og Jonas Heide Smith

This is the English translation of a section from our Danish language book ‘Den digitale leg’ (2000)

‘To declare a system interactive is to endorse it with a magic power.’
- Espen Aarseth

Is it meaningful to ask what a computer game is ´about´? Many would seem to think so. After all, we often hear games described as being ´just´ about shooting, kicking or hitting. The unsubtle premise: The game is primitive and amoral.

But the word ´about´ is then used not so much to indicate what the producer (the game designer) had in mind, but more often to refer to the experience of a recipient (the player). The problem with this is that it is hard to know how other people conceive of a given experience.

This, of course, is not a problem, which is particular to computer games. It is, for example, a well-known phenomenon that cult films are not taken at face value by their loyal audience. For the initiated viewers of The Rocky Horror Picture Show the experience is not determined by what it actually seen on screen, but rather by a ritualistic (and ironic) adoration of the movie. During the film, the audience will throw various objects at the screen and engage in meticulously synchronised cheering. The uninitiated analyst will stand no chance of predicting this behaviour from a mere analysis of the film itself.

In Danish public discussion, Doom II has been described as particularly deprived. The game contains a scene in which the player can shoot the hanged figure of the game character Commander Keen. Some, however, claimed that this was a case of virtual baby slaying. The point, of course, is that baby killing is a very reasonable interpretation of events by an uninitiated viewer. The visuals remain the same, but the interpretation varies dramatically.

Perhaps this strong focus on themes is born from a tendency to study computer games from the perspective of literature. This tendency has the odd consequence that most attempts to take games seriously have focused on the adventure genre. To the extent that public and research libraries stock computer games these are very often adventure games. The somewhat modernist Danish game Blackout (which even comes with a book) is a safe bet, as is near-legendary adventure game Myst. The academic interest springing from comparative literature also focuses almost exclusively on this genre. The adventure game has it all: a beginning, a middle part, an end, and identifiable characters. One can even add to this the much-touted gimmick of interactivity. There is, however, an on-going debate as to whether this term is anything but another IT buzz word. Literary theorist Espen Aarseth for one has called interactivity an ideological construction created by a novelty crazed industry. The computer industry and the proponents of the computer medium have long argued that the potential for interactivity is the qualitatively important innovation that separates ´new´ and ´old´ media:

The industrial rhetoric produced concepts such as interactive newspapers, interactive video, interactive television, and even interactive houses, all implying that the role of the consumer had (or would very soon) change for the better. (Aarseth, 1997:48)

Aarseth would prefer to see the term dismissed entirely form the scientific vocabulary and dryly comments that the real fiction here is the fiction of interactivity. But despite the lack of agreement, the label ´interactive fiction´ is often attached to the adventure game. From a superficial viewpoint, which merely equals interactivity with user influence, the adventure game is the least interactive genre of all. I the 1980s the Make-your-own-adventure and the Swords and Sorcery series were popular literature for children and young readers. In these books, the reader chooses between various strains of the plot as he or she decides what the protagonist should do at certain crucial points in the plot. This is exactly the way of the adventure game (although with the added possibilities of going in circles or coming to a complete halt). The audio-visual element, however, makes it more appropriate to compare these games to a movie that stops at certain points to present the viewer with a multiple-choice-menu (for an introduction to the textual prehistory of the adventure game see Aarseth, 1997; Montford, 1995). The player may exert minimal or great freedom of movement within the interactive universe, but if the game is to have a goal (or merely: if the game is to be a game) there must be an objective to the story, which must then consist of a string of episodes that occur in the correct relation to each other ´ the story can hardly avoid becoming linear[1].

Surely, Espen Aarseth has many good reasons to think that the term has been stretched, abused and destroyed. We may, however, choose an adequate, if not perfect, definition. Interactivity may be understood ´ in the tentative wording of media theorist Jens F. Jensen as ´a measure of the potentials of a medium for allowing the user to exert influence on the form and/or contents of the mediated communication.´ (Jensen 1998b:232). The more rigid and unbending the text, the less interactive it is. To the extend that the recipient is allowed co-authorship, we´ll have interactivity.

As the adventure game to such a high degree bases itself upon its narrative, the degree of interactivity, almost per definition, must be low. Experiences with the game will, in terms of narrative, be virtually identical[2].

There is a certain irony to the fact that in order to have computer games taken seriously, one has attempted to describe the adventure game as an especially sophisticated genre. The result is a repetition of a rather unfortunate piece of film history. When critics first began describing movies as something akin to art, filmmakers tried to borrow authority from the established arts ´ especially theatre. The French film d´art movement tried to show that film was a worthy art form by transporting classical drama to the screen. But by doing this they collided with an important criterion for artistic recognition ´ an art form must have some special capacity, must have unique characteristics to qualify as such (for the very same reason special characteristics of new media are often defined as revolutions, e.g. ´interactivity´). Many felt that if directors could offer nothing but ´filmed theatre´ cinema was not really important. And even if one acknowledged that the adventure game does add certain new elements to the narrative experience, it´s hard to miss that the basis of the genre is film and all its artistic devices. Stories are framed according to classical Hollywood aesthetics and even employ actors from that very same place. The aesthetic independence of the genre is marginal.

For these reasons the adventure game has attracted heavy fire in connection with thorough reflections on the ´nature´ of computer games (e.g. Friedman, 1996; Aarseth, 1997).

The adventure game stands at a disadvantage to the novel. The player may become hopelessly stuck ´ if you can´t solve the puzzles, you can´t progress. In addition, the form of narration does little to conceal the teeth-grinding linearity. A writer may hide the necessary direction of his story, but in an adventure game, the set course manifests itself in the form of doors that can only be opened when the right moment occurs.

The demands for at least a modicum of logical coherence lower the interactivity. Also, the production costs of producing great amounts of material that is not activated during play, limit the freedom of the player. The course of events in an adventure game is often circular and the structure inhibiting for the creative independence of the player.

Success is achieved through logical thinking. This is why the genre has often flirted with the detective novel, which applauds this exact connection. The detective story is particularly well suited as it often focuses on the unveiling of an already committed crime, which can then be infinitely complex and dramatically compelling without limiting the interactivity of the protagonist.

Bottom line: There are good reasons to examine the genre through the optics of literary criticism. The games are little more than novels that involve the reader/player at various key plot points (for an opposite view, see Aarseth, 1997:110). This, of course, should not be taken to mean that adventure games are all bad or that they are all alike. The genre has produced creative triumphs but surely faces frightening odds in the era of network games.

As an audio-visual medium the computer game, quite reasonably, has sought inspiration in cinema. But if one seeks the special characteristics of games one should, rather than worshipping the adventure game, look towards the action and strategy genres. A computer game differs from film in many other ways than the different levels of interactivity. The first person perspective, for example, is a cinematic improbability. Most narrative films make use of ´point-of-view´-shots, that is they signal that short sequences are to be understood as seen through the eyes of a specific character. Some films use longer passages of ´subjective camera´ in which the state of mind of a character is expressed by special use of image and sound (often in connection with drunkenness, acid trips and the like). The best known attempt to tell a film by consequent use of the first person perspective, is Robert Montgomery´s Lady in the Lake (1946), which appears more as stylistic experiment than engaging drama. The 3D-shooters, however, suffer no problems of engagement. Without editing, it becomes unnecessary to dwell on spatial relations.

It is difficult to tell a film without cutting between a number of perspectives. One has to cut rather frequently to convey the story efficiently. Similarly, it is relatively hard to work with anything less than clearly defined characters. The Russian film director and theoretic Sergej Eizen´tejn tried to use more abstract protagonists such as ideas or masses. The result is more technically and artistically fascinating than it is dramatically compelling. And under all circumstances, these films did not create precedence. While it is surely possible to make lyrically attractive films without clear-cut protagonists, it is a difficult way to make drama.

In computer games things are quite different. The very fact that games need no well defined on-screen protagonist is the basis for the highly popular strategy genre.

The inhabitants of SimCity are little black dots and in war games units are often merely presented as symbols. The player does not identify with a specific representative but with the process. Eizen´tejn dreamt of adapting Marx´ Capital for the silver screen but as Ted Friedman (1995) has pointed out, it is a far more obvious candidate for computer game adaptation.

Are computer games violent?
The above discussion of adventure games put all-encompassing statements about the themes of computer games into striking perspective. Even so, there is still a widespread feeling that computer games are essentially violent. In the words of American social psychologist Philip Zimbardo: ´Eat him, burn him, zap him is the message rather than bargaining and cooperation. Most games tend to feed into masculine fantasies of control, power and destruction´ (quoted in Provenzo, 1991:50). It is probably true that most games contain elements of violence. Any definition of violence may of course be the object of controversy but in a report from the Danish Media Council for Children and Young People we find these numbers:


Percentage of all titles (total: 338 titles)
Percentage of games with elements of violence
Sports games
Strategy games
Chrildren´s games
Card and board games
Puzzle games
(Schierbeck & Carstensen, 1999)

The report, however, represents the interpretation that only 17 of the 338 games registered as published in 1998 ´exhibit such a combination of the various criteria that they clearly have a considerable and severe use of violent forms of action.´.

Eugene Provenzo (1991) critizises the game industry for presenting stone age sex roles and for only rewarding violent reaction patterns. As mentioned earlier, action and strategy games are indeed almost always about fighting to the death. Often, however, this is a structure that closely resembles stories of chivalry and other dramatic literature. In Doom you are the last human being fighting the hordes of hell. Good versus evil. The player must almost always enter into a socially decent (if certainly rather violent) role as liberator, destroyer of evil, restorer of order. Only very few games choose to challenge this template. In the arcade game Rampage the player controlled a b-movie monster set on destroying a metropolis. With its obviously cartoonish aesthetics the game was primarily a joke. The same, somewhat ironic, approach to stereotypes of heroic literature is detectable in Dungeon Keeper that places the player as a tyrannical ruler of a monster-infested underground cavern complex. The irony is less obvious in the clearly immoral Carmageddon, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, Postal, and others that both offend and attract with their highly explicit violence against the (more or less) innocent. Whether such games should generally be considered different from ´splatter films´ depends on the position one holds on the effects of interactivity on the experience.

Are computer games boys´ toys?
Zimbardo hints that computer games are essentially a masculine pastime.

As mentioned this is statistically entirely correct. Girls, it seems, do not want to play. But then, the number of games that takes on typically feminine subject matter is insignificant. One should note that the sexes differ in choice of play forms and literature. Whereas teenage boys, if the reader will excuse the sweeping generalisation, prefer detective novels, fantasy and science fiction, teenage girls read far more realistic stories of love and personal relations (e.g. Fridberg, 1997:88). Whereas boys´ play is often dominated by fantastic fictional heroes, the themes of girls´ play are of a more everyday nature (Andersen & Kampmann, 1996:134). The roles that are chosen when girls play are far more nuanced than those chosen by boys. The boys choose super heroes, while girls prefer playing house.

Very few computer games dwell on this last subject. A typical explanation of the traditionally restricted supply of games for girls is that games are programmed by nerdish boys who have their pizza-chewing peers in mind. Certainly, the game designers prefer this anarchistic and hobbyish image (e.g. Herz, 1997:174). This carefree self-image may not be entirely unprecise, but considering the economic size of the industry it does seem rather unlikely that the business would not have accomodated a demand if it could. Rather, it seems, at least part of the explanation of the characteristics of games should be sought in technical conditions. First we´ll need a short digression.

Computers and gender
´The electronic brain´, the huge calculator speeding through complex mathematical calculations was the extreme manifestation of information technologies in the 1950s. Already in the following decade a general realisation arrived, stressing that these machines would reach influence within many other fields, not least within administration and public management (see Dessau, 1964). The terminals, however, were still closely associated with hard science and cold-blooded number crunching. You didn´t have software developers to supply you with applications. Rather you had to take on your own problems and write your own routines to counter the challenge at hand. It was a form of work that mostly attracted people with an interest in technological experimentation as well as the mathematically oriented who saw the development of still more efficient software as an interesting challenge. It was a form of work that mostly attracted men.

For decades, the electronic processing of data remained a rather abstract and mathematically demanding pastime that demanded the mastering of arbitrary command codes and seemingly illogical key combinations. In 1984, in the middle of all this text and number based engineering euphoria a revolution took place. It was unexpected, it was unheard of, it was MAC-OS. Apple introduced their new icon based graphical user interface founded on the premise that the average user had no reason (and indeed no desire) to understand the complex technology behind the applications. The user wanted to write texts, paint, play music but not fill his or her head with irrelevant datalogical principles (see also Turkle, 1995). This was a good idea. Many felt that the efficiency increasing functions of the machines were lost to the necessary reading of thick manuals. Instead, the user might now click on the picture of a pen or drag an unwanted document into a virtual trash can. The hassle level had decreased. PC leader Microsoft saw the writing on the wall and quickly wrapped its MS-DOS in a graphical shell ´ Windows was born.

This change helped alter the general public´s view of what the machines might be used for. Apple placed their bet on what was considered feminine values, went so far as to design fancier machines and won great market shares. The industry was getting ready to tone down the technological side of computer culture. Often, the new intuitive and visual principles were associated with femininity, while the logical and the rational aspects of computers were considered masculine (a machine marketed on its capacity for multimedia was even given the name Amiga, i.e. ´girlfriend´).

Computing, one might say, changed from calculation to communication. During the last five to ten years a new definition has won serious ground. The computer is no longer primarily a tool, it has become a medium (Jensen, 1998).

Why are there no games for girls?
The meagre supply of games aimed at girls may likely be explained by a combination of technological, cultural and biological factors.

Generally boys and men are more interested in competitive sports than are girls and women (Anderson, 1996). Chess and other logically oriented board games are often the domain of men, while women are the target audiences of relationship games such as Scruples. The same game rarely appeals equally to both sexes.

But technology has favoured computer games of the Chess type.

Technical restraints, particularly those related to storage media, have set clear limits to the possible level of complexity and variation in the construction of computer games. The fact that these games have mostly appealed to men cannot be explained merely by arguing that the programming community is (or was) characterised by nerdish mathematical fascination.

The nerdish connotations of computer games have, however, had another and more indirect effect. Due to the technical euphoria and the obvious joy that boys have expressed about logical, explosion filled, and highly competitive games the whole computer game culture has become coded as masculine. In the sexually critical years of puberty it has therefore been quite natural that girls should be rather sceptical towards the games ´ they reek of boyhood. Media researcher Gitte Stald has described how 6 year old girls play as much as their brothers of the same age while the girls´ interest drops dramatically around the age of ten (Stald, 1998:211). Girls at this age display a general negativity towards computer games that are often described as ´silly boys´ games´ (Drotner, 1999:205). Similarly, boys at this age suddenly develop a sudden distaste for dolls and femininely coded toys.

Both sexes describe computer games with modesty. None but a few (voluntarily) display great enthusiasm, but only girls live up to this apparent restraint by actually not playing. It would seem that boys and avid gamers generally attempt to accomodate the scepticism of their surroundings by verbally underestimating the importance of games (Egenfeldt & Smith, 1999). This is hardly surprising considering that the other sex considers playing both nerdish and unattractive.

Chasing the Girls´ Game
Game designers in the 1980s attempted to reach out for girls. A rare success was achieved with Ms. Pac-Man, which was merely a feminine variation of the dot-gobbling pizza. The few games that female arcade visitors found worthy of their time were peaceful jumping games in which the threat was never personal and where the objective might be helping a frog to cross a busy freeway (Herz, 1997:171). Platform games of the cute variety were girls´ favourites in the 1980s and to some degree they still are, according to Gitte Stald´s research (Stald, 1998). Lately, games like Tetris, Mine-sweeper and Solitaire have topped the feminine charts ´ hardly games at all as boys understand the term. What we have here are simple, technologically discrete, but abstract concepts without personified threats. You don´t compete on points and don´t see the possibility of gloating over a slain opponent as appealing. So perhaps it really isn´t games (in any common sense of the word) that girls want.

As we´ve said earlier, there is truth to the claim that many games reward violent reaction patterns. It is, however, hardly the case today that games represent patriarchal sex roles (perhaps even less than the average Hollywood film). Rather, many action games now have female protagonists. 3D-shooter Unreal had as theme the struggle of a female prisoner to survive on an alien planet. Most combat games (which are especially popular on the consoles) have female combatants. But most famous of all is Lara Croft, action heroine of the Tomb Raider series, who has become one of the few well-known virtual personalities of the game industry. As a brave adventurer the player must guide the shapely Lara through the most uninhabitable places on the planet like a female Indiana Jones chasing treasure. The player, then, needs no longer identify with bulging testosterone freaks. But what can this mean? Computer game magazine PC Player (August, 1999) has aptly described the difference between Lara and her male colleague Shadowman: ´Shadowman can shoot the dead into so many pieces that their souls are laid bare. Lara can blow pumas up and has large breasts´.

It is likely likely that many think that variation is wonderful but fundamentally, the difference is cosmetic. It doesn´t attract girls (in significant numbers) that the shooting fighting machine protagonist has been given breasts ´ but the boys are thrilled.

So for many years the business has been confused. What do girls want?

Carsten Jessen (1993) has described an attempt to make girls in a youth recreation centre show more interest in computer games. The conclusion was that girls often feel excluded from the community around the computers by the rough tone of the boys. This tone is not deep-felt but may appear quite personal. The girls do want to play but not Doom and not if the game must evolve into a personal struggle or take place under pressure.

An American research project tried to discover what a girl game would have to look like by asking elementary school students to each design a game (Kafai, 1996). The result is rather striking. Where most of the boys constructed games that included struggling against evil creatures, demons, aliens etc. the threats of the girls´ games were far less personal and concrete (moving down a mountain without falling, for instance). Similarly the choice of game universe was often far more fantastic/unrealistic in games made by boys, and their protagonists were more concrete in regards to name and gender than those of the girls´ games. The negative feedback that was visited on an unfortunate player was most violent in boys´ games whereas the girls often just let the player try again.

These projects are hardly methodologically waterproof, but surely suggest a dramatic difference of preferences.

In our presentation of computer game history we mentioned SimCity as a very atypical game without a clearly defined objective. If one summarises the research results mentioned above one may be able to establish the basics of girls´ game design. The environment of the game must be well-known and non-fantastic. The characters should be rich in nuance and preferably adjustable. The objective of the game should not be unambiguous, rather the course of events should be processual and continuous. Many girls have taken Internet chatrooms to heart and the distance from those to online role-playing games is not great.

One might assume that these game types, once alternatives to orcs and dragons appear, will capture the interest of girls. A multi-user online version of the best-selling Sims would likely meet many of the demands identified by research.

This whole discussion has assumed that the lack of female game enthusiasm is somehow a problem. That this should be the case, however, is surely not apparent. Whether it is even worth making the effort to motivate girls to play will be the dealt with in the last chapter of this book.

- Aarseth, Espen J. (1997). Cybertext - Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. London: Johns Hopkins.
- Montfort, Nicholas A. (1995). Interfacing With Computer Narratives. Thesis, The University of Austin.
- Kafai, Yasmin B. (1996). Electronic Playworlds: Gender Differences in Children’s Constructions of Video Games. In: Greenfield, P. & Cocking, R. (eds.). Interacting With Video. Norwood NJ: Ablex Publishing Program.
- Jensen, Jens F. (1998b). Interaktivitet og interaktive medier. I: Jensen, Jens F. (ed.). Multimedier, Hypermedier, Interaktive Medier. Aalborg: Allborg Universitetsforlag.
- Friedman, Ted (1996). Making Sense of Software.
- Jessen, Carsten (1993). Piger som computereksperter. I: Jessen, Carsten. B´rns Computerkultur - Artikler om computeren i b´rns legekultur. Odense: Center for Kulturstudier, Medier og Formidling, Odense Universitet.
- Andersen, Peter ´. & Kampmann, Jan (1996). B´rns legekultur. K´benhavn: Munksgaard.
- Herz, J. C. (1997). Joystick Nation. London: Abacus.
- Dessau, Erling (1964). Datamaskiner. K´benhavn: Berlingske Leksikon Bibliotek.
- Turkle, Sherry (1995). Life on the Screen - Identity in the Age of the Internet. London: Phoenix.
- Andersen, Helle (1996). Omsorg, udvikling og k´nsperspektiver. I: H´jholt, Charlotte & Witt, Gunnar (1996). Skolelivets socialpsykologi. K´benhavn: Unge P´dagoger.
- Stald, Gitte (1998). Living with Computers. In: Hjarvard, Stig & Tufte, Thomas (eds.). Sekvens - Film- og Medievidenskabelig ´rbog 1998. Copenhagen: Department of Film and Media Studies. The University of Copenhagen.
- Drotner, Kirsten (1999). Unge, medier og modernitet. Copenhagen: Borgen.
- Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon & Smith, Jonas Heide (1999). Danske Computerspillere.

[1] At least there has been little success to date in the attempt to create an interactive narrative that is both fascinating and highly flexible. Greatest success has, in our opinion, been achieved in role-playing-games such as Baldur´s Gate.

[2] The iron cage of linearity is fought by the insertion of action sequences or the construction of resource-light randomness generators (as for instance in Take 2´s adventure game Ripper). It is, however, hard to perceive this as anything but irrelevant cosmetics.

Share and Enjoy:These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • del.icio.us
  • digg
  • Shadows

RSS feed for this page
since June 2007

RSS feed | Trackback URI

Comments »

No comments yet.

Name (required)
E-mail (required - never shown publicly)
Your Comment (smaller size | larger size)
You may use <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> in your comment.