Understanding Video Games text-book

Date posted: May 14, 2006

The development of computer games has mostly happened on a trial-and-error basis. Theoretical reflections have - with certain exceptions - been rare. Design and development has taken place in a domain between market forces and wild experiment. Often entirely without interference from politicians or other authorities.
This has resulted in a rather slow development of form. Until ten years ago game production could be undertaken by single visionary individuals. This paved the way for bold experiments. In the last years, however, game productions have assumed monumental proportions and the development of form seems to have all but ceased.

The player of Spacewar witnessed the action as through an all-seeing eye. All game elements were visible on the screen at the same time and the player’s perspective was not ‘justified’ by the game itself. The player - as regards perspective - was positioned outside the action. This all-seeing third person perspective was hardly a very conscious choice, but was obviously a near-necessity when contemporary processing power was taken into account. The same perspective was the basis of action games such as Asteroids (Atari, 1979), Galaga (Midway, 1981), and Space Invaders (Taito/Bally/Midway, 1978).

This form allows the player to concentrate fully on precision shooting and rapid movement. No effort is wasted on spatial orientation or on worrying what may lie ahead.

With textual adventure games an entirely different - and more meditative - experience was introduced. But these games also attempted to position the player more centrally in the narrative. Zork (Infocom, 1981) starts with the words “…You are standing in an open field west of a white house…”. Just as cumbersome as the “you form” - or second person literary voice - is in traditional literature, just as smooth and obvious it is when the player/reader is an active agent. In interactive fiction the second person voice (or perspective) is the obvious choice.

At this time, the action game had had plenty of opportunity to invade new territory. As early as 1976 Atari experimented with placing the player closer to the action. In Night Driver (Atari, 1976) the player sees the action through the windshield of a car. Since this is meant to simulate that the player himself experiences the action it can be called the first person perspective.

Through the 1980s the first person perspective was often used to lend a certain intensity to racing and flying games.

More common, however, was the centered third person perspective. Here the action is seen from above or from one side while the screen scrolls (comparable to a camera tracking) in accordance with the movement of the player. Thus the player does not have full knowledge of what lies ahead and must react quickly to the dangers suddenly appearing on screen.

The centered third person perspective can surprise the player with unforeseen problems and menacing monsters.

In games that used this perspective the player typically moves left to right - e.g. Moon Patrol (Williams Electronics, 1982), Scramble (Stern, 1981) - or bottom to top as in 1942 (Capcom, 1984).

Games that allow the player to move in two dimensions - both up, down, left, and right - often make use of an isometric perspective; a centered third person perspective seen from above at an angle.

This variety has typically been used in role-playing games, where the player has to be close to the object of identification while maintaining a general view of complex battles.

Today the role-playing genre (itself an adventure subgenre by most definitions) has divided into two types. Some games make use of the isometric perspective, while others take heed of first-person-shooter successes and use the first person perspective in some form, e.g. Ultima IX: Ascension (Origin Systems, 2000).

Generally speaking only strategy games continue to disregard the large success of the first person perspective. The strategy genre focuses on distanced analysis while other genres seem to a higher degree to bet on intensity and close sensory gratification. Preferably in 3D.

This leaves us with an important question. Closely attached to effect study attempts to measure the influence of games on players one often finds statements that this line of research is increasingly important since computer games have changed dramatically. It is often a flat-out assumption that the first person perspective makes the game experience more ‘bodily’ and ‘realistic’. This is the assumption that the old third person games were more abstract and so called for a more distanced experience. However, it is worth recalling that Steward Brand, in 1972, could write the following about Spacewar fans:

Reliably, at any nighttime moment (i.e. non-business hours) in North America hundreds of computer technicians are effectively out of their bodies, locked in life-or-Death space combat computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens, for hours at a time, ruining their eyes, numbing their fingers in frenzied mashing of control buttons, joyously slaying their friend and wasting their employers’ valuable computer time. Something basic is going on. [Read Brand’s article].

The fact that two white spots on a black background were capable of sparking such an intense experience ought to place superficial effect assumptions in ‘perspective’.

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