Video Games: Interactivity and Connectivity By: Sean O’Reilly The video game is a new media form which provides for some of the greatest levels of interactivity a user of new media can experience. Interactivity, as David Marshall argues is “where the audience as participants completed (sic) the form and its meaning.” The act of playing the game is interactive in that the player manipulates the character or environment onscreen with a controller or joystick, putting them beyond the role of a passive audience member in the most literal sense. This is a very simple way of defining interactivity in video games; because, on a more complex level, the audience as a participant not only participates in the simple and narrow pre-programmed actions of the character, but also “completes” the narrative and narrative meaning with his/her actions or decisions in game. Not only do video games inherently involve deep levels of interactivity, but with the advent of completely online computer gaming and the ability of next generation consoles (such as the Playstation 3 and XBOX 360) to access the web, they allow for a connectivity never before reached in gaming. Of connectivity, Marshall argues, which in this case I appropriate for the technology of online gaming, that the technology “… has produced astounding possibilities of connection between people that break down the apparent isolation of experience produced by personalized media.” The ability to play
and communicate online with others represents a radical innovation of the technology, because prior to games to being played online, they were the isolating personalized media Marshall mentions in the previous quote. And with the advent of this technology allowing video games to connect to the web, allows players to connect and a results, as Marshall States “in new formations of collectivity.” Meaning, the connectivity provided by online gaming provides new avenues, methods, and forms of creating a collective or community. Marshall also argues that these new formations of collectivity develop “new kinds of communities and connections that are challenging many formerly stable dimensions of contemporary culture.” In the end, this means the connections online gamers make construct a world that they can inhabit and exist outside of the dominant ideologies of a culture. And as another possibility the communities and individual gamers can use these connections and community to attempt to disrupt those dominant ideologies. Video games as a new media technology, as Marshall argues of the technological apparatus of new media “surround, mediate and become part of our identity and relationship to the world.” The interactivity and connectivity above are how video games do this, if the gamers’ primary connections and community are in the games themselves and in the online connections, then this process of mediating and becoming part of identity can be said to be taking place. The technology surrounds by providing a deep level of interactivity both in action and the ideological process of making meaning, by giving the audience member/producer so much to do that they cannot help but be enveloped. Through the process of meaning making, and through choice (or the illusion of choice) in narrative games, it mediates and becomes part of the identity through the
ideological processes of identification and interpolation, and in the connective nature of open ended online games. (For example, World of Warcraft) The process of creating community and forming a new identity both in game and as a member of this community the technology also mediates and becomes part of the identity and relationship to the world, in an extreme becoming the relationship the player has with the world at large.
Interactivity and Character Customization A game which is illustrates this notion of interactivity and the audience in the role of producer pertaining to the completion of the form and meaning of the New Media text is the 2007 game Mass Effect. The game was developed by the software company BioWare and published by Microsoft Game Studios for the XBOX 360, which is a product of Microsoft. The game is in the Space Opera genre and is a third person perspective Role Playing Game (or, RPG). The player as a default takes the role of veteran Soldier Commander John Shepard; however the player has the option to customize the character. The player can change the physical appearance of Shepard, including his gender and appearance. The customization goes deeper than this however, as the player can customize the characterâ€™s military training, abilities, background, and history from a long set of options. This customization is where the interactivity begins. The player is able to take on the role of producer and create the character beyond the default mode set forth by the developers. Though it is from a finite set of options, the player takes on the role of producers and completes the character development started by the game makers. Players can choose from six different character classes each containing different skill sets, the choice being based on their preferred style of play. This will also
change the player’s experience of the game as certain ancillary missions are determined by the character’s chosen abilities and class. More interestingly, the player has the opportunity to customize the game character’s back-story. The player can choose where Commander Shepard was born (Space, Earth, Colony on another planet), his war record (one can be a war hero, a lone survivor of a horrible battle, or a ruthless cutthroat soldier). These details will have an effect on the game and how the Non Playable Characters (Or, NPCs) will address you during the game. The gamer is empowered to produce a distinct and unique experience by completing the form the character will take.
However, the development of the character at the beginning of the game is not the only way in which the game is interactive. Perhaps the most interesting development that BioWare has made is the inclusion of a system of morality that is central to the plot and determined by the player’s actions. As with previous BioWare titles such as the Star Wars titles Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel, the player through his or her actions may decide to be “good” or “evil.” In the case of the Star Wars titles there is a very clear distinction between the two, the Dark Side and Light Side of the force as any fan of the Star Wars films is aware. This is a distinct trait of BioWare’s games, that every decision, choosing an action (or inaction) in a given situation and the responses in conversations with NPCs is assigned a moral value. And at points in the games, the moral leanings of the character (and by extension, the player) will determine how and in some cases which NPCs will interact with the player, the direction the story takes, what abilities can or cannot be gained by the player. Every BioWare game has multiple endings which are based on several factors, being several major decisions the player must
make (whether or not to save certain characters, kill others), and the moral leaning of the character at the end of the game. As previously mentioned, with the Star Wars titles the distinction between “good” and “evil” is clear, but at the same time there is no wrong ending. What sets Mass Effect apart and makes it a uniquely interactive experience is that this distinction is not so clear, and making a moral decision one way or the other will not negative a previous moral decision, as was the case with previous BioWare releases. The way the player decides the moral bend of Commander Shepard is mostly done through conversational responses with various NPCs in the game. Each time the player engages in dialogue with the game’s characters, they are given six response options. Depending on the choices the player makes, Shepard will be given points toward either the “Paragon” or “Renegade” moral bend. The player can not negate previous moral decisions, and the ending is based on which side of the spectrum the player has chosen as well as a few key decisions during the climax of the story. The plot of Mass Effect actually contains many familiar genre elements and many of the themes often explored in Science Fiction. The game involves mankind joining the intergalactic community because of the discovery of ancient alien technology allowing human beings to travel beyond the solar system and colonize much of the Milky Way. And through the use of ancient artifacts called “Mass Relays”, are able to travel across the galaxy (similar to the plot of Star Trek, where any race of sentient life that discovers Hyperspace travel is welcome to join the intergalactic federation of planets). At the beginning of the game the player must save a human colony which has uncovered more ancient alien technology from destruction by a traitor of another species, who happens to be an elite soldier in the employ of the ruling council of the galaxy. The rest of the
game’s plot involves hunting down this traitor, named Saren, and in the end uncovering an ancient race of sentient machines bent on destroying all biological life forms. The main enemy of the game then becomes a member of this ancient machine race in the form a Ship called the Sovereign. At the climax of the story, a large battle ensues between the entire alliance of mankind and the other alien life forms against the machines. At this point in the game, both the final choice made by the player and the character’s moral leanings will determine the outcome of this battle. The player can decide to defend the governing body of the galaxy from attack to go on the offensive against the main enemy, the ship Sovereign. If the player helps the governing council, the ending is that mankind gains an equal place in the intergalactic community. If the player decides to attack and not bother with the council, it is destroyed though mankind wins out and establishes itself as the ruling force in the known universe. Both endings are potentially satisfying, but this is where the notion of interactivity is strongest. The player must decide for themselves whether the choices they made are correct, as no judgment is passed on the player based on the possible endings. The player, as the audience/participant in Marshall’s definition, has the ultimate role in completing the form (what ending scenario occurs) and meaning (whether or not the ending is satisfying/ the morally correct set of choices leading to the morally correct ending). It also may not matter to the player if they made moral decisions and got the “right” ending. In this way, this New Media form puts the player in the roll of producer. This New Media text and New Media culture as a whole in this manner empowers the audience as a participant, and so “surrounds, mediates and becomes part of our identity and relationship to the world.” It surrounds the player with the interactivity by giving them choice and immersing them in the game, and it mediates/ becomes part of
their identity by relating to them this sense of moral power and the power of being in role of participant/ producer in that culture.
Connectivity in Online Gaming The other important aspect of video games as new media and a part of new media cultures is the notion of connectivity and collectivization outside of the traditional stable forms. New media technologies have the ability to erase the barriers of distance and create an immediacy of response that fosters these new forms of collectivization. A prime example of this trait in video games is the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (or, MMORPG) World of Warcraft. The game was released by Blizzard entertainment in 2004. The game is played only online, with no single player option available. There is no traditional narrative structure and the gameâ€™s world is a large and open-ended. The player also has the notion of choice in choosing between the factions that exist in this world; the alliance which consists of what we could consider the good beings, namely Humans and Elves, and the Horde which consists of Ogres and Goblins. Again, there is the choice of a moral outlook without judgment, empowering the player to embrace whichever faction they please as a level of interactivity. There are also warrior classes and abilities which are highly customizable in the creation of a unique character. Once the player has signed up (it is a subscription service) and begins to play, the player can choose their own adventure and travel throughout the world at their own peril as they attempt to gain experience points and advancing in level, becoming stronger and stronger. There are places the player can go in which there are quests, usually it is a castle or cave or dungeon where an enemy exists to kill for treasure and more experience. In
performing these quests, and to avoid being killed by players, it is a necessity to connect to other people. The player must communicate and join or create a party to fight the larger monsters and attack other parties in order to function with greater safety and, on a basic level, to have more fun. In the game, there are “guilds” a player can join, which are large collectives of players who share expertise and treasure, trade items in game with one another, and go perform the quests and tasks that exist in game. This notion on connectivity is expansive, as players have the ability to speak to one another through the computer’s microphone or specialty game headsets. This is where the idea that a community can exists outside the more traditional or stable forms, because open and expansive nature of the game’s world allows connections to built between players regardless of age, sex, location, socio-economic class, so long as the player has access to the game and a good enough connection to the internet to run the game smoothly. This notion of access is what Marshall refers to as the “digital divide”, it is the idea that there is a clear separation between those who have access to these things (as well as the disposable income to afford the monthly subscription fee), and have the knowledge and ability to use the technology correctly. For those who do, there is literally a whole world in which to function. And so, there is a real strong sense of community for players. This is how MMORPGs embody the idea that the technological apparatus surrounds, mediates and becomes part of the identity. The player becomes a member of the new media culture, and a member of both the “gamer” community and of the World of Warcraft community. The ability to build strong connections and share ideas with complete freedom it provides “the illusion of access to everywhere” and “leaves the structure of the gatekeepers compromised”, as Marshall argues in both cases. In this way, it creates a new
open world which is the part that surrounds the player, as well as the choices they can make. And the illusion of complete freedom is what mediates and becomes part of the identity in new media cultures. Video games help to foster a new culture of connected, empowered individuals who have the ability to contact each other constantly and at a momentâ€™s notice. This is revolutionary and though not universal, it is substantial enough to possibilities in creating what Marshall calls â€œnew constellations of economic power.â€? This collective of gamers, who not only communicate in game but on message boards and forums, websites dedicated to gaming have the power to help shape the development, economics, and distribution of their medium (video games), but potentially if there were ever a cause to rally around and away to use this constellation of power, to potentially affect social change and wrestle power from dominate media forms. The interactivity, connectivity, and ideological work of the new media technology that is video games has, in my opinion, created a strong minded and more independent collective which has not yet become aware of its potential or power. The relationship to the world which the game playing community has because of the potential of video games, like all new media forms, to empower and connect a collective is unique and more complicated than, in my opinion, most people warrant. If this potential were harnessed for good, it could be of use for a shift in power in the media landscape and the culture at large.