The Asteroids’ Syndrome: A Taxonomy Framework for Identifying Games

The problem of a fitting denomination for video games is urgent and relevant, because many of the cultural issues regarding so-called electronic games arise from a deep misunderstanding: the notion that games are entertainment objects with no cultural value at all. This was particularly evident to us while facing the effort of creating a museum where “retro- games” were displayed; so, for some interlocutors, we were not just creating a museum out of “stuff that makes teenage kids waste time,” but to add injury to insult, for many this stuff was even dusty and totally not “hip” like FIFA or World ofWarcraft.

To think that all video games are equal deprives the medium of its identity and leads to fatal errors, such as thinking that Ico (Ueda, 2001) is the same thing as a Las Vegas slot machine; this can sound ridiculous, but it is exactly what happens inside the governments of many countries in the world (Italy included). The difference of value in games is not solely based on their artistic value and the technological effort required to create them, but the scholar needs to transversely take into consideration the time and the context the item was born in and from what it has ultimately been shaped. Where we take out the element of time from “game studies,” we would be in a very awkward situation where everyone could just come up and say that Pong is a very crude game with no graphics of absolutely no importance, where as a generic triple A game with nice 3D graphics would be perceived as a more important product than Pong. This may sound obvious to everyone in an academic context, but at the same time a scholar can’t take anything for granted, especially while being tasked with the mission of creating a museum and studying games as a medium. Our mission for VIGAMUS was to speak to a general audience who were legitimately asking us, Why is Super Mario Bros. (1985) more important than Crash Bandicoot? (1996), and baffled by the idea that an old 2D game is in fact superior to a 3D and more modern game. Our mission was, at the end of the day, to explain not just the game itself, but the historical context and of course the author behind it. In the case of Super Mario Bros., we needed to explain the situation of the “post-£.T. crisis” gaming industry and its miraculous rebirth made possible by Nintendo and a genius of game design called Shigeru Miyamoto.

Many students try to avoid the problem of demonstrating the value of video games as a medium on the basis of their penetration in the social tissue. This is of course a valid approach, and certainly the ever-increasing numbers of the games industry can be of help in explaining the evolution and growth of the medium. Reducing to mere numbers the nature of the discussion, and of video games as a whole, however, is only simple palliative care. In fact, it is not possible to receive a true acknowledgement, if we don't understand precisely what a video game is. This is a problem that was faced by already acknowledged media, such as movies; movies, however, were relatively easy to recognize, given their nature of moving images imprinted with a strong narrative subtext. Video games, on the other hand, offer a far more difficult challenge. They are moving images, and they offer a narrative subtext, but they are not movies. They are informed by a code, yet they can be far more than mere software. They convey themes and messages, but at the same time they can be purely ludic spaces, such as chess or go. A common misunderstanding is to confound the container with the content: many observers tend to think of video games as an electronic device, since they are, after all, a code-executing program; but this isn't respectful of the fact that a video game can convey the vision of an author and provoke emotions and thoughts in the users. We can bring Microsoft Word as an example: we have a code-executing program, running on a computer machine; Gone Home (Gaynor, 2013), similarly, is a code-executing program, running on a computer machine. But no one would ever classify Microsoft Word as a work of art, while Gone Home is universally acknowledged as a deep and thought-provoking video game. So, it's pretty obvious that game critics have a naming convention problem.

This situation led me to theorize in our Research Center on the so- called “The Asteroids’ Syndrome.” In Asteroids, the classic Atari video game, in order to accumulate a score, the player needed to destroy space debris, which subsequently were fragmented into smaller parts, navigating the whole screen and increasing the difficulty of the game. This easily describes the extremely challenging task of classifying games, which year by year introduce new mechanics, dynamics and variables, and that's the reason why Pong and Mass Effect may roughly share the same category, but they are not by any means the same object, and not just from a narrative perspective. Pong and Mass Effect are both games, but the nature of the technology and of the interaction has so profoundly changed during the years between the two games that they can almost be considered two completely different objects. This is a whole different situation, if we take movies as an example; Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumiere Brothers, 1896) is of course extremely less convoluted than a Christopher Nolan's movie, but, fundamentally, the vessel is the same: a moving image, projected on a screen. This leads to similar modalities of fruition, since like in 1896, we still regularly sit a in a movie theatre and watch moving images on a screen. While the contents largely evolved, the nature of interaction has changed very little, as we still interact with movies in the same way we did in 1896, even when taking into account the introduction of sound, and presumably this is not going to change for many decades to come. Games, on the other hand, are a completely different story: interacting with Pong (Atari, 1972) is not like interacting with Mass Effect (Hudson, 2007), since the user experience and the affordances changed accordingly to the technological evolution. We cannot say that they are not both video games, but at the same time, we cannot say that they are the same thing. This led to a crisis in the critical infrastructure corresponding to the concept of “interactive multimedia work” and made me realize that a new definition was needed to correctly frame video games as a phenomenon.

Interactive Experience: A New Filter to Interpret Video Games

This is the reason why I have introduced the concept of “interactive experience.” This formulation retains the “interactive” word, needed to express the possibility for the user to alter and modify the virtual world shaped by designers and programmers. “Experience,” on the other hands, allows us to not only consider video games with a cultural background, but even the ones that bear no artistic content at all. The term “experience” was used for video games by many journalists, for example, in the case of Journey (Chen, 2012), which notably offered an immersive context with a very minimal set of interaction rules, focusing on aesthetics and digital poetry. The term is interesting, since it allows us to describe the nature of video games as a series of processes that unfold in time and space, implying an alteration of the physical and psychical status of the user. Such a definition can be used for many different purposes, and not only when it implies the presence of cultural and artistic contents. Every game produces a modification in the behavior and cognitive structure of the user, as it was observed by many studies in the field of psychiatry and neuroscience. The nature of this modification, however, can take many different shapes. This led me to develop a further classification, which takes into account the mutable nature of video games as a medium. It is notable that this classification is not to be intended as a definitive solution to the video games classification problem, but it can be an open source asset which could and should be freely modified in subsequent studies. This is crucial, since video games, as we have already seen, tend to hugely evolve, and with the introduction of new platforms, such as virtual, augmented and mixed reality, there is a high probability that we will be able to observe a strong shift in the interactive landscape. I will subsequently explain the different categories I have formulated and their peculiarities.

The first category is the so-called Video Game as Culture, or the new incarnation of the “interactive work.” This term is used for video games which convey a strong authorial vision, be it through gameplay or through narrative appendices (such as cutscenes). This is a category that is strongly influenced by the technological evolution of electronic games, and it implies many different nuances. Code too can be considered an authorial expression, for example, in games like Tetris, where the clarity and ingenuity of game design can become a form of art in itself. But the concept of Video Game as Culture can be more easily understood when it comes to story-driven games that borrow narrative devices from already acknowledged forms of art such as movies. It's very easy to classify a game like Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (Kojima, 2001) as Culture, since it is very heavy on cinematographic cutscenes, dialogues and meta-narrative devices (that, conversely, is the very same reason why it attracted so much criticisms from hardcore gamers). Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is a particularly good example, because it is a game that was created by author Hideo Kojima at the apex of his success, free from the conditioning of the public and the publishers, that led to the possibility of the designer providing social commentary. This is a very rare situation, in an industry where many games are created according to the trends and the results of focus groups. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty also fits in the Video Games as Culture category because there is a strong synthesis between gameplay and narrative, where the latter is empowered by the former. Generally, the strong presence of an author, be it a pure game designer or a narrator, is the main indicator of a Video Game as Culture. A game like Super Mario Galaxy (Koizumi, 2007) easily fits in the category given the quality and originality of its gameplay, even though its narrative is just a simple excuse for kickstarting the action. To see the matter from a different perspective, we can identify a Video Games as Culture even in the light of its impact on the public; games like Pong or Space Invaders (Nishikado, 1978) bear a strong cultural value, even though the experience is limited by technological constraints, and we can observe that in the resonances inside pop culture. Taito’s aliens or Pong’s rackets are an iconography immediately recognized by people, their background and age notwithstanding. Games like Tomb Raider have largely contributed to shape the identity of video games in the collective culture, while even advocating important values such as inclusivity and the correct depiction of women as strong leads inside video games. The presence of a message sent by the developers to the players, or the possibility to find a meaning during an experience, is what makes video games an expression of culture.

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