Trellis and Vine: Weaving Function and Fiction in Videogame Play
- There was a time when, though my path was rough,
- This joy within me dallied with distress,
- And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
- Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
- For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
- And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.
2. A Straw Man Tangled in the Garden of Rules and Make-Believe
[I]t is sometimes difficult to draw sharp lines between episodes of pretend play and other types of play. Are children engaged in rough-and-tumble play just interacting physically, or are they pretending to be superheroes in a fight? Is a child who stacks blocks just manipulating these objects according to their physical properties, or is she pretending to create a fortress? Even though some kind of imaginative or nonliteral quality is necessary for an action to count as pretence, the presence of this quality is not always immediately apparent to an outside observer, as it is part of the child’s internal state… Researchers struggle with such questions of delineation whenever pretend play is studied.
3. The Ball is a Mouse, the Thumb is a Breast: “As If” as a Function
For in this sense ‘substitutes’ reach deep into biological functions that are common to man and animal. The cat runs after the ball as if it were a mouse. The baby sucks its thumb as if it were the breast. In a sense the ball ‘represents’ a mouse to the cat, the thumb a breast to the baby. But here too ‘representation’ does not depend on formal similarities, beyond the minimum requirements of function. The ball has nothing in common with the mouse except that it is chasable. The thumb nothing with the breast except that it is suckable. As ‘substitutes’ they fulfill certain demands of the organism. They are keys which happen to fit into biological locks, or counterfeit coins which make the machine work when dropped into the slot.
…in play [the child] adopts the line of least resistance, i.e., he does what he feels like most because play is connected with pleasure. At the same time he follows the line of greatest resistance, for by subordinating themselves to rules children renounce what they want since subjection to rule and renunciation of spontaneous impulsive action constitute the path to maximum pleasure in play.
4. Trellis and Vine: Four Moments
4.1. Vines Growing without Trellis Support
4.2. Empty Patches of Trellis (Where No Vine Grows)
4.3. A Vine Closely Woven into the Trellis
4.4. A Vine, Having Climbed Across the Entirety of the Latticework, Overshoots the Structure in a New Direction
Conflicts of Interest
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While definitions of games occur throughout this essay, engaging in a sustained manner with the wider question of how the videogame has been historically defined as a medium would exceed the paper’s intended scope. I recommend consulting excellent primers for such a review, such as Salen and Zimmerman (2004) foundational book (especially Chapter 7, “Defining Games”), or Stenros’ more recent article, “The Game Definition Game” (Stenros 2016).
The range of literature implicated in the question of what inspires a game is also quite vast. Some approaches inherently value some combination of market forces and the authorial intent of a game’s developers, such as most journalistic or chronicle-style histories of the medium, as in Kent (2001), Altice (2015). Critical perspectives such as Ian Bogost’s (2007) also rely on notions of authorial intent, and could be contrasted with approaches that privilege meanings made by players, such as with Galloway’s (2006) notion of “countergaming” or Henry Jenkins’ argument before the United States Congress about the importance of fan communities (Jenkins 1999). Genre analysis often thinks about games relationally (defining and tracking common terms as they recur and change over time). See Clark et al. (2015) and Faisal and Peltoniemi (2015) for two recent and innovative approaches to defining and classifying videogame genres. For examples of work exploring how games both influence and are influenced by other media, see Jenkins (2006) and Murphy (2011). See Parker (2013) for a helpful primer on games influenced by installation art practices, and Apperley (2010) for a helpful introduction to gaming’s relation to everyday life.
Juul’s book represents a meticulous effort at tracking and organizing different ways of conceiving of rules and fictions in videogames. It is positioned as a stopgap for the phenomenon of game scholars talking past one another (failing to agree on the meaning of basic terminology) on the topic of videogame medium specificity (aka, the narratology/ludology debate). Apperley and Jayemane (2012) describe the narratology/ludology debate as being “somewhat unsatisfying on its own terms because discussion often stalled at an inability to agree on basic premises” (Apperley and Jayemane 2012, p. 7). Juul’s response to this debate is very much in keeping with a widespread tendency within recent game studies of explicitly disengaging from what has often been conceived of as a narrow terminological squabble. For instance, Janet Murray argues that “Game studies, like any organized pursuit of knowledge, is not a zero-sum contest, but a multi-dimensional, open-ended puzzle that we are all engaged in cooperatively solving” (Murray 2005, p. 2).
One area where I would suggest breaking with Caillois is in the subtle condescension he holds for make-believe play. Caillois’ binary implicitly positions the rule-bound play of mature adults (“ludus”) above the free-form improvisational play he observes in children, animals, and “primitive” peoples (“paidia”). That these two poles of play tend to fall in line with (and reinforce) the gendered and colonialist ideas strewn throughout Man, Play and Games is problematic, to say the least. Ian Bogost has observed that there is still “an ontological pecking order” (where one part of a game is “more real than another”) in the “embrace of syncretism” that Juul and other ludologists have expressed in the past decade (Bogost 2009). This paper’s analogy of trellis and vine is meant to maintain a meaningful distinction between rule-bounded and make-believe play without reinforcing this “pecking order.” The image of a vine creeping across a trellis does create a contrast of center and periphery, but “periphery” here is less about the margins than the vanguard.
Play theory that thinks of play as a special frame of mind has been influenced largely by Bateson’s (1972, p. 178) psychological notion of “metacommunication” (the various ways animals and people signal “this is play,” thus changing how communication within that frame is to be interpreted), as well as Goffman’s (1961) writings about play, which include the notion of “rules of irrelevance,” echoing Caillois’ and Huizinga’s definition of play as a separate space where unique meanings are generated by arbitrary rules and values. That Goffman would emphasize the irrelevance of “whether checkers are played with bottle tops on a piece of squared linoleum, with gold figurines on inlaid marble, or with uniformed men standing on colored flagstones” reflects a wider contemporary philosophical interest in the unique social and psychological values games introduce (Goffman 1961, p. 19). Goffman proposed the term “transformation rules” (p. 27) to account for how aspects of the real world nevertheless enter the game in some form. The interest play theorists hold in the unique contexts games generate has been recently mistaken as an assertion that games are hermetically sealed “magic circles,” unrelated to any real-world issues. For a thorough consideration of how the “magic circle” has been maligned in game studies (e.g., Consalvo 2009), see (Stenros 2014).
As Bowlby (1982) says of behavioral systems, “Any one pattern… occurs only episodically, the reason being that the activity of one pattern is commonly incompatible with the activity of others” (Bowlby 1982, p. 85). Consider, further, how the axiom that “a rabbit cannot simultaneously graze grass and hide in a burrow,” reflects the notion that different behavior systems sometimes “require different sorts of environments” (Manning and Dawkins 2012; Bowlby 1982, p. 85). If a bird on the feeder is nervous about the proximity of human voyeurs, it may become conflicted (between the need to feed and need to seek safety) and then “exhibit most of the behavior of take-off without actually doing so,” a sort of compromise known as an “intention movement” (Bowlby 1982, p. 98).
For instance, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (1997) research on “flow” describes a mode of intense engagement that saturates a person’s attention so fully that other demands for attention (including even basic bodily needs) tend to be suppressed. It is significant that the rubric of flow is often applied to videogames as especially engrossing activities (when optimally, both balancing and maximizing challenge and skills), as opposed to representational media, which Csikszentmihalyi has argued are less stimulating (Csikszentmihalyi 1997, pp. 31, 67).
See note 4 above.
This paper draws on existing scholarly work in order to map out a conceptual space for thinking about the dynamics of videogame play in a way that extends beyond what has currently been empirically demonstrated. It would be remiss to not mention recent empirical work on player motivation, such as papers by Kahn et al. (2015) or Ratan et al. (2015), both of which build on Yee (2007) paper, “Motivations for Play in Online Games.” These studies in the uses and gratifications tradition rely on self-reported survey data, and are useful for identifying distinctly grouped motivation types. However, they are not intended as finely-ground methodologies for identifying the relationship of different frames of mind during any moment of play. In addition, they rely on the assumption that players can accurately identify motivations and reliably parse (in this case) tricky concepts like story, fantasy, conflict, character, challenge, etc. Since story is a prevalent cultural schema for making sense of the world, its use to describe motivations for playing could in effect capture (and obscure) other motivations that are more difficult to describe in words.
According to Lillard et al., “Dramatists frequently enacted plots involving other people, whereas patterners’ play was more object-dependent and tended not to involve social or communicative exchanges” (Lillard et al. 2011, p. 301).
It should be noted that not all definitions of games emphasize motivation. For instance, Bernard Suits (1978) defines games as goals reached only by “inefficient means,” a notion that appears, at first, to say little of motivation, or what would make one want to play one game of inefficient means over another (Suits 1978, p. 22). Galloway’s (2006) claim that videogames are “software systems” that share more in common with accounting programs than traditional board games is meant, provocatively, to flaunt a dismissal of motivation. However, Suits’ definition may only appear to benefit from the addition of a clearer account of player motivation, or what leads one to adopt a “lusory attitude” (Suits’ term for the mindset required to play a game) (Suits 1978, p. 359). This is discussed further below.
In Freud’s (Freud  1958) theory, this shortest path to pleasure is the one we imagine or hallucinate based on a memory of satisfaction from the past. Freud theorizes that our ability to sense reality around us (“reality testing”) relies on this shortest path’s first becoming blocked off (along with the associated stores of pleasure), leaving only the arduous, roundabout path to satisfaction, winding through reality. This condition brings us into the world.
See note 10 above.
Admittedly, Shadow of the Colossus is a fraught example for Bateman to choose, since its emblazonment in game studies academic literature over the past decade is often due precisely to its emotional complexity. For a helpful review and breakdown of the game’s effect on people who think about games for a living, I recommend Tom Cole’s (2015) DiGRA paper, “The Tragedy of Betrayal”.
Forget Coleridge’s famous adage about needing to suspend disbelief before narrative fiction. Research into how belief functions has found that credulity is the older and more fundamental state, and that reminding oneself of the un-reality of what one sees requires effort. As Gilbert (1991) both argues and carefully substantiates in a review of empirical research into inherent credulity, Spinoza was correct when he postulated “that unacceptance is a secondary psychological act in which the initial accepting that invariably accompanies comprehension is subsequently undone” (Gilbert 1991, p. 108). To understand is to believe. The negation of a proposition (disbelief) is a more complex and difficult operation than belief: it comes later in development and relies on an initial consideration (a belief) that is then negated. This more complex process is capable of being disrupted.
Empirical research shows that when the mind is overwhelmed through stress or distraction, disbelief is disrupted but not belief: “Resource depletion did not cause subjects to believe that affirmed propositions were false, but it did cause them to believe that denied propositions were true” (Gilbert 1991, p. 113). For example, when distracted or under stress, subjects told something like “President Obama was not born in Kenya” would first consider the affirmative (that he was born there) and then struggle and only negate that affirmative proposition with partial success. These findings have been connected with political rhetoric, propaganda, and brainwashing (torture) strategies. However, for the present discussion, one might expect a stressful or difficult videogame to also produce resource depletion.
Recent research on “dual representation”—what psychologists call the capacity to see a “symbolic artifact” as “both the concrete entity itself and, at the same time, its abstract relation to its referent”—suggests that “it is generally difficult for young children to have two active representations of a single entity,” and that “the concrete features of a symbolic artifact can interfere with young children’s ability to notice its relation to what it stands for” (DeLauche 2011, p. 321). This research explores sign-referent relations that break down when the object-as-sign loses its intended connection to its referent because that object is “a highly salient, attractive, interesting object in and of itself,” something which “invites direct physical activity” or play and so makes it more difficult “for young children to treat [the object] as standing for something other than itself” (p. 321).
Videogames indeed make matters messier. The question about whether a game’s image is functional-mechanical (i.e., it plays a role in a wider system of rules) or else is representational-fictional (i.e., it plays a role in a wider narrative setting or scenario) attends to a perceived schism at the level of signified (i.e., it leaves out the question of the material salience of the signifier itself—the aesthetics of the pixelated image, for instance). Who can really say whether, at any precise moment in play, a player is primarily engaging with an aesthetic and material object (pixels on a screen behaving in a way that stimulates embodied play), a narrative-signified content (“this is a mushroom, like the things I ate for lunch”), or a functional element of a wider mechanical system (“this power-up gives me the ability to break bricks and sustain one unfavorable enemy collision without dying”)? Research only suggests that there is some basic competition at work, and our capacity to simultaneously sustain multiple, competing meanings in one object is challenged the more highly “salient” and interesting that object becomes along one of its potential dimensions of meaning.
See note 13 above.
Literature on make-believe and rule-bound play describes instances where, in each case, one form of play becomes an “out-of-frame” inspiration for the other. For instance, Singer and Singer (1990) admit that “although the wider reaches of pretending are inevitably constrained by games with rules, it is apparent that some children at least will persist in introducing additional components of imaginativeness into such games,” such as with a girl who creatively links situations that emerge in the board game, Clue, with a television show she watched, Murder She Wrote (Singer and Singer 1990, p. 241). They later also identify the possibility that “a spontaneous fantasy game can be organized into a game with rules,” such as an observed example of their children inventing a rule-bound game involving catching leaves as they fall from trees (p. 242). Lillard et al. (2011) identify a range of studies that discuss the “social-cognitive skills” that children build both through “in-frame pretending” and “out-of-frame negotiations,” the latter of which appear in “an increasing proportion” as children mature (Lillard et al. 2011, p. 300).
See notes 2 and 3 above.
The metaphor of an empty trellis—a trellis that does not satisfy cultural expectations about the kinds of (mostly upward) growth it is supposed to facilitate—happily corresponds to recent work of queer theorists and queer videogame scholars who draw productively on notions of failure and stunted growth. Ruberg (2015), for example, discusses the “queer potential” of games that eschew traditional notions of fun. And Ruberg and Shaw (2017) edited volume, Queer Game Studies, offers a helpful introduction to queerness and videogames more generally.
Benjamin Nicoll’s (2015) essay on the Neo Geo and the domestication of arcade games notes that, when games entered the home, their address to players shifted, including their relationship with duration:
See note 14 above.
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Goetz, C. Trellis and Vine: Weaving Function and Fiction in Videogame Play. Arts 2018, 7, 41. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts7030041
Goetz C. Trellis and Vine: Weaving Function and Fiction in Videogame Play. Arts. 2018; 7(3):41. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts7030041Chicago/Turabian Style
Goetz, Christopher. 2018. "Trellis and Vine: Weaving Function and Fiction in Videogame Play" Arts 7, no. 3: 41. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts7030041