There’s an enormous habit in certain spheres of games criticism to describe individual games in terms of what they’re about. “BioShock Infinite is about redemption”, or more likely, “BioShock Infinite is about shooting”. Specifically, it’s those spheres of criticism that incline their writing to give the reader some take away on the medium or the world or themselves, so they frame videogames as things wanting to feed that, as lenses into reality, whether intentionally or not. They offer prescriptive analysis of games rather than objective reports of facts and occurrences. They’re less concerned with what a game tries to do and more with how it made them feel. They seek meaning, not ontology, because what a game is is less interesting to them than what it does, unless they can interpret the former to deliver something of the latter.
Waving away the ontology of the game as less important than its message is done on the belief that what a game is is ultimately characterized by what it does. The action, the output, manifests the game’s nature causally, so you only need to talk about what the game holds important in terms of action, or how it presents action, and you indirectly talk about the game’s essence.
I don’t know if there’s a name for it but it’s a strong enough trend in games criticism, causing critics to butt heads over what a game is, at the end of the day, about. Or more likely, it causes critics to be so far removed as to what a game is about that they can’t even communicate. At the extremes it takes the shape of people arguing over something like GTAV, whether it says anything about the world or whether it’s just a bit of craic. But at the moment I’m more interested in a form of the former: an underlying belief that games are messages, that they ought to be read as messages, and that the way they are messages is through their verbs.
As a result, there’s a kickback in critics and designers who perceive a game’s meaning to be determined by the actions it allows you. (One consequence of that is slobbering over interaction as the most valuable mode of expression a game can achieve. Some critics identify this as a problem, myself included.) This leads to is the mislabelling of action as something that is inherently thematic, as a source of aboutness all on its own. So you get critics and designers presenting a game as about whatever is perceived as the central action, without consideration as to the relevance of that action to any given player’s experience. They forget that a vital component in perceiving an action as meaningful is intentionality – the aboutness of a mind that imbues perception with meaning.
This is my problem with games about exploration and discovery. Since this mentality of games criticism is prescriptive, in the way that it privileges verbs for expression of meaning, the consignment of being about the central action too often ignores the intentionality involved in interpreting the action as meaningful. It assumes emotions and actions are intrinsically linked, when in truth a single action can convey all sorts of emotions, or no emotion at all, depending on the groundwork laid out before it. Nearly every game I’ve played that has thought to be about discovery, or empathy, or any emotion derived from the act that stirs it to life, has made this mistake of considering actions lacking sufficient context as meaningful – the most recent game springs to mind is Magic Owl. It’s a game where you fly around a nightscape causing things in the environment to wobble or chime whenever you’re near.
Framing a game as being “about exploration” frames the act of exploration as a thing-in-itself, but exploration without any instigating curiosity is simply movement. Movement and exploration may look the same on paper, but to a player (or to an acting agent) they are two very different actions, just as “running towards” and “running away from” are identical as motor functions but still semantically distinct. For exploration, you need a pre-existing narrative to spark curiosity, to make exploration happen, but in focussing on the actions themselves as narrative enough, the impetus isn’t there to restructure the experience as might be necessary. Writing in a compelling narrative would make the game about that narrative instead of the action involved in making that narrative unfold.
Exploration and discovery are only two example of actions that lose their meaning when framed as things-in-themselves, but I’d say the same is true of actions in general. Actions themselves require an aboutness (a cause, an effect, a connotation, a belief, etc.) for them to become meaningful; trying to make a game about an action enters you into a struggle against that other aboutness taking centre stage.
It’s a Catch-22 designers and critics are invited into by the mentality that aboutness is the goal of any game, the thing we want to take away. Being “about something” is taken to mean offering a narrative on a subject or theme. In the way of that sphere of game critics, meaning takes the form of a lesson or insight. On the contrary, not all games are about anything, which is something troubling the likes of Jon Snow when he asked Charlie Brooker for the purposes of videogames. It would be silly to say football is a game about the athletic struggles of two groups of people, just as it would be silly to say football is a game about kicking, even though that is its central action.
Because when we say BioShock Infinite is about shooting, we mean it pejoratively, as a way of dismissing the aboutness claimed of it elsewhere. Whatever it was going for, its shooting diminished the relevance of its themes to my experience of the game until it wasn’t really about them any more. We can read into the combat mechanics and discover a cosmological narrative or a design narrative from their inner workings, but they’re not providing a lesson or insight into the nature of shooting, or of aggression. It’s only revelling in it. In truth, it’s not a game about shooting, it’s a game of shooting. Sounds like a pedantic distinction but the whole world recognizes the difference between “a game of chance” and “a game about chance”. Likewise, the games that best feature exploration are those that centre on their worlds or systems whose possibilities ignite the spark of curiosity that characterizes my exploration of them – games like Candy Box 2 and A Dark Room.
A game can have meaning that isn’t taken away as a message, that lives within the moment of an action without needing to constitute a formal purpose. It can simply exist without needing to do anything explicit other than be, and that is still a valuable and worthwhile thing for a game to achieve. I wonder if the way of discussing games is constrained and influenced by the attitude that games ought to be about things, and that the most accomplished way it can be about something is through a preoccupation with verbs.
I wonder if it would beneficial to take account of some examples of this phenomenon. Below you can find a scattering of links featuring “X is a game about [action]” statements, either used in earnest or derisively. This is not to call anybody out – you can of course say whatever you want if you feel its substantiated. Rather, it’s as an attempt to reflect on one way we talk about games, to see if that’s really what we mean to be saying.
Lesbians and the Pervy Ghost [spoilers for Gone Home] “This is a good thing. It doesn’t happen much and, in a genre where the plots are mostly about shooting things the most times, it is a noticeable departure from the norm.”