Or, Subversion Through the Eye of the Beholder
At its heart, a game is a set of rules. Whether scratched out on a notepad, encoded in a board’s pattern of squares, or modeled by ray-tracing on a monitor, a game’s rules are designed to create a system for interactions, structured engagements between agents – a series of iterative operations that we call play.
Of course, rules – and especially systems of rules – are made to be broken; that’s half their fun. And indeed, a significant part of gaming’s cultural history, as well as its present, is invested in finding ways to cleverly skate over the edges of a game world, in breaking a system’s rules. Subverting the game designers’ intents in this way is almost as core to playing games as playing within the rules is. In terms of pure thrill, perhaps more so.
Not all subversion is the same, however. Many games feature “safe subversions” – “secret” areas in levels, for example, where the trick is learning to ignore the superficial symbolic language of the map in order to find the deeper logic (and extra items or enemies). Cheat codes work similarly. These began life as designers’ shortcuts, but soon took on their own life, becoming expected as additional modes of the game. These kind of safe subversions are intentional; they fall within the designer’s plans for the game’s operation, and represent extensions of the game’s operations.
Then there are the subversions less likely to be included in designers’ blueprints. Bugs, for example: design flaws that allow glitching through walls, say, or unearned score bonuses. Or mods, for another: changes or additions of game code (or, more commonly, the underlying variables that set key parameters) that enable players to rewrite the rules of a game to produce new possibilities in the play space. But as with secret zones and cheat codes, video game designers have incorporated these subversions into designs themselves, such that there is a growing genre of games which use player rewriting of rules or player-designed glitches as a mechanic (see: Transistor, Hack ‘n’ Slash, or The Magic Circle).
Speed runs, popular pieces of performance in their own right, might be considered a deeper kind of subversion, for they replace the designer’s purpose for the game system with another, player-community determined, layer. Play-throughs of a game with the primary intention of reaching the end as quickly as possible, speed runs are a demonstration of one’s mastery of the rules – to the point of reflex – in pursuit of a meta-game: competition with other speed runners. Ignoring the careful measures of challenge and reward, and taking advantage of shortcuts both intentional and unintentional, speed runs replace designers’ intent with virtuosic feats.
There is at least one area of subversion of video games that seems so un-subversive as to be labeled the height of passivity: Let’s Plays, or LPs. Increasingly popular in the last decade, and especially so once streaming services like Twitch.tv made their production and distribution trivial, Let’s Plays have come to be a dominant form (if not the dominant form) of games media today.
In Let’s Plays, the derivative form of play has overtaken the “real” play itself, in a manner similar to how the economic value of financial derivative trading far outpaces the value of the economic activity from which the instruments are derived. And, like those puzzled over the exponential growth of shadow futures markets, for almost as long as video commentary on game playing has been around observers have been baffled as to why people watch others play video games (and especially in such large quantities of hours). After all, Let’s Plays transform an interactive medium back into its antithesis, a passive consumption experience that seems just … less. Why not watch real TV instead of a mediated version of someone else’s?
But Let’s Plays are not really (or at last not only) about watching: they are about reading and discussing, too. Watching others play games, even games one might never play, creates critical distance for players (and Let’s Players) to analyze a game’s structures – in the textual sense. Through Let’s Plays, one can “game against the grain” – interpret the game in ways that potentially expose the deeper logics and grammars structuring designers’, as well as players’, choices. Like historians mining court records to analyze the deep motives and operations of the state, Let’s Players can read games in ways that can run counter to the objectives the game presents as its defining features.
Not every Let’s Play is explicitly subversive, of course. But a culture of textual analysis has become pervasive, and can be found along a spectrum running from intense kayfabe to more self-aware critical modes. Without Let’s Plays and their attendant culture of constant commentary and analysis, it’s difficult to envision a fandom like that which surrounds The Dark Souls series, for example, deeply steeped as it is with the intricacies of a half-imagined/half-intentional lore made possible mainly through extrapolation from fragmentary data. Similarly, the analysis of a Feminist Frequency, or even the research informing most academic games criticism, while by no means solely informed by Let’s Plays, certainly borrows a great deal from it, in both the method of inquiry as well as the presentation of findings.
It’s in this sense that reading rather than playing might be the most subversive action a gamer can take, because it creates space for new interpretations and new framing, far away and far beyond what designers’ may have intended, consciously or not. But of course a historian – a member of that brass-bottomed tribe of readers most active only after Minerva’s owl’s flight – would say that.