Gaming Against the Grain

Against The Grain

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: TransistorHack ‘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 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.

Dead Voices: NPCs as Sources, Sources as NPCs

It says nothing, but that means everything.

What would the characters in your primary sources say if they sprang up from the page? And how would you respond? Video games invite players to engage with their sources as characters as a matter of course, by embodying them as NPCs. What might NPCs offer us as a way of thinking about historical practice, as well as what it means to build an NPC in a historically-informed educational video game.

Walt, a dog.

Non-Player Characters (or, alternately “non-playable characters”) are the visible agents of narrative in a game, the puppets that populate a game world and make its fiction interactive. Though in strict sense an NPC could be any character not directly controlled by the player, the term more commonly refers only to those AI-controlled characters that are not actively hostile to the player: the elderly mountain hermit who arms you at the start of your adventure, the spunky tween who serves as your moral compass amid a post-apocalyptic disaster, the irritated supercomputer who inhabits a tuber and promises cake, and so on. In games that seek to engage the player in the unfolding of a story, NPCs serve multiple purposes – assigning tasks, dispensing lore, or laying down oddly ineffective covering fire. But the most successful of them share a common quality: they are the objects of a player-imagined parasocial relationship, with an attendant emotional connection. Even more than the player-controlled avatar, NPCs are what you get the feels for; they are the narrative hook, quickened and voiced. 

As such, they present the player with moral and ethical choices, both within and beyond the game’s intended play. Will you treat your Weighted Companion Cube with affection, or throw its love away? Though a player’s treatment of NPCs always reflects some kind of moral or ethical choice (i.e., how they choose to treat non-human agents), some games have systems that only acknowledge a set of predetermined interactions – ignoring all those times you kicked that quest-giver off a cliff, say, but responding to your dialogue choices.  Other games systematize interactions with NPCs more holistically, tracking each player’s aid, apathy, or abuse to dynamically generate a reputation score. And still others put these choices at the center of the game: in Telltale’s popular transmedia adventure series, the gameplay is explicitly focused on the difficult (and often grisly) choices players must make about NPCs’ lives. Perhaps surprisingly, player choices in these instances are largely consistent with common moral orientations about how to treat real people – at least when the NPCs in question are sympathetically presented, in a realistic world. For emotional heft as well as game mechanics, the personhood of NPCs is crucial.

This all seems rather far afield from historical work. Historians deal in documents; dead paper, usually, which only a paper cut could make interactive in the barest of senses. But as with NPCs, the personhood that adheres to those documents is their crucial aspect, and engages the historian’s ethical and moral responsibilities. Representing the historical record accurately and without any forgery or fabrication is the foundation upon which all historical work rests, a shared, if commonsensical, professional value. This obligation springs in part from a historian’s obligation to professional rigor: as no one person can read everything, the community of researchers must be able to rely upon each other for accurate and true representation of archival material. But it also springs from an obligation to the people of the past themselves: to represent their voices and experiences truthfully, as an act of recovery and remembrance as well as a foundation for analysis. This can and does mean calling attention to silences as much as shouts, and it requires constant attention to the multiple perspectives operative in sources as well as interpretations. It is a controversial enterprise – some of the fiercest debates about historical method and practice have to do with how to properly represent the personhood of those who do not actively speak in the documents – but that’s to the good, because engaging in debate and acknowledging controversy are also core values for practicing historians.

Considering personhood of historical as well as non-player characters together reveals something new about both. In historically-rooted educational games like the Pox Hunter, NPCs thus present a suite of opportunities, as well as challenges. Simulated agents articulating a personal point of view distinct from the player’s, NPCs function not just as embodied narrative hooks, but rather as animated aggregations of collections of sources – at once archives and interpretations personified and synthesized into a series of responses and behaviors. If historical accuracy was the only goal in a game, NPCs could be used simply orientation kiosk or animated set dressing. But the interactivity at the core of the medium militates against such an approach, and requires a more complex trade-off between accuracy, player engagement, and NPC agency. After all, it would be a very specific kind of game indeed in which a player’s choice of dialogue options matched perfectly to direct quotations from sources (much less their original context); even in that idealized case, the representation of people who did not leave such extensive direct records – like, say, an indigent woman living in 1802 Philadelphia considering vaccination – would be impossible.

Of course, the problem of getting to the spirit of the sources while tolerating deviation from their letter is one shared across genres and mediums – and not that distant from the challenges of writing a narrative for a historical monograph, really. So there is some value of thinking of thinking of NPCs as archives (collections of sources) in themselves, and vice versa. It more readily allows us to see that NPCs are interpretive acts, and designed ones – and, like a rickety shelf of red-rotted letterbooks, not perhaps as comprehensively or elegantly put together as they at first appear. Similarly, the gaps in an archive’s records, a document’s silences, are perhaps more readily grasped as analogous to a hole in the NPC’s dialogue programming: frustrating, but not unexpected – and perhaps a chance for interesting subversion or play. Finally, the agency of the archive (or, more appropriately, the archives’ creator as well as its component voices) is more readily apparent when it stands in a scene actively telling you “no” in response to a query.