The Jungle of the Real

Recently Matt Kaplan asked me to give my thoughts on the ‘No Russian’ mission from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 that has caused some controversy. He published my thoughts along with those of others on his Game In Mind blog. Reading through the perspectives offered by the members of the game criticism literati, such as L.B. Jefferies and Ben Abraham, I have to admit that I started to feel a little out of place. What struck me was that they all in their own ways seemed to take the topic much more seriously than I did. While I could appreciate what each was saying I couldn’t quite connect to any of their feelings on an emotional level. For each of them the existence of this mission was an important moment in the history of games, at least in the way that it was finally bringing certain subjects to the surface. For me, the whole thing seemed a little banal (the incident in the game, not the discussion).

Just the other weekend I was in Boston and I had the pleasure of grabbing lunch with Wes Erdelack (also known as Iroquois Plisken). Wes’ site Versus CluCluLand is one of a few blogs on games that I always look forward to reading. As we sat over burgers and discussed games and those who talk about them I explained to Wes that I wasn’t really interested in fiction. Wes was kind enough not to fall out of his chair, by the look on his face I imagine he wanted to. It occurred to me then that the rift between my perspective on games and that of the rest of my small corner of the blogosphere might be a bit deeper than I had imagined.

Indeed, what unites all the big name games that have come out and are coming out, and all the discussion that swirls around them is the topic of fiction. Modern Warfare 2 is controversial because it allows players to shoot fictional bullets at fictional civilians and that makes some people uncomfortable for various reasons. The talk around Uncharted 2 basically centered on how the game portrayed the relationship between its characters, the pacing of its plot, and how it captured the feel of Indiana Jones movies. Most of the talk of Assassin’s Creed 2 is about its re-creation of the major cities of Renaissance Italy.

While I would never pass judgment on people who find these topics engrossing (it’s wonderful to find what you care about in a game and write about it passionately) I have to admit that more often than not I find myself wondering what all the fuss is about. More often than not I find myself wondering if anyone is ever going to change the subject.

What interests me about games are not the ways in which they are fictional, or fake, but the ways in which they are real.


Jesper Juul is the first person I know of to suggest, in so many words, that parts of all games are real. The subject of his first book, Half-Real, was specifically about video games and as such he admitted that a large portion of what we recognize as being important in digital games are the fictional worlds that they project. In our discussions of video games it is inevitable that we will speak of their characters, their virtual environments, and their cutscenes, etc. These are such prominent facets of contemporary video games that they cannot be ignored. However, Dr. Juul points out that the rules of a game are not fictional, they are actual constraints on a player’s behavior and that this is just as important, if not more important, to our understanding of games as their fictional elements. Because he was addressing video games he put both their fiction and their rules on equal footing, but if he had been writing about games more generally the point he would make seems clear: there are games without fiction but none without rules.

Probably the most common rejoinder to the dichotomy presented in Half-Real is that it’s not so clear that rules aren’t fiction themselves. McKenzie Wark made this very point in the endnotes of his book Gamer Theory (my second favorite book on games). Rules may be constraints on the behavior of players but they are not constrained in any serious , or real, sense. When we play Basketball with someone we agree to pretend that we cannot move without bouncing the ball and that once we stop we can’t move again until we shoot or pass to a teammate. The fact is that we can do all these things but only act as if we cannot. Isn’t that at least a kind of fiction?

This is a powerful critique and one that I would be very interested to hear Jesper Juul answer himself. For my own purposes it is a point that I’m willing to concede. Rules are arbitrary, we make them up and agree to abide by them, and as such they are perhaps no more real than the conventions of fiction. We can decide that in Basketball you can run without dribbling. We can even add a rule to Basketball that you can move after stopping but only if you successfully bounce the ball between your legs three consecutive times. We can do this because rules are not real constraints on player behavior, they are conventional (‘fictional’) constraints.

What we shouldn’t do though is let this concession blind us to the spirit of Dr. Juul’s argument. There is a way in which part of every game is real. Perhaps rules are arbitrary, but what’s more important is that the consequences of those rules are not. When we play a game we pretend that we have certain constraints on our behavior, but the actions we take and the decisions we make as a result of those constraints are not pretense. Instead they are the explorations of the logical space of possibility that’s generated by the arbitrary rules we’ve adopted.

The limits on our behavior are not real but the behaviors and events themselves are, and the behavior and events that result from a ruleset cannot be altered outside of altering the rules themselves.


Let’s look at a game like Boxing.

The ruleset of Boxing is more complicated than the game is usually given credit for but the most important rules can be explained rather simply. Two fighters are put in a ring wearing thickly padded gloves. The two fighters strike at each other with their fists only, and only above the belt line, until one of them can no longer continue. When one fighter either falls unconscious or forfeits the other is declared the winner. There are, of course, a great number of other precise rules and not all matches end with a knockout or forfeit, but this is a fair description of the heart of Boxing.

Now, there is no real reason why the fighters must wear heavy gloves. Fights would be much shorter and winners would be much clearer if the players were allowed to strike each other with bare fists (there’s actually some good, counter-intuitive evidence that this would result in fewer debilitating injuries being suffered by fighters). There’s also no actual reason why opponents shouldn’t kick each other if their goal is to physically disable their opponent. To get even more nuanced, in fights where neither athlete is knocked out or forfeits, it’s arbitrary how judges score the different blows landed to determine a winner. They could by all rights judge all blows as equal, or simply let the fighters keep going until one of them was physically unable to continue.

Each of these rules is arbitrary. The players of the game of Boxing are pretending that these rules matter. What is not arbitrary is the behavior that fighters adopt in light of these rules.

For instance, because of the thick gloves that boxers wear they often guard their head by placing their hands against their face. The gloves are padded enough that they will absorb most of the shock from an opponent’s jab and wide enough that they can protect most of the more vulnerable parts of their head, like the jaw. They would never do this if they were fighting bare knuckled because not only would the shock absorption be considerably smaller but having their fist crushed between their skull and the sharp end of their opponents arm would probably result in a broken hand.

This sort of behavior is not put on for show. Instead, each fighter is adapting to circumstances that are generated by the ruleset they’ve adopted. It’s not that there’s a rule that says boxers are supposed to guard themselves by burying their head in their gloves, or some ritual that says they have to do it once every few minutes. It just so happens that in a game where players strike each other wearing heavy gloves it really is more effective to do so than to not. In fact, if we wanted to stop this behavior we would have to come up with a new, entirely arbitrary rule that said something like “participants are not allowed to touch their faces to their gloves”.

Also, without doing any further analysis it should be pointed out that boxers are actually hitting each other. The injuries sustained by fighters, some of them permanent, and the tactics they adopt to avoid those injuries aren’t so much the result of a fictional ruleset as much as a reaction and improvisation to the inevitable and real circumstances that the ruleset of the game only partly constrains.

It seems clear that while we might argue that rules are no more real than any fiction, there are large parts of a game like Boxing that are real. While the damage that fighters do to each others bodies is undeniably real, or at least as real as it gets, the tactics and strategies they employ to avoid that damage are also real. To stop those behaviors we would have to invent additional fictional and arbitrary rules.


There are other examples of the ‘realness’ of games that are not quite as visceral.

Imagine that you’re watching a movie where two friends are interviewing for the same job, though neither of them knows this fact. Then one of them discovers the coincidence and decides to use part of their interview to talk down the other, so much so that the other character isn’t hired. When seeing this you might have a genuine emotional reaction to the betrayal, especially if you’re fond of the victimized character. Odds are that your ‘mirror neurons’ will be firing and to some extent you’ll be feeling a bit betrayed yourself.

Next, say you find yourself in a similar situation. You and a friend are both interviewing for the same job, only neither of you knows that at first. Then somehow your friend finds this out and instead of telling you or even refusing to act on the information they instead use part of their own interview to slyly infer that you might not make a model employee. Whether or not either of you actually lands the job, if you found out about the actions of your friend it seems likely that you would not be very happy. You might, in fact, consider the action such a betrayal of your friendship that you would end your contact with them.

Finally, let’s shift to another friend in another situation. This time you’re playing the board game Diplomacy and since you control adjacent territory you’ve made a pact not to attack each other, which the rules of the game do not forbid. While negotiating with another player your friend makes a deal to coordinate an attack on your territory on the next turn along with another player, another action allowed by the rules. On the next turn they execute their plan and your meager forces are unable to hold them both at bay. Your territories are overrun and you are eliminated from the game. Your sense of betrayal in this situation might not be as intense as if your friend bad mouthed you to a potential employer, but it would still be there, and it would still be genuine.

So here we have three instances where you have a real emotional reaction. What’s interesting is that in the first case, with the movie, you’re having a response to a fictional incident. The characters are not real people and the betrayal is not an actual event (unless it’s a documentary). However, in the second and third cases your reaction is to an actual, not fictional, event! Your different friends actually both betrayed your trust. In the case of the game of Diplomacy they did not pretend to betray you, their betrayal was not a simulation of betrayal, they actually betrayed you. The difference between the friend that steals your job and the friend that steals your territory is one of quality, not of kind.

Just as in our Boxing example the rules of Diplomacy might simply be conventions but the behavior and events that take place in the game them are not necessarily fictional. A boxer guards his jaw so that he won’t be hit so hard that his mind shuts down and he loses the match. Your friend goes behind your back and makes a deal so that you’ll be cut out of the rest of the game.

It’s worth remembering that it’s not so rare to hear of all types of relationships breaking apart over a game. We might chuckle when we hear these stories and say that people shouldn’t take things so seriously, but most of us are familiar with the all too real feelings, and actions, that can arise even in the most casual settings when a truly competitive game is involved.

Games don’t just engender negative feelings, of course.

A year ago I wrote that the game Left 4 Dead was about love. Typically I’m a little more outlandish in my 300 Word Reviews than other things I write on Game Design Advance, but on one level I was being completely serious about my opinion. I did not mean that I was interpreting the relationships between the game’s fictional characters as being particularly loving, or that the game was somehow representing love in some particular fashion. What I meant was that in order for players to succeed in the game they had to exhibit all the behaviors that we would associate with love. They had to protect each other, they had to balance their own needs against the needs of the group, and occasionally they had to make sacrifices hoping that at some point the favor would be returned. Everyone who has played the game has a story about a teammate who doomed the group by hording their healing items, or running off on their own. Left 4 Dead is balanced so that players need to rely on each other in order to win. However, the game doesn’t enforce this behavior in any way, but rather lets its players navigate the gray area of just how to coordinate with each other.

Once again, I’m not suggesting that the caring exhibited between players in Left 4 Dead is the same as that between people put in life threatening situations. The bond between survivors of catastrophes cannot be equated to the hour or so long travails of a group of XBox Live users, but the two are comparable. They are at opposite ends of a very wide spectrum.


So far I’ve only been talking about multi-player games, which leaves a big elephant in the room (the one that Justin Keverne is always groping). It’s easy to imagine that once you get people together and have them start interacting then something real is bound to happen. However, games that are noticed for their fictions, whether the virtual world of Fallout 3, the facial animations of Uncharted 2, or the disturbing imagery of Modern Warfare 2, are more often than not single-player. The act of playing a single-player game is much more like reading a book or watching a movie; an activity that can be done in parallel with other people but is for the most part an individual experience.

The draw of these games may very well be the individual escape into a fictional world, the revelations of simulated relationships, and the drama of a planned but participatory denouement. On the other hand, single-player games are still games, and just because they tend to have lavish fictions it doesn’t mean that there is not some reality waiting to be grappled with.

In order to make my point I’d like to be a bit facetious for a moment. If you can, in the equation below try to solve for x:

2x – 7 = 3

Whether or not you actually took the time to reach the correct answer you have just engaged with what is basically every turn-based single-player game ever made. To experience a real-time game try to solve the equation above while standing on one foot.

At their heart all games, especially single-player digital games, are math problems. Most games are more interesting problems than the one that I’ve provided, and deal with much fuzzier equations, but that doesn’t change their fundamental character. To play a game is to attempt to find an optimal path for a given goal through the logical possibility space created by its ruleset. Basically you’re trying to solve the equation as best you can. If you fail you can always try again with a different strategy; you can try to find a different path.

Until my Xbox 360 ‘red ringed’ about a month ago I was playing Shadow Complex almost daily. I wasn’t playing through to experience the story again, instead I was trying to finish the game in as little time as possible and limiting myself to acquiring only certain power-ups. Learning to play the game this way was frustrating at first, since it often felt like the game was inappropriately designed for such a practice. Over time though this frustration diminished as I begun to feel the layout of the levels in my hands, as I started to be able to read the behavior of the enemy AI and react in real time, and as I stumbled across quirks in the game’s logic, like when firing a particular number of shots in a room would for some reason prevent a set of enemies from spawning. In these speedruns the fiction of the game began to not quite fade but blur to the point where only the necessary information was being communicated. My avatar was gray, my gun was gold, and my enemies were black and white. It was during these runs that I decided Shadow Complex was a great game, or at least the way I was playing it made it great.

Like all single-player games, Shadow Complex is real in that it was testing my actual abilities. I wasn’t pretending to fail over and over again at the same spot. Instead my failure was a mathematical inevitability as long as I left my tactics unchanged. As long as I kept giving the same wrong answer or using the same flawed method, I was never going to be able to solve for x.

What makes Shadow Complex great is not the modeling and texturing, or the stirring musical score, or a particular twist in the plot. The greatness of Shadow Complex is its math. The physics of the avatar’s movement, the shape of the terrain, and the timing of the danger. I had to calculate and plan for each of these variables and others with each run, and then somehow translate my answer through my hands and into the algorithm, which would tell me whether my guess was correct or not.

While obviously not everyone does, or even should, agree with my criteria for what makes a great game, it seems difficult to deny this basic facet of their nature:  math. Though all the layers of graphics and sound and text in a single-player game can be pleasurable and are a great help in making some of the inner-workings of a game more salient to the player, the heart of the game, where the choices of the player collide with the possibilities of the system, is not ultimately some fictional world or a rhetorical simulation or an artful juxtaposition, but a mathematical reality.


I can’t say that I never enjoy the representational layer of a games. I’ve played through plenty of games that I didn’t think were mechanically interesting just to see the cut-scenes; that was practically the only reason I beat the last couple of Metal Gear Solids. There are also times when the promise of some fictional reward helped to keep me going through games that were already fascinating in and of themselves but difficult and frustrating; the idea of seeing  the Golden Condor was sometimes all that kept me going through the roughest parts of Shiren the Wanderer. I’m human and so I’m by no means immune to all the pleasures of fiction. However, most of the time when I pick up a game I’m not hoping that I’ll see something amazing, or explore an exotic land, or meet interesting characters (and, more often than not, shoot them).

Also, I don’t maintain that this is a pleasure that is exclusive to games. A painting of an apple can be appreciated for its verisimilitude, but it can also be judged on qualities that have nothing to do with its resemblance to fruit. One can admire the ‘hand’ of the painter, whether it is present or not, or the direct, sensual experience of the colors. The shape of paint as it undulates out from the canvas can be as immersive an experience as any virtual world. Indeed, all ‘fictional’ modes of human culture, from novels to movies to theatre, can be appreciated in their form rather than their content.

What worries me is that much of the discussion of games that I follow seems to value their content far more than their form, or values the form only in that it serves the content (rather than content serving the form, which I prefer). Roger Travis has been suggesting lately that the word ‘game’ no longer fits the sort of experiences found in titles like Dragon Age: Origins or Uncharted 2. Perhaps he’s right and we’re seeing the beginnings of an irrevocable divergence between ‘games’ and ‘interactive narrative’. It makes me sad if this is the case because it means that ‘interactive narrative’ (or whatever it ends up being called) will feature histrionics instead of deep interaction; it will be full of the melodrama of fictional characters instead of the surprising, tragic, and often brilliant endeavors of actual people.

It was just over a year ago that I was arguing against taking the ‘one true and inevitable path’ as presented by the ‘art-game’ crowd, and I know that Game Design Advance has a reputation for being aggressively skeptical, so I’ll begin wrapping up this year on a magnanimous note: there’s room for everyone. As a category of expression games are flexible enough to tell us stories, or to be hung on the wall of a gallery, or teach us about the US budget deficit. Contrary to what some might say I actually believe that games can be all things to all people.

What I don’t want to happen is that in our efforts to turn games into something more familiar, more recognizable, we forget or ignore their particular beauty. Above all, games have the ability to generate real drama between ordinary people and to leverage uncertainty to create ecstatic performances. At their best games take us to that liminal space between possibility and inevitability; between ability and failure. To play games, and especially to play them well, is to accept an unconditional acceleration into this breach, to pierce the simulacra, and come as close to reality as we’re ever likely to get.

Author’s Note: The notion of something being ‘real’ is pretty controversial, especially with folks like Wesley Erdelack and Simon Ferrari around. There’s a philosophical argument out there about what is and isn’t ‘real’ that I have a lot of respect for, but which is beyond the needs of this post. Suffice it to say, for my purposes, when I say something is ‘real’ I mean that it’s as real as a punch in the gut or a broken heart.