Games in Virtual Environments

Digital Designs on Blake

Blake's Contraries Game

Joseph Byrne, University of Maryland

Games in Virtual Environments

Espen Aarseth, in “Playing Research: Methodological approaches to game analysis,” describes games in virtual environments. Such games, unlike “twitch” games or “shoot-em-ups,” focus on the performative possibilities of virtual immersion, providing opportunities for questing and exploring a new world. Aarseth lays out the three dimensions of such games:

* Game-play (the players’ actions, strategies and motives)

* Game-structure (the rules of the game, including the simulation rules)

* Game-world (fictional content, topology/level design, textures etc.)

He describes the different interactions between these three dimensions: “In some games, typically multi-user role-playing games, the first level dominates. In strategy and reaction-based games . . . the rules dominate the game. And in world-exploration games . . . the Game-world is the dominant element” (3).

In my discussion of Blake’s Songs as a game, it is world-exploration games I am focusing upon. Janet Murray describes such “explorer” type games as “symbolic dramas . . . abstract storytelling that resembles the world of common experience but compresses it in order to heighten interest” (142). In such games we “encounter a confusing world and figure it out”; in so doing, “we have a chance to enact our most basic relationship to the world—our desire to prevail over adversity, to survive our inevitable defeats, to shape our environment, to master complexity, and to make our lives fit together like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle” (143). Such games are, in fact, “ritual actions” that allow us to “symbolically enact the patterns that give meaning to our lives” (143).

There are four important aspects of virtual games, all of which are present in Blake’s “Contraries” game.

1. Virtual games are immersive.

2. Virtual games are multimedia.

3. Virtual games are interactive.

4. Virtual games create agency.

As we will see, all four of these aspects interact with and help define each other.

Virtual games are immersive

Virtuality always implies immersion. Virtual worlds are not created for us to ignore; they are meant to be entered and explored. As Murray puts it, “in a participatory medium, immersion implies learning to swim, to do the things that the new environment makes possible” (99). Michael Heim adds, “What emerges from virtual worlds are new functional habitats that emulate the engagement of real worlds” (89). This emulation—or simulation—occurs in a liminal, between-worlds space. If we can locate such a virtual space, it might be found somewhere between our brain and the machine that makes virtuality possible—whether we are talking about a painting, a film, a book, or a website.

Such liminal space allows crucial psychological engagement—which connects to the “role-playing” or avatar aspect we will discuss below—and transformation. Murray writes, “We can sustain our engagement in such a constructivist world, bring our deepest emotional conundrums into it, and then play them out in multiple ways until they come clear” (169). To truly comprise liminal “game-space,” virtual worlds, like “real” worlds, need to simulate a movement through space and time.

In some sense, this is also a function of interactivity, for in virtual worlds, we create space through navigation (Murray 80). This is not to say that one world and one time need be manifest in a virtual world: it might contain the immensities of many spaces and times, some more compressed than others, along with multiple portals to these multiple worlds.

All of the above would fall under the rubric of “transparent immediacy” as defined by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in their book Remediation. In a virtual, immersive world the medium by which it is accessed is meant, at some level, to disappear, thus allowing the necessary verisimilitude to make the immersive experience a “real presence.” But as Bolter and Grusin note, “This disappearing act, however, is made difficult by the apparatus that virtual reality requires” (21-22). This may, in fact be necessary to the immersive environment, to counteract the anxiety produced by the loss of identity and disorientation that virtual worlds engender. For the same reason, perhaps, “transparent immediacy” is often accompanied by what Bolter and Grusin call the “logic of hypermedia,” which consists of a “fracturing” of the virtual space and a “hyperconscious recognition or acknowledgement of the medium” (38).

Virtual games are multimedia

It is multimedia that allows for the “sensorially inhabitable virtual space” that Fraistat and Jones mention in their discussion of digital immersion (7). Having our senses engaged by image, sound, even touch, through the devices that facilitate such sensations, is the role multimedia play in virtual space and, by extension, virtual games. This is not merely an experience of perception. As Michael Heim writes, “Perception by itself is passive, but using the senses, as James Gibson’s psychology reminds us, is active” (77). This is what brings us into, and allows us to inhabit, virtual spaces: the activation of perception through the invigoration of the senses. This is not really an aesthetic experience, a “disinterested play of the senses” as Kant would have it, rather something not only interested but vitally engaged. It is sensation based on intention, an “intentionality that builds worlds” (77).

In fact it brings us back to art before the Renaissance, when “Art functioned within a world and expressed that world. Art was held by a context of commitments to a commonly held iconography and symbology. Art at that time . . . pointed to basic truths and helped build a world” (77). As Bolter and Grusin point out, such was the function of such medieval multimedia objects as the cathedral, the painted cabinet, and the illuminated manuscript (36).

Virtual games are interactive

In a “gameworld,” in which a text is augmented in virtual space with multimedia, interactivity is enabled; it allows for the discontinuous reading—the navigation—of an entire world. Virtual games are interactive stories that “can be a powerful agent of personal transformation” because they offer us “the opportunity to enact stories rather than to merely witness them” (Murray 170). In texts in a digital environment, such interactivity is found through the use of hypertext, which, as Stuart Moulthrop puts it, is “the practical implementation of a conceptual movement that . . . rejects authoritarian, ‘logocentric’ hierarchies of language . . . and seeks instead systems of discourse that admit a plurality of meanings where the operative modes are hypothesis and interpretive play” (qtd. in Murray, 133).

A couple of points need to be made about both Murray’s and Moulthrop’s formulations about interactive texts. First, it is important to note that while interactive texts are certainly potentially liberating, in practice they often are not. Indeed, as Aarseth explains, in an interactive text “the user can be manipulated in new and powerful ways”; for instance, “the author can make sure that the user must go through a particular sequence to access a certain part; in an adventure game, the author can even make the user perform detailed and distasteful symbolic actions . . . . As with most games, the rules are well beyond the player’s control, and to suggest that the user is able to determine the shape of such a text is the same as to confuse the influence of a city’s tourist guide with that of a city planner” (139).

Secondly, it is crucial to any discussion of Blake's texts as games that we see that interactive texts, or games themselves, need not be exclusive to the digital, or electronic, world. Aarseth identifies the I Ching, a text that is 3,000 years old, as the first hypertext—or, to use his term, “cybertext” (Cybertext 9). Blake’s Songs comprise a text that is certainly not electronic, but is hypertextual and interactive to a very high degree; I would argue that it is highly liberatory as well.

Virtual games create agency

This flows naturally from our discussion of interactivity. Depending on the level of interactivity, agency develops within a virtual world; from agency comes the ability to craft a personality, or persona, to arise within that world. In gaming, this is what is called an “avatar.”

Such role-playing has two important effects in virtual space: it allows for different points of view and helps create empathy. Janet Murray suggests that with virtual media, the reader/interactor “creates juxtapositions that are intentionally open to multiple meanings” (160). Bolter and Grusin say much the same thing when they write, “In a virtual environment, the user learns by moving through a scene and sampling available viewpoints” (246).

Once multiple viewpoints are encountered, empathy often results. “[T]he goal of virtual reality is not rational certainty, but instead the ability of the individual to emphasize through imagining” (251). Such empathy has important therapeutic implications. In a virtual space, we can use empathy—by working with virtual objects or other avatars—to work out unresolved conflicts and come to a sense of closure. This closure comes, according to Murray, “when a work’s structure, though not its plot, is understood,” which we might restate as “when a work can be navigated, as opposed to merely understood” (174).

But Murray also points out that closure “can be feared as well as desired” because the immersion might be too deep, and the resurfacing to “reality” too precipitous. That is why, to preserve a sense of agency, borders and restrictions are necessary: “We need to define the boundary conventions that will allow us to surrender to the enticements of the virtual environment”; we need the equivalent of the theater’s fourth wall (103). The arousal that occurs in virtual games should not be too enticing or real or the immersive “trance” will be broken, which can lead to disorientation (119).

This returns us to Bolter and Grusin’s logic of hypermedia—the “hyperconscious recognition or acknowledgement of the medium”—as an antidote to a transparent immediacy that is too tangible. It is important, in virtual games, that we not merely replace one world with another; for a liminal space to be transformative, we need to be able to move between worlds. To reach closure, we need a safe place to experiment with unsafe thoughts and feelings, and such places cannot be safe unless we know it is truly a virtual world, and can leave it when we are ready. We need borders, even borders of hyperconscious hypermedia, so that our agency is not overwhelmed by possibilities were are not prepared to deal with.