The meaning of videogame controls

Gamers’ button-presses have meaning, but they might not mean what they look like they mean. Player actions have meaning in terms of the superficial on-screen action, but also in terms of the underlying structure and mechanics of the game. My unpleasant case in point for this post will be Sniper Elite V2 (2012).

I started taking grabs of the “X-Ray Kill Cam”, but they were all too gross to put on my blog. Source

I started taking grabs of the “X-Ray Kill Cam”, but they were all too gross to put on my blog. Source

Sniper Elite V2 ostensibly allows you to shoot men in the testicles — their testicles as distinct from their brains, for example. The Steam page boasts:

X-Ray Kill Cam — Amazing “kill cam” technology showcases what really happens when a bullet enters an enemy’s body, allowing players to see hearts and lungs tear, livers burst, and bones shatter.

That list should go: “Hearts, lungs, livers, bones, brains, testicles — and more!” However, if we accept that testicles are distinct from brains, there is a sense in which the game does not allow you to shoot a man in the testicles, despite the intricate 3D modelling of pop and splatter. What sense that is, I hope to elucidate in this post.


Two planes of meaning

The content of games exists on two planes: the superficially presented metaphor and the underlying interactive system. Looking at the ways in which those planes are tied together should be a central part of videogame criticism. Similarly, the meaning of player actions — not player-character actions, but the actual manipulation of controls by the player — manifests on both planes.

The importance of this distinction for the meaning of player action lies partly in the fact that the metaphor of a game is always more striking than the system — especially in non-specialist media coverage — because the metaphor can be experienced in screenshots and videos just as well as it can in-game. That is not true of the system, which is only experienced directly through interaction. We have all seen excited articles in newspapers describing what players do in GTA, for example, but it is all about what the little man does on the TV screen, and not about the thumb movements and decisions of the player, and the implications of those, which will involve more thumb movements and decisions, as well as on-screen events.

Furthermore, some games’ value is more focused in their metaphors — Myst, Monkey Island, or Final Fantasy, for example — whereas others build more of their value into the system — such as Tetris, Super Hexagon, or Mario Bros. As a result, the meaning of player action can also lie to varying extents in both the metaphor and the system. Crucially, despite superficial evaluation of the meaning of player action being most usually focused on metaphoric content, some games may well in fact build the meaning of player action mostly or almost entirely in systemic content.


A straw-man example: describing Call of Duty

Call of Duty Black Ops 2 (2012). Source

Call of Duty Black Ops 2 (2012). Source

As an example, let’s make a straw man of mass media representations of violence. I’m choosing a straw man because the point I want to make is theoretical. There is room for a discussion of actual media coverage of videogames in the terms I’m going to set out, but for now I just want to set out the terms, on the basis that they will be useful tools in future — more “concepts for criticism”.

So here’s the straw man we’re going to play with: let’s call him Thompson. Thompson equates what players do — especially in violent games — with what it looks on screen as if they are doing.

For example, if a player plays COD, are they killing people? In the spirit of keeping this very simple, I’ll briefly acknowledge that in the most basic possible sense they are obviously not killing people: they’re playing a game; it’s not real. But, in perhaps the second-most basic sense, they are killing people. Within the game, they are, straightforwardly, pointing a gun at people and shooting them and killing them. Thompson is all over this. But that’s just the metaphoric content of the player action, and to suppose that it’s the full extent of what the player’s doing is to disregard completely any systemic content of their actions.

I am not saying (for now) that the systemic content of COD is in fact different in any important ways — and I’m certainly not saying that the metaphoric content is irrelevant — but it’s clear that our conversation with Thompson and all his straw friends in the non-specialist media is often limited to the most superficial aspects of games.


Getting clever — what the conversation might look like

Back to Sniper Elite V2. I posit that the brains and testicles of men are the same, just in different locations. Ha ha, but of course I mean this in the sense of the systemic content of player action in the game. There is no systemic distinction between men’s various body parts except for damage and points, and both the brain and the testes are lethal hits, worth 500 points, triggering an anatomical bullet-path cinematic. So the systemic content of the player action of choosing to shoot head or testes is simply the choice between the brain-exploding cinematic and the testis-bursting cinematic. Which is to say that it’s utterly vacuous. This analysis makes very plain that one well-reported feature of Sniper Elite V2 amounts to nothing more than the titillation of viewing (and not participating in) computer-animated violence. (As an aside, most features of the game amount to the same: it is total rubbish, fit only for lads’-mag morons who, fittingly, will find nothing noteworthy about the indistinguishability of brain and genitals.)

Now let’s apply this concept of the meaning of player actions to a couple more games, and see how the balance between metaphoric content and systemic content can make a difference.

There was a time when GTA represented exciting possibilities for gaming. Source

There was a time when GTA represented exciting possibilities for gaming. Source

First up is GTA 3 (2001). In the right circumstances, a passerby can be killed in GTA with no consequence for the player — no additional police attention (because you’re already on two stars), no cost to player-character resources (because you used a melée weapon and took no damage), and no effect on the world at large (because another passerby will spawn, and that first one would have ceased to be modelled once he was a block away anyway). There’s an animation of death and there’s blood drawn on the ground, and even all that will vanish in time. Apart from this basic depiction of a death, nothing happened. It’s all superficial; it’s all metaphor. Everything about the player action — the “kill” button-press — that made it about killing was in the metaphoric content.

In contrast to that throwaway kill in GTA, consider clicking the mouse button to snipe a player spotted at a distance in the DayZ standalone alpha (2013). Things here are very different. You do still get the animation and the blood — although somewhat unpolished — but there is so much more meaning to that action built into the system of the game. First an easy one: DayZ’s an MMO, so that person is another player. Pressing the kill button means stifling some real hopes and aspirations. Second, alpha DayZ is brutally demanding in its character management. Your character starts on a distant, empty beach, hungry, with just jeans and a T-shirt, and collecting items is hard, hard work. Sometimes, you will spawn somewhere and have to run for half an hour on your own, just to find some food and not starve. If you don’t know the map well (which you won’t without hundreds of hours played) then you may be running for hours, and you may starve anyway. You might try to commit suicide to get a better spawn by jumping off high ground, but you might only break your legs, and then be left to crawl slowly for 10 minutes just to try again, and hope this time it kills you. There is no easy reset: you’re stuck with the lot you spawn with.

DayZ is one of those games where you learn from experience how to read situations, and the screenshots look very different after that. Source

DayZ is one of those games where you learn from experience how to read situations, and the screenshots look very different after that. Source

So when you encounter a player with combat clothing and a gun, you know they’ve almost certainly been playing that character for hours, and so they will really want to avoid going back to square one on the beach. Death in DayZ takes away everything you had, and by default will even spawn you with a completely different basic character model. If your character dies, your character is gone.

Furthermore, if that player you spotted through your long-range has survived a situation in which they acquired a gun and combats, they may well be dangerous. If they’re with a companion, they could be very dangerous. It’s safe to suppose that most armed players have both the required skill and a very strong incentive to kill you, and that’s before we get to the question of whether they want to kill you.

Maybe they do want to kill you, but there is no real structure of objectives in the game, so who knows what they want? Staying alive is a good goal to start with, but after enough play, even that may take on some qualification. You can easily play DayZ for hours without seeing another player, and you usually play it for the moments when you do encounter someone. The same goes for the player you’ve spotted: they’ve travelled for hours to meet you. Even so, you simply cannot take chances: maybe you’ve sighted a new travelling companion, which would grant you some precious friendship and the safety of numbers, but maybe you’ve sighted a nervous killer, and have a rare, quick chance to cut off the danger. The stakes are high, and that mouse button means “kill” in a very sophisticated and frightening way, which is largely down to the systemic content of what the player is doing.


Look how different the meanings are!

If you have played both GTA and DayZ, just consider how little you think before thumping circle for yet another clubbing in Liberty City, and how heavily your heart is pounding before clicking the mouse for a player kill in Chernarus.

If you’ve also played Sniper Elite, consider how its lightweight gross-out kills compare to DayZ as a “sniping simulation”. Sniper Elite shows a close-up, slow-mo X-ray of a bullet drilling through a throat, and you can see which teeth are broken on the way in. In DayZ, you’re not sure whether you hit.


Some conclusions

There are different ways in which player actions have meaning. Most simply, pressing a button might mean killing a person merely because pressing it results in a communication that a person has been killed. However, if a videogame makes proper use of the medium’s interactivity then things you can see in a video are not the full extent of the experience on offer. The meaning wrapped up in the systemic content of the game can be far more powerful, but can’t be seen so clearly on the surface. Working metaphoric and systemic content together makes the strongest impression of all.

This conversation seems naturally to draw itself towards violence in games, and perhaps part of the distastefulness of the violence in GTA is that it’s such fast, vacuous, disposable titillation, made to be forgotten immediately after it has been committed. The emptiness of it is due to its existing mostly in the metaphor and not the system. However, I am doing my best to stick to the theoretical point for now, and just lay the groundwork for a later discussion of violence, morality, and values in games.

Whether it’s more objectionable to represent killing with excessive weight and realism than to represent it too flippantly is a question that reaches beyond the medium of videogames, but the special consideration for games is that the killing is interactive. When we look at the nature of interaction, we can see to what extent button-presses have their meanings couched in the metaphor and to what extent in the system. It’s a factual point of analysis for games — and it’s always worth getting the facts right before jumping into normative discussion.