Continuing the argument that I presented in Slaying the First Colossus in favour of a more nuanced view of the role of representation in games, I want to make the claim that even in situations where representation seems disposable it is nothing of the kind. In particular, I want to consider the role of representation in the multiplayer first person shooter Counter-Strike, which I have a personal relationship to because I play it every other week with my regular gaming group.
In an interesting paper entitled Spatial Principles of Level-Design in Multi-Player First-Person Shooters on the role of the environment in Counter-Strike, Christian Güttler and Troels Degn Johansson argue:
Game environments for multiplayer-shooters like Counter-Strike can be seen as disconnected from a narrative and thematic context; a context that is more easily established with cut-scenes and a pre-defined series of tasks and challenges. In multiplayer games it is more adequate to see the environment as a kind of virtual football court or paintball court where two teams meet and only one of them wins the game.
On the one hand, this claim is well-observed: there is an undeniable continuity between the paintball arena (or, for that matter, laser tag arena) and the Counter-Strike level; this comparison is apposite. But is there no role whatsoever for representation in the paintball court or laser tag arena? The answer, of course, is that even these play spaces leverage the advantages of representation, drawing upon features of archetypal warzones in order to populate the playing area with cover and features that add to the experiences of the players.
In a game of paintball, the participants are prescribed to imagine they are fighting with real weapons, and that hitting someone with a paintball in the agreed target areas (often excluding the face for safety reasons) prescribes that someone is "killed" and no longer participates in the game. You will not find a paintball arena decorated in fairy, unicorn and flower motifs because this is not a suitable representation for the game of make-believe to be played. Rather, you will find props such as barrels, tyres and towers which allow the players to imagine they are in a warzone. It is part of the fun of paintball that this fantasy can be maintained.
This is true also of Counter-Strike, where the value of the representation begins at the point that one team is denoted counter-terrorist and the other terrorist. This is more than a disposable element in the play of this game; identical gameplay could be fashioned with a different representation, and it would be less popular (say, Pizza Delivery Kerfuffle, where one team are the pizza delivery crew and the other team are ruffians seeking to prevent pizzas from being delivered). In specific reference to the above quote, it is the case that certain levels gain favour by being well-designed, by taking into consideration what Güttler and Johansson call "collision points" i.e. the locations where meeting engagements (to use the military jargon) are likely to occur between the two forces. But popularity of a specific level does not wholly depend on its efficiency with respect to core gameplay. Representative elements also come into play.
There are many levels on the rota for my group that produce wildly different opinions as to the degree of enjoyment they offer, in particular, 747 (which represents an airplane at an airport), Wallmart (a shopping centre), and Wild West (a cowboy town). Some players dismiss these levels as "gimmick maps", and perhaps not unfairly. But where these have appeal, it is in part because of what is represented. I enjoy Wallmart (pictured above), for instance, precisely because it prescribes I imagine I am having a firefight in one of those dreadful Wal*mart shopping centres I so loathe in real life. As a prop, it is pretty ugly and poorly made. But it serves in its role adequately enough for my purposes. The value of these representational elements varies from player to player, and from level to level, but it is still an important factor of the play of this game.
What is more, because a great deal of the fun of Counter-Strike comes from playing as a team, the representation also feeds into the conversations that develop from the play. A bomb site is "the pumping station" or "the computer room"; the package has been dropped "in the courtyard". The representation not only provides intrinsic pleasures as a representation, it is intimately tied up with the play of the game at the level of player communication. Only rarely do my team talk about "Bomb site A" or "Bomb site B", even though this is how the locations are formally designated. Far more commonly do we talk in terms of how those bomb sites are represented in the game world.
Of course, this is only natural for a number of reasons, not least of which being that human language is suffused with representations in the form of metaphors. Take Güttler and Johanssons' "collision point" – which refers neither to a point (rather, a region or set of areas) nor to any kind of collision (rather, a meeting or encounter). But we understand their term because we can play the prop-oriented make-believe game associated with the metaphor "collision point" and thus reach an understanding of what is intended.
Counter-Strike, which seems at first sight utterly divorced from narrative or fictional context, is thoroughly dependent upon representation for a great deal of its appeal. Even a thoroughly abstract game like Oware still manages to represent via terms such as "house" and "capture". Are there any games which are not, at some level, intimately caught up with their representation?