It has long been a commonplace that we can draw a clear line between games as ‘interactive’ media on the one hand, and 'non-interactive' narrative media such as books, television, and movies on the other. Indeed, this distinction is supposedly the reason that ‘videogame’ works as a category. I have long found this segregation misleading because it underestimates the interactivity of supposedly ‘static’ media and it overestimates the agency in most digital games.
The assumption behind this division is that the reader of the book or the watcher of a film has nothing to do but receive the content that has been constructed for them. This is not an adequate description of the phenomenology of these media. In fact, both the reader of the book and the watcher of the film are constantly throwing their mind around to interpret the content of the work in question, anticipating what might be about to happen, or reading between the lines and trying to establish details that are not specified by the artwork in question. We seem to view this as ‘non-interactive’ solely because the interaction in question does not have a measurable impact on the fictional world of the story. Yet it does have just such an impact within the head of the reader or viewer, and isn’t this actually the interesting part of our response to any artwork?
This creates a problem for the segregation since the vast majority of videogames equally provide interaction that does not have an impact on the fictional world of the game, except from the limited perspective of the player or anyone watching their specific play of that game. Take Halo: Combat Evolved as a simple example. There is one choice that the player can make that affects the story: you can open fire in the starship at the start of the game, bringing the entire story to a premature close. Alternatively, you can co-operate with the story and see it through to its entirely inevitable and pre-scripted conclusion. To take this ability to trigger a ‘false ending’ of the story of Halo as a decisive distinction between different kinds of media would be strange when we can trigger the same kind of false ending in, say Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness, by selecting an option in the DVD to see deleted scenes and alternative endings. Yet the film is not interactive, the dogma states. I beg to differ. If this film’s DVD isn’t interactive, then neither is Halo, and I am willing to extend this claim as far as a screening of the film itself.
What makes Halo the game seem so interactive is that the player has a lot of immediate and shallow agency to affect how they kill lots of alien beings and negotiate a strictly linear sequence of locations. But this is all smoke and mirrors as far as the story is concerned – the player may feel that they are in control, but this is not much different from the way the rider of a ghost train is supposed to feel that they are in danger, even though they clearly are not. I am not against this experience – it is akin, in some ways, to the greater immediacy that rendering a novel as a movie produces. The interactivity of the novel’s ambiguities that originate in the verbal narrative are reduced in the conversion to film because the makers of the movie necessarily instantiate specific interpretative choices that reduce the level of interactivity with the fictional world in question, they make it more static and less dynamic. They make it less interactive, but they cannot render it non-interactive because no artwork could possibly be incapable of interaction and still be worth our attention!
I’d like to suggest that it is even possible to add the same kind of shallow agency to a novel or a film as we find in something like Halo. Suppose, for instance, that after each chapter or scene you draw an image that depicts the fictional content in question. You have tremendous apparent agency in how you draw these contents, but you cannot actually change the story by doing so (if you did, you would be playing a different game, something closer to fan fiction). The shallow agency of the reading-and-drawing game played with a novel is just like the shallow agency of Halo – it changes nothing, but gives you a greater sense of engagement with the fictional world in question.
To emphasise the idea that the segregation is misleadingly couched as all-or-nothing, consider many early adventure games that were structured as a series of linear puzzles. In these games you have the same shallow agency represented primarily by your ability to type ‘examine’, or your capacity to (seem to) move about the fictional world by typing ‘n’, ‘s’, ‘e’, and ‘w’. Indeed, Matti Karhulahti expressly argues that ‘examine’ can be used to detect a boundary of interactivity, a claim I argue against in “What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s Legendarium” (currently under review for the International Journal of Play). But is this enough to mark a segregation as vast as is being attempted? In a novel, we may not be able to shift our purported location by typing a cardinal direction or asking to ‘examine’, but nothing stops us flipping through pages to re-read the description of locations, objects, and characters when we desire the extra information. Why is this not considered interactive, yet the shallow agency of the adventure game is?
The point of this invective is simple: segregating videogames from other narrative media forms on the basis of a black-and-white interactive/non-interactive distinction obfuscates the interactive dimensions of supposedly ‘passive’ media and simultaneously valorises the importance of the agency in digital media, which is often incredibly shallow and trivial. The danger lies not only in misjudging the extent that narrative media engages our cognitive faculties but in mistakenly thinking that all kinds of digital game deserve to be treated collectively as a single well-defined category. They do not and cannot. A great many digital game genres are as different from each other as books, TV documentaries, and rock operas are from one another. Could we please stop pretending that the use of computers in play is a more important feature than the range of experiences that the play of media produces? It would be a more honest way to approach the gradations of interactivity that apply to every form of artwork.