BioShock is Not a Game 24

BioShock is not a game. Neither is Half-Life, and nei­ther is Braid. We shouldn’t be call­ing things games when we aren’t play­ing them against peo­ple.

Is this a prob­lem? Not really. Just because single-player games are some­thing akin to puz­zles doesn’t take away from their enjoy­ment, and cer­tainly doesn’t pre­vent them from pre­sent­ing authen­ti­cally mov­ing expe­ri­ences. However, this dis­tinc­tion between sin­gle and mul­ti­player games allows for crit­i­cism that gets closer to the mat­ter of these works, since they have dif­fer­ent goals.

For clarity’s sake, I’m call­ing sin­gle player games “rac­tives” (short for “inter­ac­tives,” taken from Neal Stephenson’s term in The Diamond Age, where he dis­tin­guishes between rac­tive and pas­sive enter­tain­ment.) This seems appro­pri­ate, since their dis­tin­guish­ing mark is their inter­ac­tiv­ity. Multiplayer games, on the other hand, I’m going to con­tinue call­ing games. These terms are help­ful, since they allow us to make more pre­cise dis­tinc­tions when crit­i­ciz­ing playables, a term I use to cover rac­tives and games together.

It is legit­i­mate to ask, for exam­ple, whether playables like Minecraft or Dear Esther are the same sort of thing as BioShock or Half-Life. One could argue, for exam­ple, that Minecraft is really a toy and Dear Esther is really a kind of audio book. I main­tain, how­ever, that the single-player/multiplayer dis­tinc­tion is the most fun­da­men­tal, and that by cat­e­go­riz­ing playables this way they will be sub­ject to more effec­tive crit­i­cism. Once we rec­og­nize Minecraft and Dear Esther as rac­tives, for exam­ple, they can be judged against non-electronic rac­tives like Solitaire or the Rubik’s Cube. Similarly, games like Team Fortress 2, EVE Online, Settlers of Catan, and Chess can all be scru­ti­nized together.

Why do I think the ractive/game dichotomy is fun­da­men­tal?

A dis­tin­guish­ing mark of all rac­tives and games is choice; in fact, we could say that choices are what playables are com­posed  of. Although sec­ondary arts such as music, voice act­ing, and visual design do have an impact on the work’s aes­thetic effect, choices remain at the core; one could take out every­thing other than mechan­ics, and the playable would still exist. These choices, of course, are always lim­ited, and the lim­its imposed on the player or play­ers are enforced through mechan­ics.

The key here is that the mechan­ics in a rac­tive are geared towards a dif­fer­ent goal than in a game. In a rac­tive, the designer con­trols half of the equa­tion, the sec­ond half being the player. These two com­po­nents are in con­flict with each other in some man­ner; the rac­tive may con­tain ene­mies to kill, lands to explore, peo­ple to impress, build­ings to build, or any com­bi­na­tion of chal­lenges. However, no mat­ter what these are, the chal­lenges are always between the fixed cre­ation of the designer, and the free agency of the player.

The aim of a rac­tive work is to induce an aes­thetic effect in the player through his inter­ac­tion with the world. Ractives are nec­es­sar­ily incom­plete; it is in fin­ish­ing the work that the player expe­ri­ences the designer’s vision, and it is in mak­ing the choices avail­able to him that he does this. This rela­tion­ship, between designer and player, the fixed and the mobile, forms the heart of a rac­tive.

On the other hand, the rela­tion­ships within a game exist between play­ers. One’s choices are inevitably made on the basis of what one’s oppo­nents are doing, or are likely to do. Instead of fixed vs. mobile, games are mobile vs. mobile. Whereas a rac­tive engages a player in inter­pret­ing the designer’s pur­pose, a game engages play­ers in the social activ­i­ties of inter­pre­ta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. In a rac­tive, infor­ma­tion flows one way, from designer to player; in a game, infor­ma­tion flows in every direc­tion at once. In a rac­tive, the play mechan­ics help you under­stand the designer’s thoughts; in a game, they let you express your own to other play­ers. In a game, the aes­thetic effect is gen­er­ated by the unique types of player inter­ac­tion per­mit­ted by the mechan­ics, rather than inter­ac­tion with a fixed envi­ron­ment.

(A side note: Many rac­tives attempt to sim­u­late a player vs. player expe­ri­ence, but these sim­u­la­tions always fall short, as dyadic action-reaction AI will never be able to truly repli­cate the behav­ior of a tri­adic signifier-referent human mind. In any case, play­ers are mostly unin­ter­ested in bots act­ing like humans, except inso­far as they are a mean­ing­ful pro­duct of the human designer’s mind.)

What does all this tell us about playable crit­i­cism?

Games and rac­tives have to be judged in dif­fer­ent ways. Games ought to be judged in a man­ner sim­i­lar to the way that the board gam­ing com­mu­nity looks at non-electronic games. Are the mechan­ics ele­gant and intu­itive? Do they provide new, excit­ing, and inno­v­a­tive forms of inter­ac­tion? Are the mechan­ics well inte­grated with the theme? Considerations such as music, visu­als, and voice over work are sec­ondary. This isn’t to say that they are unim­por­tant (no one likes to play some­thing ugly), but by bring­ing the inter­per­sonal mechan­ics to the fore­front, game crit­i­cism can begin to look at the ways that video games suc­ceed and fail at mak­ing a game a bet­ter game, rather than one with higher poly­gon counts.

Ractives are a dif­fer­ent story. Since one’s atten­tion in a rac­tive is focused pri­mar­ily on the world rather than on the activ­ity of another player, sec­ondary arts such as music, char­ac­ter, and visual design have a much higher value. Players are immersed in these arts as they encoun­ter the ractive’s world, and they can speak to rac­tive play­ers in ways that are mostly irrel­e­vant in a game, since they are an expres­sion of the per­son the player is com­pet­ing against. Mechanics remain vital, but their goal in a rac­tive is to express the designer’s vision, rather than to express the player’s.

Are rac­tives a higher form of art than games? This is prob­a­bly impos­si­ble to answer, mostly because the aes­thetic appeal of a game is much harder to put one’s fin­ger on. Board gamers will often rave about the beauty and ele­gance of a game sys­tem, where the inter­lock­ing mechan­ics pro­duce unique expe­ri­ences and com­plex choices, but it’s a cold, intel­lec­tual sort of beauty. Few video games have reached the mechan­i­cal bril­liance of the best board games, but even if some­day they do, their artis­tic appeal will be just as abstract.

Ractives, on the other hand, live more on their sur­face. Dear Esther, BioShock, Braid, or Shadow of the Colossus pro­duce imme­di­ate cathar­tic effects not dis­sim­i­lar from the effects cre­ated in movies or lit­er­a­ture, albeit through dif­fer­ent means. In a rac­tive we are encoun­ter­ing an author directly, while in a game we are using an author’s sys­tem to inter­act with other peo­ple.

It might be that games and rac­tives are basi­cally incom­men­su­rable. Nevertheless, this real­iza­tion may be the key to pro­duc­ing bet­ter playables, ones which under­stand their own inher­ent strengths and provide play­ers with the most enrich­ing expe­ri­ences.

Ben Milton

About Ben Milton

Ben Milton makes his home on a hill in Oregon with a wife and the lonesome ghosts of a dozen boardgame prototypes.

  • Very inter­est­ing thoughts. I’m intrigued by the notion that games and rac­tives would have dif­fer­ent kinds of beauty, with ele­gance for each being con­sid­ered based on dif­fer­ent cri­te­ria. Where do you place MMORPGs, which have ele­ments of both?

  • Jeremiah Westly

    Great arti­cle! I couldn’t agree with you more! I’m actu­ally kinda sur­prised I didn’t see this before. 

    As to Hannah’s ques­tion I would answer: the genre is still try­ing to fig­ure this out them­selves. It would tend to depend on which game and what you are doing in it. A game like SWTOR is more of a hybrid at first glance (or Frankenstein’s mon­ster depend­ing on your POV) but it is more of a game try­ing to be a reac­tive. It has ele­ments of being a reac­tive, but at it’s core the genre is a game. The ones that have this fig­ured out are prob­a­bly the more suc­cess­ful ones.

  • I think the truly onto­log­i­cal point here is that video “games” are an art form rather than a genre. People (and dic­tio­nar­ies) haven’t fig­ured this out yet. So “game” will have to suf­fice :D

    • Ben Milton

      I agree, Kavi, that games are an art form rather than a genre. I just think that they are a dif­fer­ent art form than a rac­tive, although they use some of the same tools.

    • T. Dawson

      Game” doesn’t really suf­fice, though, despite how lib­er­ally we use it as a descrip­tor. Example: today I met up with a friend after work for a drink and a chat. What he was mostly inter­ested in telling me about was his expe­ri­ence in Minecraft, of which he is a recent con­vert (or pos­si­bly I mean vic­tim, depend­ing on your per­sonal expe­ri­ence).

      Minecraft is a big hit in the gam­ing com­mu­nity. It’s a very suc­cess­ful game. Except, at the heart of it, it ISN’T a game as we con­ven­tion­ally under­stand such a thing. It’s just a box full of toys; you could build a castle, sure. Then what? Does it advance a sto­ry­line or grant any­thing new, or is it sim­ply a point­less, func­tion­less object that sits there defi­antly remind­ing the player of a lot of wasted time?

      It’s a passtime, but it isn’t a game. There’s no way to win, no met­ric to mea­sure pro­gress. Yet it is a “game”. I think the term “video game” is becom­ing more of an umbrella term than a speci­fic descrip­tion — we expe­ri­ence graph­i­cal sim­u­la­tions of real­ity (or unre­al­ity) through the medium of a con­sole and con­troller, or a PC and a key­board, or these days even a tele­phone — in the same way as “sports”. You might say you like sports, but you’d then have to spec­ify whether you like cricket or hockey. Saying you like video games is, to those in the know, much the same thing. You may say you like video games but the per­son you’re talk­ing to doesn’t know if you mean puz­zlers or FPS. Where the water gets murkier is that to those who DON’T know, all video games are the same and capa­ble of being con­flated into one amor­phous mass, some­thing they can ascribe behav­iour or beliefs to and declare “That is video games!”

      So “game” doesn’t suf­fice as a descrip­tive term, because it allows all games to be lumped together under one head­ing, and once they’re accepted as being one thing it becomes eas­ier to attach labels to that thing. Since the labels usu­ally ascribed to video games in the media are neg­a­tive, this allows for the den­i­gra­tion of a wide range of inter­ests. When a news reports talks about how such-and-such shoot­ing was the result of video games rather than FPS games, you’re see­ing the effect of this. Nobody blames Peggle if a guy gets shot over a CoD feud, but they DO blame video games as a col­lec­tive, and that’s not good.

      • Ben Milton

        I agree. We need more acu­rate ways to express the kinds of expe­ri­ences dig­i­tal enter­tain­ment pro­vides. When there’s only one word for it, it all get lumped together as bril­liant, evil, puerile, cutting-edge, or what­ever.

        • T. Dawson

          Don’t be silly, you can’t agree with me. I’m a rebel, an out­sider, I go my own way and my opin­ions are totally dis­tinct from any­one else on the inter­net who may have posted sim­i­lar rumi­na­tions!


  • Ben Milton

    It would depend on the RPG, I’d say. For the most part, I’d say they were hybrids (and not very good hybrids, which explains why they are so bor­ing), but some, like EVE Online, is much more of a game, while ones that focus on PvE like Guild Wars are more of a rac­tive.

    The prob­lem with most MMOs is that they get con­fused by their own hybridiza­tion and can’t fig­ure out what kind of expe­ri­ence they want peo­ple to have. 

    How about one based only on king­dom vs. king­dom war­fare, where the goal of each player is to help level up their king­dom, not them­selves? How about one where the whole player com­mu­nity is pit­ted against a rav­en­ously hos­tile world, one which actu­ally will wipe out the whole player pop­u­la­tion and end the game if neglected only momen­tar­ily?

    By focus­ing on sta­tic quests, tem­po­rary par­ties, per­sonal level ups, occa­sional PvP, etc, MMOs end up not being ABOUT any­thing in par­tic­u­lar, other than a glo­ri­fied chat room full of repet­i­tive actions. But get all those play­ers to play an actual GAME together…and some­thing amaz­ing can hap­pen.

  • The def­i­n­i­tion I have always worked under is that games are a form of play or sport, usu­ally with a com­pet­i­tive streak to them. But whether you are com­pet­ing with your­self, against the game, or against friends in per­son, online, or in leader­boards does not mat­ter; they are still games.

    So, although I agree with your point that sin­gle, and coop/multiplayer games are dif­fer­ent beasts, and must be reviewed, cri­tiqued, enjoyed in unique ways, I don’t see a need to splin­ter the term “game” apart; espe­cially when the words above already con­vey much of the mean­ing you argue for in this piece. As for quickly get­ting into specifics of genre and game­play, we have a full library of sub­cat­e­gories we are all famil­iar with and have already built a robust dia­logue around (indie, art, rpg, jrpg, mmo, plat­former, action, adven­ture, rts, moba, and so on). You may have to string a few of them together to explain things like Braid and Bioshock, but if we split “games” apart as you sug­gest, then there will also become a whole new set of sub­cat­e­gories for rac­tives; fur­ther mud­dy­ing the waters for new­com­ers and hob­by­ists and set­ting into motion an eter­nal argu­ment over what con­sti­tutes what.

    On a some­what related note, the com­mu­nity back­lash to terms like “casual” and “hard­core” have shown that we under­stand there are dif­fer­ent types of games and gamers, but that sep­a­rat­ing them is futile, pos­si­bly even a harm­ful effort to the gam­ing com­mu­nity, since their elements/habits are not self-contained. Most peo­ple con­sider games a safe-haven from the out­side world. They can share expe­ri­ences and sto­ries with peo­ple they may hate in real life. We should strive to keep that as pure and sim­ple as pos­si­ble.

    …also, I’m pretty sure if any­one actu­ally spoke the term “rac­tive” within arms reach of me, the urge to slap the RayBans off their face, knock their PBR to the ground, and let their nose hear the sweet crack of my fist would be too great to har­ness. The word just wreaks of need­less pre­ten­sion.

    • Ben Milton

      Well, I only picked a new term because it seemed use­ful (that’s the only good rea­son for com­ing up with new terms, right?) It seems to me that the dis­tinc­tion between sin­gle and mul­ti­player is fun­da­men­tal enough to warant it.

      It’s like the dis­tinc­tion between read­ing a let­ter and hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, except in this case the letter-writer made up the lan­guage being used (and made the the lan­guage in just such a way that it bet­ter comu­ni­cates his mean­ing), and in the sec­ond you’re using this made up lan­guage to comu­ni­cate with a third party. The lan­guage (play mechan­ics) can remain the same, but the expere­ince is very dif­fer­ent.

  • NCares

    What about games that can be both sin­gle and mul­ti­player?

    So, are you say­ing that, for exam­ple, Unreal Tournament played against bots needs to be defined with a dif­fer­ent word than Unreal Tournament played against other play­ers? Actually that sounds kinda silly to me. It’s UT, it’s one game, it’s the same thing.

    Or what about sin­gle player games that can also be played as coop­er­a­tive mul­ti­player? My point is, sin­gle player are games. If you play it, it’s a game. Solitaire, minesweeper, Half Life etc are games.

    If you make up rules and play alone with a ball you are play­ing a game that you just made up.

    Anyhow, very inter­est­ing read, really. Maybe it’s true that there’s a need for games to be judged in two dif­fer­ent ways depend­ing if the game is focused on the world or focused on the game. From my point of view a games is good only if it’s good as a game.

    I do think that Shadow of the Colossus or The Journey are bad games for exam­ple. While arcade (sin­gle player *wink*) games like the Metal Slug series or Cave’s ver­ti­cal shoot­ers are mas­ter­pieces of game design as I see it.

    Also, I don’t agree with this: “Few video games have reached the mechan­i­cal bril­liance of the best board games…”. But that’s another topic. :)

    • Ben Milton

      Yeah, the boardgame/videogame com­par­ison is a con­tro­ver­sial one, and hope­fully I’ll write more about that later. It is sub­jec­tive when it comes down to it, but the fact is that boardgames have none of the dis­trac­tions of videogames. They can’t lean on graph­ics, music, effects, etc. All they have is mechaincs. And some of the best ger­man board games (Puerto Rico, Thurn and Taxis, Settlers of Catan, etc) take this to it’s own level of art.

      I con­sider co-op videogames to be rac­tives, since one is still opposed to the envi­ron­ment rather than each other.

      I also think that Unreal vs. bots is still a rac­tive, since you aren’t really express­ing your­self to another player or try­ing to under­stand one. That being said, it does feel close, though it doesn’t ever quite make it, bots being basi­cally uncre­ative pro­grams. That just makes it a bad rac­tive, in the end, because every­one knows that it’s bet­ter when played as a game against peo­ple.

      • Matthew Schanuel

        Yeah, seems a use­ful dichotomy — I mean, dichotomies aren’t sup­posed to be ulti­mate, after all, and it seems like this is a dis­tinc­tion worth hav­ing. I do won­der about the Unreal bots vs. humans, though. You note that, at some level, it feels dif­fer­ent… this assumes two things: A. The indi­vid­ual hav­ing the expe­ri­ence has a high level of apti­tude and famil­iar­ity with the expe­ri­ence, such that the feel can be dis­tin­guished and the lack of cre­ativ­ity of these bots is noticed, and B. That the bots are excep­tion­ally uncre­ative. Programming has got­ten pretty rich these days, and I know that, on my occa­sions, I’ve been play­ing a game and a friend asked, “So is some­body con­trol­ling those other guys?” Especially as we move toward vir­tual intel­li­gences, I think the line between these expe­ri­ences in the video game for­mat will become really fine. 

        It also begs the ques­tion: what’s impor­tant, the actual nature of the enti­ties con­trol­ling the activ­ity in the digitally-expressed the­ater of the mind, or the expe­ri­ence of the player? If the player can­not dis­tin­guish bot from human, would the game/ractive dichotomy still apply to that expe­ri­ence? That’s delv­ing pretty deep, but I’m curi­ous to know your stance; seems that, to some degree, this dichotomy depends upon the rel­a­tive cru­dity of pro­gram­ming to an active human mind. Are you play­ing AGAINST an oppo­nent who is respond­ing to your plays, or are you play­ing AGAINST a devel­oper who has pro­grammed his side of the com­pe­ti­tion in advance?

        • Ben Milton

          It’s con­ceiv­able that one might play cer­tain kinds of games against a com­puter and never real­ize it. Nevertheless, you wouldn’t gain any real insight into another per­son, and you wouldn’t ever really be able to express your­self, because there would be no one to express your­self to. The rela­tion­ship between you and your “oppo­nent” would be an illu­sion. I take it for granted that we play games in order to expe­ri­ence per­sonal inter­ac­tion, which has con­se­quences both for our­selves and other peo­ple. Since this is ulti­mately what we’re after when we play games, com­put­ers will inevitably fall short.

          Put another way, if you thought you were play­ing against a human oppo­nent in online chess, for exam­ple, and you squeezed out a win, and felt tri­umphant, and then found out it was a com­puter, wouldn’t you feel let down? I would. A vic­tory like that doesn’t mean the same thing. I think we all would admit that games get bet­ter the more human con­tact we have with our oppo­nents. Hearing them over a mike is bet­ter than text chat, and play­ing against them in the same room is the best.

          • Matthew Schanuel

            I think that many would dis­agree with the asser­tion that games are nec­es­sar­ily bet­ter with increased human con­tact; I know that there are times when I would rather avoid human con­tact and sim­ply inter­act with the mechan­ics, regard­less of whether I’m play­ing against a human or a pro­grammed oppo­nent. You focus on the feel­ing of vic­tory; that’s not always just what I’m after in a game, and is often not the main rea­son I play games. I really enjoy learn­ing a sys­tem, fig­ur­ing it out, such that loss is nearly as fun as win­ning. What mat­ters is that I’m see­ing the mechan­ics flex and bend.

            Now, espe­cially in regard to your state­ment about expres­sion against a com­puter oppo­nent, I find your stance inter­est­ing… and hon­estly, this ties right back into my last arti­cle here on the OntoGeek. I think regard­less of whether you’re inter­act­ing with a human or dig­i­tal con­struc­tion, you can still con­struct mean­ing. I’d cer­tainly chal­lenge your asser­tion that I wouldn’t be able to gain insight into another per­son via games against a com­puter, and I think that, with­out know­ing what entity is on the other end of a game, play­ing against a com­puter might even be MORE mean­ing­ful. Basically, I don’t think that the real­ity of another per­son against which one com­petes changes the poten­tially trans­for­ma­tive ele­ments of inter­act­ing with a game for the player. Playing against a com­plex bio­log­i­cal com­puter can change things, depend­ing on the game, but it doesn’t have to, and it can be essen­tially the same expe­ri­ence for a player who chooses to eschew more per­sonal inter­ac­tions, which is allowed in many games today. I don’t think that the “game” expe­ri­ence can be so eas­ily dis­tilled to a mech­a­nism for human inter­ac­tion.

          • Jeremiah

            It won’t let me reply to Matt below, so I’ll do it here.

            It seems Ben is really dri­ving the line between PvP (game) and PvE (rac­tive), with some sub­tle dif­fer­ences tagged on as caveats. As some­one who has played a lot of both (espe­cially PvP, in both MMOs, and Shooters) I feel qual­i­fied to say it is VERY easy to tell a com­puter from a per­son, sim­ply because in no way can you pro­gram a com­puter to act like one, both in good and bad ways.

            It’s extremely dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to pro­gram “aggro” into an NPC in a way that acts like some­one would in an actual PvP sce­nario, so in MMOs, there is an entire mechan­i­cal sys­tem which play­ers decon­struct in order to “game” the sys­tem. This really isn’t an issue in a sin­gle player game, because the player is the focus. And in PvP, this sim­ply impos­si­ble to do.

            Bot’s are just noto­ri­ously ter­ri­ble, and I used to play against them A LOT back in the day, cause I hated play­ing against friends. Thankfully now the preva­lence on online servers and match­mak­ing means that my friends and I can fight coo­op­er­a­tively against other play­ers.

            But to respond to what Matt says below, he’s exactly talk­ing about what dri­ves Ben’s point here. When he says he’s avoid­ing con­tact with peo­ple because he wants to enjoy X Y Z, that’s exactly what Ben is say­ing a “rac­tive” needs to be judge on. What you appre­ci­ate from PvE games, is the expe­ri­ence. What you enjoy from PvP games is the chal­lenge of a com­pletely unpre­dictable oppo­nent. You have the knowl­edge that in this moment, you tri­umphed and some­one else failed, it’s a dec­la­ra­tion of your skill over some­one else’s.

            Some peo­ple may play Solitare and com­pare their “score” with oth­ers on some kind of leader­board, but it’s a dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence and the rare excep­tion, not the rule itself.

            When I play Mass Effect, it’s because I love the expe­ri­ence of being in that world. The goal of the pro­gram­mers should be to make the mechan­ics as invis­i­ble as pos­si­ble so that I can expe­ri­ence their story, envi­ron­ment, and vision. When I play Battlefield 3, it’s ALL about the mechan­ics. I want to have the best kit, the best weapon, and the best squad, all work­ing in con­cert with my play style for max­i­mum effi­ciency so that we can tri­umph over some­one else. Sure there is should be some reward in the play­ing of the game itself, but most peo­ple play to win, rather than just to par­tic­i­pate (and it’s that tri­umph of vic­tory which really grants the high).

  • Frenzy23

    Really inter­est­ing arti­cle, Ben. It’s a topic I’ve always been inter­ested in, but never been able to fully expound upon. Keep it up!

  • Matthew Schanuel

    Response to Jeremiah:

    See, that seems point­lessly essen­tial­ist to me.

    I think that the motives, and rewards, of a player inter­act­ing with a PvP and PvE sce­nario is much more com­plex than “expe­ri­ence” vs “com­pe­ti­tion.” Competition can and does seep into games played against a pro­grammed, uncre­ative entity; fin­ish­ing off any boss in Demons Souls offers far greater rewards to my com­pet­i­tive side than a match of Halo ever has. I enjoy many shoot­ers par­tially because of the rush and breath­less­ness of the action — the expe­ri­ence of being in sim­u­lated com­bat rather than the sweet­ness of know­ing myself a bet­ter com­peti­tor. Using this dichotomy to pigeon-hole either of these sides, using it as a way of say­ing “You shouldn’t be focus­ing on this, because mul­ti­player games are FOR com­pe­ti­tion,” makes it worse than use­less; it makes it aggres­sive and poten­tially hurt­ful. This is par­tially because games always become some­thing more when a human mind inter­acts with them.

    You say that this mixed expe­ri­ence is in the minor­ity; I would cer­tainly chal­lenge that. I would chal­lenge that vic­tory is why even most peo­ple play mul­ti­player games. And I would chal­lenge that vic­tory is so sim­ple a con­cept so as to remain unin­ves­ti­gated as the end-point of the ideal mul­ti­player expe­ri­ence.

    Regarding the bots, that depends very much on player famil­iar­ity with the game’s sys­tems, com­plex­ity of the game’s sys­tems, and com­plex­ity of the com­puter. These are all vari­ables worth con­sid­er­ing, and I’m not sure if the dichotomy as pre­sented can han­dle it when some of those vari­ables are max­i­mized. I think it’s still a valid crit­i­cism, beyond even cur­rent and advanced expres­sions of dig­i­tal oppo­nents.

    • Jeremiah

      I think, Matt, where there dif­fer­ence lays is in that between the sense of achieve­ment, and the sense of com­pet­i­tive vic­tory.

      Richard Bartle’s test of gamer per­son­al­i­ties breaks peo­ple down into four groups: Achiever, Explorer, Socializer, Killer.

      The enjoy­ment you’re talk­ing about from defeat­ing that really dif­fi­cult boss in Demon Souls caters to your enjoy­ment as the single-player aspect as an Achiever (Everyone is some mix of the four). However, defeat­ing some­one in multi-player com­pe­ti­tion appeals to the killer aspect of a gamer. To a player with a killer, the supreme joy is from pit­ting your skill against that of another. And to tie this back into the orig­i­nal arti­cle, this per­son power-games to the extreme. Their enjoy­ment of the game doesn’t come from immer­sion and the artis­tic expres­sion of the deis­gn­ers, or their story. The Killer wants to get down to the nitty-gritty. When I was a main raid tank in WoW, we would go over spread­sheets to cal­cu­late the exact opti­mal rota­tion of pow­ers, and this changed with every patch. There were com­mu­ni­ties devoted to eek­ing out every last tenth of a per­cent.

      That com­pe­ti­tion dri­ves these player ver­sus player com­mu­ni­ties. They are more con­cerned, as Ben puts forth in his arti­cle, on the mechan­ics over the artis­tic expe­ri­ence of the game.

      Compare this to Mass Effect or BioShock. People don’t rave about the ele­gency of Mass Effect as a shooter, because in this aspect it really falls short. And that wasn’t BioWare’s pri­mary con­cern either. They were for­cused on the expe­ri­ence… some­thing that would feel com­fort­able to both FPS gamers and RPG gamers. The mechan­ics were sub­ject to the design and the feel and atmos­phere the devel­oper wished to cre­ate with the game. I think Ben is absolutely cor­rect that when con­sid­er­ing these games, there is a hier­ar­chy.

      Mutliplayer means Mechanics > Experience
      Singleplayer means Experience > Mechanics

      • Matthew Schanuel

        Again, I dis­agree that the dichotomy is any­where near as pure as this. Mechanics are an ele­ment of craft­ing the expe­ri­ence; the things you list as “expe­ri­en­tial” will change our under­stand­ing and approach to mechan­ics. And games sup­port mul­ti­ple types of play­ers, who play for all sorts of rea­sons.

        Richard Bartle’s sep­a­ra­tion of aspects of the gamer per­son­al­ity is a very high-order abstrac­tion, and there’s plenty of room to dis­agree with it; draw­ing lines between func­tions and reac­tions of the brain is always a vague busi­ness. What I’m say­ing is that the sin­gle player and mul­ti­player expe­ri­ence need not be so dis­crete, even if their cur­rent expres­sions tend to be eas­ily cat­e­go­rized (though cer­tainly not in all cases). I think the gulf is gen­er­ated much more in com­mon expres­sion of the single-player/multiplayer con­cepts than as an inher­ent qual­ity of the games.

  • Ben, I think this way of think­ing of things is fas­ci­nat­ing– while I doubt you’ll ever get folks to use the term “rac­tive” in casual con­ver­sa­tion, there seems to be some util­ity in divid­ing games along these lines.

    I do have a ques­tion– you men­tion that you think co-op games are rac­tives… would this include a game like Arkham Horror?

  • This may be the weird­est kind of reac­tive pre­scrip­tivism I’ve seen yet. 

    You DO know that the mean­ing of words change over time, right? If the over­whelm­ing con­sen­sus among users of the word “game” is that it can refer to what you’re call­ing “rac­tives”, then that’s what it means. That’s just how lan­guage works.

    If noth­ing else, I some­how doubt you’re going to have much luck con­vinc­ing peo­ple play­ing Solitaire that they aren’t play­ing a game sim­ply because there are no com­peti­tors. They’re going to say “of course it’s a game: it’s struc­tured play based on arbi­trary rules”. And the thing is, they’re right.

    • While you’re right, it does not nec­es­sar­ily inval­i­date Ben’s project. 

      This might be a more pre­cise and help­ful way to talk about games,” seems to be his point. So I hardly imag­ine that the cur­rent state of the lan­guage is going to upset his the­sis.

    • Ben Milton

      Some peo­ple aren’t crazy about the term rac­tive. As a name in itself, they could be right, and in com­mon speech, I’ll prob­a­bly just call them single-player games. 

      However, when peo­ple get irri­tated that a new word is being used at all…I can’t fig­ure that out. Terms like this are just ways to help us think more pre­cisely. In other words, I’m using it because it is USEFUL for thought. I’m not using it because I just like mak­ing up words.

      Once we have a new word for sin­gle player games that empha­sizes their inter­ac­tion with an envi­ron­ment over their gami­ness, we’re able to reori­ent sin­gle player game crit­i­cism along that axis. The term aids in see­ing the fun­da­men­tal sim­i­lar­ity that binds together not only sin­gle player games, but expe­ri­ences like Dear Esther or Minecraft or Solitare, which many peo­ple might have a hard time call­ing games at all.