What is it to “Play”?

I feel like this is something I need to address for myself since I play video games, well, a lot of the time, but with so many conflicting ideas of what a video game is  and what defines it, I’m a tad bewildered.

I recently read Brendan Keogh’s article in Issue #5 of five out of ten and he describes “play” not only as the physical input into a controller or keyboard but simply being “engaged”, “I am still playing Grand Theft Auto IV, even if I am not pressing any buttons”. For most simple approaches to what video games are as a medium, this is very new; as Keogh also notes the idea that ‘playing’ is simply the user inputting commands via buttons, keys, or analog sticks is an assumption that sticks with us.

This isn’t a totally unfair assumption though since without user input a game is not a game. Not a fun one anyway. This got me thinking: what defines the video game experience?  The user input – regardless of the input medium – is the defining feature of a video game; a user (or player, even) assumes control over the actions of the virtual character, object, or world. To what level of control they have is debatable, and really it varies from game to game, but despite the level of agency within the game the player can almost always control the perspective of the game.

Call of Duty – as the go-to generic game nowadays – is the token example of a linear game. You are given a gun, you fire the gun, a target or a virtual goon falls down bleeding, you progress over the body into the next section of the game. Dialogue is peppered throughout these sequences, and sometimes you are simply shown things happening like a movie known as a cutscene (funnily enough this is very un-video game like, but a common trope nonetheless). You are the one who walks forward and you are the one who identifies the bad guys from your allies during a firefight.

On the other hand you have an online game like World of Warcraft that offers hundreds upon thousands of different quests to embark on in any order you like, and at any pace you like within a much larger world. By contrast this allows a player to explore as well as drive the storyline forward simply through quests, much like many other Roleplaying Games. Even Call of Duty, despite how linear it may be, exhibits a core characteristic of a game; being able to view the story from varying perspectives at any given time.

I figure then that to “play” is far simpler than engaging with the concept, but more simply to perceive it, and to be able to have a level of control over that perspective more so than Video Games’ parent media. We read a fictional book the same as we read a factual newspaper: left to right. We watch a soap opera the same way we watch a documentary: from start to finish. Time may be edited for sake of a condensed story, but we are only privy to the director’s or author’s visual perspective. Video Games – depending on what extent the developers give control – offer to a player the ability to tweak or completely alter that visual perspective.

Considering the fusion of media that is a Video Game it’s tough to find that defining feature, and even tougher to rationalise it simply because it shares so many characteristics with other media. There is something about the idea of direct control over a character that defines the Video Game experience.

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