The Role of the Player in Videogames

There is a recent conversation in the game design community – especially between the Extra Credits community and Frictional Games community – regarding the role of the player in videogames. This conversation started when roughly a week ago Danniel Flynn and James Portnov put up an Extra Credits video explaining how videogame players are co-authors to the videogame because of the interactive nature of the medium. The video can be seen here:

Grip, the lead designer for Frictional Games – of Amnesia and Penumbra games, responded that the player having the ability to interact with the narrative at his own pace and in different ways – thus making the game “different” for each individual – does not make him a co-creator. You can read his piece here:

This then led to a discussion between James and Grip in which they discussed at some limited length the role of player and player involvement in videogames. The transcript of said conversation can be read here:

As of now, I am unaware of any commentary (beyond the expected “you rule and the other guy is narrow-minded” posts that have come to make the internet what it is) made by anyone based on this conversation, so I would like to inject my uninvited, and likely unwelcome, comments.

Largely, I agree with Grip in that the player is not the storyteller. Although James makes the argument that in sports games and in Farmville the player “creates” the narrative, this is not entirely so. In these games The Narrative has already been set by the designer, and the player experiences A narrative. But more on that later – before I go on a five page tangent on the role of the player, allow me to respond to the actual piece. I will do so by directly quoting sections of the document and then responding.

I could reply to some of James’ lesser arguments with long, theoretical claims supported by long lines of reasoning, but I’ll just give the things he said wrong and give some examples. James stated “I find it strange to argue that the creator might not know the plot, the characters or the setting to their own creation.” To this I would say that Daggerfall, Elite, and other procedurally created content allows for endless possible narratives through ever-changing virtual worlds, none of which the designer (who “simply” made the algorithm that creates the setting / characters / interactions / events) can foresee. Likewise, in games lacking a comprehensive, cohesive story where the player simply engages with the game through the system of rules (sports games, and in a more extreme case Tetris) there is no way the creator will know what plot will be mapped, although in some cases (as is with sports) they do know the possible narratives that can happen. That being said, I use “narrative” hesitantly, as I don’t think Tetris has a narrative (and no, I don’t subscribe to Murray’s “the cubes as they fall are like royalty trying to please a monarch” explication). At any rate, it’s possible for the author to not know the plot, character, or setting (or any combination thereof) of their creation, This does not mean that the player is an artist. With the exception of games like Mario Paint and Little Big Planet, the player plays through a game. Each player will play through it at a different pace and in a different way, just as readers approach books using different reading styles (skimming, in-depth, every other word, and so on). Just as every reader who engages with A Wheel of Time will get a different “narrative” out of it, they all will have to read through Rand’s ordeals. In the same way every player who engages with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night will have played the same narrative. Not everyone will approach the title at the same pace and not everyone will find reverse castle, but no one was “designing” or “composing” Castlevania – they were just interpreting it through their own lens / experience. The same is true of FIFA / Madden / NBA or any other sports game that hasn’t changed since the first one came out. The player is not “creating” the narrative of the Green Bay Packers – the players is experiencing the procedurally created narrative of Madden 2kX through the Green Bay lens as interpreted by the player.

Later in the conversation, James stated that “In terms of pen and paper RP, no, I think the player should be the player, but if you think the Dungeon Master is the only one telling the story there I’d have to bitterly disagree.” I agree with James’ disagreement, but when we consider the same of videogames (especially of videogame RPGs), James’ view that the player “helps” the dungeon master (i.e. computer) tell the story is wrong. Case in point: Final Fantasy XIII. Throughout the entire game the player proceeds in the most linear of fashions, only stopping for a bit of open world exploration near the half-point of the game. Even then, this open world exploration is still linear, as doing the open world quests in any order other than first to last will result in failure. In this case the computer is not telling the player “there is a dragon in the cave, what do you want to do?” and giving the player the option to say “I’m going to go back to town and try to steal the barkeep’s gold”. In videogame RPGs the interaction is closer to “there is a dragon in the cave, go kill it” and all the player can do is go kill it. Sure, the player can use a sword or a bow and arrow, or perhaps change characters mid-battle, but in the end the player is not “creating” the story as much as being guided by it.

James also stated that “No matter how constricted, we are laying out a space of possibility rather than a conventional narrative, and no matter how linear we make our games there are details that the player must fill in.” I do agree – the player fills in the blanks. When a test-taker fills in the blanks of a test, he does not become the test creator. Likewise (and I think this is the closest parallel to videogames) when a reader decides where to go in those “choose your own adventure” books, the player does not become the text’s author – he is simply experiencing one of the many possible narratives set by the author. The same is true of videogames.

More importantly, near the end of the discussion James stated that “I’m willing to agree with the idea that the player is part of the narrative crafting but that they may not be replicating the exact experience of the storyteller. In fact, I think you’re right on, I think they’re doing something unique for our medium, but I think the closest analog is the storyteller and that we, as game designers, are remiss if we concentrate only on our part of the narrative crafting without regards to this player act.” I would contend that the closest analog is NOT the player as storyteller. If you go back in history and cross cultures, you might stumble into the African tradition of participatory storytelling. In this tradition, the storyteller would say the story while the audience would participate actively by dancing in some points of the story and by shouting or doing other gestures in other parts. This does not make the audience storytellers, it makes the audience a participatory one – and in the end, that is what videogamers are: a participatory audience.

Now, this does not mean that I agree 100% with Grip. Grip stated that “The goal [of a game] is to put the player in a virtual world and make them have the most immersive and powerful experience in that world based on certain characteristics setup by the designer(s).” He also stated that “The goal of the player is to become immersed.” While I can agree with what I will now refer to as immersion theory, I can only subscribe to it partly. Certainly the goal of the Fallout III or Bioshock player is to become immersed, but immersion, it seems to me, is not the goal of Tetris. But that is something we can talk about some other time.


And on your latest video, Extra Credits, if you really think there is no higher thinking on videogame criticism, hop over to Game Studies, Eludamos, or the other videogame journals available, read some of their stuff,  and then we can talk.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on June 25, 2011, in Video Game Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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