- Assessing Interactivity in Video Game Design
With the increasing amount of scholarship on video games, one might ask how analyses of video games differ (or should differ) from analyses of other media forms. Lacking an organized tradition of game analysis, critics are likely to draw on other disciplines in media studies to make their assessments. Although such methods may be productive to some degree, media-specific biases will likely also be present. Just as early film theory drew on psychology and literary theory, resulting in analyses centered on character and narrative, video game analyses are in danger of becoming dominated by film theory and other theories currently in use (and in vogue) in media studies. It is useful, then, to consider what areas of overlap do exist between analyses of video games and other media as well as what areas of video game analysis are new and unique.
At present, two excellent essays suggest methodologies for analyzing video games. Lars Konzack (2002) divides game analysis into seven different areas: hardware, program code, functionality, gameplay, meaning, referentiality, and socioculture. Espen Aarseth (2003) looks at different game research perspectives and other typologies that broadly address game analysis. In this chapter, I focus much more narrowly on a single area of video game design: [End Page 78] that aspect of user participation commonly referred to as interactivity, in which the player's choices determine the course of the game. As a subject of analysis, this alone could produce enough material for an entire book, so I can begin to sketch out only some of the issues to be considered in this area.
Context and Constraints
Like most aspects of video games (and media in general), interactivity depends on when and where the game appeared. To place a video game into its historical context, one should take into account the hardware, software, and cultural constraints determining what was possible, or at least typical, at the time when the game was made. Such constraints are often intertwined; for example, a whole generation of home games similar to PONG (1972) was produced using the AY-3-8500 chip, which had four video outputs (one for each player, the ball, and the playing field). A different color could have been used for each output, but economic constraints because of competitive pricing kept most systems from using color. As David Winter (2005) explains on his Web site,
This chip has an interesting feature: the use of several video outputs. . . . This gives the possibility of using a black and white video signal, as well as using one color for each output. Thus, it could be possible for example to draw the playing field in white with a green background, one player in blue and the other player in red. However, the electronic components allowing this were not cheap at this time, and due to the number of manufacturers of PONG systems, the price was a very important feature that could either result in a success, or a failure. This is why most of the systems equipped with the AY-3-8500 used black and white display, sometimes with grayscales(gray background, white playing field and scores, etc.).
Providing historical context can also help one to appreciate the limitations and difficulties faced by programmers, and the programming feats necessary to accomplish what today appear to be simple games. The Atari VCS 2600, for example, which appeared in 1977, had only 128 bytes of RAM (and no disk storage), a graphics clock that ran at roughly 1.2 MHz, and plenty of other programming limitations that had to be overcome with a limited amount of code, since early cartridges had only 2 or 4 kilobytes of ROM. (These and other programming constraints are described in detail on pages [End Page 79] 54–56 of Wolf 2003.) For any system, knowing the amounts of memory used (whether RAM, ROM, or disk space), the processor speed, the kinds of input and output devices available, and the software capabilities (including the functions possible within the coding language used) helps show whether a game was making maximum use of the resources available and how it compared with other games of...