- The Logic of Digital Gaming
The Parable of the Worm
You are running down a long, ichorous corridor, urged ahead by solid stone walls decorated, as is the custom in such contexts, with sconces holding flaming wooden torches. You tend to run wherever you go, but you have an added incentive at this moment: you are being chased by a giant worm, whose throaty growls and gnashing teeth suggest rather hostile motives. In fact, you know full well that the worm will eat you should it catch you, as you have become worm food in each of your last six flights down this corridor. An idea occurs to you: you stop directly in front of a sconce, jump up toward the torch, and, with the flame inches from your face, press the grab key on your keyboard. Landing, you turn toward the worm, hoping to intimidate it or possibly injure it with the open fire of the torch. But, as experienced gamers will anticipate, you discover that you are empty-handed; the torch remains in its sconce, and you are soon engulfed in the gaping maw of this neogothic cliché.
Why can't you grab the torch off the wall? Many objects in a computer game are only apparent and serve no functional role in the game. Mountains in the distance cannot be approached, nor do they block the sun's light, [End Page 260] influence local weather conditions, or signal the proximity of a fault line or volcanic activity. The doorknob on a door cannot be turned; in fact, it cannot even be grasped, and it does not catch on your clothing or deflect the blade of your passing sword. The doorknob is effectively painted onto the door, just as the mountains might as well be painted onto the horizon, and games sometimes reinforce this shallowness of game objects by rendering them in two dimensions: a tapestry that does not flutter and has no backside. Walk unfettered through a dead body; it appears on the screen as a three-dimensional projection but offers no dimensions of simulated material resistance; but for the seeing, it might as well not even be there.
Perhaps the torch on the wall goes a step further than pure appearance. Though it cannot be grabbed or otherwise manipulated, it does appear in proper perspective, sticking out from the wall and changing its visual relationship to the wall as you circumnavigate it. Moreover, its flickering flame is not only something to look at, for it determines how far down the corridor you can see, casting shadows as objects pass by and reflecting in the worm's single, unblinking eye.
But no matter where you jump or how fiercely you press the grab key, the torch stays put, and you cannot relate to it materially except as an object of your gaze and a source of light. Your face can pass through the flame when you jump, but you feel no heat and suffer no ill effects of this proximity to fire. You cannot soften the metal of a coin by holding it near the torch, and you can't even ignite the wick of a candle placed near this flame. You'll have to find another way to overcome the vicious worm.
Principle of Simplicity
It is not (merely) a matter of video game convention that torches cannot be removed from their sconces and wielded. According to a principle of simplicity, everything that happens in a game happens by design. If an object behaves a particular way, that is because the behavior has been put there by designers and programmers. The nature of computer programming dictates that nothing comes for free; every aspect of the virtual world must be explicitly programmed. One consequence of this principle of simplicity is that the appearance of an object is effectively independent of its behavior. The code that governs how an object appears on the screen has no necessary relationship with the code that governs what a player can do in relation to that object.
While the disconnection between appearance and behavior may be [End Page 261] frustrating or counterintuitive for players, their separation often conditions or...