High Capacity

In the category of “achievement” Schwartz next has in store for us the value he calls capable. To me this speaks of the idea of “being able” essentially, but with a positive spin to it. As in, “Josie is a capable woman. She really gets stuff done.” Or whatever.

The whole question of “capacity” in the world of video games is quite the fascinating one. Unlike in reality, where we frequently don’t know what we’re capable of at all, the basic set of abilities of an avatar are strongly defined – they have to map onto a controller somewhat similar than the complexities of the human physiology. So, in terms of basic capacity in Fallout 3 one can: look around, move, sneak/crouch, jump, fire a weapon/swing a fist, change weapons, speak (within a highly constrained tree structure), and navigate numerous menu systems to accomplish a few other tasks.

This is clearly a limited set of capabilities with which to work, but of course it’s only half the equation, because being capable depends hugely on the context in which one is acting, too. Video games like Fallout 3 effectively increase the avatar’s capacities by building aspects of them into the environment. This is most notable in the narrative stream of the game – despite the avatar’s limited abilities, he or she becomes involved in complex and meaningful activities which build toward saving the world (exploring Vaults, tracking androids, retrieving code words, etc.).

All of the above refers to the capability of the avatar itself, but there’s a third layer relating directly to the player themselves – namely: skill. One player can be more “capable” than another in terms of how fast they can spin around and shoot a molerat at 100 meters, for instance. The game creates a context for the player to feel capable in by making such skillful play “semiotically impressive”. On the other hand, the ability to set a difficulty level also allows even players somewhat mediocre in skill to experience this sense of being capable (though sometimes, even then, one turns out only to be capable of being gnawed on by the molerat).

Games like Fallout 3 are, in some ways, built around the value of being capable – they are simulated worlds in which we are the most important and capable person for miles around, where only we can save the world.

2 April 2010
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