What We Type About When We Type About War (Game)
One of the points of tension or irritation or usability fail or whathaveyou of War Game has been its little evaluation sessions, particularly the 100 character requirement. (Actually it’s not a requirement per se, since I added the ability to just hit enter when you’re done.) There was often a feeling that 100 characters was too much, that people felt like they just had to keep pressing space until it went away, or that, most damningly, there was no real point to the typing bit in the first place. There was the idea that it didn’t really have an impact. Which is interesting.
More specifically, this maybe floats its way into the whole proceduralism/non-proceduralism world of game studies (an exciting, contemporary debate!). In brief, and generalising horribly for your dubious benefit, there are some people who feel that the most important and meaningful aspects of games are the procedures – that this is where the meaning is located. Thus, the meaningful bits are where you act and the game responds to what you did via its calculations, its algorithms, its procedures. Some people find this view problematic and argue for other bits as central to the game experience, the play, the social elements, the fiction, the whathaveyou. I find the debate really appealing – I don’t have a strong opinion, but it’s really nice to see people getting at what, to me, seem like more important aspects of games than usual.
This comes to bear because the typing in War Game has no “procedural significance” whatsoever. It doesn’t matter what you type in – the game doesn’t care. It always declares you fit to return to active duty, and when you type something new in it just tosses out the old text, lost forever (whether or not that was a good idea is really very debatable of course). The text has a tiny impact in that it can show up on your screen while you’re playing the war bit, but that entirely depends on random numbers.
So is the text you type in therefore meaningless?
Well, I don’t think so. It’s true that it doesn’t impact the game (as in the code), but surely it impacts the experience or the play? Or rather, to the extent that the player chooses to engage with the typing element and actually types something meaningful to themselves in the context of the game (not their shopping list for example, though that would be interesting), then the typing is a meaningful part of the player’s playing. It means something. If players want to just type space until 100 characters are consumed, that’s fine, and unlikely to serve as a meaningful experience – it’ll probably be an annoying one – but if they do engage, then they’re playing the game in an expressive way.
And this all circles back to ideas surrounding what I call (to myself) “player accountability” or something along those lines. In short, surely it’s the player’s job to create their experience within the bounds a game provides. Games clearly need to provide interesting “affordances” or “tools” or whatever to make the play possible, but the player creates the play. So if the game invites you to type 100 characters about your fictional war experience and you’re all like “fuck this”, then that’s you abdicating part of your experience, rather than the game having some kind of usability problem. (I think.)