What We Mean When We’re Not Meaning To Mean

While I am working on a new game now, I’m still thinking about War Game because although it wasn’t the biggest success in terms of how it turned out, it did make me think about a bunch of things. And nothing’s more fun than thinking, right? Anyway, alongside the whole “proceduralist” thing and the idea of games being expressive/having meaning outside of specifically acknowledged actions in their code, there’s this weird question of why or whether particular game elements “mean something”. Particularly, there’s this phenomenon by which bits of code and art and game mean things you didn’t mean them to, whether you like it or not.

Hardly shocking news, obviously. After all, we’ve been aware of the idea that much of the experience of any medium comes in the interpretation of the person experiencing it, rather than it being carefully laid in – death of the author and all that.

Anyway, this all put me in mind of Brenda Brathwaite’s (free to view online GDC talk about the meanings in her games, particularly in Train and “The Irish Game”. In her talk, Brathwaite goes into impressive (and frankly almost scary) detail about how much meaning every little piece of her games had to her, particularly in terms of the materials that she made them from in her case (as they’re kind of like boardgames, kind of like prop games). So there was hessian sacking, broken glass, a Nazi typewriter, etc etc., all contributing to the overall nature/message of her games. She’s incredibly thoughtful about it, so it’s worth watching that talk I think.

Anyway, this is to a certain extent the opposite to what I’ve tended to do with my little flash games, which are often thrown together at great pace to quickly draw out an idea I had. As such, I don’t labour in the same way over each piece, over the materials. And yet the individual bits of the games still end up having damnable amounts of meaning nonetheless and I find myself re-reading code or re-examining sprites and noticing all their implicit meaningfulness to the game, again whether I like it or not.

So, for instance, the decision of making it 100 characters you type into the psych evaluation in War Game has a big impact on how the game feels. It might feel a bit oppressive to type that much, which is a usability thing, but also a meaning thing. What does it say about the person asking the question in the game? What does it mean that the answer is cut off immediately at the character limit? In terms of the code it means “that’s how I happened to implement it and I didn’t change it”, but in terms of interpretation it’s easy to think something like “the military psychologist isn’t really listening”. Similarly, the fact that (as a commentor pointed out) the enemy soldiers can often fire undodgeable waves of bullets is a happenstance of coding (in I didn’t plan for or against it), but can also be seen as commentary – war being hopeless, the idea of having sufficient agency to never be hurt being a pipe dream, etc.

Which raises a couple of things for me. The obvious one is that not only can’t you shake interpretation and meaning, you can’t avoid surprisingly deep and meaningful readings of trivial details of implementation – they’re just in there. The message being, probably, that if you care then you’re going to need to pay attention to every little thing, like Brenda Brathwaite does.

The other, perhaps more interesting, thing that it makes me wonder about is whether the meanings that turn up without intention are worse than the meanings I might have put in on purpose? Or are they perhaps sometimes better than messages I would have coded in knowingly? Are they more honest? More revealing? Are they freed from self-censorship? Are they desirable? Are they somehow less heavy-handed?

Could we avoid meaning things to make our games mean more?

19 June 2012
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