Hans-Joachim Backe

Hans-Joachim Backe is Assistant Professor at the Center for Computer Games Research of IT University, Copenhagen. He holds an MA and a PhD in Comparative Literature. His research focuses on comparative media studies, primarily on the relationship between computer games and comics and the meta-referential strategies employed in both media.

Contact information:
hanj at itu.dk

A Review of Jørgensen's "Gameworld Interfaces"

by Hans-Joachim Backe

Given the fact that the presence of an interface is potentially the one uniting factor of all digital games, the specifics of game user interfaces are a noticeably under-researched topic within game studies. A number of textbook-style publications for game designers exist, yet Kristine Jørgensen’s Gameworld Interfaces is one of the few academic monographs on the topic. Given the scarcity of competition, the book would have been a valuable addition to the field even if it had chosen a conservative stance. Jørgensen, however, engages the topic in a manner that is as specific to digital games as it is fraught with controversial potential.

The book’s title is chosen with deliberate ambivalence and already points towards, even if subtly, Jørgensen’s central tenet: gameworlds do not have interfaces, they are themselves the interfaces of game systems. The spaces and objects, sights and sounds of the gameworld are, among other things, the representation of the black box that is the game system with its rules, mechanics, data sets, and so on. A recurring metaphor is the car: we do not need to see and understand what is going on under the hood of a car to drive it, as long as its designers have provided some essential information about the state of the machine and means to control some elementary functions. In the same way that the regular operation of a car takes place in a feedback loop with this interface, the elements players interact with are what has to be considered the game interface, i.e. the totality of the gameworld. The result of this initial assumption is, of course, a radical delimitation of the scope of the book. Whereas other recent publications have approached the interface, especially the input-side, as an almost isolated technological phenomenon (Nordvall, 2014) or something not at all specific to digital games (Alofs et al., 2012), Jørgensen tries to fully formulate an integrated model of games and their interfaces (as suggested for example, in much shorter form, by Myers in 2010). As such, the book is as much about the complexities of gameworlds as it is about the ways we interact with them. It is this almost radically anti-structuralist vantage point that consequently makes her argument unique and powerful, yet, at the same time, results in a number of unavoidable issues.

The book follows the by now well established formal conventions of MIT Press game studies publications. At 160 pages of actual text, it is quite short, almost devoid of endnotes, and concisely structured into five chapters. The introductory first chapter addresses very briefly the central thematic considerations, outlines approach and method as well as the overall structure. Chapter two, Designing the Game Interface, is, as its title suggests, focused on the practicalities of game interface design and their implementation, and to that end sometimes rather prescriptive in its approach as evidenced, for example, by sub-headings such as “What should the game interface do?” Most central definitions are given here, most crucially that of the game user interface, which is understood “as all the features that are revealed to the players and that provide information that assists them in interacting with the game system” (p. 20). Although the stress is put — both in this definition and the bulk of the argument — on the receptive dimension of the interface in its virtual instead of physical quality (p. 6), the book distinguishes between three layers of interface: hardware, WIMP (window, icon, menu, pointer), and gameworld. Chapter two mainly inquires into the locus of game-relevant information between superimposition (i.e. WIMP) and integration in the gameworld (p. 21-22). Jørgensen understands these two possibilities as the extreme ends of a continuum, because she considers the gameworld “as an information space and an ecological environment designed with certain gameplay activities in mind” (p. 23-24). As such, she conceives of the addition of iconic elements to the gameworld (such as exclamation marks over NPCs’ heads, auras, pointers, health-bars, power-meters, etc.) not as a shortcoming but as a necessary augmentation of the communicative capabilities the gameworld has on its own (p. 38). Consequently, the recent trend towards transparent interfaces is identified as a side-effect of the immersive fallacy (p. 31) which ignores both ease of access and the need for context-dependent information commensurate to the needs of the respective game genre.

Chapter three, The Gameworld as Interface, further unpacks the understanding of the gameworld as a reification of the underlying system governed by game mechanics. The central dichotomy explored here is that of the gameworld as ecology — an environment that responds to the player’s behavior (p. 59) — and the gameworld as a WIMP of sorts, in which the avatar acts as the pointer by traveling through the topology-cum-menu (p. 61). Here, the question of fictionality is broached briefly — maybe too briefly, because it becomes rather crucial toward the end of the book — and reduced to a dichotomy between gameworld elements that encourage reception as fiction and others that do not (p. 65, p. 72). More convincing is the argument presented against considering gameworlds diegeses as they are understood in film studies, which explains gameworlds as parts of conceptual game spaces that may contain negative spaces (like inaccessible areas) and purely conceptual spaces (like menus). The gameworld is conceived to reify state information about the game system in a manner along the lines of Lakoff and Johnson’s understanding of metaphor as a facilitator for understanding (p. 76). The chapter offers up a number of intriguing observations, for example that signs in games generally move toward the indexical function as soon as their meaning in context has been internalized, which makes them always point to a cause (p. 79). Based on these reflections, the distinction between ecological information and emphatic information is introduced: ecological elements exist in the gameworld like they would in “the real, physical environment” (p. 79), whereas emphatic elements highlight something in the gameworld “not through a verisimilar manner” (p. 80). The final portion of chapter three presents a typology of interfaces reaching from pure gameworld interfaces and composites between gameworld interfaces and WIMP to the purely abstract.

Chapter four, The Interface as Liminal, works toward an understanding of the ontological essence of the gameworld interface. The author explains convincingly why traditional metaphors of interfaces as thresholds do not hold up with regard to digital games: they are neither doors affording unmediated, direct access, nor are they picture frames which stably code the content as fiction, but are the central element with which the player interacts (p. 105). They are best understood as “something that combines and merges different spheres,” a “gray area rather than an absolute boundary” (p. 109). In short, gameworld interfaces “are indeed the content of digital games” (p. 107). The chapter goes on to specify the dimensions of this holistically understood content by applying frame theory, distinguishing a primary framework of menus, a ludic and a fictional frame, and outlining the various up-keying and down-keying relationships between them. Effectively, the ludic frame is identified as extremely flexible because of the meta-communicative quality of play identified by Bateson (Jørgensen, 2013, p. 122). At the end of the chapter, the author distinguishes four approaches to interface design connected to the degree to which the avatar body is used as a carrier of information. This results in the ultimately rather straightforward and commonsensical distinction between third-person games which show the avatar body and can use it fully as a sign-carrier, first-person games which imply it, strategy and simulation games which place the player at great distance to individual bodies, and physical-interface games which create a certain degree of overlap between the player’s body and the game space through interaction with a specialized controller (p. 128-138).

The fifth and final chapter, Toward a Theory of the Gameworld Interface, consolidates the preceding chapters into an eight-category typology that results from the base distinctions integrated or superimposed, fictional or ludic, and emphatic or ecological. In lieu of a conclusion, the book offers four overarching guidelines for interface design, stressing the need for a meaningful connection between interface and gameplay, context dependent information, ease of learning, and the primacy of functionality over aesthetics. After the fervent argument against strict distinctions, the introduction of a binary-based typology at the end of the book is somewhat surprising, yet the author makes it clear that it is only supposed to outline archetypes, and that the binary pairs “must be understood as a continuum rather than opposites” (p. 148).

Most importantly, the book’s identification of the gameworld as the actual interface of digital games should theoretically exclude all games that do not use virtual worlds. Declaring that the gameworld interface — ideally manifest in 3D environments (p. 88) — is identical to the game (p. 58) would seem to indicate an exclusion of worldless games from the logic of gameworld interfaces. Nevertheless, the author touches upon worldless games in a number of places, uses interviews with the developers of Rockband and includes physical-interface games in her typology, although they fall outside the book’s empirical focus area. To some degree, this problem is mitigated by the extension from gameworlds to game spaces and their conceptual dimension. Yet the book too often and too vehemently advocates its central premise to not let the inclusion of worldless games appear as an incongruency.

Despite these issues, Gameworld Interfaces is a valuable, almost indispensable book, because of the daring take on the mediality of digital game it proposes. Consequently avoiding importing models of interface from other media, it stresses that digital games are their own paradigm when it comes to the role and nature of interfaces. Still more stimulating is the stringently argued identity of gameworld and interface with regard to how we usually conceive of gameworlds. Jørgensen leaves no doubt that the avatar, the mimetic parts of the gameworld, and what she terms emphatic information are integrally intertwined elements in an interactive and communicative network, subjects and objects of gameplay as well as the representation of the game system's state. This holistic view does not lend itself well to the various types of typology the book tries to offer as an attempt at operationalization, and it inevitably creates a certain amount of vagueness and, through the almost all-inclusive nature of the gameworld/interface, inconsistency. It is nevertheless an enormously potent and highly original view of digital games , a media-conscious game ontology that tries to reconcile two dimensions of games usually considered in isolation. For that alone, the book has much merit and potential to spark further discussion.

References

Alofs, T., Theune, M., & Swartjes, I. (2012): “A Tabletop Board Game Interface for Multi-user Interaction with a Storytelling System.” In: Camurri, Antonio and Costa, Cristina: Intelligent Technologies for Interactive Entertainment. Vol. 78. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer, 123-128.

Jørgensen, K. (2013): Gameworld Interfaces. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Myers, D. (2010): Play Redux: the Form of Computer Games. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Nordvall, M. (2014): “The Sightlence Game: Designing a Haptic Computer Game Interface.” In: Proceedings of the 2013 DiGRA International Conference: DeFragging Game Studies. http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/paper_473.pdf


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